085. Edgar Lee Masters' "Barney Hainsfeather"

Updated on December 29, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Barney Hainsfeather"

Barney Hainsfeather was a Jewish business man, who owned a clothing store in Spoon River. Through a freak accident involving a train wreck, Barney is mistakenly buried in the Christian cemetery in Spoon River, instead of the Hebrew Cemetery in Chicago, where he had planned to be interred.

In his epitaph, Barney vents his animosity for the town of Spoon River and has a special comment regarding the town, where he now must spend eternity among folks who did not worship as Barney did.

Barney Hainsfeather

If the excursion train to Peoria
Had just been wrecked, I might have escaped with my life—
Certainly I should have escaped this place.
But as it was burned as well, they mistook me
For John Allen who was sent to the Hebrew Cemetery
At Chicago,
And John for me, so I lie here.
It was bad enough to run a clothing store in this town,
But to be buried here—ach!

Reading of "Barney Hainsfeather"

Commentary

First Movement: "If the excursion train to Peoria"

Barney Hainsfeather begins his epitaph by throwing out a fascinating detail: he might have been able to live through the wreck of "the excursion train to Peoria," if it had only wrecked. Of course, he is only speculating about the possibility of living through a train wreck, but in his state of mind, he likely entertains that thought often as a deep seated wish.

But Barney does seem certain that he would have managed to avoid "this place." If he had lived he could have escaped the place where he is buried; thus he is complaining about having been buried in the Spoon River cemetery.

Second Movement: "But as it was burned as well, they mistook me"

The train to Peoria not only wrecked but it also burned, and it apparently burned the passengers beyond recognition. Barney's body and that of John Allen were misidentified. Because the authorities thought Barney was "John Allen," they arranged for Barney to be buried in Spoon River, where John Allen should have been.

Barney has likely planned and intended his whole life to be buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Chicago, but because of the mix-up, poor Barney ends up where John Allen was supposed to be, and John Allen now occupies Barney's place in the Hebrew Cemetery.

Third Movement: "so I lie here"

Now, the unfortunate Barney finds himself buried in a place not to his liking. He explains further that being the proprietor of a clothing business in Spoon River was "bad enough." But worse still is being buried in this town. He concludes with the German expression, "Ach!" or "Oh!"

Barney's complaint seems especially bizarre but at the same time perfectly understandable. His animosity for the town in which he had resided led him to make sure he did not remain there after death. But then through the bizarre accident of a burned out train wreck he ends up there anyway.

Also, Barney's Jewish culture is now lost to him. While living, he had to suffer the Spoon River clientele, whose culture was likely predominantly Christian and under which he might have suffered unwelcome sneers and jeers because of his religion. And, no doubt, he felt comforted by the notion that after death he could rest among those of his culture. No wonder that his fate leads him to exclaim, "Ach!"

Biographical Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, but nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 246 epitaphs of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him.

Born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas, Masters and his family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

At age 81, on March 5, 1950, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Petersburg, Illinois, in Oakland Cemetery.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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