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Edgar Lee Masters' "Barney Hainsfeather"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Barney Hainsfeather"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, "Barney Hainsfeather" features 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

Barney Hainsfeather's epitaph reveals a unique complaint of a man who, in death, finds himself buried in the wrong cemetery.

First Movement: If the Train Had Only Wrecked

If the excursion train to Peoria
Had just been wrecked, I might have escaped with my life—
Certainly I should have escaped this place.

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: Mistaken Identity

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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

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: Buried in the Wrong Place

so I lie here.
It was bad enough to run a clothing store in this town,
But to be buried here—ach!

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!"

Jack Masters Drawing

Jack Masters Drawing

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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