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Edgar Lee Masters' "Judge Selah Lively"

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

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Judge Selah Lively"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, Judge Selah Lively structures his epitaph with four movements, the first three of which offer one or more suppositions; then, the fourth caps them with a rhetorical question. He asks his listeners/readers to suppose varying situations through which he has actually lived, and he hopes to engender in his listeners agreement that his mistreatment because of his physical smallness was sufficient to allow him to adjust his treatment of individuals under the law to fit his pique. Obviously, such unprofessional behavior places Judge Lively among the scoundrels of Spoon River.

Judge Selah Lively

Suppose you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?
And then suppose through your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became the County Judge?
And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"—
Well, don’t you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?

Reading of "Judge Selah Lively"

Commentary

Judge Selah Lively demonstrates that his character remained as small as his physical frame of 5'2". After succeeding at a legal career, he sullies his success by petty behavior.

First Movement: What if You Were Only a Small Man

Suppose you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?

The judge begins by asking his listeners to consider the situation of being a man who stands only sixty-two inches tall and had studied law as he served in a job as "grocery clerk"; then, after a hard day's work, he had to study his law books "by candle light." But his hard work paid off and became an "attorney at law."

Judge Lively is creating a life story and his listeners can be sure that he will base some future behavior on these life events. No doubt the image of a man who is only 5'2" tall will garner him some sympathy from the beginning. That he worked in grocery and studied law at the same time shows an appropriate dedication to improving his lot in life.

Second Movement: What if You Made for Yourself a Successful Career

And then suppose through your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became the County Judge?

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The judge then asks his listeners to consider the notion that in time with persistent attention to work along with attendance in church, he lands as a client the most important and richest man of the village. As this man's attorney, he collected "notes and mortgages." Judge Lively also represented the widows of the village in probate court.

And as he was performing all these legal services, he still remained the butt of jokes. Still, people heckled him about his size, and ridiculed his clothes, even his "polished boots." He then asks his listeners to consider what would happen if "you became the County Judge?"

Third Movement: What if the Giants Had to Call You, "Your Honor"

And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"—

The judge then lists a few of the men who have appeared before his bench: "Jefferson Howard, Kinsey Keene, and Harmon Whitney." He calls them "giants" ambiguously because he might be referring to their size in comparison to his, or he also might be referring the fact that they seem to be leaders in the community, thus being giants in reputation and wealth.

Nevertheless, these "giants" after having "sneered" at the judge and ridiculed the legal man over his height were required to appear before him as a judge, and because of his position as a judge, they had to refer to him as "Your Honor." He imagines that situation must have galled these ridiculing, sneering individuals.

Fourth Movement: What if You Could Bully the Bullies

Well, don’t you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?

The judge then demonstrates that not only was he small in physical stature, but he also remained small in character. Instead of judging those individuals on the merits of their cases, he simply "made it hard for them," and now he asks his listeners to agree to the righteousness of his unprofessional behavior by calling it "natural."

No, Judge! It is not natural, it is not fair, and it is not right! You, Judge Lively, have revealed yourself as a scoundrel—one of those nasty members of the bar that gives lawyers and judges a bad name.

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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