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Edgar Lee Masters' "Deacon Taylor," "Sam Hookey," and "Cooney Potter"

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

Introduction: A Motley Trio

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Deacon Taylor,” “Sam Hookey,” and “Cooney Potter” from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology ,portray characters of little depth, so they are presented here together. These three very short epitaphs feature very diverse characters making bizarre confessions. Each character features the complaining mind-set of most the after-death reporters; however, this trio gives few details about each of their stories. They just want to chime in with a short quip about their lives., so it seems.

Deacon Taylor's confession reveals his hypocrisy, being a churchman and a member of the "prohibition" party, yet dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Sam Hookey's report may be one of the most bizarre as it remain unclear his purpose for revealing the odd appearance of "Robespierre" to him after Hookey's death. Cooney Potter's description of his death is odd, but his purpose is clear. He needs to show that he died while working, not from a frivolous enjoyment of tobacco.

Reading of "Deacon Taylor"

“Deacon Taylor”

This speaker wants to get a dirty little secret off his chest.

First Movement: “I belonged to the church”

Taylor says he was a church member as well as belonging to the “party of prohibition.” And so when he died the villagers thought he “died of eating watermelon.”

Second Movement: “In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver”

But the Deacon confesses that he actually died of cirrhosis of the liver, because for thirty years he “slipped behind the prescription partition / In Trainor’s drug store” and gulped down a large portion of “Spiritus frumenti.”

Reading of "Sam Hookey"

"Sam Hookey"

Sam Hookey offers a bizarre admission about the events leading to his ultimate demise.

First Movement: “I ran away from home with the circus”

Sam reports that he left home to join the circus after he fell in love the lion tamer, Mademoiselle Estralada.

Second Movement: “One time, having starved the lions”

In his bizarre confession, Sam reveals that he starved three lions, Brutus, Leo, and Gypsy, and then stepped into their cage and began beating them, whereupon Brutus “sprang upon me / And killed me.”

Third Movement: “On entering these regions”

Upon his death, Sam found himself confronted by “a shadow” that cursed him and told him that he got what he deserved. He concludes by saying the “shadow” was Robespierre, the famous politician who is credited with the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Reading of "Cooney Potter"

“Cooney Potter”

Cooney Potter simply wants to refute the contention made by Squire Higbee about Potter’s death.

First Movement: “I inherited forty acres from my Father”

Sam states that his father left him “forty acres.” By hard work, including that of his wife and four children all laboring from “dawn to dusk,” Sam was able expand his farm from forty acres to “a thousand acres.”

Second Movement: “But not content”

Sam was not satisfied with his thousand acres, and therefore kept his family busy, “Toiling, denying myself, my wife, my sons, my daughters” striving to acquire a second thousand acres. He does not make it clear that he succeeded in reaching the two-thousand-acre goal.

Third Movement: “Squire Higbee wrongs me to say”

Sam complains, “Squire Higbee wrongs me” when he claimed Sam “died from smoking Red Eagle cigars.” Sam insists he died from “eating hot pie and gulping coffee / During the scorching hours of harvest time.” Finally, he reveals that he died before he had attained the age of sixty.

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters 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.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 01, 2017:

Thank you, Mark. The humanness of Masters' Spoon River Anthology is certainly an important quality. The poet's ability to create complex characters remains remarkably evident in each epitaph.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 01, 2017:

Thank you, Debangee, for the kind words.

Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on May 01, 2017:

Cool little poems. Confessing, setting the record straight. That's what we all want to do. A lot of us withhold the truth. Sad

DEBANGEE MANDAL from India on May 01, 2017:

An inspirational and informative article .Well written.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 01, 2017:

Thank you, Louise. Yes, it's important to hear the words along with the written text. It definitely aids in understanding the drama featured in the poem. Each character possesses a different speaking gait, which can be detected through the reading aloud, a fact that adds texture as well as a layer of meaning to the dramatic rendering.

Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic. We owe Edgar Lee Master a huge debt, payable by reading and considering the value of this unique series of epitaphs. He has enriched the American literary canon enormously with these pieces.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 01, 2017:

I always enjoy reading your articles on poetry. I'm glad you always post a video too as I love listening to the poems. Thankyou. =)

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