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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.

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 of 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 remains 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”

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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.

© 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 Palm Springs, 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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