Edgar Lee Masters' "State’s Attorney Fallas"

Updated on April 4, 2018
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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 Epitaph #78 State’s Attorney Fallas

State's Attorney Fallas became the seeker of justice for the wife murderer, Barry Holden. But his own life was influenced by an accident of birth when his son was left mentally challenged by the actions of a doctor.

78. State's Attorney Fallas

I, the scourge-wielder, balance-wrecker,
Smiter with whips and swords;
I, hater of the breakers of the law;
I, legalist, inexorable and bitter,
Driving the jury to hang the madman, Barry Holden,
Was made as one dead by light too bright for eyes,
And woke to face a Truth with bloody brow:
Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor’s hand
Against my boy’s head as he entered life
Made him an idiot.
I turned to books of science
To care for him.
That’s how the world of those whose minds are sick
Became my work in life, and all my world.
Poor ruined boy! You were, at last, the potter
And I and all my deeds of charity
The vessels of your hand.

Reading of "State's Attorney Fallas"

Commentary

Attorney Fallas's life was dedicated to acquiring knowledge about ministering to the mentally challenged in order to care for his son, who suffered brain damage while being born.

First Movement: Self-Portrait

I, the scourge-wielder, balance-wrecker,
Smiter with whips and swords;
I, hater of the breakers of the law;
I, legalist, inexorable and bitter,
Driving the jury to hang the madman, Barry Holden,
Was made as one dead by light too bright for eyes,
And woke to face a Truth with bloody brow:

The state attorney begins by describing himself. He paints a picture of a severe man who is a "hater of the breakers of law." He is a bitter man, and he freely admits it. He also embellishes his past action with claims such as "smiter with whips and swords," more likely with words and arguments because after all he is a "legalist."

In that role as legalist, State Attorney Fallas managed to persuade a "the jury to hang the madman, Barry Holden." Interestingly, Fallas rather glides over Barry Holden by making the simple claim that he was able to bring about the corporal punishment of the wife murderer.

Readers are just coming off the "Barry Holden" epitaph, in which they learned of the depravity of Holden, who was influenced by watching a jury trial of a doctor who murdered his pregnant lover. While readers might hanker for more information about Holden, they can be slaked just to know that Holden did hang for his crime.

Now we must move on to the man, who was able to have the madman hanged. And the state attorney turns out to be a rather colorful and wide-ranging character. Though a sad and bitter man, he turns out to be a compassionate man, who tried to offer aid and comfort to his disabled son.

Second Movement: Damaged Son

Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor’s hand
Against my boy’s head as he entered life
Made him an idiot.

The central motivating factor in the state attorney's life is described in this movement. As the man's son was coming into this world, a doctor employed the use of forceps but badly mishandled the instrument, leaving the boy to live with a damaged brain.

Attorney Fallas frames the boy's condition a being that of an "idiot." This term used be a technical term used in psychology in a classification system for mental retardation. Now the system, the terms, even the term "mental retardation" have all been axed, yielding to the creeping distortions of political correctness.

Therefore, Fallas was not calling his son an offensive name; he was giving the prevailing label of those with an I.Q. rating of under 25 and the mental capacity of under three years old.

Third Movement: Loss of Equanimity

I turned to books of science
To care for him.
That’s how the world of those whose minds are sick
Became my work in life, and all my world.

Attorney Fallas then reports that because of his son's infirmity he started to read "books of science" to figure out the best methods for caring for his severely mentally challenged son.

The attorney then makes the startling claim that the world of those mentally sick became his main focus in life. That study become "all my world." His intensity in pursuing knowledge regarding the mentally challenged flooded his life, likely making it difficult to face certain legal cases with equanimity.

As the attorney faced down the madman, Barry Holden, he was likely keenly aware of the difference between the mentally challenged and the criminally insane.

Fourth Movement: Molded by Circumstances

Poor ruined boy! You were, at last, the potter
And I and all my deeds of charity
The vessels of your hand.

The attorney then address his son, exclaiming, "Poor ruined boy!" Fallas again makes a startling claim: metaphorically, he likens himself to a piece of clay that has continued to be molded on a potter's wheel by his son and his son's condition. The son has served as the "potter," who molded the attorney's life.

All the ministrations the state attorney has offered his son and all that the attorney has done for "charity" have come about because of his son's mental challenge, which the state attorney wished to ameliorate with his care and attention.

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.

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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