084. Edgar Lee Masters' "Isa Nutter"

Updated on December 29, 2017
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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


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Isa Nutter"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Isa Nutter" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker declares his beef with his relatives who hassled him mercilessly for his choice in female companionship. This speaker mentions Doc Meyers and Doc Hill, two physicians of Spoon River, each of whom had diagnosed Nutter's misery very differently. Nutter, however, disagrees with both diagnoses and offers one of his own.

84. Isa Nutter

Doc Meyers said I had satyriasis,
And Doc Hill called it leucæmia—
But I know what brought me here:
I was sixty-four but strong as a man
Of thirty-five or forty.
And it wasn’t writing a letter a day,
And it wasn’t late hours seven nights a week,
And it wasn’t the strain of thinking of Minnie,
And it wasn’t fear or a jealous dread,
Or the endless task of trying to fathom
Her wonderful mind, or sympathy
For the wretched life she led
With her first and second husband—
It was none of these that laid me low—
But the clamor of daughters and threats of sons,
And the sneers and curses of all my kin
Right up to the day I sneaked to Peoria
And married Minnie in spite of them—
And why do you wonder my will was made
For the best and purest of women?

Reading of "Isa Nutter"


First Movement: "Doc Meyers said I had satyriasis"

The speaker, Isa Nutter, apparently suffered from mysterious illness and begins his complaint by arguing against the diagnoses of two Spoon River physicians, Doc Meyers and Doc Hill. Doc Meyers had determined that Nutter suffered from satyriasis, the male version of nyphhmania in females. Doc Hill, however, called Nutter's condition "leucæmia," alternate spelling, leukemia.

Nutter disagrees with both doctors, and he begins his argument by stating that his health was perfectly fine for a man his age, which was sixty-four years. He barks that he was as strong as any man the age of "thirty-five or forty." Thus the diagnosis of leukemia would be puzzling, for that disease weakens the victim and causes bleeding, bruising, and fever. Nutter would know if he suffered any of those effects, but he does not deny them with the exception that he touts his strength.

However, if Nutter's condition stemmed from an overactive sex drive which he satisfied often, he might experience some of those symptoms plus depression. That he denies out of hand both diagnoses, however, means he has some other explanation in mind for his problem. At this point in his narrative, the reader/listener has no idea what his condition might be.

Second Movement: "And it wasn’t writing a letter a day"

In the second movement of Nutter's narrative, he catalogues all the issues that might have caused his problem. He seems to suggest that the doctors might have pointed out those activities, but that remains unclear. It is possible that Nutter went about town complaining to anyone he could engage in conversation and has accumulated the list of possible causes for his ailment.

But Nutter is now dismissing each issue. He denies that his problem stemmed from daily letter writing, or staying up late every night. He also takes issue the suggestion that his condition was worsened by his concentration on Minnie.

However, after he mentions "Minnie," his denial begins to unravel. He claims his condition did not stem from "the strain of thinking of Minnie." But then the rest of his narrative is focused on Minnie, and now he has inadvertently revealed that his condition was depression because of the circumstances surrounding Minnie's life and his relationship with her.

As he continues his catalogue of issues that he is dismissing, he is simultaneously revealing these issues are the very root of the condition for which he sought medical treatment from the two town doctors.

In fact, his condition is stemming from the daily letter writing, the late nights, and the thinking of Minnie. Additionally, his condition of depression was exacerbated by his fear and "jealous dread," entailed by "trying to fathom / Her wonderful mind."

Despite possessing a wonderful mind, Minnie had led a "wretched life" because of her first two marriages. Nutter, no doubt, also harbors a great hatred in his heart for those husbands who have scarred the life of this "wonderful mind."

Third Movement: "It was none of these that laid me low"

But Nutter categorically denies that any of those issue "laid [him] low." And now he reveals what did actually lay him low: And instead of doctors' diagnoses and the list of other issues, Nutter believes his depression was caused by constant harassment by his own kinfolk. That he describes his problem as being laid low confirms that his illness was, in fact, depression, and he is correct that neither doctor detected this problem. Although each doctor might have been on the right track. Nutter could have been suffering from satyriasis and leukemia as well as depression, and likely those illness could have been further exacerbating his depression.

So after his denials, Nutter lays out clearly the suffering that played out in his mind. He was constantly being nagged by clamoring daughters and sons who threatened him. Furthermore, he was suffering from all of his relatives' "sneers and curses."

Nutter suffered these tribulations from his nasty kinfolk until finally he relocates from Spoon River to Peoria, and despite all the sneers, curses, clamoring, and threats, he marries this woman of the "wonderful mind."

Nutter's final remark attempts to cap his complaint with the notion he finally got the last laugh. Instead of allowing his bedeviling relatives to inherit his estate, he has written his will "for the best and purest of women."

Biographical Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters authored of 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.

At age 81, on March 5, 1950, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Petersburg, Illinois, in Oakland Cemetery.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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