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Edgar Lee Masters' "Andy the Night-Watch"

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

Introduction and Text of "Andy the Night-Watch"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Andy the Night-Watch" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, features a night watchman who mentions Doc Hill in his report. Andy’s account is straight forward without the innuendos that accompany many of the reports. Andy is philosophical about his lot, seeing himself in a long line of men who have performed his job of night watchman for Spoon River.

Interestingly, because Andy encounters Doc Hill, he supports the doc’s claim that he went about Spoon River both night and day caring for the sick. Andy passes no moral judgment on the doc. And Andy reveals no moral turpitude as so many of these characters do. Andy's apparent guilelessness makes him one of the most appealing characters of the Spoon River citizens. Most want to excuse their own sins while blaming others for them.

Therefore, Andy surfaces as one of the more pleasant accounts, as he reports his simple duties as a Spoon River security guard. Andy's only purpose is to offer a brief report about how he spent his time and to contrast his purpose on earth with his current tranquility.

Andy the Night-Watch

In my Spanish cloak,
And old slouch hat,
And overshoes of felt,
And Tyke, my faithful dog,
And my knotted hickory cane,
I slipped about with a bull’s-eye lantern
From door to door on the square,
As the midnight stars wheeled round,
And the bell in the steeple murmured
From the blowing of the wind;
And the weary steps of old Doc Hill
Sounded like one who walks in sleep,
And a far-off rooster crew.
And now another is watching Spoon River
As others watched before me.
And here we lie, Doc Hill and I
Where none breaks through and steals,
And no eye needs to guard.

Reading of "Andy the Night-Watch"

Commentary

Perhaps one of the more pleasant accounts, "Andy the Night-Watch" reports his simple duties as a Spoon River security guard.

First Movement: A Guard's Accessories

In my Spanish cloak,
And old slouch hat,
And overshoes of felt,
And Tyke, my faithful dog,
And my knotted hickory cane,

Andy first describes his clothing and accessories; he wore a "Spanish cloak," an "old slouch hat," and "overshoes of felt." For company and possible security assistance, he had his "faithful dog," Tyke along with him. And he also carried a "knotted hickory cane."

Such are the simple necessities for a night watchman in the small town of Spoon River. Apparently, there was no need for a weapon other than the hickory cane.

Second Movement: A Guard's Duties

I slipped about with a bull’s-eye lantern
From door to door on the square,
As the midnight stars wheeled round,
And the bell in the steeple murmured
From the blowing of the wind;

After cataloguing his accessories, Andy then proceeds to report his duties: he "slipped about with a bull’s eye lantern." He inserts a further item, the lantern, that fills out the list of accessories that he either carried or wore.

He moved slowly "from door to door on the square." Not much seemed to be happening, so he was free to notice the "midnight stars" that "wheeled around." And he heard "the bell in the steeple," which he describes as making a murmuring sound as the wind blew past them.

Third Movement: Old Doc Hill

And the weary steps of old Doc Hill
Sounded like one who walks in sleep,
And a far-off rooster crew.

It is in the third movement that Andy mentions "old Doc Hill," whom the reader has previously encountered. Andy would hear the doctor’s "weary steps," and Andy claims that those steps "sounded like on who walks in sleep."

Andy then mentions that he heard a far-off rooster crowing, which suggests that it is close to dawn. The implication supports Doc Hill’s report about caring for the sick all through the night.

Fourth Movement: Now Someone Else Guards

And now another is watching Spoon River
As others watched before me.
And here we lie, Doc Hill and I
Where none breaks through and steals,
And no eye needs to guard.

Andy then returns to his present circumstances: he avers that someone else is now performing his night job of "watching Spoon River." And he places himself in the long line of history: the new person is watching "as others watched before me," he philosophically opines.

Both Andy and Doc Hill are now in their graves where no medical attention is required and where no one will break in to steal from rightful owners. No one needs "to guard" anything in this final resting place.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

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.

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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