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Edgar Lee Masters' "Aner Clute"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Aner Clute"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Aner Clute" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is a prostitute, who blames others for her own life choices, as many of the Spoon River soliloquists are wont to do. The bulk of Aner Clute's drama plays out in her comparison of her choosing "the life" to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store. Like many other Spoon River speakers, Miss Clute dabbles in a ridiculous fantasy designed solely to relieve her of her own guilty life choices.

Aner Clute

Over and over they used to ask me,
While buying [adult beverages]*,
In Peoria first, and later in Chicago,
Denver, Frisco, New York, wherever I lived,
How I happened to lead the life,
And what was the start of it.
Well, I told them a silk dress,
And a promise of marriage from a rich man—
(It was Lucius Atherton).
But that was not really it at all.
Suppose a boy steals an apple
From the tray at the grocery store,
And they all begin to call him a thief,
The editor, minister, judge, and all the people—
"A thief," "a thief," "a thief," wherever he goes.
And he can’t get work, and he can’t get bread
Without stealing it, why the boy will steal.
It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple
That makes the boy what he is.

*Note: The word processor flags this article as about "alcohol" when certain words appear on the page more than once. Thus I have chosen to place the actual words in the line directly above the commentary below.

Reading of Masters' "Aner Clute"

Commentary

Edgar Lee Masters’ speaker in "Aner Clute" compares her choosing "the life" to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store.

First Movement: Getting into "The Life"

Over and over they used to ask me,
While buying the wine or the beer,
In Peoria first, and later in Chicago,
Denver, Frisco, New York, wherever I lived,
How I happened to lead the life,
And what was the start of it.

Aner begins her drama by reporting that her johns would always ask her how she got into "the life," which is a euphemism for prostitution. They supposedly wanted to know "what was the start of it." These johns in Peoria, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, New York, or "wherever [she] lived" would put these questions to her as they were "buying the wine or the beer."

No doubt, they asked not so much because they cared how she became a "working girl," but likely just to have something to say. They probably had little else in common with their companion for the night, and such a question would seem personal enough yet non-intimidating.

Second Movement: Blame it on a Dress and a Promise

Well, I told them a silk dress,
And a promise of marriage from a rich man—
(It was Lucius Atherton).

Aner claims she would tell them she got into the business because of "a silk dress, / And a promise of marriage from a rich man." She even names the man, Lucius Atherton.

Third Movement: A Lie and Ludicrous Comparison

But that was not really it at all.
Suppose a boy steals an apple
From the tray at the grocery store,
And they all begin to call him a thief,
The editor, minister, judge, and all the people—

Aner then admits that her claim about the marriage promise and the silk dress was a lie, and she begins a ludicrous comparison of her choice to sell sex for a living to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store. Clute's pitiful plaint is that "the editor, minister, judge, and all the people" took up the refrain of calling the boy "a thief."

Fourth Movement: The Label Makes the Man

"A thief," "a thief," "a thief," wherever he goes.
And he can’t get work, and he can’t get bread
Without stealing it, why the boy will steal.
It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple
That makes the boy what he is.

Clute continues her analogy and chorus of "all the people" calling the boy, "A thief," "a thief," "a thief." Everywhere the poor lad goes someone calls him a thief. The boy's reputation as a thief prevents the boy from finding any job. He cannot even supply his own meals, so the boy can do only one thing—continue to steal.

According to Aner, the boy’s predicament was not engendered by the boy stealing an apple; his life as a theft resulted from "the way the people regard the theft of the apple." Their heartless taunting "ma[de] the boy what he is." Aner’s analogy to the boy-turned-thief sounds utterly asinine. She is implying that because she took money once for sex, she had to continue because everywhere she went, people would call her names like whore, slut, slattern or whatever.

So Aner's difficulty was not her own. Her downfall was having other people label her a whore that made her actually become a prostitute. Such is the convoluted thinking of many of these Spoon River cemetery inmates. They are never to blame for their choices—they blame society in the town of Spoon River.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 05, 2019:

Madelaine Adam, thank you for your comment.

Just one quick response:

"Then she fell into prostitution because the man she loved told her to."

That's not what Aner says. When asked by her johns why she took up "the life," first she says she tells them it is because of "a silk dress, / And a promise of marriage from a rich man."

But then she confesses, "But that was not really it at all." The rest of her narrative compares her choice of life to a boy who steals an apple and becomes a thief for life. She concludes that people become criminals not because of what they do but because of society's attitude toward crime: "It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple / That makes the boy what he is."

Madelaine Adam on October 04, 2019:

Once again, almost correct but not really. Are you familiar with the lives of prostitutes? A lot of them are in the business because they are duped by a pimp...the pimp promises her nice clothes, a marriage, a family...security. The man exploites the woman's desires and then tells her he will love her more for doing this...or doing that....next thing you know, she's been groomed into a prostitute under the guise that this man loved her, and that's all she wanted. To be loved.

So, she dilutes everything that happened to a quip of an answer "a silk dress and a proposal from a rich man"...that's her living behind a defensive wall she put up for her own protection and not getting to close to the man asking.

What she means by "a thief" "a thief" "a thief"...is that even though this boy is a thief,society won't ever know him as anything else and will not allow him to better himself. So, he continues to steal.

Prostitution is the same thing. Because she was once a whore, means society will always see her as a whore and she cannot do anything else despite her best efforts, she will always be labeled as a "whore". Therefore, this is a tragedy.

It's the oldest profession in the world and deserves some respect. These women were still women and people with feelings. It's amazing to me how cold you are in all of your interpretations. It's like you hate everyone in this book because you fail to see any merit in any of them whatsoever. Sure, none of these characters is perfect., Who is? They all still deserve respect.

If you can't see the good in any of these characters, you aren't decoding them correctly. I I think you should reread these poems and try again.

Aner Clute is setting the record straight and telling you she was the victim of a known manipulator and womanizer. Then she fell into prostitution because the man she loved told her to. She thought it was the way to keep him loving her. She was wrong, but by the time she figured that out, society had blacklisted her as a whore and only a whore, not allowing her to become anything else. So, it became all she knew, and that's a tragedy for her. She wanted more.

Most of these people wanted more. They weren't selfish. They had hopes and dreams that became CRUSHED.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 23, 2017:

Certain weak individuals given to vanity and lack of empathy find blaming others for their own weaknesses a way of excusing their own guilt. Many of the characters who speak in these epitaphs fall into that frame of mind. Many of them are obviously just making excuse for themselves as they make others seem the guilty party.

Masters' ability to create these characters demonstrates quite a skill. Although some of the epitaphs seem vague at times, even the vagueness can be laid at the door of the speaker of the epitaph.

Thanks for your continued interest in my commentaries, Mark. Really appreciate your feedback.

Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on April 23, 2017:

Thank you for presenting this poem. It brings up some good issues relating to choice and the power of public opinion. Sometimes public opinion/label overwhelms a person enough for them to believe they don't have a choice.