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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Charlie French" and "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

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 "Charlie French"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Charlie French" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, features its character musing about who might have been responsible for his contracting lockjaw, which lead to his death.

The little drama creates a speaker in Charlie who finds himself obsessed with a specific detail. After dying from this dreadful disease, he has his mind fixed upon who did it, who "snapped the toy pistol against" his hand.

Charlie French

Did you ever find out
Which one of the O’Brien boys it was
Who snapped the toy pistol against my hand?
There when the flags were red and white
In the breeze and "Bucky" Estil
Was firing the cannon brought to Spoon River
From Vicksburg by Captain Harris;
And the lemonade stands were running
And the band was playing,
To have it all spoiled
By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand,
And the boys all crowding about me saying:
"You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure."
Oh, dear! oh, dear!
What chum of mine could have done it?

Reading of Masters' "Charlie French"

Commentary on "Charlie French"

After dying of lockjaw, Charlie French has continued to wonder and obsess about which of his friends had shot off the cap pistol that delivered the fatal blow.

First Movement: Unidentified Listener

Did you ever find out
Which one of the O’Brien boys it was
Who snapped the toy pistol against my hand?

Charlie is addressing an eclipsed listener, that is, a listener who cannot be identified. Traditionally, when a poet’s speaker seems to be addressing no one, the context usually reveals that the speaker is, in fact, musing to him/herself. But this is not the case with Charlie.

Charlie French wants to know who the culprit is who shot off a cap gun against his hand. He asks the question at the beginning of his discourse and then concludes the discourse with the same question. After his musing, he remains in the dark about who the cap-gun shooter was; thus he repeats the question.

Second Movement: A Civil War Enactment

There when the flags were red and white
In the breeze and "Bucky" Estil
Was firing the cannon brought to Spoon River
From Vicksburg by Captain Harris;

Charlie describes the event at which his fatality occurred. The description reveals a Civil War enactment or some other military observance. There were "red and white" flags flapping in the breeze, while "Bucky" Estil was firing up the cannon.

The cannon had been transported to Spoon River by "Captain Harris," who brought it all the way from Vicksburg. The Civil War era relic suggests that the celebration might have been a commemoration of the war.

Third Movement: The Cap-Gun Mishap

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And the lemonade stands were running
And the band was playing,
To have it all spoiled
By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand,

In addition to the cannon fire and flags, there were lemonade stands and a "band was playing." Then upon this jubilant scene intrudes Charlie’s unfortunate and ultimately fatal cap-gun shooting.

The day was moving along splendidly, "To have it all spoiled / By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand."

Fourth Movement: Strong Suggestibility

And the boys all crowding about me saying:
"You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure."

Seeing the cap-shot stain under Charlie’s skin, the other boys gathered around him and started making comments: "You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure."

The suggestion frightened Charlie so severely that he actually did contract the disease, and then he expired, leaving the reader little knowledge about this character other than his strong suggestibility.

Fifth Movement: It's a Who Dunnit

Oh, dear! oh, dear!
What chum of mine could have done it?

The exclamation, "Oh, dear! oh, dear!," connects two strands of thought and activity: First, the boys who were observing Charlie’s cap-gun shot hand are thinking thus, if, in fact they are not the ones projecting this utterance.

And second, Charlie himself definitely engages this "oh dear" sentiment about his own health’s prospects; therefore, the implication is that Charlie let out this cry.

Charlie’s main reason for carrying on this discourse is further emphasized as he continues to wonder, "What chum of mine could have done it?"

Introduction and Text of "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

Historically, an actual person named "Tennessee Celeste Claflin" (October 26, 1844 – January 18, 1923) roamed the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was the sister of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for president for the Equal Rights Party.

In this epitaph, Masters is likely offering only a mild allusive reference to Tennie C, as she was called, but no one should confuse Masters' character with the real "Tennessee Claflin."

Note that Masters has done the same name play in other epitaphs such as "Percy Bysshe Shelley," "Robert Fulton Tanner," "Margaret Fuller Slack, "and "Robert Southey Burke."

Because Masters has not indicated that his character, "Tennessee Claflin Shope," is a woman, readers will likely assume that character is a man. Note that "Claflin" is the real woman's last name, while it appears to be the first name of the Masters character.

Thus, I have referred to that character using the masculine gender pronoun throughout my commentary.

In this epitaph, the character, Tennessee Claflin Shope, attempts to rehabilitate his reputation as a "laughing-stock" of Spoon River. Shope tries to show that he deserved more respect than he got.

He asserts that his mastering and curing his own soul was more important than engaging in political and religious discussions or observing the many superstitions that abound in the village.

Tennessee Claflin Shope

I was the laughing-stock of the village,
Chiefly of the people of good sense, as they call themselves—
Also of the learned, like Rev. Peet, who read Greek
The same as English.
For instead of talking free trade,
Or preaching some form of baptism;
Instead of believing in the efficacy
Of walking cracks, picking up pins the right way,
Seeing the new moon over the right shoulder,
Or curing rheumatism with blue glass,
I asserted the sovereignty of my own soul.
Before Mary Baker G. Eddy even got started
With what she called science
I had mastered the "Bhagavad Gita,"
And cured my soul, before Mary
Began to cure bodies with souls—
Peace to all worlds!

Reading of "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

Commentary on "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

As Spoon River Cemetery inmates go, Shope comes off as one of the more mild mannered, even though he is attempting rescue his reputation from those who merely thought of him as the town laughing-stock.

First Movement: Laughed at by the Good Sense People

I was the laughing-stock of the village,
Chiefly of the people of good sense, as they call themselves—
Also of the learned, like Rev. Peet, who read Greek
The same as English.

The character, Tennessee Claflin Shope, begins by admitting, actually boasting, that he was considered a target of ridicule from the townspeople. But that ridicule came mainly from people who claim to be sensible, a quality that Shope disavows for them.

Shope also cites Rev. Peet as one of the "learned," stating the reverend could read Greek as well as English. Rev. Peet will be remembered as complaining that after his effects were sold at auction, the grog-keeper acquired his trunk full of sermons.

And the grog-keeper burned those sermons, an act that causes the reverend much consternation.

Second Movement: Found His Own Soul

For instead of talking free trade,
Or preaching some form of baptism;
Instead of believing in the efficacy
Of walking cracks, picking up pins the right way,
Seeing the new moon over the right shoulder,
Or curing rheumatism with blue glass,
I asserted the sovereignty of my own soul.

Shope then begins to catalogue the many things that he believes these so-called people of good sense believe and do. He asserts that he has discovered the "sovereignty of [his] own soul."

Therefore Shope disdained talking the politics of "free trade," or suggesting types of baptism. He eschewed superstitions like "walking cracks" or "picking up pins" properly.

He failed to observe the "new moon" above his "right shoulder." He held no stock in the belief that rheumatism could be cured "with blue glass."

Third Movement: The Science of Soul Sovereignty

Before Mary Baker G. Eddy even got started
With what she called science
I had mastered the “Bhagavad Gita,”
And cured my soul, before Mary
Began to cure bodies with souls—
Peace to all worlds!

Shope now reveals that he found his own soul before the invention of Christian Science by "Mary Bake G. Eddy." He then boasts that he had "mastered the 'Bhagavad Gita'" without having the privilege of the Christian Science knowledge.

Shope claims to have "cured" his own soul before Mary began to show people how to cure their bodies through soul power. He then wishes peace to "all worlds!"

Although Shope comes off as a braggart, he remains mostly a mystery. Without further examples of what he means by curing his soul, it remains doubtful that he has "cured" that soul entirely.

And was Shope also able to cure his body of ailments? His level of spiritual advancement remains in doubt. He comes off as a name dropper, and although he thinks he was the laughing-stock of the village, he wants desperately to show that he merited genuine respect for his uncommon abilities.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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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