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Edgar Lee Masters' "Charlie French"

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

Edgar Lee Masters

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

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;

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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

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?"

Many of the characters reporting from Spoon River leave the reader with a sense of despair. Charlie French's final note has to remain one of the most disheartening, knowing that for a very long time to come, he will be obsessing over "who dunnit?" Resting in peace will evade this poor fellow for God knows how long.

Edgar Lee Masters

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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