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Edgar Lee Masters' "Daniel M'Cumber"

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, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Daniel M’Cumber"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, Daniel M'Cumber is addressing Mary McNeely; he apparently needs to unburden himself after living a painful, pathetic life. If only Mary had known, perhaps her own life would have taken a very different direction.

Part of the drama of many of these epitaphs invokes the notion that had things been different, things would have been different, and that is what gives them the realism that strikes a chord with readers of these dramatic reports.

Daniel M’Cumber

When I went to the city, Mary McNeely,
I meant to return for you, yes I did.
But Laura, my landlady’s daughter,
Stole into my life somehow, and won me away.
Then after some years whom should I meet
But Georgine Miner from Niles—a sprout
Of the free love, Fourierist gardens that flourished
Before the war all over Ohio.
Her dilettante lover had tired of her,
And she turned to me for strength and solace.
She was some kind of a crying thing
One takes in one’s arms, and all at once
It slimes your face with its running nose,
And voids its essence all over you;
Then bites your hand and springs away.
And there you stand bleeding and smelling to heaven!
Why, Mary McNeely, I was not worthy
To kiss the hem of your robe!

Reading of "Daniel M’Cumber"

Commentary

Daniel M'Cumber's epitaph, while offering a number of cringe-worthy images, motivates readers to again feel sympathy for Mary McNeely, the woman he abandoned.

First Movement: He Intended to Come Back to Mary

WhenI went to the city, Mary McNeely,
I meant to return for you, yes I did.
But Laura, my landlady’s daughter,
Stole into my life somehow, and won me away.

Daniel M'Cumber begins by addressing Mary McNeely, the pining daughter of Washington McNeely. Daniel is Mary's lost love, the one the McNeelys blame for Mary's leading a a love-sick, homebound non-productive life. Mary reckoned she had lost her very soul when M'Cumber abandoned her.

But hearing M'Cumber explain his absence just demonstrates that by losing this lout, Mary McNeely dodged a bullet—as lousy as her life was, it could have been worse with M'Cumber holding the central role in it.

Daniel tells Mary that he had intended to come back to her, and he emphasizes his claim by adding, "yes, I did." But sadly, his landlady's daughter swooped in and gobbled him up, winning his heart away from poor Mary.

Daniel shows immediately his weakness and gullibility and likely puts his tale of woe in serious doubt. Likely, he is attempting to salvage his own reputation to himself and assuage the guilt he has been left with after his lovers have all proved to be more depraved than he is.

Second Movement: Love Is Never Free

Then after some years whom should I meet
But Georgine Miner from Niles—a sprout
Of the free love, Fourierist gardens that flourished
Before the war all over Ohio.

Piling on to his pathetic story, Daniel, after leaving it unclear how his break with Laura might have occurred, reports that he encounters Georgine Miner, who had been associated with the "Fourier" movement in Ohio. He calls her a "sprout" from the metaphorical garden he uses to describe this utopian socialist movement.

Third Movement: The Pathos of Stench

Her dilettante lover had tired of her,
And she turned to me for strength and solace.
She was some kind of a crying thing
One takes in one’s arms, and all at once
It slimes your face with its running nose,
And voids its essence all over you;

After former Fourierist Georgine's lover had grown "tired of her," she latched onto Daniel for comfort. Of course, Daniel, moral midget that he is, could not turn her away. Daniel describes this vile human as a "crying thing." She sports a "running nose," with which she "slimes" the victim. She then slathers her "essence" all over Daniel. His particularly nasty description leaves the image in the mind of his having been urinated upon by this vile creature. He thus remains stinking of her urine which seems an apt image to portray her "essence."

Again, Daniel has shown a lack of moral clarity and a weakness that he can only begin to understand after he has suffered its consequences. Failure to hold a set of moral standards often leads the human mind and heart astray, and often one's peers can only stand and aver, "there but for the grace of God . . . . "

Fourth Movement: Unburdening After Death

Then bites your hand and springs away.
And there you stand bleeding and smelling to heaven!
Why, Mary McNeely, I was not worthy
To kiss the hem of your robe!

Daniel's final image of the damaged Georgine includes an animalistic act of biting his hand and springing away. She used him, abused him, and left him to rot in her stench. He describes himself as standing and "bleeding and smelling to heaven!" He finally realizes the wages of sin, the utter stink that sense engagement can leave on the heart, mind, and soul.

Daniel's final remark telling Mary McNeely that he was "not worthy / To kiss the hem of your robe!" rings true. But readers cannot escape the thought that if Mary had only known this, her life would have taken a different direction.

As readers and listeners remember that this report is being spoken by the speaker after he has died, they realize that this report could have offered Mary some consolation had she heard it early on in her own life. She could have at least known that Daniel's final thought of her was that she was too good for him after the indulgent life he had lived.

Perhaps Mary could have realized that she would not have shared soul qualities with this man and thus did not in fact lose her own soul after he departed. Her philosophical thinking would possibly have moved in a different direction, perhaps, though one can never know for sure, allowing her to find a new love and live a more productive life.

Mary would likely not have wasted her life pining away for a man whom she knew to be not worth her time and effort. Because Daniel waited until after his death to report his miserable life to Mary, she remained ignorant of his true nature and continued to wallow in sadness at the loss of a man she had thought deserved her love. On the other hand, had Daniel returned to Mary and confessed his sins and begged forgiveness, all might have been forgiven and they might have lived happily ever after.

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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