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Edgar Lee Masters' "Elsa Wertman" and "Hamilton Greene"

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 "Elsa Wertman"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, this tale features the trials of Elsa Wertman, a poor peasant girl, who, against her will, becomes the mother of a man, who later well serves the community as "Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State." But she cannot open her pride to public scrutiny, because of the circumstances of his birth.

Elsa Wertman

I was a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.
On a summer’s day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show.
One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still.)
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,
As if it were going to happen to her.
And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That’s my son! That’s my son!

Reading of "Elsa Wertman"

Commentary

This epitaph features the tale of a poor peasant girl who gives birth to a baby, who grows up and well serves his community as "Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State."

First Movement: A Rosy-Cheeked Peasant Girl

I was a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.

The speaker begins by describing herself. It might strike the reader as somewhat odd hearing a girl refer to herself as a "peasant girl," even if she is from "Germany." It is highly doubtful that individuals whom society classifies as "peasants" think of or would describe themselves in such terms.

Elsa then paints herself as a rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed gal, who is both happy and strong. She then drops the important tidbit that her first employment was with the family of Thomas Greene.

Second Movement: An Unfortunate Encounter

On a summer’s day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show.

Elsa then delves into the meat of her tale, grizzly and pornographic, as she describes her relationship with "Thomas Greene." It was a summer day, and Mrs. Greene was not at home. As the young, nubile, Teutonic girl busies herself with kitchen chores, Thomas Greene, master of the household suddenly appears taking the girl in his arm, kissing her neck, and then raping her.

The poor girl is left to contend with what has happened to her. She seems to give Mr. Greene the benefit of the doubt by claiming that neither of them "seemed to know what happened. For her part, she "cried and cried" as she watches her belly growing bigger and bigger with the results from what happened that summer day in the kitchen while the mistress of the house was away.

Third Movement: A New Birth Mother

One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still.)
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,
As if it were going to happen to her.

One can only speculate what went on up until the time that Mrs. Greene tells the peasant girl that she understands—(what does she understand?)—and therefore would not cause any "trouble" for the girl. In addition to this, because the Greenes had produced no offspring, Mrs. Greene is willing to go through a fabricated scenario of herself in gestation and then to adopt the baby, allowing the village to think the child belonged legitimately to the Greenes.

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Elsa reveals that Thomas had bribed his wife with a farm to keep her quiet about his infidelity—thus, Mrs. Greene seems to have been willing to pretend that she, in fact, is having a baby. They "sent out rumors" of Mrs. Greene's pregnancy, while making sure that no one in the village would ever observe that pregnancy.

Fourth Movement: A Sorrowful Pride

And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That’s my son! That’s my son!

Elsa is treated with kindness by the Greenes. She give birth to the child, and she relinquishes custody of her child placing him with the Greenes to raise. Time flies by. Elsa marries Gus Wertman—a marriage about which Elsa reveals nothing.

Now Elsa reveals that as she sits crying at "political rallies," those villagers sitting around her think she is weeping at the eloquence of the speaker, a politician named "Hamilton Greene." But Elsa lets her listeners in on her little secret: no, she is not crying because of that "eloquence"; she is weeping her sad tears because she wants to let it be known: "That's my son! That's my son!"

Introduction and Text of "Hamilton Greene"

The following brief epitaph offers a glimpse of the child that Elsa Wertman bore as a result of the adulterous incident in the kitchen involving Elsa and her employer, Thomas Greene.

Hamilton Greene

I was the only child of Frances Harris of Virginia
And Thomas Greene of Kentucky,
Of valiant and honorable blood both.
To them I owe all that I became,
Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State.
From my mother I inherited
Vivacity, fancy, language;
From my father will, judgment, logic.
All honor to them
For what service I was to the people!

Reading of "Hamilton Greene"

Commentary

Edgar Lee Masters created the character "Hamilton Greene" to symbolizes the widely accepted characterization of a "politician"—a highly skilled but basically deceitful individual. Thinking his parents both of "honorable blood" and honoring them for what he considers pleasing and high-minded traits demonstrate that his life has been based on a lie from the beginning.

The character, Hamilton Greene, does not know what the reader knows, and the situational irony renders these two epitaphs stunningly appalling, as they support the contention that all politicians are deluded souls who remain clueless even of self-knowledge—an unfair proposition but widely enough shared by the citizenry for Masters’ portrayal to be easily accepted.

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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 12, 2019:

Thank you, Nithya Venkat.

This particular pair of Spoon River installments offers an especially harrowing view of two pathetic lives. One can take these rancid characters and their perfidy only a little bit at a time.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on February 12, 2019:

I always enjoy reading your analysis of a poem. Thank you for sharing.

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