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Edgar Lee Masters’ “Hod Putt” and “Barney Hainsfeather”

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

Poet Edgar Lee Masters created the character Hod Putt. This epitaph features the specifics about Putt's complaint.

Poet Edgar Lee Masters created the character Hod Putt. This epitaph features the specifics about Putt's complaint.

Introduction and Text of "Hod Putt"

The deceased inhabitants of the fictional village of Spoon River in Edgar Lee Masters’ American classic, Spoon River Anthology, are finally free to let loose their venom on whoever crossed them in life.

They now feel free to testify, but their testimony is only their side of it. They can say whatever they like without reprimand.

The beauty of this kind of scenario, masterfully created by the poet, is that each dead person has the same stage. Readers will be enticed, seeing how things looked to one while they looked so different to another.

The Spoon River character study begins with an epitaph that qualifies as a versanelle, which is a short, pithy verse with a gripping punch that offers an incisive commentary on human nature.

Featuring the character “Hod Putt,” this epitaph delivers that interesting punch as it reveals a truth about human nature and its desire to justify the unjustifiable.

Hod Putt

Here I lie close to the grave
Of Old Bill Piersol,
Who grew rich trading with the Indians, and who
Afterwards took the bankrupt law
And emerged from it richer than ever.
Myself grown tired of toil and poverty
And beholding how Old Bill and others grew in wealth,
Robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,
Killing him unwittingly while doing so,
For the which I was tried and hanged.
That was my way of going into bankruptcy.
Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.

Dramatic Reading of “Hod Putt”

Commentary on “Hod Putt”

Considering himself a loser in life, this speaker yet envied those who were successful. From his perch in the afterworld, he pontificates about the defects of other, while gloating about how he overcame his own infirmity.

First Movement: Seething with Hatred

Here I lie close to the grave
Of Old Bill Piersol,
Who grew rich trading with the Indians, and who
Afterwards took the bankrupt law
And emerged from it richer than ever.

Hod Putt informs that he lies near the “grave / Of Old Bill Piersol.” He claims that Piersol was an Indian trader, who became wealthy through his lucrative trade association.

Piersol, however, went bankrupt but then recovered his wealth quickly and grew “richer than ever”—causing Putt’s jealous nature to seethe with hatred.

Second Movement: A Lazy Scoundrel

Myself grown tired of toil and poverty
And beholding how Old Bill and others grew in wealth,
Robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,

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Putt, admits that he was a lazy scoundrel, with no interest in achievement; just keeping bread on the table caused him to grow “tired of toil and poverty.” While not fond of work, he also found poverty inconvenient.

Putt assumed that “Old Bill and others” had used the system to become wealthy; thus he assumed he could also use the system for his own purposes. Thus, he concocted a plan: instead of working for his pay, he would take from others. He then “robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove.”

Third Movement: Faulty Logic

Killing him unwittingly while doing so,
For the which I was tried and hanged.
That was my way of going into bankruptcy.

To Putt’s chagrin, he kills the victim while trying to take his property. This felony then gets Putt “tried and hanged.” Like any other act of faulty logic, he asserts that his act just constituted “bankruptcy.”

He believes he is clever in comparing his crimes to what he assumes to be the crimes of others; he obviously had quite a tenuous grasp of the reality of bankruptcy laws.

Fourth Movement: Morally Bankrupt

Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.

Putt shows that he is morally bankrupt; he concocts a moral equivalency between his felonious crimes and those of successful men, in this case Old Bill Piersol, who merely followed bankruptcy laws.

The smug Putt claims that he and Piersol “sleep peacefully side by side”; this claim implies that their “bankruptcies” are just the same.

A Two-Fold Felon

Readers will understand the difference: Hod Putt is a criminal, trying to vindicate himself, while in fact, revealing his felonious nature. Bankruptcy laws work within the legal system for those who declare bankruptcy.

They do not do so in order to encourage theft but to allow the unfortunate to place their financial endeavor on the path to recovery. Putt declares that he meant to rob a man, but while committing the robbery, he killed the man.

Thus, Putt becomes a two-fold felon, failing to even understand his criminal acts. Now after death, he erroneously claims to be “sleeping peacefully side by side” with Old Bill Piersol. Putt does not know that karma will catch up to him—if not today, nor tomorrow, then some day in future.

U.S. commemorative stamp featuring a rendering of Edgar Lee Masters’ portrait.

U.S. commemorative stamp featuring a rendering of Edgar Lee Masters’ portrait.

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Barney Hainsfeather”

Barney Hainsfeather’s epitaph reveals a unique complaint of a man who, in death, finds himself buried in the wrong cemetery.

Introduction and Text of “Barney Hainsfeather”

Barney Hainsfeather was a Jewish business man, who owned a clothing store in Spoon River.

Through a freak accident involving a train wreck, Barney is mistakenly buried in the Christian cemetery in Spoon River, instead of the Hebrew Cemetery in Chicago, where he had planned to be interred.

In his epitaph, Barney vents his animosity for the town of Spoon River and has a special comment regarding the town, where he now must spend eternity among folks who did not worship as Barney did.

Barney Hainsfeather

If the excursion train to Peoria
Had just been wrecked, I might have escaped with my life—
Certainly I should have escaped this place.
But as it was burned as well, they mistook me
For John Allen who was sent to the Hebrew Cemetery
At Chicago,
And John for me, so I lie here.
It was bad enough to run a clothing store in this town,
But to be buried here—ach!

Reading of “Barney Hainsfeather”

Commentary on “Barney Hainsfeather”

Barney Hainsfeather’s epitaph reveals a unique complaint of a man who, in death, finds himself buried in the wrong cemetery.

First Movement: If The Train Had Only Wrecked

If the excursion train to Peoria
Had just been wrecked, I might have escaped with my life—
Certainly I should have escaped this place.

Barney Hainsfeather begins his epitaph by throwing out a fascinating detail: he might have been able to live through the wreck of “the excursion train to Peoria,” if it had only wrecked.

Of course, he is only speculating about the possibility of living through a train wreck, but in his state of mind, he likely entertains that thought often as a deep seated wish.

But Barney does seem certain that he would have managed to avoid “this place.” If he had lived he could have escaped the place where he is buried; thus he is complaining about having been buried in the Spoon River cemetery.

Second Movement: Mistaken Identity

But as it was burned as well, they mistook me
For John Allen who was sent to the Hebrew Cemetery
At Chicago,
And John for me

The train to Peoria not only wrecked but it also burned, and it apparently burned the passengers beyond recognition. Barney’s body and that of John Allen were misidentified.

Because the authorities thought Barney was “John Allen,” they arranged for Barney to be buried in Spoon River, where John Allen should have been.

Barney has likely planned and intended his whole life to be buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Chicago, but because of the mix-up, poor Barney ends up where John Allen was supposed to be, and John Allen now occupies Barney’s place in the Hebrew Cemetery.

Third Movement: Buried in the Wrong Place

so I lie here.
It was bad enough to run a clothing store in this town,
But to be buried here—ach!

Now, the unfortunate Barney finds himself buried in a place not to his liking. He explains further that being the proprietor of a clothing business in Spoon River was “bad enough.” But worse still is being buried in this town. He concludes with the German expression, “Ach!” or “Oh!”

Barney’s complaint seems especially bizarre but at the same time perfectly understandable. His animosity for the town in which he had resided led him to make sure he did not remain there after death.

But then through the bizarre accident of a burned out train wreck he ends up there anyway.

Also, Barney’s Jewish culture is now lost to him. While living, he had to suffer the Spoon River clientele, whose culture was likely predominantly Christian and under which he might have suffered unwelcome sneers and jeers because of his religion.

And, no doubt, he felt comforted by the notion that after death he could rest among those of his culture. No wonder that his fate leads him to exclaim, “Ach!”

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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