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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Hod Putt"

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 "Hod Putt"

The deceased inhabitants 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 character study begins with a short pithy verse, a versanelle, with a gripping punch that offers a scope on human nature, featuring the character, "Hod Putt"; the poem 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

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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