Edgar Lee Masters' "'Indignation' Jones"
Edgar Lee Masters
Introduction and Text of Poem, "'Indignation' Jones"
Edgar Lee Masters’ “‘Indignation’ Jones” from Spoon River Anthology gives voice to the father of "Minerva Jones," the village "poetess." This father and daughter share two common character flaws: their arrogance of a mightily, unearned self-worth and their vice of laying the blame for their own erroneous behavior on others.
“Indignation” Jones' blast of a full throated denouncement of Spoon River society rings as hollow as Minerva's, even if it is, perhaps, louder.
22. “Indignation” Jones
You would not believe, would you,
That I came from good Welsh stock?
That I was purer blooded than the white trash here?
And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders
And Virginians of Spoon River?
You would not believe that I had been to school
And read some books.
You saw me only as a run-down man,
With matted hair and beard
And ragged clothes.
Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
From being bruised and continually bruised,
And swells into a purplish mass,
Like growths on stalks of corn.
Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow,
With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter,
Whom you tormented and drove to death.
So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days
Of my life.
No more you hear my footsteps in the morning,
Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal
And a nickel’s worth of bacon.
Reading of Masters' "'Indignation' Jones"
First Movement: "You would not believe, would you"
"Indignation" Jones was apparently so bombastic as to carry the moniker "Indignation." Clearly, he deems himself superior to the other Spoon River residents as he claims in question form, "You would not believe, would you, / That I came from good Welsh stock? / That I was purer blooded than the white trash here?"
Additionally, he pronounces himself and his stock "of more direct lineage than the New Englanders / And Virginians of Spoon River." Jones is unlike the riffraff of the town; he asserts that his bloodline is untainted by southern Europeans or other races.
Second Movement: "You would not believe that I had been to school"
Jones then states that he has "been to school / And read some books," as had his poetess daughter. But Jones is taunting the town by accusing it of not believing that he had such erudition.
Jones accuses the town of judging him by his outward appearance; all they saw was, "a run-down man, / With matted hair and beard / And ragged clothes." Apparently, no one ever engaged in conversation with Jones, if his report can be given credence.
Third Movement: "Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer"
Philosophically, Jones surmises that sometimes men’s lives "turn[ ] into a cancer." Sometimes men’s lives are "bruised and continually bruised." Then those lives "swell[ ] into a purplish mass, / Like growth on stalks of corn."
Likening his life to a swollen, purplish mass on a corn stalk reveals Indignation’s own penchant for poetry. And clearly it unmasks his own self-pity that along with the poetry he has passed on to his daughter, the village poetess.
Fourth Movement: "Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life"
The irony of his situation is enhanced as he reveals that he had been "a carpenter." But he has nothing more to say about his profession and moves quickly on to asserting his desperation at being "mired in a bog of life." He had innocently entered this bog "thinking it was a meadow."
But his wife turned out to be "a slattern," and his "poor Minerva" was "tormented and [driven] to death" by this unfeeling town. He offers nothing to support any down turn of luck: was he a successful carpenter? why did he marry a slattern in the first place? was he aware that Minerva underwent an abortion, which, in fact, caused her death?
Fifth Movement: "So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days"
Living depressed and dejected in this "bog of life," Jones moved "like a snail" through his days. But now he can announce that the riffraff can no longer hear his "footsteps in the morning" as he makes his way "to the grocery store for a little corn meal / And a nickel’s worth of bacon." Consumed by an arrogant self-pity, he does not realize the hollowness of his protestations of poverty.
The "Minerva Jones" sequence:
Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters
Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."
Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.
Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."
Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.
Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.
Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes