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Edgar Lee Masters' "'Indignation' Jones"

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 "'Indignation' Jones"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "‘Indignation’ Jones" from the American classic, 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.

"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"

Commentary

In the second poem of the "Minerva" series, the poetess’ father, "Indignation" Jones, fulminates against Spoon River society.

First Movement: An Indignant Man

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?

"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: Unrecognized Erudition

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.

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: Unmasking Self-Pity

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.

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: A Carpenter, and Yet

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

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: Depressed and Dejected

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.

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.

Edgar Lee Masters—Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters—Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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