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Edgar Lee Masters' "Jack McGuire"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Jack McGuire"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Jack McGuire” from Spoon River Anthology is a companion piece to “The Town Marshal.” In the epitaph, “Jack McGuire,” the reader learns more about Logan, the town marshal, in addition to Logan’s “The Town Marshal” soliloquy.

Jack McGuire

They would have lynched me
Had I not been secretly hurried away
To the jail at Peoria.
And yet I was going peacefully home,
Carrying my jug, a little drunk,
When Logan, the marshal, halted me,
Called me a drunken hound and shook me,
And, when I cursed him for it, struck me
With that Prohibition loaded cane—
All this before I shot him.
They would have hanged me except for this:
My lawyer, Kinsey Keene, was helping to land
Old Thomas Rhodes for wrecking the bank,
And the judge was a friend of Rhodes
And wanted him to escape,
And Kinsey offered to quit on Rhodes
For fourteen years for me.
And the bargain was made. I served my time
And learned to read and write.

Reading of "Jack McGuire"

Commentary

Jack McGuire escapes a lynch mob, and more is learned about the marshal he shot.

First Movement: Potential Lynch Mob

They would have lynched me
Had I not been secretly hurried away
To the jail at Peoria.

Jack begins by reporting the startling news that he would have been hanged by a lynch mob, if he had not been “secretly hurried away / To the jail in Peoria.” Jack then implies that his deed in Spoon River had worked up a number of folks who were ready to administer justice even without a proper trial.

Second Movement: Minding His Own Business

And yet I was going peacefully home,
Carrying my jug, a little drunk,
When Logan, the marshal, halted me,
Called me a drunken hound and shook me,

Jack explains that he was minding his own business, “going peacefully home,” when he was accosted by “Logan, the marshal.” Jack admits that he was “a little drunk” and that he was “carrying [his] jug” on his way home. But Logan, who was employed by the prohibitionists to enforce the ban on booze in Spoon River, stopped Jack and bullied him, calling him “a drunken hound.” In his bullying fashion, Logan also invaded Jack’s personal space and “shook him.”

Third Movement: Violent Confrontation

And, when I cursed him for it, struck me
With that Prohibition loaded cane—
All this before I shot him.

Jack reacted to Logan’s harassment by swearing at the marshal. Logan then struck Jack with his “Prohibition loaded cane.” Jack responded by drawing out his gun and shooting the marshal dead.

Fourth Movement: Avoiding Hanging

They would have hanged me except for this:
My lawyer, Kinsey Keene, was helping to land
Old Thomas Rhodes for wrecking the bank,
And the judge was a friend of Rhodes
And wanted him to escape,
And Kinsey offered to quit on Rhodes
For fourteen years for me.

Jack explains how he avoided the gallows, and his explanation differs from Logan’s. Jack’s lawyer, Kinsey Keene was also the counsel against “Old Thomas Rhodes” who was charged with “wrecking the bank.” The judge in Jack’s case was a friend of Rhodes’ and wanted Rhodes to be acquitted.

So Jack’s lawyer Keene “offered to quit on Rhodes / For fourteen years for me.” The reader will recall that Logan interpreted the fourteen-year sentence very differently; Logan claimed that he appeared to a juryman in a dream and revealed his complicity in his own death, and that resulted in the short sentence for Jack.

Fifth Movement: So He Learns to Read and Write

And the bargain was made. I served my time
And learned to read and write.

Jack says he served his term and “learned to read and write.” Jack, of course, knows nothing about Logan’s claim to have appeared in a dream to the juryman. And Logan could not have known about the deal struck between the judge and Keene. This disconnect opens up a fascinating arena for the evaluation of the worth of each man’s story.

While the reader accepts Jack’s version as probably the correct one, the reader cannot with certainty discount Logan’s version. A bitter irony prevails, however, that Jack, who actually took the life a fellow human being—as opposed to merely being a bully, as Logan was—appears to be the one who came out the winner; not only was his sentence light, but he also learned to read and write to boot.

Edgar Lee Masters

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 13, 2017:

Yes, it is amazing how much hearing a reading of the poem aids in understanding. Of course, poetry was originally meant to be spoken rather than merely sight-read from the page. One thinks of the Homeric tales and the Indian religious verses that were handed down generation after generation without ever being written down, yet they managed to be passed on without error.

Thanks for reading my works, Lousie, and for the kind words. Have a blessed day!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 13, 2017:

Yet another good analysis of a poem I've not heard of. I do enjoy reading your hubs. I also like that you add a video which helps in understanding the poem more. Thanks.

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