Skip to main content

Edgar Lee Masters' "Jim Brown” and "Adam Weirauch"

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

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Jim Brown"

Edgar Lee Masters, in an interview with the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch (March 29, 1918), offered a remark that sheds some light on his thinking in having his character, "Jim Brown," confine humanity to the two categories of secular/worldly and spiritual/religious.

Masters quipped that those two songs, "Turkey in the Straw," a minstrel tune, and "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," a religious hymn, exemplify, "the eternal struggle between those who want to live and those who want to save—those who want to enjoy this world and those who want to make it a hallway to another."

Interestingly, while Edgar Lee Masters certainly considered himself a member of the secular/worldly category, he was able to create characters that represent both groups.

Masters' skill as an observer and writer allowed him to create his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, which for the most part rings true as a character study, although it is also often important to keep in mind that Masters' did remain prejudiced in favor of those on the secular/worldly path.

Jim Brown

While I was handling Dom Pedro
I got at the thing that divides the race between men who are
For singing "Turkey in the straw" or "There is a fountain filled with blood"—
(Like Rile Potter used to sing it over at Concord);
For cards, or for Rev. Peet’s lecture on the holy land;
For skipping the light fantastic, or passing the plate;
For Pinafore, or a Sunday school cantata;
For men, or for money;
For the people or against them.
This was it:
Rev. Peet and the Social Purity Club,
Headed by Ben Pantier’s wife,
Went to the Village trustees,
And asked them to make me take Dom Pedro
From the barn of Wash McNeely, there at the edge of town,
To a barn outside of the corporation,
On the ground that it corrupted public morals.
Well, Ben Pantier and Fiddler Jones saved the day—
They thought it a slam on colts.

Reading of "Jim Brown"

Commentary on "Jim Brown"

Jim Brown pits secularism against spirituality as he divides humanity into those two distinct categories based on their preferences in several areas of endeavor.

First Movement: What They Are "For"

While I was handling Dom Pedro
I got at the thing that divides the race between men who are
For singing "Turkey in the straw" or "There is a fountain filled with blood"—
(Like Rile Potter used to sing it over at Concord)
For cards, or for Rev. Peet’s lecture on the holy land;
For skipping the light fantastic, or passing the plate;
For Pinafore, or a Sunday school cantata;
For men, or for money;
For the people or against them.

The speaker, Jim Brown, is declaiming that he has discovered that humankind can be divided into two groups based on their preferences: there are those who prefer singing "Turkey in the straw," who belong to one group, and then there are those who prefer "There is a fountain filled with blood."

Those who prefer "Turkey in the straw" belong to the secular/worldly category, while those who choose "There is a fountain filled with blood" belong to the religious/spiritual group.

Brown then catalogues other sets of opposing preferences that folks from the respective categories choose: there are those who prefer cards vs those who prefer "Rev. Peet’s lecture on the holy land."

Furthermore, there is that group that prefers dancing to church attendance. Moreover, one group prefers a stage play to a Sunday school performance.

Continuing with his set of dualities, Brown declares that one group is for "men," while the other is for "money"; thus, one group is for "the people" while the other group is "against them."

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Brown has categorized the secular as being the group for "men" and for "the people" as he then assigns to the spiritual group those who cherish money over men, therefore remaining against the "people."

As Karl Marx opined, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people," Jim Brown takes a stance remarkably similar to the famous atheism of that class-obsessed thinker.

Second Movement: The Corruption of Public Morals

This was it:
Rev. Peet and the Social Purity Club,
Headed by Ben Pantier’s wife,
Went to the Village trustees,
And asked them to make me take Dom Pedro
From the barn of Wash McNeely, there at the edge of town,
To a barn outside of the corporation,
On the ground that it corrupted public morals.
Well, Ben Pantier and Fiddler Jones saved the day—
They thought it a slam on colts.

Brown then offers his reason for assigning religious people to the heinous category of people haters based on the request that he remove the horse "Dom Pedro" from town and place him "outside of the corporation."

Specifically, the Reverend Peet and the Social Purity Club, whose leader was Benjamin Pantier's wife had delivered that request to the trustees of Spoon River. Reverend Peet and the Social Purity Club had felt that having a breeding horse within the corporation limits "corrupted public morals."

The speaker then heaves a sigh of relief that Ben Pantier and Fiddler Jones spoke up in favor of keeping Dom Pedro within the limits of Spoon River. Apparently, Ben and the fiddler argued that having to remove the horse was a "slam on colts."

Ultimately, Brown’s complaint is offered primarily through implication, and he never defines his stance as "secularism" or "atheism"; however, a fuller explanation of exactly how having the horse in Spoon River "corrupted morals" is not necessary.

For most secularists, complaints against the religious are taken for granted because of the close alliance of secularism and atheism.

Most secularists accuse the religious of not wanting people to "live," a complaint expressed by Marx as "the sentiment of a heartless world." And by "live" they mean enjoy the sense pleasures of life without repercussion.

According to the secularism to which Brown subscribes, the religious want to snuff out those sense pleasures of the secularists in the name of "purity" and "morals." Thus, secularists feel impelled to elevate "living" above "saving," as they decry the virtues of striving to live a pure and moral life.

Edgar Lee Masters' "Adam Weirauch"

This epitaph engages a number of historical references as the speaker, as the fictional character, Adam Weirauch, reports on his life’s failures. Masters has often successfully engaged this strategy for creating his characters in his American classic, featuring the speaking dead.

Introduction and Text of "Adam Weirauch"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Adam Weirauch," from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker refers to three historical figures as he places blame upon two of them for his own failures in life. He begins by claiming that he suffered defeat because of Altgeld and Armour.

Altgeld refers to John Peter Altgeld, who served as governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897. Altgeld pardoned three of the alleged Haymarket rioters, thus earning the ire of his opponents, such as Editor Whedon, who according to Weirauch, labeled Altgeld an anarchist.

Armour refers to the business mogul, Philip Armour, who founded the highly successful meat-packing company, making Chicago the meat-marketing capital of the world.

So now comes Adam Weirauch bemoaning his lot in life of failure, blaming his misfortunes on two men who achieved a level of success that had been denied the speaker of this epitaph.

Adam Weirauch

I was crushed between Altgeld and Armour.
I lost many friends, much time and money
Fighting for Altgeld whom Editor Whedon
Denounced as the candidate of gamblers and anarchists.
Then Armour started to ship dressed meat to Spoon River,
Forcing me to shut down my slaughter-house,
And my butcher shop went all to pieces.
The new forces of Altgeld and Armour caught me
At the same time.
I thought it due me, to recoup the money I lost
And to make good the friends that left me,
For the Governor to appoint me Canal Commissioner.
Instead he appointed Whedon of the Spoon River Argus,
So I ran for the legislature and was elected.
I said to hell with principle and sold my vote
On Charles T. Yerkes’ street-car franchise.
Of course I was one of the fellows they caught.
Who was it, Armour, Altgeld or myself
That ruined me?

Reading of "Adam Weirauch"

Commentary on "Adam Weirauch"

Adam Weirauch contemplates his past failures, and just as many of the Spoon River reprobates do, he blames others for his miserable lot in life; however, he does something few of those other n’er-do-wells ever do: he ends by entertaining the notion that perhaps he shares some of the responsibility for his ruination.

First Movement: Loss of Friends, Time, and Money

I was crushed between Altgeld and Armour.
I lost many friends, much time and money
Fighting for Altgeld whom Editor Whedon
Denounced as the candidate of gamblers and anarchists.

The speaker claims he lost friends, time, and money in campaigning for Altgeld. Because he claims he was "crushed between Altgeld and Armour," he makes it clear that he will not be accepting responsibility for his own failures. It’s not his fault that others crushed him.

And Editor Whedon, by denouncing Altgeld as a "candidate of gamblers and anarchists," has become a scoundrel by association, according to Weirauch. The question remains, was Altgeld really beholden to "gamblers and anarchists"?

The two sides of every political campaign usually exaggerate and/or obfuscate the policy preferences of their opponents.

The reader, thus, will have to rely on the plausibility of the Weirauch’s complaints to determine whether his claims have merit or if he is simply smearing others to make himself look better.

Second Movement: Questionable Business Acumen

Then Armour started to ship dressed meat to Spoon River,
Forcing me to shut down my slaughter-house,
And my butcher shop went all to pieces.

Weirauch blames Armour’s business venture in meat-packing for putting Weirauch’s own butcher shop and slaughterhouse out of business. Apparently, unable to compete with Armour, Weirauch loses his means of income.

Weirauch’s complaint motivates his readers/listeners to wonder why he could not compete, but as is usual with the complaining Spoon Rivers ghosts, he fails to fill in those details, leaving his audience to assume that Weirauch’s business acumen must have been lacking.

Third Movement: Crushed between Two Forces

The new forces of Altgeld and Armour caught me
At the same time.

I thought it due me, to recoup the money I lost
And to make good the friends that left me,
For the Governor to appoint me Canal Commissioner.
Instead he appointed Whedon of the Spoon River Argus,
So I ran for the legislature and was elected.

Weirauch then asserts that through the powerful influence of both Governor Altgeld and the meat-packing Armour, he was crushed by those forces at the "[a]t the same time." He is asserting that having to fight two powerful forces made his failure a foregone conclusion.

However, Weirauch has an idea for regaining some of this lost finances as well as getting back some of his friends; he would become the "Canal Commissioner." Unfortunately, the governor elected to appoint Editor Whedon to that position.

Upon failing to secure the opportunity to become Canal Commissioner, the speaker decides to run for the legislature, and he is successful in securing that position.

Fourth Movement: Misfortune Hits Again

I said to hell with principle and sold my vote
On Charles T. Yerkes’ street-car franchise.
Of course I was one of the fellows they caught.

However, Weirauch makes an unfortunate decision. He succumbed to the clutches of the alleged "robber baron" business tycoon, Charles T. Yerkes. Yerkes was not averse to buying votes when necessary to secure his business ventures, and then according to this speaker, his own vote was for sale.

Weirauch had lost in faith in retaining and exercising any guiding moral and ethical principles, so he fell under the spell of political power that allows bribery and graft to taint government. Again, unfortunate for Weirauch, he was "one of the fellows" to get caught.

Fifth Movement: A Questioning Mood

Who was it, Armour, Altgeld or myself
That ruined me?

Weirauch ends his report in a questioning mood. He wonders just who "ruined [him]." Was it "Armour, Altgeld or myself "? Of course, earlier on in his diatribe, he clearly put the blame on both "Altgeld" and "Armour," asserting that they, in fact, "crushed" him.

Perhaps Weirauch actually deserves some credit for his softening to the idea that maybe he himself is, in fact, responsible for his ruin. That position places him head-and-shoulders above many of the other Spoon River inmates who never entertain the idea that maybe they shoulder some the blame for their dysfunctional lives.

Sources for Commentary on "Adam Weirauch"

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles