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Edgar Lee Masters' "Jim Brown"

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 "Jim Brown"

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

Jim Brown pits the secularists against the religious as he divides humanity into two distant 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, 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." One song is a hymn, thus it would seem to indicate that one of Brown's categories is religious or spiritual. The other people who prefer singing "Turkey in the straw" apparently belong to the secular or worldly category.

Brown then catalogues other sets of two preferences that folks from the respective categories prefer: 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." Brown has categorized the secular as being the group for "men" and for "the people" as he then slings into the spiritual group those who cherish money over men, thus remaining against the "people." Thus spoken like a true atheistic Marxist, Jim Brown assigns the religious/spiritual folks to the group that damages society.

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. Rev. 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."

A fuller understanding of exactly how having the horse in Spoon River "corrupted morals" would help readers see both side more clearly. But as a secularist, any complaint against a religious is understood: the religious is always accused of not wanting the secularist to "live." The religious wants to snuff out the pleasures of the secularist in name of "purity" and "morals." Thus the secularist must elevate "living" above "saving," despite the fact that a society without morals, without striving for purity becomes a society not worth living in.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp - US Postal Service

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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