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Edgar Lee Masters' "Jim Brown"

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 "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, 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 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.

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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 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; to 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 - Commemorative Stamp -  US Postal Service

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp - US Postal Service

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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