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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Kinsey Keene" and "'Ace' Shaw"

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 "Kinsey Keene"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Kinsey Keene" from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, focuses on a legendary quotation by the French commander, General Count Etienne Cambronne at the losing end of the Battle at Waterloo.

When the British were about to vanquish the Old Guard, British Major-General Peregrine Maitland called for the French to surrender, but Cambronne allegedly responded, "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!"—"The Guard may die, but it will never surrender."

Cambronne repudiated the claim that he said those words, and legend has filled in the rest—claiming that he said, "Merde!" which translates variously as "F**k off!" or "Shit!"

Now to which legendary quotation Master’s speaker is alluding can be a matter of interpretation: that he fails to offer the quotation might indicate that he has in mind the obscenity.

However, because he has already quoted the British Major-General’s command, he perhaps is implying the response about no surrender. Regardless of which quotation the speaker is evoking, the same non-conformist, adversarial attitude is displayed by Kinsey Keene.

Kinsey Keene

Your attention, Thomas Rhodes, president of the bank;
Coolbaugh Whedon, editor of the Argus;
Rev. Peet, pastor of the leading church;
A. D. Blood, several times Mayor of Spoon River;
And finally all of you, members of the Social Purity Club—
Your attention to Cambronne’s dying words,
Standing with the heroic remnant
Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean
At the battle field of Waterloo,
When Maitland, the Englishman, called to them:
"Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"—
There at close of day with the battle hopelessly lost,
And hordes of men no longer the army
Of the great Napoleon
Streamed from the field like ragged strips
Of thunder clouds in the storm.
Well, what Cambronne said to Maitland
Ere the English fire made smooth the brow of the hill
Against the sinking light of day
Say I to you, and all of you,
And to you, O world.
And I charge you to carve it
Upon my stone.

Reading of "Kinsey Keene"

Commentary on "Kinsey Keene"

Master’s “Kinsey Keene” offers a unique conundrum as it forces the reader to muse upon the two legendary claims regarding a famous quotation.

First Movement: Addressing the Upper Crust

Your attention, Thomas Rhodes, president of the bank;
Coolbaugh Whedon, editor of the Argus;
Rev. Peet, pastor of the leading church;
A. D. Blood, several times Mayor of Spoon River;
And finally all of you, members of the Social Purity Club—

Kinsey Keene addresses some of the upper crust of the fictional town of Spoon River: the president of the bank, the editor of the newspaper, the pastor of the leading church, and a "several times" mayor of the town. He also calls for the attention of "all of you, members of the Social Purity Club"—a fictional club that implies Keene’s disdain for the town’s leaders.

Second Movement: Quoting a French Guy

Your attention to Cambronne’s dying words,
Standing with the heroic remnant
Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean
At the battle field of Waterloo,
When Maitland, the Englishman, called to them:
"Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"—

The second movement reveals that Keene is drawing attention to those famous, legendary words of the dying French commander, General Count Etienne Cambronne. Instead of revealing the words, Keene describes the scene: the French general was "standing with heroic remnant / Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean / At the battle field of Waterloo."

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Thus placed, Cambronne was accosted by the command of the British general Maitland, who demanded, "Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"

Third Movement: Proud French

There at close of day with the battle hopelessly lost,
And hordes of men no longer the army
Of the great Napoleon
Streamed from the field like ragged strips
Of thunder clouds in the storm.

Again, Keene describes the battlefield. It is "at close of day," the battle lost, and the once proud French army of "the great Napoleon" was "stream[ing] from the field like ragged strips / Of thunder clouds in the storm."

Fourth Movement: Challenge to Adversaries

Well, what Cambronne said to Maitland
Ere the English fire made smooth the brow of the hill
Against the sinking light of day
Say I to you, and all of you,
And to you, O world.
And I charge you to carve it
Upon my stone.

Keene then inserts the phantom quotation by referring to it with the clause "what Cambronne said to Maitland." Before the English continued to demolish the "brow of the hill / Against the sinking light of day," Cambronne made his famous remark. Now, Keene defiantly thrusts that same statement at his adversaries and challenges them to "carve it / Upon my stone."

Of course, the French lost the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon was exiled. Historians remain uncertain regarding the Cambronne quotation: perhaps he merely said, “The Guard dies but never surrenders,” or as others have asserted, Cambronne might uttered the obscene, "Merde!" French for "Shit!"

This final command to carve the Cambronne quotation upon his stone leaves the reader again with the ambiguity for interpretation: does Keene want an obscenity carved upon his stone, or just a defiant, "never surrender"? Either way, he gets his point across—that he never surrendered his own sense of dignity to that of the town’s corrupt leaders.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "'Ace' Shaw"

"Ace" Shaw features a typical Spoon River braggart whose report justifies his unseemly choice of profession.

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Ace’ Shaw" from Spoon River Anthology attempts to achieve justification of his unseemly choice of vocation by asserting that all jobs are simply the result of "chance."

The epitaph featuring the character of "Ace" Shaw therefore, reveals and features a typical Spoon River braggart whose report unveils a dodgy personality.

"Ace" Shaw

I never saw any difference
Between playing cards for money
And selling real estate,
Practicing law, banking, or anything else.
For everything is chance.
Nevertheless
Seest thou a man diligent in business?
He shall stand before Kings!

Reading of "'Ace' Shaw"

Commentary on "'Ace' Shaw"

Nicknamed for his chosen profession, "Ace" Shaw is attempting to rehabilitate his reputation as a gambler by claiming that all professions operate on the element of "chance."

First Movement: A Gambler

I never saw any difference
Between playing cards for money
And selling real estate,
Practicing law, banking, or anything else.

"Ace" Shaw, whose nickname identifies him as a gambling man, claims that to him lawyers, bankers, real estate agents, and all others working in any profession or job for money are all gamblers, that is, all those professions are no different from "playing cards for money."

Point of view is always the most important issue in determining the conclusions each individual will form. "Ace" being a gambling man, and one who is apparently dedicated to his craft, then views his choice as noble and as dicey as the next guy’s.

In order to accomplish this rationalization, he has to filter out the actual impact that each profession has on society.

To this type of personality, narcissistic, egotistic, self-centered to the extreme, others do not matter so long as they render unto him what he thinks he deserves. That gambling for money offers no service to society does not enter into Ace's estimation in determining worth—only the ability to acquire money is his measure.

And by that simplistic measure, the gambler does have a point.

However, Ace does not seem to understand that bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, and members of other professions such a medicine, education, media, or even public service actually provide a service to society for which they are remunerated according to the level of service.

That each professional might fail at his work is enough for Ace, and his ilk, to denigrate all of the potential service providers to little more than gamblers, like himself. This line of thinking punishes the good for not being perfect.

Second Movement: Life of Choices

For everything is chance.

Ace claims that everything one does in life remains a gamble. But some things are more fraught with the possibilities for negative occurrences than others. If "everything is chance," and nothing is sure, then why not set one’s goal higher than mere card playing?

Why not do something that offers a real service? The only answer is that Ace prefers the life of a card sharp; at the same time, intuitively, he knows his choice is less honorable than the bankers and lawyers he tries to belittle in order to make himself seem more important.

Third Movement: Lazy Man's Philosophy

Nevertheless
Seest thou a man diligent in business?
He shall stand before Kings!

Ace is lazy. So instead of explaining his circumstances in order to prop up his choice, he simply quotes Proverbs 22:29: "Seest thou a man diligent in business? / He shall stand before Kings!"

By introducing the quotation with "nevertheless," Ace appears to be contradicting his earlier claims, but his personality would not allow such humility.

The gambler is once again simply justifying his choice by claiming that his proficiency will stand him in good stead. The gambling Ace will "stand before Kings"—and not before the "mean" men who appear in the line, "he shall not stand before mean men," which follows the two lines from Proverbs that Ace quotes.

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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