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Edgar Lee Masters’"Knowlt Hoheimer," "Lydia Puckett," and "Jacob Goodpasture"

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 "Knowlt Hoheimer"

In "Knowlt Hoheimer" from Edgar Lee Masters’ American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is a man who regrets, among other things, that he had the misfortune of dying in battle.

The character, "Lydia Puckett," then offers a little drama showcasing her thoughts on the topic of Knowlt's joining the army.

Knowlt Hoheimer

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the country jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?

Reading of "Knowlt Hoheimer"

Commentary on "Knowlt Hoheimer"

According to Knowlt, he simply joined the army to avoid jail. He stole some livestock belonging to another man, and thus faced serving time for the crime.

First Movement: First Casualty of Battle

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.

Knowlt is claiming to have been the first casualty of "the battle of Missionary Ridge." He died after "the bullet enter[ed his] heart." Knowlt had signed up with the army and went off to war to avoid being incarcerated.

After stealing some farm animals belonging to Curl Trenary, Knowlt simply ran off to join the army.

Because he is now dead, having become the first to die in the battle in which his infantry was engaged, he deeply regrets his choice. He discovers that serving some jail time would be preferable to dying in war.

Second Movement: Regret

Rather a thousand times the country jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?

Knowlt now professes great regret over his deadly decision. He laments, "Rather a thousand times the country jail / Than to lie under this marble figure with wings."

Knowlt supposes that he would still be living, had he served his time in jail. He imagines that serving a thousand jail terms would beat dying.

Apparently, Knowlt has been recognized as a war hero. He rests beneath a majestic monument which he describes: "this marble figure with wings, / And this granite pedestal / Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."

Knowlt reveals that he does not even comprehend that "Pro Patria" means "for country." He asks rather sarcastically, "What do they mean, anyway?"

That Knowlt does not even know the Latin phrase suggest that he would not believe the sentiment even if understood the words in translation. He likely believes along with the speaker in "Dulce et Decorum Est" that the old Horace adage was a lie.

Knowlt, by revealing what he does not know, further reveals his ignorant narcissism.

Introduction and Text of "Lydia Puckett"

Lydia Puckett spews forth a very different view of Knowlt Hoheimer's actions. Although he has asserted that he ran off and joined the army simply because he stole some livestock and would have landed in jail over it, Lydia believes Knowlt went to the army because she told him to buzz off.

Lydia Puckett

Knowlt Hoheimer ran away to the war
The day before Curl Trenary
Swore out a warrant through Justice Arnett
For stealing hogs.
But that’s not the reason he turned a soldier.
He caught me running with Lucius Atherton.
We quarreled and I told him never again
To cross my path.
Then he stole the hogs and went to the war—
Back of every soldier is a woman

Reading of "Lydia Puckett"

Commentary on "Lydia Puckett"

Lydia Puckett offers different view of events from the ones described by Knowlt Hoheimer.

First Movement: Facing Incarceration

Knowlt Hoheimer ran away to the war
The day before Curl Trenary
Swore out a warrant through Justice Arnett
For stealing hogs.
But that’s not the reason he turned a soldier.

Lydia begins her epitaph by reporting some specifics not revealed by Knowlt. Justice Arnett had sworn out a warrant for Knowlt to be arrested, after Curl Trenary, owner of the livestock stolen by Knowlt, had pressed charges against the thief.

Thus, Knowlt claims to have joined the army to avoid incarceration, but Lydia now insists that Knowlt did not go to war for that reason.

Second Movement: The Woman Behind the Soldier

He caught me running with Lucius Atherton.
We quarreled and I told him never again
To cross my path.
Then he stole the hogs and went to the war—
Back of every soldier is a woman.

Lydia and Knowlt had been sweethearts. Then Lydia started seeing "Lucius Atherton" while still involved with Knowlt. After Knowlt discovered Lydia's cheating, the two quarreled. Then Lydia broke ended her relationship with Knowlt.

Knowlt, after the quarrel and break up of his relationship with Lydia, then committed to theft of hogs from Curl Trenary. He subsequently went off to war and was killed.

Lydia waxes philosophical about Knowlt's having died as a soldier; she reasons, unreasonably, "Back of every soldier is a woman."

Introduction and Text of "Jacob Goodpasture"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Jacob Goodpasture" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker disparages his own long life as he parallels it with the condition of his country.

As Jacob Goodpasture laments the outbreak of the American Civil War 1861-8165, he makes it clear that he believes the war to be unjustified.

He suggests that freedom itself is belong lost in an unnecessary war, and he is no doubt speaking from the position of a father in mourning; he lost his soldier son to the war effort.

Jacob Goodpasture

When Fort Sumter fell and the war came
I cried out in bitterness of soul:
"O glorious republic now no more!"
When they buried my soldier son
To the call of trumpets and the sound of drums
My heart broke beneath the weight
Of eighty years, and I cried:
"Oh, son who died in a cause unjust!
In the strife of Freedom slain!"
And I crept here under the grass.
And now from the battlements of time, behold:
Thrice thirty million souls being bound together
In the love of larger truth,
Rapt in the expectation of the birth
Of a new Beauty,
Sprung from Brotherhood and Wisdom.
I with eyes of spirit see the Transfiguration
Before you see it.
But ye infinite brood of golden eagles nesting ever higher,
Wheeling ever higher, the sun-light wooing
Of lofty places of Thought,
Forgive the blindness of the departed owl.

Reading of "Jacob Goodpasture"

Commentary on "Jacob Goodpasture"

Jacob Goodpasture is one of the epitaph speakers who is suffering the pangs of life. He laments having lived during wartime and losing a son to the war effort. But he also offers a prediction about the republic, as well as an apology for his generation’s failure.

First Movement: A Father's Grief

When Fort Sumter fell and the war came
I cried out in bitterness of soul:
"O glorious republic now no more!"

As a grieving father, Goodpasture commences his lamentation, exclaiming in deep agony that as the war began with the firing on Fort Sumter, his pain and anguish caused him to believe that the end of the republic had been foisted upon the citizens.

Goodpasture begins his epitaph looking back from a position sometime in the future. But he appears to conflate his own death with that future time; thus, his time-line remains somewhat muddled.

Second Movement: An "Unjust" War

When they buried my soldier son
To the call of trumpets and the sound of drums
My heart broke beneath the weight
Of eighty years, and I cried:
"Oh, son who died in a cause unjust!
In the strife of Freedom slain!"

Goodpasture is suffering after the death of his son, who has become a casualty of the war. Goodpasture deems the war "unjust." His suffering became intense as he listened to the trumpets and heard the sound of the drums beating for his son's military funeral.

The eighty-year-old Goodpasture senses the heavy burden of his long life; he is unable to find any comfort in having his son give his life for the protection of his freedom. Goodpasture is decrying the death of his son, but he is also insisting that even freedom itself was "slain" in the unjust war.

That Goodpasture seems to suggest he was eighty years old when his son dies adds a puzzling quirk to the narrative. Eighty years old seems a bit old have a son die in war; perhaps a grandson or even a great-grandson would be more likely.

Soldiers going off the fight in the Civil War were, of course, all ages, but the majority of them were likely in the twenties.

On the other hand, Goodpasture could be implying that it was much later that his "heart broke" at the sound of the military funeral, although the juxtaposition of his claims places his age and his death at the same time and contingent upon the death of his son.

Third Movement: Foreseeing a New Golden Age

And I crept here under the grass.
And now from the battlements of time, behold:
Thrice thirty million souls being bound together
In the love of larger truth,
Rapt in the expectation of the birth
Of a new Beauty,
Sprung from Brotherhood and Wisdom.
I with eyes of spirit see the Transfiguration
Before you see it.
But ye infinite brood of golden eagles nesting ever higher,
Wheeling ever higher, the sun-light wooing
Of lofty places of Thought,
Forgive the blindness of the departed owl.

Goodpasture dramatizes his emotion, signifying this own death by remarking dramatically, "I crept her under the grass."

Goodpasture then asserts an outrageous claim that he perceives truths that others fail to see. He makes a prediction about his country, the United States, after its population has tripled in size: "thrice thirty million."

The U.S. population, indeed, was about 32 million at the outset of the Civil War years. Goodpasture offers his prediction that the 90 million American souls will unite in "the love of larger truth." He suggests that, "a new Beauty" will come to fruition in "Brotherhood and Wisdom."

The U.S.A. reached that 90,000,000 mark in 1909, less than a decade before it became embroiled in War War I, as Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes were still blighting the South.

Also it was close to six decades before enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that finally demanded African Americans be able to enjoy their full citizenship as originally granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Thus, Goodpasture’s prediction was less than stellar.

Despite the fact that Goodpasture labels the war "unjust" and not needed, he somehow remains optimistic that later generations will benefit from the true goal of this supposed unjust conflict.

The very purpose of the war was do just what Goodpasture thinks will happen in future. As the speaker is reporting from a state of mourning, he is likely attempting to assuage his own pain, so his predictions miss the mark of several decades.

Goodpasture asserts that he can know the future of his country before the living residents perceive it. He metaphorically compares the coming generation to "golden eagles," asking them to forgive his war-mongering generation, which resembles a blind owl that has now left the picture.

Uncertain Time-Frame

The timing of Goodpasture’s prediction raises problematic issues. The reader may gather that he died around age eighty. But it remains unclear if he was, in fact, age eighty at the outbreak of the war.

If Goodpasture has lived around twenty years after the war, he likely could have seen certain results of the war effort. Yet in order to brag up his prediction, he has to be asserting that he possessed the foresight to predict those war results.

Goodpasture's patriotism seems to be aligned with the death of his son; yet he is lamenting the son's death as well as his opinion that the war has caused also the death of freedom.

Goodpasture seems to be trying to have it both ways—the war caused the death of freedom, yet in future, he seems to perceive the rise of freedom.

In his prediction, however, he was off by about six decades and one million in population: a semblance of that golden age he seems to predict came as the population reach 191 million rather than the 90 million he claims to foresee.

Sources

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: How does Lydia show inferior thinking?

Answer: Lydia and Knowlt had been sweethearts. Then Lydia started seeing "Lucius Atherton" while still involved with Knowlt. After Knowlt discovered Lydia's cheating, the two quarreled. Then Lydia broke ended her relationship with Knowlt.

Knowlt, after the quarrel and break up of his relationship with Lydia, then committed to theft of hogs from Curl Trenary. He subsequently went off to war and was killed. Lydia waxes philosophical about Knowlt's having died as a soldier; she reasons, unreasonably, "Back of every soldier is a woman."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes