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Edgar Lee Masters' "Margaret Fuller Slack"

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 "Margaret Fuller Slack"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Margaret Fuller Slack" from the classic American work, Spoon River Anthology, depicts a tormented woman—ironically named after the first American feminist, Margaret Fuller—who believes motherhood doomed her ambition to become a great writer.

Margaret Fuller Slack

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

Reading of "Margaret Fuller Slack"

Commentary

Named for America’s first feminist writer, Margaret Fuller, Mrs. Slack laments marriage and motherhood that crushed her dreams of greatness in becoming the next George Eliot.

First Movement: She Would Have

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.

Mrs. Slack begins her tirade by proclaiming the greatness she "would have" accomplished: she "would have been as great as George Eliot."

Nevertheless, this speaker did not ascend to such a great height, because "untoward fate" stepped on her dreams.

Second Movement: A Photo of Profunity

For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.

Mrs. Slack possesses a "photograph of [herself] made by Penniwit," an artist who later also speaks in the Spoon River Anthology.

Margaret uses the photograph to support her contention that she was marked for greatness: in the photo, she sits with her "chin resting on hand," and she has "deep-set eyes" that are "gray" and "far-searching." These qualities in her estimation reveal a profundity that should have allowed her to accomplish greatness, the absence of which she now laments.

Third Movement: The Age Old Problem

But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?

Margaret then philosophizes about the human condition, claiming the "old, old problem" is whether one should remain celibate, marry, or simply commit fornication.

Mrs. Slack does not reveal how deeply she thought about those alternatives, or even if she had thought about them at all. As the speaker reminisces, she, no doubt, adds to her own self worth, by implying that she had thought and pondered those issues.

Fourth Movement: The Promise of Leisure

Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.

Before Mrs. Slack had the opportunity to determine which path was the right one for her to travel to fame, she found herself "wooed" by "John Slack, the rich druggist." The druggist "lur[ed]" her by "promis[ing] [her] leisure"—time she would use to write "[her] novel."

With this promise of leisure, Margaret married the druggist, but instead of writing, she proceeded to give birth to "eight children." Of course, with eight children, she can fall back on the excuse that she "had no time to write." Apparently, Mrs. Slack remained blissfully unaware that famous poet, Anne Bradstreet, created a significant body of writing while birthing and raising eight children.

Fifth Movement: Dying of Lock-Jaw, Filled with Words

It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.

Margaret then reveals how she died, "It was all over with me, anyway, / When I ran the needle in my hand." She met with this sad fate, while "washing the baby’s things." She contracted "lock-jaw" and died.

Mrs. Slack finds dying of lock-jaw to be "ironical"; she considered herself filled with words—words unfortunately that would remain unexpressed because of the time-consuming servitude of raising a family. And, of course, in keeping with her own selfishness, she does not consider how her absence will impact the lives of the children she leaves behind.

Sixth Movement: The Urge vs the Philosophy

Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

Margaret’s final statement oversimplifies her lot but reveals her philosophical conclusion about "life" as she remarks, "Sex is the curse of life!" Readers, unfortunately, will never be able to experience the profundity of any elucidation of that statement because Margaret’s ambition to write was obliterated by her urge to procreate.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

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 are you so sure Margaret Fuller Slack is "selfish" in Edgar Lee Masters "Margaret Fuller Slack?" I read the poem too, and mostly it inspires great pity. Anyone who has 8 children has no need of "excuses" (?) for lacking time to write, Anne Bradstreet notwithstanding.

Answer: Margaret Fuller Slack demonstrates her selfishness most blatantly in showing no concern for the young children she left behind. She died while her children were young, stuck by a needle, "While washing the baby’s things," yet she does not even mention their having to grow up without their mother. One can certainly feel pity for her, but that does not change the fact that she offered child-rearing as an excuse for writing. If words were so important to her, as she considers her death from “lock-jaw” ironic, then she would have found the time to write. She had a great example in Anne Bradstreet, who did engage her writing talents despite also raising eight children. The example of Anne Bradstreet’s accomplishment cannot be sloughed off by a mere “notwithstanding,” because that example offers a valid counterpart to Margaret’s selfish excuse of using her children while showing no concern for their welfare after her death.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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