Edgar Lee Masters' "Penniwit, the Artist"

Updated on September 27, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of "Penniwit, the Artist"

The class warfare that rages in the Spoon River reportage becomes blatantly evident as readers make their way through these little dramas. Businessmen, doctors, lawyers, judges, and politicians are the special targets of many of those whose employment ranges from simple shopkeepers, to farmers, to teachers, and householders whose outside job or career is never named. Of course, preachers and other religious figures seldom come off well in these dramas either.

And the truly lowly dregs of society—murderers, prostitutes, adulterers, drunks, and thieves—are often given a bit too much of the benefit of doubt. The good-hearted prostitute is often more credible than the banker despite the fact that his heart may be of equal goodness. As in contemporary society where racism remains the primary cudgel of race-baiting hypocrites, back a century or so ago, the -ism du jour was classism, thus the emphasis on class warfare.

Penniwit, the Artist

I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.
The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.
Then when he was ready he said "all right."
And I yelled "overruled" and his eye turned up.
And I caught him just as he used to look
When saying "I except."

Commentary

A poor "artist" gets the better of a judge—and feels some satisfaction after playing a nasty trick on the jurist.

First Movement: Poor Artist Loses Patronage

I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.

Penniwit claims to have lost his support because he played a trick on a judge. Penniwit, who laughingly is titled "the Artist," describes that incident as his attempting to capture the "soul of a person" as he "put [his] mind" into his camera.

Apparently, the hapless Penniwit had been the recipient of some supporting art grant, the giver of which was formerly known as a "patron of the arts." The reader is not informed as to the exact nature of the "patronage," and the speaker's purpose is simply to explicate the trick he played on "Judge Somers, attorney at law." (The judge held forth his own snippet about his life in an earlier epitaph.)

Second Movement: His Best Photograph

The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.

The speaker then recounts the time he took his "very best picture." The picture was to capture the likeness of Judge Somers. Penniwit reports that the judge needed a few moments to straighten his "cross-eye." So the judge "sat upright" and apparently got that eye straight, as Penniwit paused patiently.

Third Movement: A Cross-Eyed Judge

Then when he was ready he said "all right."
And I yelled "overruled" and his eye turned up.
And I caught him just as he used to look
When saying "I except."

Suddenly, the judge is ready for his picture to be snapped, and he says, "all right." At that point, Penniwit barks out, "overruled." Immediately, the judge's eye re-crosses itself, at which point the "artist" snaps the photo.

Penniwit boasts that he caught the judge as he actually looked as the judge would say, "I except." Penniwit, the Artist, appears quite amused and even proud of his little trick—a starving artist who had lost his "patronage" has got one over on a judge! Life is good!

Commemorative Stamp - USA

Source

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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