Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.
Introduction: Four Flawed Characters Reveal Their Thoughts
The four characters from Edgar Lee Masters' American classic Spoon River Anthology—Serepta Mason, Amanda Barker, Constance Hately, and Chase Henry—offer very specific complaints against others in the town, who affected their lives in deleterious ways.
Serepta Mason is accusing Spoon River residents of stunting her growth, as she likens herself to a flower. Amanda Barker died in childbirth, and blames her husband for killing her because he knew her poor health make her unable to bear a child.
"Constance Hately" and "Chase Henry" are offering brief sketches of two Spoon River curmudgeons. The poems feature ten and eleven lines respectively. Both reveal flawed characters who feel the need to unload the thoughts they lived with.
As most of the Spoon River characters confess sins, these two are no exception. Constance seems to be trying to set the record straight, while Chase boasts about the irony that sometimes attaches to good vs evil intentions.
Reading of "Serepta Mason"
My life’s blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals
On the side of me which you in the village could see.
From the dust I lift a voice of protest:
My flowering side you never saw!
Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed
Who do not know the ways of the wind
And the unseen forces
That govern the processes of life.
Serepta complains that the "fools" "in the village" were ever unable to understand that she had a good side as a well as a not so good one. She begins her lament by announcing that she might have been a well-rounded, fully developed personality if she had not been "stunted" by the nastiness of the people in her town.
She metaphorically likens her growth to a flower: "my life’s blossom," which "might have bloomed on all sides." But because of the "bitter wind" "her petals" were kept from developing fully, and that "stunted" side of her was all that the villagers saw.
Therefore, as the other ghosts from the Spoon River cemetery do, she raises her "voice of protest." She enlightens the villagers that she did, in fact, have a "flowering side," but they never saw it. She foists all the blame on the villagers, not considering her own share of blame that might be part of the equation.
Serepta concludes her accusation with a rather grandiose philosophical attempt to convince herself that she is, in fact, accurate in her assessment: she calls the "living ones" "fools" because they "do not know the ways of the wind / And the unseen forces / That govern the processes of life." The recurrence of the metaphor "wind" implies that she is castigating the townies for being gossip-mongers.
Serepta’s complaint implies that she was damaged and her growth stunted by town gossip signified by "wind": "a bitter wind which stunted my petals" and "Who do not know the ways of the wind."
Reading of "Amanda Barker"
Henry got me with child,
Knowing that I could not bring forth life
Without losing my own.
In my youth therefore I entered the portals of dust.
Traveler, it is believed in the village where I lived
That Henry loved me with a husband’s love,
But I proclaim from the dust
That he slew me to gratify his hatred.
Unlike Serepta who waxes poetic and philosophical with metaphoric comparison and aphoristic critique, Amanda speaks her mind very plainly and bluntly. Amanda was married to Henry, who was aware that Amanda could not procreate children. Henry knew that pregnancy would kill Amanda.
Henry, however, impregnated Amanda while knowing that deadly fact, and sure enough, Amanda died young: "In my youth therefore I entered the portals of dust."
Calling those who might have stumbled upon her tombstone "traveler," Amanda offers her lament to those vague persons. She insists that the Spoon River citizens found nothing wanting his Henry's love for Amanda, but Amanda knew the truth: Henry hated her and deliberately killed her out of that hatred.
Amanda’s main focus is on having returned to "dust" before having lived her life: "I entered the portals of dust" and "I proclaim from the dust / That he slew me to gratify his hatred."
Reading of "Constance Hately"
You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River,
In rearing Irene and Mary,
Orphans of my older sister!
And you censure Irene and Mary
For their contempt for me
But praise not my self-sacrifice,
And censure not their contempt;
I reared them, I cared for them, true enough!—
But I poisoned my benefactions
With constant reminders of their dependence.
First Movement: "You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River"
Constance addresses Spoon River residents, calling attention to the fact that they were always commending her for raising "Irene and Mary," the orphaned daughters of her older sister. She further reminds them that they also condemned Irene and Mary, because they did not offer gratitude for their aunt’s sacrifice.
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Second Movement: "But praise not my self-sacrifice"
Constance now reveals that the citizens’ appraisal of her "self-sacrifice" and the nieces’ attitude was flawed and inaccurate on both counts: she reports that she does not deserve "praise" for her sacrifice, and the nieces, Irene and Mary, do not deserve the town’s scorn for their disrespect for her.
Third Movement: "I reared them, I cared for them, true enough!"
Constance admits that, indeed, she did raise them and she cared for them, but while she was doing so, she "poisoned" the girls’ minds "With constant reminders of the dependence."
Constance’s confession perhaps reveals a measure of remorse for her failure with her nieces, but on the other hand, she seems to be gloating that the town got it so wrong about her relationship with them.
Dramatic Reading of "Chase Henry"
In life I was the town drunkard;
When I died the priest denied me burial
In holy ground.
The which redounded to my good fortune.
For the Protestants bought this lot,
And buried my body here,
Close to the grave of the banker Nicholas,
And of his wife Priscilla.
Take note, ye prudent and pious souls,
Of the cross-currents in life
Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame.
First Movement: "In life I was the town drunkard"
Chase Henry played his role in life as the town drunk, to which he seems gleeful to admit. Of course, that was "in life." Now, he, like many of the Spoon River deceased, can wax philosophical and indignant about how he was treated "in life."
Chase’s indignity centers on the fact that after he died, his body was not allowed "burial / In holy ground." The priest would not accept the body of an immoral "drunkard" to foul the cemetery of the Catholic Church.
Second Movement: "The which redounded to my good fortune"
But Chase deems that he has the last laugh because Protestants defied the Catholics by purchasing a burial plot for the drunkard. Now he rests "Close to the grave of the banker Nicholas, / And of his wife Priscilla." Chase can boast that he has come up in the world—a lowly drunkard buried nearby to a highly regarded banker.
Third Movement: "Take note, ye prudent and pious souls"
Chase, in his best condescending, supercilious tone, offers a piece of advice to all "ye prudent and pious souls." He warns them that circumstances can change because of the "cross-currents of life," and those who "lived in shame" can find "honor" in death.
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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.
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