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Edgar Lee Masters' "Sersmith the Dentist"

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, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Sersmith the Dentist"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Sersmith the Dentist" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker asks four rhetorical questions and then offers a final philosophical summation. This dentist proves to be one of the more bankrupt characters of the lot. He sees everything in terms of money. Although he does not offer a personal complaint as most of the speakers do, he goes on carping about societal and political issues.

Unfortunately, Sersmith's clouded mind remains a one dimension of mediocrity and error. Misinterpreting religious and historical events leads him to ludicrous conclusions. While Sersmith the Dentist surely thinks himself clever as remarks about the hollow tooth filled up with gold, his quip merely signals the hollow mind of the speaker.

Sersmith the Dentist

Do you think that odes and sermons,
And the ringing of church bells,
And the blood of old men and young men,
Martyred for the truth they saw
With eyes made bright by faith in God,
Accomplished the world's great reformations?
Do you think that the Battle Hymn of the Republic
Would have been heard if the chattel slave
Had crowned the dominant dollar,
In spite of Whitney's cotton gin,
And steam and rolling mills and iron
And telegraphs and white free labor?
Do you think that Daisy Fraser
Had been put out and driven out
If the canning works had never needed
Her little house and lot?
Or do you think the poker room
Of Johnnie Taylor, and Burchard's bar
Had been closed up if the money lost
And spent for beer had not been turned,
By closing them, to Thomas Rhodes
For larger sales of shoes and blankets,
And children's cloaks and gold-oak cradles?
Why, a moral truth is a hollow tooth
Which must be propped with gold.

Note: Apparently, some publications use the spelling "Sexsmith" instead of "Sersmith." I base my use of the "Sersmith" version on the Penguin Classics 2008 printing of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. If anyone can offer an authoritative answer to the question, "which spelling did Masters originally use?", I would very much appreciate the information. Until I have a convincing report to the contrary, I will continue to employ the Penguin Classics spelling.

Reading of "Sersmith, the Dentist"

Commentary

Masters’ character, a dentist named Sersmith, pontificates on the political atmosphere, using rhetorical questions to emphasize his stance.

First Movement: The Rhetorical No

Do you think that odes and sermons,
And the ringing of church bells,
And the blood of old men and young men,
Martyred for the truth they saw
With eyes made bright by faith in God,
Accomplished the world's great reformations?

First, Sersmith denigrates religion. His question reveals that he thinks "odes and sermons," "the ringing of church bells," and people whose faith brighten their spirit did not, in fact, "accomplish [ ] the world’s great reformations." By forming his deliberations into questions, Sersmith tries to emphasize the resounding "no" that he believes is the correct answer to each query.

In fact, the dentist's narrow-minded view can easily be refuted by pointing to the meaning of great historical movements: the birth of each of the world’s five major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam demolishes his putative claims utterly.

Each religion has had its martyrs and their names live in the hearts of the reformed. Thus, the "no" that Sersmith expects is not forthcoming. Rhetorical questions can also be employed as weasel questions signaling that the questioner is basically unsure of his stance. While the effective rhetorical question offers a unique emphasis for its truth, when employed by imbeciles and jerkwaters, the device falls flat.

Second Movement: Revisionist History

Do you think that the Battle Hymn of the Republic
Would have been heard if the chattel slave
Had crowned the dominant dollar,
In spite of Whitney's cotton gin,
And steam and rolling mills and iron
And telegraphs and white free labor?

Sersmith’s second question is merely foolish. Slavery was abolished primarily because of moral reasons, not economical ones. Those who take the bash-America-first side always look for ways to malign events that prove otherwise. Those who continue to disparage the United States over slavery turn a willful blind eye to the fact that hundreds of thousands of brave men and women died in order to accomplish that feat. As an educated man, Sersmith should know this historical fact.

Third Movement: Lack of Credibility

Do you think that Daisy Fraser
Had been put out and driven out
If the canning works had never needed
Her little house and lot?

Sersmith now alludes to the character, "Daisy Fraser," a prostitute who seems to know all kinds of lurid details about other members of the Spoon River community. Unfortunately, Daisy’s credibility is suspect, and now by associating his lot with hers. Sersmith adds yet another block of incredulity to his stack.

Fourth Movement: The Spoonian Evil

Or do you think the poker room
Of Johnnie Taylor, and Burchard's bar
Had been closed up if the money lost
And spent for beer had not been turned,
By closing them, to Thomas Rhodes
For larger sales of shoes and blankets,
And children's cloaks and gold-oak cradles?
Why, a moral truth is a hollow tooth
Which must be propped with gold.

Beginning to repeat himself, again Sersmith decries the selling off of one establishment in order to benefit another. He invokes the name, "Thomas Rhodes," which becomes a spoonian meme for evil. "Thomas Rhodes" turns up often throughout the Spoon River Anthology, whenever a villain is needed.

Fifth Movement: The Vacuous Mindset

Why, a moral truth is a hollow tooth
Which must be propped with gold.

Sersmith’s final couplet attempts to couple his dental wisdom and his political acumen by likening a "moral truth" to a "hollow tooth," which is filled with gold. The dentist's quip is more comical than wise, more pathetic than informative. Such is the nature of this mindset, forever and anon.

Edgar Lee Masters

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 06, 2019:

You’re welcome, Carmen.

Blessings,

lsg

Bertelmax on August 29, 2019:

Thank you, Linda!

Best regards,

Carmen

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 27, 2019:

Hi, Carmen--

Guess that issue will remain a mystery.

You have my permission to include my name in your footnote. Thank you!

All best on your writing endeavors!

Blessings,

Linda Sue

Bertelmax on August 27, 2019:

Hello again, Linda.

I contacted Illinois Press via Twitter and they don't know either. This was their prompt and nice reply:

https://twitter.com/jeanmurdock_/status/1162621895...

This seems to be a task for a private eye! ;)

I'll tell you about my translation when is out. Thank you. By the way, I'd like to include a footnote regarding the Sersmith/Sexmith question and thanking everyone for their help. Would you allow me to include your name in it (Linda Sue Grimes)? I'd be glad to.

Best regards!

Carmen

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 15, 2019:

Thanks, Carmen! I'm glad you are staying on this issue. I would really like to know which spelling Masters used. I'd like to purchase a copy of your Spanish translation after you publish it. Let me know when it comes out.

Blessings!

Bertelmax on August 15, 2019:

Hi, Linda.

Thank you very much for your answer and best wishes with my translation. It's a tricky and thorny task sometimes, but also fascinating. The Spoon River is such a compelling book.

As regards the Sersmith/Sexmith question, I find it very amusing and obscure. I have already asked some experts but got no answer yet. But I won't give up. And I'll keep you posted.

Thank you again and best regards!

Carmen

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 15, 2019:

Hi, Carmen,

You have posed a very interesting question. My print copy of Spoon River Anthology (Penguin Classics, 2008) has the spelling, "Sersmith"; thus, I assumed the online spelling (barleby.com) was a typo. I am surprised to hear that many publishers have opted to use "Sexsmith," and especially Macmillan apparently changing it from the original "Sersmith."

At this point, I don't know where to go to get Masters' original spelling. I guess you will need to find scholars who have studied Masters' works in depth. Masters might have discussed the issue in memoir or in some obscure interview that only Masters' scholars/critics are aware of.

I am glad to hear you are translating Masters' classic into Spanish. That is a useful project, and I wish you the best of luck with it. And if you find the answer to this spelling question, please let me know.

Bertelmax on August 14, 2019:

Good afternoon.

My name is Carmen G. Aragón and I am currently translating the "Spoon River Anthology" into Spanish. I wonder if you'd be so kind as to help me with something. It seems that "Sersmith" appears as "Sexmith" in most editions, including the excellent annotated one by John E. Hallwas. Surprisingly enough, when I dived for information on this discrepancy I only found this:

https://www.reddit.com/r/AskLiteraryStudies/commen...

I also found your blog.

Sexmith's poem only appeared in Macmillan's 1916 edition (not before), and there he's called indeed Sersmith. But it seems that in later editions Macmillan themselves opted for Sexmith. Is it possible that Sersmith was a product of either a typo or censorship? Do you happen to know where to find more reliable information on the matter?

And how have so many publishers opted for Sexmith? I mean, it is very unusual to overlook a name like that; it certainly draws one's attention, thus making the typo theory very unlikely.

Thank you very much for your time.

Yours,

Carmen G. Aragón