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Edgar Lee Masters' "The Town Marshal"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "The Town Marshal"

"The Town Marshal" is followed in the sequence by "Jack McGuire" in Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology. And the two need to be read together in order to get the total essence of the marshal's personality, as well as his name. Logan, the town marshal, speaks in Edgar Lee Masters’ "The Town Marshal." Although he remains nameless in his own poem, he is called "Logan" in the companion piece, "Jack McGuire." Marshal Logan, who was hired by prohibitionists, is killed because he was a bully, but in the final analysis, he can be credited with admitting his fatal flaw.

The Town Marshal

The prohibitionists made me Town Marshal
When the saloons were voted out,
Because when I was a drinking man,
Before I joined the church, I killed a Swede
At the saw-mill near Maple Grove.
And they wanted a terrible man,
Grim, righteous, strong, courageous,
And a hater of saloons and drinkers,
To keep law and order in the village.
And they presented me with a loaded cane
With which I struck Jack McGuire
Before he drew the gun with which he killed me.
The Prohibitionists spent their money in vain
To hang him, for in a dream
I appeared to one of the twelve jurymen
And told him the whole secret story.
Fourteen years were enough for killing me.

Reading of Masters' "The Town Marshall"

Commentary

The town marshal, hired by prohibitionists, is a man named Logan, who meets his demise because of his bullying personality.

First Movement: Marshal by Prohibition

The prohibitionists made me Town Marshal
When the saloons were voted out,
Because when I was a drinking man,
Before I joined the church, I killed a Swede
At the saw-mill near Maple Grove.

Logan begins by reporting that he became town marshal because of prohibition. He had been "a drinking man" and had once "killed a Swede," before he "joined the church."

Logan's reputation seemed to lend itself to the kind of individual the prohibitionists wanted to enlist to enforce the new statute. Logan’s personality is that of a braggadocio who is not shy about tooting his own horn. His assessment of the conclusion of the trial of the man who shot him demonstrates this trait.

Second Movement: A Strong Anti-Boozer

And they wanted a terrible man,
Grim, righteous, strong, courageous,
And a hater of saloons and drinkers,
To keep law and order in the village.

Logan explains that prohibitionists wanted a strong, anti-booze man who was "a terrible

man, / Grim, righteous, strong, courageous, / And a hater of saloons and drinkers."

Logan, no doubt, sees himself as his "terrible man," who could "keep law and order in the village." Again, the town marshal shows the high estimation he has of himself. His strong sense of self accomplishment motivates his actions.

Third Movement: Armed with a Loaded Cane

And they presented me with a loaded cane
With which I struck Jack McGuire
Before he drew the gun with which he killed me.

Logan reveals that the prohibitionists armed him with "a loaded cane," that is, a walking-stick that contains lead in one end, which renders it a legal weapon. Quickly, the marshal cuts to the heart of the matter, stating that he struck Jack McGuire with this loaded cane just before McGuire pulled a gun and shot Logan dead.

The details of the encounter with McGuire are recounted in McGuire’s testimony, the poem that follows "The Town Marshal" in the Spoon River Anthology. After the reader is apprised of those details, Logan’s personality becomes clearer.

Fourth Movement: Fourteen Years Instead of Hanging

The Prohibitionists spent their money in vain
To hang him, for in a dream
I appeared to one of the twelve jurymen
And told him the whole secret story.
Fourteen years were enough for killing me.

Logan boastfully takes credit for McGuire’s receiving a sentence of only fourteen years, despite the fact that the prohibitionists "spent their money in vain" trying to get McGuire to swing at the end of a rope.

Marshal Logan claims that he visited one of the jurymen in a dream and told him the whole sordid tale about how he was shot. The story vindicates McGuire, at least, enough so that hanging was not the recommended punishment. Thus McGuire was sentenced to only fourteen years, and Logan feels that that punishment is appropriate. At least, Logan does finally recognize himself as a bully and wants to see justice prevail.

Edgar Lee Masters Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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