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Edgar Lee Masters' "Thomas Rhodes"

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 "Thomas Rhodes"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, "Thomas Rhodes" appears in several other Spoon River epitaphs, always described as a greedy yet powerful man. In his own report, he demonstrates the personality behind the reputation.

Thomas Rhodes

Very well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.

Reading of "Thomas Rhodes"

Commentary

Thomas Rhodes' own words indict him even better than the claims of all the others who have castigated the influential businessman and banker.

First Movement: Classical Liberal vs Modern Liberal

Very well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,

Thomas Rhodes is an influential businessman, banker, and well-known and widely despised citizen of Spoon River. He begins his rant by castigating "liberals," and people who deem themselves "intellectual." He colorfully accuses his enemies of being, "Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets."

The term "liberal" here differs somewhat from modern liberalism. The political atmosphere during the late 19th and early 20th centuries pitted libertinism against traditional values. Closer to the classical liberal definition, it puts Thomas Rhodes into a category that today is more equivalent to modern liberalism. Rather than perceive Rhodes through the lens of liberal vs conservative, it is more accurate to perceive him as a stodgy hypocrite vs a staid citizen of traditional values. While Rhodes would claim he accepts traditional values, his behavior demonstrates his hypocrisy, power-hunger, and greed.

Second Movement: Soul Splintering

You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.

Rhodes then lists three of the people whom he mocks and claiming that despite all of their boasting, they have learned that things are tough all over: Margaret Fuller Slack was a tortured soul who believed that motherhood trounced her ability to become a great writer. Ironically, she is named after the first American feminist, "Margaret Fuller." Petit, the Poet, claimed he missed out on the life around him. He created a ludicrous a poem that heralds the postmoderns with its absurdity featuring the sound of ticking, and Tennessee Claflin Shope represents a fine example of "boasted wisdom."

Third Movement: Self-Evaluation

While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.

Rhodes then delineates his own estimate of the value of people who think as he does. He is practical and is a "seeker[] of earth's treasures." He is "getter[]." But then he claims to be "hoarder[] of gold," and that is a stupid, negative feature to assign to himself.

But Rhodes continues his self-laudatory description, saying he and his ilk are "self-contained, compact, harmonized, / Even to the end." All of these positive characteristics hoist his ego above the riff-raff of Spoon River.

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 07, 2018:

Thank you, Louise! We are fortunate that many of the epitaphs have readings. It always adds a level of meaning to hear it as well as see the text. Blessings, Louise. Always love hearing from you.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 26, 2018:

Nice to hear from you, Louise! Yes, all of the Spoon River epitaphs are fascinating pieces of work. These characters are so varied. Unfortunately, not all of them do have well done readings but they are usually better than nothing. It's always helpful to hear the piece spoken, assists understanding of the lines to hear them as well as see them.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 26, 2018:

I love this poem. And the video is well spoken. I do like his poetry.

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