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Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Writing life sketches and/or interviews that focus on well-known poets, philosophers, and others remains part of my writing toolkit.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Early Life and Education

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, to Hardin Wallace Masters and Emma Dexter Masters in Garnett, Kansas, where Hardin Masters had established a law firm. After the failure of his law firm, Masters moved his family to his parents’ farm near Petersburg, IL. In 1880, the Masters family relocated to Lewistown, Illinois, where Edgar attended high school.

After high school, Edgar attended the Knox Academy preparatory program offered by Knox College, but he had to drop out because his family was unable to financially support his education. Despite his lack of a college education, Edgar studied law in his father’s law office and successfully passed the bar in 1891.

Law Career

After being admitted to the bar in 1891, Edgar worked in his father’s law firm and then in 1893 joined the firm of Kickham Scanlan. He later entered a partnership in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose fame spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also known jeeringly as the "Monkey Trial." At the Darrow firm, Edgar’s worked mainly on cases involving the poor.

After his three-year stint in the Darrow firm, Edgar left and formed his own firm. His years with Darrow has been turbulent owing to arguments with Darrow, as well as Edgar’s own misbehavior of engaging in adulterous affairs, damaging the firm’s reputation.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Marriage

In 1898, Edgar married Helen Jenkins, and his marriage brought him nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, his wife features prominently in his narrative, but he never reveals her name; he calls Helen the "Golden Aura," and he is doing so in a derisive tone. Clearly he hated the woman and all she stood for.

Edgar and the "Golden Aura" produced three children but finally divorced in 1923. He had abandoned his marriage by 1920 as well as the practice of law, relocating to New York to concentrate on his writing. In 1926, he married Ellen Coyne and together they produced one child, Hardin.

Literary Career

Edgar Lee Masters wrote and published some 39 books in addition to his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, but nothing in his canon ever gained the wide-spread fame and acclaim that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. Even the sequel to Spoon River Anthology, titled The New Spoon River, failed to garner success equal to the original.

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.

Edgar Lee Masters had an unpleasant personality. His behavior often bordered on misanthropic in his displays of jealousy and hatred. He likely diminished his literary reputation through his unseemly, disingenuous portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in his 1931 biographical piece focusing on the sixteenth president, titled Lincoln: The Man.

Bill Peschel has opined that the Lincoln diatribe was aimed more at Carl Sandburg than the former president:

[Carl Sandburg’s] magisterial Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years had made him wealthy and cemented Lincoln as an American icon. To Masters, who hadn’t been successful since Spoon River Anthology in 1915, Sandburg was a "slick Swede" who was trespassing on Masters’ property. After all, Masters’ family had lived and died in Lincoln country. Masters has published a bio of Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s rival, and saw Sandburg as "tracking and aping me."

Carl Sandburg was likely aware of Masters’ petty jealousy and wrote the following in his personal copy of Masters’ Lincoln biography: "long sustained Copperhead hymn of hate reversing the views of a Masters I knew well 10 and 15 years before he wrote these sickly venomous pages" (my emphasis added.) Agreeing with Sandburg’s estimation, a New York Times reviewer opined that the book featured views that not even a Jefferson Davis would write, but instead sounded more in line with venom spewed by a Ku Klux Klan member.

Masters had been an admirer of Stephen Douglas and Douglas’ defeat by Lincoln was likely part of Masters’ motivation to trash Lincoln in his book for which he did little to no research. Regarding Masters’ motivation and the subsequent reception of the Lincoln biography, Matthew D. Norman has explained,

Lincoln: The Man was a product of the Great Depression, written by a disillusioned champion of Stephen A. Douglas and Jeffersonian republicanism. Though Spoon River Anthology was both a critical and commercial success that established Masters's reputation as a poet, nothing he wrote during the 1920s came close to matching his initial triumph. By early 1930, he and the country were in distress. Masters was far removed from his "spiritual home" of Menard County in the spring of 1930 when he wrote Lincoln: The Man in less than two months while residing at the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. Lincoln scholar Harry Pratt and Carl Sandburg both believed that Lincoln: The Man revealed much more about Masters's own personal tribulations than it did about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Pratt concluded that Masters's financial troubles and conflicts with wives, publishers, and Clarence Darrow caused him to build up so much bile that "It just boiled out on Lincoln by chance."

Masters claimed he wanted to present only a true account of the man called Abraham Lincoln, but he completely misread the mood of the nation when he decided to trash Lincoln instead of reveal him. It is likely that Masters’ reputation took a greater hit than did Lincoln’s, even though those misanthropes who seize on any discourse to denigrate Republicans have put Masters’ nastiness to use.

Spoon River Anthology

Spoon River is a fictional town, which is a composite of Lewistown and Petersburg, IL, where Edgar grew up and where his grandparents lived respectively. Although the town of Spoon River was a fictional creation of Edgar’s imagination, 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.

In 1914, Edgar had begun to publish his poems focusing on the rantings of disgruntled dead people interred in the Spoon River Cemetery, located atop a hill overlooking the fictional town of Spoon River. Edgar had seized on an ancient structural form to have these characters working out their dirty laundry as they speak from beyond the grave. Nevertheless, he published under the pseudonym Webster Ford in Reedy’s Mirror, a literary magazine based in St. Louis. Likely fearing controversy that would clash with his profession as an attorney, he employed the nom de plume until after he left the legal profession.

In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Edgar called them, the Anthology sports three other long poems, offering summaries or other material relevant to the cemetery reporters or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River: #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry Magazine in Chicago, encouraged and assisted with the publication of Spoon River Anthology, and the collection became an instant success. After having been published in 1915, by 1961 the collection had gone through seventy editions. It has been made into an American play and an Italian opera, performed at La Scala. Spoon River Anthology has also been translated into eight languages.

Death

Five months before turning 82, Edgar Lee Masters died on March 5, 1950, in a nursing facility in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His body was transported back to Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois, for burial. The following inscription appears on his grave marker:

Good friends, let’s to the fields . . .
After a little walk and by your pardon,
I think I’ll sleep, there is no sweeter thing.
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep.

I am a dream out of a blessed sleep —
Let’s walk, and hear the lark.

And on a stone nearby his grave, Masters’ epitaph, "Anne Rutledge," which contains an ironic dig at Lincoln, the Mastersian nemesis, is carved:

Ann Rutledge

Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music;
"With malice toward none, with charity for all."
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficent face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!

Masters spent his lifetime producing a plethora of writings, including 19 books of poems, 12 plays, six novels, and seven biographies. His biographies, in addition to the Lincoln embarrassment, include those of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Vachel Lindsay.

Edgar Lee Masters was the sad little man, but no one can diminish the success he achieved with his Spoon River Anthology, which has risen to the status of an American classic, despite its being filled with disgruntled individuals. He well understood the nature of those characters, being himself a disgruntled, agitated soul.

Sources

Edgar Lee Masters: Home and Museum

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.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 19, 2021:

Thank you, Umesh Chandra Bhatt!

Masters lived an interesting life. Sad that he possessed such a sour personality, must have been difficult living with himself, filled with jealousy and hatred. He was undoubtedly a misanthrope, but still he deserves a place in the literary world for crafting an American classic. It is likely he became addicted to writing those colorful "epitaphs."

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 17, 2021:

Well detailed article.

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