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  • 9/20/2003

Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)

 American poet and novelist, best-known as the author of SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY (1915), a series of 'auto-epitaphs' or monologues in free verse, which often contradicted the pious and optimistic epitaphs written on the gravestones. The book gained Masters a large following and set him in the vanguard of the Chicago literary renaissance.

"Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure -
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!"

('Petit, the Poet,' fromSpoon River Anthology)

Edgar Lee Masters was born inGarnett, Kansas. In 1880 his family settled at Lewistown, Illinois, near Spoon River, where Masters grew up on his grandfather's farm. Lewistown and Petersburg became models for the scene of his poems inSpoon River Anthology. Masters's father was a lawyer, and did not encourage his son's literary aspirations, refusing to support studies in this field. He attended Knox College, and was admitted to the bar in 1891. He moved toChicago, where he worked as a lawyer for nearly thirty years. He contracted pneumonia through overwork and his legal clients started to decrease partly because his revealing poems about bigotry and liaisons inSpoon River arose controversy. After retiring, Masters devoted himself entirely to writing.

During the years in Chicago Masters married. His first wife, Helen M. Jenkins, was the daughter of aChicago lawyer. Masters travelled in Europe, and after resigning from Clarence Darrow's law firm he established his own law firm. At the same time he continued to write, and became friends with Harriet Monroe, editor of thePoetry magazine, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and other member of the so-called Chicago Group. This circle meant much to Masters, who was throughout his life bitter because of the scornful attitude in Lewistown for his writing.

As a poet Masters made his debut already in 1898 with A BOOK OF VERSES. It was followed by MAXIMILIAN (1902), a drama in blank verse, THE NEW STAR CHAMBER (1904), a collection of essays, BLOOD OF THE PROPHETS (1905), and two plays, ALTHEA (1907) and THE BREAD OF IDLENESS (1911).

In 1909 Masters was introduced toEpigrams from the Greek Anthology, given him by Marion Reedy, editor ofReedy's Mirror of St. Louis. This inspired Masters' most famous work,Spoon River Anthology, realistic and sometimes cynical epitaphs spoken by about 250 persons buried in the graveyard of a village in the Middle West. "You will die, no doubt, but die while living / In depths of azure, rapt and mated, / Kissing the queen-bee, Life!" Original idea for the book came from his mother, with whom he discussed people they used to know in the villages. The work appeared first anonymously inReedy's Mirror in 1914 and 1915. It was then published anonymously in book form. A sequel,The New Spoon River, appeared in 1924, but it was less successful.Spoon Riverwas Masters's revenge on narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. It gained a huge popularity, but shattered his position as a respectable member of establishment

When his wife did not grant him a divorce, Masters left his family and fled in 1921 toEurope. The height of theChicago renaissance was passed, and Masters considered impossible to return back to his home town. He moved toNew York, and after the divorce was settled, Masters remarried. His wife, Ellen Coyne Masters, was much younger; her father was an immigrant from Ireland, who joined the U.S. Cavalry and patrolledWyoming and Montana in the 1880's. Ellen Masters pursued her own career as a teacher while her husband retired to theChelsea Hotel to write. The hotel has also attracted such writers as Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, O. Henry,Arthur C. Clarke, and Allen Ginsburg.

Besides poems Masters published biographies of Vachel Lindsay, who was his friend and fellow poet, Mark Twain, whom he depicted a frustrated genius, and Walt Whitman. His sharply critical study of the Civil War president Abraham Lincoln (1931) was the only one of his later books to gain a wider attention. ACROSS SPOON RIVER (1939) was Masters's autobiography.
Though Masters continued to publish volumes of verse almost yearly, the quality of his work never reached the level of his masterpiece. He lived his last years alone in small hotel inNew York, and died in Philadelphia on March 5, 1950. Master's son from his second marriage, Hilary Masters, published in 1982 a portrait of his father under the titleLast Stands.

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