What did contemporary scholars think of Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) during his lifetime? Here’s an interesting biography and analysis published in 1918, written by popular Yale professor William Lyon Phelps.
Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas, on the twenty-third of August, 1869. The family moved to Illinois the next year. His father was a lawyer, and the child had access to plenty of good books, which he read eagerly. In spite of his preoccupation with the seamy side of human nature, he is in reality a bookish poet, and most of his work—though not the best part of it—smells of the lamp. Fortunately for him he was brought up on the Bible, for even those who attack the Old Book are glad to be able to tip their weapons with biblical language. Ibsen used to say that his chief reading, even in mature years, was always the Bible; “it is so strong and mighty.”
Everything connected with books and literary work fascinated the youth; like so many boys of his time—before wireless [radio] came in—he had his own printing-press. I wonder if it was a “self-inker”? In my day, the boy who owned a “self-inker” and “club-skates” was regarded with envy. The three generations in this family illustrate the play Milestones; the grandfather vainly tried to make his son a farmer, but the boy elected to be a lawyer and carried his point; he in turn was determined to twist his son into a lawyer, whereas Edgar wanted to be a writer. As this latter profession is usually without emolument, he was forced into the law, where the virile energy of his mind rewarded his zestless efforts with success. However, at the age of twenty-one, he persuaded his father to allow him to study at Knox College for a year, a highly important period in his development; for he resumed the interrupted study of Latin, and began Greek. Greek is the chief inspiration of his life, and of his art. He has read Homer every year since his college days.
Later he went to Chicago, and stayed there, busying himself not only at his profession, but taking part in political activities, as any one might guess from reading his poems. The primal impulse to write was not frustrated; he has written verse all his life; and in fact has published a considerable number of volumes during the last twenty years, no one of which attracted any attention until 1915, when Spoon River Anthology made everybody sit up.
Mr. Masters was nearly fifty when this book appeared; it is a long time to wait for a reputation, especially if one is constantly trying to obtain a hearing. It speaks powerfully for his courage, tenacity, and faith that he should never have quit—and his triumph will encourage some good and many bad writers to persevere. Emboldened by the immense success of Spoon River, he produced three more volumes in rapid succession; Songs and Satires in 1916, The Great Valley in the same year, and Toward the Gulf in 1918. It is fortunate for him that these works followed rather than preceded the Anthology; for although they are not destitute of merit, they seem to require a famous name to ensure a sale. It is the brand, and not the goods, that gives a circulation to these books.
The pieces in Spoon River Anthology originally appeared in William Marion Reedy’s periodical, called Reedy’s Mirror, the first one being printed in the issue for 29 May, 1914, and the others following week after week. A grateful acknowledgment is made in a brief preface to the volume, and the full debt is handsomely paid in a dedicatory preface of Toward the Gulf, which every one interested in Mr. Masters—and who is not?—should read with attention. The poet manfully lets us know that it was Mr. Reedy who, in 1909, made him read the Greek Anthology, without which Spoon River would never have been written. Criticism is forestalled in this preface, because Mr. Masters takes a prose translation of Meleager, “with its sad revealment and touch of irony”—exactly the characteristics of Spoon River—and turns it into free verse:
The holy night and thou,
We took as witness of our vows;
And before thee we swore,
He that [he] would love me always
And I that I would never leave him.
And thou wert witness of our double promise.
But now he says that our vows were written on the running
And thou, O Lamp,
Thou seest him in the arms of another.
What Mr. Masters did was to transfer the method and the tone of the Greek Anthology to a twentieth century village in the Middle West, or as he expresses it, to make “an epic rendition of modern life.”
Even if it were desirable, how impossible it is to escape from the past! We are ruled by the dead as truly in the fields of art as in the domain of morality and religion. The most radical innovator can no more break loose from tradition than a tree can run away from its roots. John Masefield takes us back to Chaucer; Vachel Lindsay is a reincarnation of the ancient minstrels; Edgar Lee Masters owes both the idea and the form of his masterpiece to Greek literature. Art is as continuous as life.
This does not mean that he lacks originality. It was a daring stroke—body-snatching in 1914. To produce a work like Spoon River Anthology required years of accumulated experience; a mordant power of analysis; a gift of shrewd speech, a command of hard words that will cut like a diamond; a mental vigour analogous to, though naturally not so powerful, as that displayed by Browning in The Ring and the Book. It is still a debatable proposition whether or not this is high-class poetry; but it is mixed with brains. Imagine the range of knowledge and power necessary to create two hundred and forty-six distinct characters, with a revealing epitaph for each one! The miracle of personal identity has always seemed to me perhaps the greatest miracle among all those that make up the universe; but to take up a pen and clearly display the marks that separate one individual from the mass, and repeat the feat nearly two hundred and fifty times, this needs creative genius.
The task that confronted Mr. Masters was this: to exhibit a long list of individuals with sufficient basal similarity for each one to be unmistakably human, and then to show the particular traits that distinguish each man and woman from the others, giving each a right to a name instead of a number. For instinctively we are all alike; it is the Way in which we manage our instincts that shows divergence; just as men and women are alike in possessing fingers, whereas no two finger-prints are ever the same.
Mr. Masters has the double power of irony and sarcasm. The irony of life gives the tone to the whole book; particular phases of life like religious hypocrisy and political trimming are treated with vitriolic scorn. The following selection exhibits as well as any the author’s poetic power of making pictures, together with the grinning irony of fate.
I winged my bird,
Though he flew toward the setting sun;
But just as the shot rang out, he soared
Up and up through the splinters of golden light,
Till he turned right over, feathers ruffled,
With some of the down of him floating near,
And fell like a plummet into the grass.
I tramped about, parting the tangles,
Till I saw a splash of blood on a stump,
And the quail lying close to the rotten roots.
I reached my hand, but saw no brier,
But something pricked and stunned and numbed it.
And then, in a second, I spied the rattler—
The shutters wide in his yellow eyes,
The head of him arched, sunk back in the rings of him,
A circle of filth, the color of ashes,
Or oak leaves bleached under layers of leaves,
I stood like a stone as he shrank and uncoiled
And started to crawl beneath the stump,
When I fell limp in the grass.
This poem, with its unforgettable pictures and its terrible climax, can stand easily enough by itself; it needs no interpretation; and yet, if we like, the rattler may be taken as a symbol—a symbol of the generation of vipers of which the population of Spoon River is mainly composed.
In the Anthology, the driving motive is an almost perverted passion for truth. Conventional epitaphs are marked by two characteristics; artistically, when in verse, they are the worst specimens of poetry known to man; even good poets seldom write good epitaphs, and among all the sins against art perpetrated by the uninspired, the most flagrant are found here; to a bad poet, for some reason or other, the temptation to write them is irresistible. In many small communities, one has to get up very early in the morning to die before the village laureate has his poem prepared. This depth of artistic infamy is equalled only by the low percentage of truth; so if one wishes to discover literary illustrations where falsehood is united with crudity, epitaphs would be the field of literature toward which one would instinctively turn.
Like Jonathan Swift, Mr. Masters is consumed with hatred for insincerity in art and insincerity in life; in the laudable desire to force the truth upon his readers, he emphasizes the ugly, the brutal, the treacherous elements which exist, not only in Spoon River, but in every man born of woman. The result, viewed calmly, is that we have an impressive collection of vices—which, although inspired by a sincerity fundamentally noble—is as far from being a truthful picture of the village as a conventional panegyric. The ordinary photographer, who irons out the warts and the wrinkles, gives his subject a smooth lying mask instead of a face; but a photograph that should make the defects more prominent than the eyes, nose, and mouth would not be a portrait.
A large part of a lawyer’s business is analysis; and the analytical power displayed by Mr. Masters is nothing less than remarkable. Each character in Spoon River is subjected to a remorseless autopsy, in which the various vicious elements existing in all men and women are laid bare. But the business of the artist, after preparatory and necessary analysing, is really synthesis. It is to make a complete artistic whole; to produce some form of art.
This is why the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray, is so superior as a poem to Spoon River Anthology. The rich were buried in the church; the poor in the yard; we are therefore given the short and simple annals of the poor. The curious thing is that these humble, rustic, unlettered folk were presented to the world sympathetically by a man who was almost an intellectual snob. One of the most exact scholars of his day, one of the most fastidious of mortals, one of the shyest men that ever lived, a born mental aristocrat, his literary genius enabled him to write an immortal masterpiece, not about the Cambridge hierarchy, but about illiterate tillers of the soil. The Elegy is the genius of synthesis; without submitting each man in the ground to a ruthless cross-examination, Gray managed to express in impeccable beauty of language the common thoughts and feelings that have ever animated the human soul. His poem will live as long as any book, because it is fundamentally true.
I therefore regard Spoon River Anthology not as a brilliant revelation of human nature, but as a masterpiece of cynicism. It took a genius to write the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels; but after all, Yahoos are not men and women, and horses are not superior to humanity. The reason why, in reading the Anthology, we experience the constant pricking of recognition is because we recognize the baser elements in these characters, not only in other persons, but in ourselves. The reason why the Yahoos fill us with such terror is because they are true incarnations of our worst instincts. There, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
The chief element in the creative work of Mr. Masters being the power of analysis, he is at his best in this collection of short poems. When he attempts a longer flight, his limitations appear. It is distinctly unfortunate that The Spooniad and The Epilogue were added at the end of this wonderful Rogues’ Gallery. They are witless.
Even the greatest cynic has his ideal side. It is the figure of Abraham Lincoln that arouses all the romanticism of our poet, as was the case with Walt Whitman, who, to be sure, was no cynic at all. The short poem Anne Rutledge is one of the few that strictly conform to the etymological meaning of the title of the book; for “Anthology” is a union of two Greek words, signifying a collection of flowers.
Like Browning, Mr. Masters forsook the drama for the dramatic monologue. His best work is in this form, where he takes one person and permits him to reveal himself either in a soliloquy or in a conversation. And it must be confessed that the monologues spoken by contemporaries or by those Americans who talk from the graveyard of Spoon River, are superior to the attempts at interpreting great historical figures[….]
Outside of the monologues and the epitaphs, the work of Mr. Masters is mainly unimpressive. Yet I admire his ambition to write on various subjects and in various metres. Occasionally he produces a short story in verse, characterized by dramatic power and by austere beauty of style. The poem Boyhood Friends, recently published in the Yale Review, and quite properly included by Mr. Braithwaite in his interesting and valuable Anthology for 1917, shows such a command of blank verse that I look for still finer things in the future. With all his twisted cynicism and perversities of expression, Mr. Masters is a true poet. He has achieved one sinister masterpiece, which has cleansed his bosom of much perilous Stuff. Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.
-From The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1918), by William Lyon Phelps, Lampson Professor of English Literature at Yale. The original text was slightly edited for publication here; changes are noted in brackets.