Edgar Lee Masters' collection of modernist poems, 'The Spoon River Anthology', told the dark secrets of small-town life. Below, read two of the poems from 'The Spoon River Anthology' and follow as we analyze them.
Edgar Lee Masters and The Spoon River Anthology
Edgar Lee Masters was a modernist poet from the 20th century who wrote a famous group of over 200 poems called The Spoon River Anthology. These poems were told by fictional characters from the fictional town of Spoon River. They were told after the characters' deaths, and most of them reveal secrets or regrets that no one knew while they were alive.
Like many modernist poems, Masters' poems were written in free verse. That is, they do not have a specific rhyme and meter to them.
Edgar Lee Masters grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Back then, it was believed that all of the bad things of society - drugs, murder, and all sorts of other crimes - were only present in the big cities. Midwestern small towns were portrayed in literature with rosy tones: all the people were kind and civilized and they never did the kind of bad things that people from the cities did.
The truth, of course, was that the small towns were just as bad as big cities, and Edgar Lee Masters' experiences growing up showed him that the people around him weren't as good and perfect as they wanted to present themselves. Through the voices of his characters, Masters shows how the bad things associated with the big cities - lies and drugs and crime - were also present in small towns. The fact that he critiqued small town life was a huge deal back then, and opened the door for other modernist writers to do the same.
Let's look at two of the Spoon River poems and their significance.
One of the more shocking of Masters' poems is that of 'Amanda Barker'. Let's read the poem and then look at what it means.
Henry got me with child,
Knowing that I could not bring forth life
Without losing my own.
In my youth therefore I entered the portals of dust.
Traveler, it is believed in the village where I lived
That Henry loved me with a husband's love
But I proclaim from the dust
That he slew me to gratify his hatred.
Like the other poems in the anthology, this poem is named for its narrator, in this case, a woman named Amanda Barker. The second and third lines, '...I could not bring forth life/Without losing my own,' tell us that she died in childbirth. But that's not the interesting part. The really interesting part is that her husband, Henry, intentionally made her pregnant even though he knew that she would not survive childbirth!
She says that the townspeople all believe that her husband loved her like any husband, but she says that he 'slew' her - meaning that he murdered her - 'to gratify his hatred.' In other words, he got away with the perfect murder: if your wife has been told that she'll die in childbirth, get her pregnant, and when she dies, everyone will think that you were a loving husband instead of a murderer.
The poem brings up an important theme, and one that is common in the anthology: that you can't know the secrets of your neighbors. They might seem like good people, but they might not be. When this poem was published, it shocked readers because of the idea that the very people they knew might be harboring secrets like this one.
Let's look at another poem from The Spoon River Anthology. This one, 'Deacon Taylor', isn't about murder, but it too deals with the theme of secrets.
I belonged to the church,
And to the party of prohibition;
And the villagers thought I died of eating watermelon.
In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver,
For every noon for thirty years,
I slipped behind the prescription partition
In Trainor's drug store
And poured a generous drink
From the bottle marked 'Spiritus frumenti.'
First of all, you might be wondering what it was that he drank that killed him. 'Spiritus frumenti' is an old-fashioned name for whiskey. So, basically, old Deacon Taylor was an alcoholic, who secretly drank whiskey every day at lunchtime.
But why did he keep it a secret? We get one hint in the title of the poem: 'Deacon' wasn't his first name, but his position in the church. A deacon is a church leader who is not a preacher. Deacon Taylor, then, was a leader in his church. The second line also tells us that he was a member of 'the party of prohibition.' In other words, besides being an upstanding member of his church community, he was in favor of prohibition, which was the movement in the early 20th century to make alcohol an illegal drug. So, while he was preaching about how people should not be allowed to drink alcohol, he was secretly drinking every day!
The poem turns a light on the hypocrisy of Deacon Taylor and men like him. Many of Masters' characters are hypocrites who say one thing and do another, or judge the people in their town for doing the same things that they do in secret. You can imagine how readers from small towns felt about Masters implying that there were a lot of hypocrites living among them!
Edgar Lee Masters was a modernist poet whose most famous work was The Spoon River Anthology. In this collection of poems, through the voices of townspeople who have already died, Masters revealed that the Midwestern small towns were just as bad as the big cities. The poem 'Amanda Barker' explores one of Masters' favorite themes, that small town folks hide secrets from one another. Another theme that Masters liked to discuss was that of hypocrisy. His poem 'Deacon Taylor' shows that hypocrisy was common in small towns.
By the end of the video, you will be able to:
- Identify who Edgar Lee Masters is and how he fit into the modernist writing style
- Analyze two of the Spoon River poems: 'Amanda Barker' and 'Deacon Taylor'