Edgar Lee Masters: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Who was Edgar Lee Masters? In this lesson, you will learn about the biography and poems of Edgar Lee Masters, including the highly acclaimed ''Spoon River Anthology.''

Early Life and Schooling

Edgar Lee Masters was born in the small town of Garrett, Kansas on August 23, 1868. Shortly after he was born, Masters' family moved from Kansas to Illinois, a place that would shape and influence Masters' poetry and writing for the rest of his life. Masters was a good student and loved writing, spending his time after school working for a local printing press. His father was a lawyer and not a monetary success. Financial problems were a constant problem in the Masters household as Edgar grew up.

Edgar Lee Masters wanted nothing more than to go to college after he graduated. His dream became a reality when he attended Knox College. Unfortunately, money problems forced him to drop out of school and study on his own. Because his father was a lawyer, young Edgar followed in his dad's footsteps and was able to become a lawyer himself, even though he didn't go to law school. Could you imagine something like that happening today?

Law Career and Writing

Once he became a lawyer, Edgar Lee Masters moved to Chicago where he published his first book A Book of Verses. Around this time he married his first wife, a woman named Helen Jenkins. In 1903, he began practicing law with famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, but Masters' passion for writing had never quite gone away. On the side he wrote poems and novels and short stories under the nom de plume, or pen name, Dexter Wallace. Most of his work wasn't published.

After about eight years of working with Clarence Darrow, Masters' personal life was a mess. He fought with Darrow and cheated on his wife. He decided to branch out and start his own law firm. He kept up his writing as well. In 1914 and 1915, Masters got his big break as a writer with a book of poems called the Spoon River Anthology. Unfortunately for Masters, none of his other books were as successful. In 1923, he divorced his wife Helen and three years later remarried a woman named Ellen Coyne. He abandoned his law firm in Chicago and moved to New York City to be a full-time writer. Masters died at the age of 82 in Philadelphia.

Edgar Lee Masters
Edgar Lee Masters

Spoon River Anthology

Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology was like the 'Hunger Games' or 'Harry Potter' of its time. The people LOVED it. Not only did the people LOVE it, but so did the famous literati, or profound writers and scholars of the time. Great poets like Ezra Pound spoke highly of Spoon River Anthology. Masters' poems were originally published as a series under the nom de plume 'Webster Ford' in a magazine called Reedy's Mirror. Masters made an important connection with a woman named Harriet Monroe who helped him publish his poems as a single book. Spoon River Anthology was inspired by Masters' childhood in Illinois, but it wasn't written from his perspective. Instead, Masters' poems were written from the perspective of dead people buried in an Illinois graveyard. The American public was obsessed with his strange slant on small-town America and Mid-Western values.

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