Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Melrose Park, Montgomery County
Author of the pivotal book of poetry, Spoon River Anthology, Masters' career began as a lawyer in Chicago. He died in Melrose Park in 1950.
The famous American poet Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868 in Kansas. He spent most of his adult life practicing law before channeling his energy into writing full time in 1924. Spending his childhood in the west inspired his most famous work, Spoon River Anthology. The verses were epitaphs from the Spoon River cemetery and the collection was quickly named an American masterpiece. Masters died on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.
Born on August 23, 1868 in Garnett, Kansas, writer Edgar Lee Masters was the son of the town lawyer, Hardin Wallace Masters, and Emma Jerusha Dexter Masters. He was raised in Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, towns that were later featured in his most famous work, The Spoon River Anthology. Growing up, Hardin Masters discouraged his son from writing, despite his son’s dream of achieving greatness in the field of literature. Young Edgar Masters continued to write throughout his childhood.
After high school, Masters attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois from 1889 to 1890. During his time in school, he wrote A Book of Verses, a collection of simple and conventional poems about love, other poets, and the changing of the seasons. He attended Knox College for only one term before dropping out and accepting a job as a schoolteacher. Masters decided to return to Lewistown to pursue law and to appease his father. He read law in his father’s office for a year after college and then spent a year in partnership with him.
To escape small town life, Masters left for Chicago, Illinois, in 1892. During his initial years in Chicago, Masters found alternate work as a bill collector before deciding to return to law. In 1898, he and Helen M. Jenkins married. The couple had three children: Hardin, Marcia, and Madeline. While in Chicago, he practiced law with Clarence Darrow, the man famous for his defense counsel in the 1925 Scopes Trial. Their partnership lasted from 1903 to 1911, before a falling out over the splitting of legal fees. Masters continued practicing law on his own. Also, by 1912 he had finished a book of political essays, seven plays, and four volumes of poetry. As with A Book of Verses, all of his early work was ignored until 1915.
In 1909, Masters read Epigrams from the Greek Anthology for the first time, as recommended to him by the editor of Reedy’s Mirror, a literary magazine in St. Louis. In May 1914, a discussion with his mother about old neighbors from Lewistown and Petersburg set the stage for his greatest work, Spoon River Anthology. Borrowing from the Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, Masters wrote the epitaphs for over 200 members of a small, Midwestern town called Spoon River. Masters’ second wife, who was an English professor at The Pennsylvania State University, is quoted in the school’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian, as saying these epitaphs were meant to “transcend life’s experiences, not be biographical.” The epitaphs were in free verse, an unpopular poetry form, and immortalized the great stories of the inhabitants of the small town.
Masters was still uncomfortable with announcing himself as a writer, so he published these epitaphs serially in Reedy’s Mirror under a pseudonym, Webster Ford. Spoon River Anthology was first published as a full collection under Masters’s real name in 1915. In his work, he conveyed his cynical view of Midwestern life and values, giving rise to the Chicago Renaissance. This was a group of similarly-minded writers, including Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Theodore Dreiser. The Chicago Renaissance was the first group of writers to challenge the commonly accepted notion that all talented writers hailed from the east coast. Masters was inspired by his first meeting with Theodore Dreiser in 1912, and the two became lifelong friends.
The Spoon River Anthology yielded, as Herbert K. Russell says in his biography of Masters, “a literary and social uproar unlike that of any other book of American poetry published before or after.” Masters utilized free verse, or verse libre, a style not widely used in the early twentieth century. In order to color the epitaphs, elicit material was not avoided. Masters detailed adultery, thievery, suicide, and sex. His poetry’s cutting edge qualities brought many negative reactions. As stated in his obituary in the New York Times, “The opposition called his work a travesty on poetry…a collection of sketches of doubtful morality, a hodge-podge of slander and a ‘mere cheap sensation which took hold only because of its striking form.’” A fellow poet, Amy Lowell, was offended by Masters’s depiction of America as well. She writes in her Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, “One wonders, if life in our little Western cities is as bad as this, why everyone does not commit suicide.”
But Masters developed great popularity as well. Poets such as Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound were impressed by Masters’s work. Ezra Pound rejoiced in the London Egoist: “At last America has discovered a poet...the American West has produced a poet…capable of dealing with life directly, without circumlocution, without resonant meaningless phrases. Ready to say what he has to say, and shut up when he has said it.” Many conventionalists argued that Spoon River Anthology was not really poetry, while dissenters pointed to the obvious rhythm and beat:
I went up and down the streets
Here and there by day and night,
Through all hours of the night caring for the poor
who where sick.
Do you know why?
My wife hated me, my son went to the dogs.
And I turned to the people and poured out my love
Sweet it was to see the crowds about the lawns on
the day of my funeral.
And hear them murmur their love and sorrow.
But oh, dear God, my soul trembled, scarcely able
To hold to the railing of new life
When I saw Em Stanton behind the oak tree
At the grace,
Hiding herself, and her grief!
Critics who called “Spoon River Anthology” a masterpiece argued that free verse was not only a legitimate form of poetry, but it was an appropriate form of poetry for the weighty themes of Spoon River Anthology. Like “Doc Hill”, the plainness and frankness of the form agreed with the honesty of the content. Herbert K. Russell explains in Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Had Masters used conventionally rhymed and metered verse, it would have added a melodious quality inconsistent with the somber truths spoken on the graveyard hill.” Also, the popularity of Spoon River Anthology might have also been a result of a transitioning, prewar America. Along with changes in politics, Americans were beginning to appreciate more progressive literary styles.
A few months after the initial publication of Spoon River Anthology, Masters contracted a serious case of pneumonia, brought on most likely by overwork. In 1909, he asked his wife Helen for a divorce after falling in love with the artist, Tennessee Mitchell. Hoping to calm Helen’s anger, he bought her a house in Chicago. His efforts were unsuccessful as she accepted the house, but not the divorce. Tennessee Mitchell married writer Sherwood Anderson instead. He soon became bitterly unhappy at home and at work. Business declined after his law reputation was damaged by literary publications and his prolonged absence. Masters encountered an important decision: to continue writing or to continue in law. He managed to produce more literary works while he continued in law. He wrote his first novel (Mitch Miller), a long politically charged narrative poem (Domesday Book), and five volumes of verses. Masters expected Domesday Book to be his greatest accomplishment, but critics considered it an inspired idea with poor execution. A significant amount of his writing published after Spoon River Anthology was labeled as politically subjective and dull.
Masters fell in love again in 1919 with Lillian Pampell Wilson. His wife, Helen, claimed that on March 1, 1919 Masters abandoned both her and the three children, leaving them no financial support. In court in 1923, Helen was granted a divorce, $2,000 of compensation for abandonment, and $300 a month in child support from Masters. His affair with Lillian had ended, and he lost money, house, family, and farm. Furthermore, the details of the ugly divorce were recorded in multiple newspapers, permanently ruining his reputation as a lawyer.
After the divorce, Masters’s dedication to the literary field was solidified as he turned to writing for financial stability. In an attempt to continue the success of the Spoon River Anthology, Masters produced a lesser sequel in 1924, called The New Spoon River. Soon after, he left Chicago for New York City, where he ended his career as a poet and began writing prose. Masters published biographies of American men, such as Abraham Lincoln and Vachel Lindsay. Most notably, his biography of Lincoln was considered to be harsh and offensive, as his intention was to counter any myths about the former president. Since he disagreed with Lincoln politically, those views were evident in his book. In a Time review, it is said that Masters depicts Lincoln as lazy and apathetic. The book was considered a controversial work. Oppositely, his biography of Lindsay received outstanding reception. Eda Lou Walton’s review in the Nation considers it “one of the most interesting and fantastic biographies in contemporary American literature.”
He then met Ellen Coyne, an English teacher from Kansas City, who was 31 years younger than Masters. They married on November 5, 1926, and lived together for four years with their son, Hilary, before Ellen’s teaching duties often kept her away. While they were separated, Masters lived at Hotel Chelsea in New York, where many artists congregated. His relationship with Ellen ended in 1937 when she discovered Masters’s affair with a woman named Alice Davis. It was during his time in New York that he wrote his autobiography, Across Spoon River (1936). The story ends in 1917, when he was a successful lawyer and Spoon River Anthology was still granting him praise. His account of his life is somewhat misleading because he was reluctant to use real names, and parts of his life were entirely omitted. Masters claimed that the second half was in progress, but it was never published. Consequently, much about his later years is unknown.
From the age of seventy until his death, Masters continued to write. He published a biography of Mark Twain in 1938, edited a collection of Emerson called The Living Thoughts of Emerson in 1940, and wrote a history of the Sangamon River in 1942. He faced malnutrition and pneumonia in 1943. The Poetry Society of America honored him with the Frost Medal in 1942 and the Shelley Memorial Award in 1943 to 1944; both awards were for his great work in poetry. The Shelley Memorial Award grants $3,500 to a poet living in America, based on their genius and need; the Frost Medal is given to a poet based on their lifetime achievement.
Masters’s health never improved and he spent his final, debilitated years in a nursing home in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. During this time, he asked for Ellen to come to him and the two reconciled. After that, she spent the following six years caring for him. Masters died on March 5, 1950, and was buried in a Petersburg, Illinois cemetery, one of the inspirations for his most famous work, Spoon River Anthology.
A Book of Verses. Chicago: Way & Williams, 1898.
Althea:A Play in Four Acts. Chicago: Rooks, 1907.
Spoon River Anthology. New York: MacMillan, 1915.
Mitch Miller. New York: Macmillan, 1920.
Domesday Book. New York: Macmillan, 1920.
The New Spoon River. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1924.
Jack Kelso:A Dramatic Poem. New York & London: Appleton, 1929.
Lincoln:The Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931.
Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. New York & London: Scribners, 1935.
Across Spoon River: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936.
Mark Twain: A Portrait. New York & London: Scribners, 1938.
More People. New York & London: Appleton-Century, 1939.
The Sangamon. New York & Toronto: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942.
“Divorce and $300 a Month Alimony, for Poet’s Wife Edgar Lee Masters, Illinois Bard Author of Spoon River.” Belleville News-Democrat. 22 Mar. 1922. 3.
Edgar Lee Masters Dies at Age of 81. New York Times. 6 Mar. 1950: 18.
Flanagan, John T. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and his Critics. Metuchen: The Scarecrow P, 1974.
“Lincolnoclast.” Time. 16 Feb. 1931.
Lowell, Amy. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1917. 130-200.
Miller, Mark. Poet's Art Set to Music. The Daily Collegian. 6 May 1977.
Russell, Herbert K. “Edgar Lee Masters.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 4: American Poets, 1880-1945, Third Series. Ed. Peter Quatermain. University of British Columbia: The Gale Group, 1987. 293-312.
Russell, Herbert K. Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001.