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Spoon River Bard

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography, By Herbert K. Russell. University of Illinois Press. $39.95.

Turn to the Edgar Lee Masters entry in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (I happen to be looking at the 14th edition, published in 1968, the centennial anniversary of Masters’s birth), and you will find brief quotations from five poems that originally appeared in the poet’s most famous work, Spoon River Anthology (1915). Only one poem, “Anne Rutledge,” contributes two different quotations, the first consisting of two lines that open this famous twelve-line epitaph (“Out of me unworthy and unknown / The vibrations of deathless music”) and the second bearing the annunciation at the core of Rutledge’s posthumous monologue: “I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds, / Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln.” If I were editing the next edition of Bartlett’s and did not have to worry about space, I would include the following two lines as well: “Wedded to him, not through union, / But through separation.”

As it turns out, Masters’s own grave—he died in 1950 at the age of 81—lies a mere 40 paces from that of Ann Rutledge, to whose first name Masters added the e. On Rutledge’s large gravestone the Petersburg, Illinois, municipal authorities had all 12 lines of Masters’s epitaph inscribed in 1921. As Herbert K. Russell comments in his sympathetic, balanced, judicious, authoritative, and readable biography, “It is this poem that people were most likely to read during Masters’s lifetime, and it will no doubt remain popular.” Faced with one of the best-known poems from Masters’s most popular book, a 21st-century reader can appraise, whether on first reading or rereading, the achievement of his distinctive style and the qualities of his deathless music. Although Masters wrote plenty of verse in meter and rhyme, the poet of Spoon River made the American reading public aware of free verse as no 20th-century poet had yet managed to do. Like Whitman, whom he admired and about whom he wrote an unsuccessful biography published in 1937, Masters tended to honor the syntactic integrity of his lines, avoiding the disruptive enjambments William Carlos Williams would develop and leave to later writers as his legacy. One can still feel in the lines from “Anne Rutledge,” for example, the stately pacing of strong stresses, which give the verse much of its elegiac quality and distinguish it from the everyday colloquialness of Williams and others. One can also hear in the end words unknown-millions-nation-Lincoln-union-separation the faint threads of rhyme, which helps make this particular poem more sonorous and memorable.

Spoon River Anthology turned out to be an extraordinary success. In four years it sold 80,000 copies and, as Masters himself boasted, “broke the record in America for the sale of a book of verse.” In July 1917 Amy Lowell wrote the man who was then leading a double life as both Chicago lawyer and poet, “You must have the satisfaction of realizing that you have achieved immortality if anyone alive today has.” But here harsh irony intervenes, and Russell’s challenge as a biographer begins. Although he lived another 35 years beyond the first edition of Spoon River, and although he published 53 books in various genres during his lifetime, Masters became every writer’s worst nightmare, a one-success has-been. Russell’s last two sentences, which conclude a paragraph locating the genesis of his biography in the wishes of Hilary Masters, a son by the poet’s second wife, Ellen, encapsulate the brutal truth of Masters’s career: “In the end Masters was the victim of his one enduring achievement, Spoon River Anthology: no matter what he published after it, he could never produce a rival to it, and so each ensuing volume represented a decline. Spoon River Anthology made him famous, but it also contributed to some of the sadness in his life and is (to borrow from it) his “true epitaph, more lasting than stone.”

As though this summation were not sobering enough, the arc of decline did not end with Masters’s death in 1950. True, he appears in Bartlett’s Quotations, and, true again, major poetry anthologies still include a few of his poems, but in the academy very few people pay serious attention to Masters, whether in the courses they teach or the books they write. Reaction to what he dismissed as “the dilutation of vers libre, Amygism, Lee Masterism, general floppiness” motivated Ezra Pound’s return to rhyme and regular strophes in his 1920 poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly: Life and Contacts, and, fairly or unfairly, Masters’s experiments in Spoon River find themselves overshadowed in most accounts of first-generation modern American poetry by the achievements of E.A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, and others.

One could argue that Russell’s scrupulously researched biography offers us a chance to reevaluate Masters and to restore him to his rightful place in the modernist canon, but such an argument stands little chance of succeeding, and, quite wisely, Russell does not attempt to make it. Instead, he focuses his impressive powers as researcher, interpreter, and narrator on meeting the large challenge of interesting contemporary readers in the story of a man who peaked in his 49th year (Russell identifies early 1917 as “the high-water mark of Master’s dual careers as successful lawyer and man of letters”) and slid steadily downhill afterward. We come to appreciate the extent of this challenge when we learn of Masters’s own unsuccessful efforts to interest publishers in his autobiography: “His crisis now, in the fall of 1927, at age fifty-nine, was that nobody seemed interested in this remarkable story.” Seventy-five years later the question for both Russell and for us is, What should interest us in that story now?

Different readers will find different aspects of Masters’s story to interest them. Although he does not say so, one might suspect that Russell’s own interest in the story, along with the decision of the University of Illinois Press to publish it, reflects Masters’s Illinois connection (Russell is director for college relations at John A. Logan College, Carterville, Illinois) and status as literary native son. But the compelling features of Masters’s story transcend local pride. As Russell frames the narrative in his introduction, Masters’s life story achieves the distinction of tragedy: “The lacunae in Masters’s life have been literature’s loss, for his biography has all the ingredients of a good story, that of a boy from the country who, against great odds, dreams, struggles, and succeeds in his quest to be recognized as a world-class writer, only to be brought down by weaknesses inherent in his own being. Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians recognized this type of person and left dramas concerning figures who exemplified it; Masters left us with a portrait of the artist from the Midwest.” In framing his biography this way, Russell simply follows the lead of his subject, whose vision, he tells us, was “essentially tragic.” Against this backdrop one moment in the biography emerges as especially unsettling, even spooky, a moment when Masters has his palm read and, according to his first wife, Helen, hears from the palm-reader, “”You will come to a cross-roads and you will take the wrong path.”” According to Helen, “He was always disturbed by this.”

No wonder. But with all due respect to Masters, Russell, and aficionados of tragedy, can we escape the glaring differences between, on the one hand, King Oedipus, who in his rashness unknowingly killed his father at another crossroads, or King Lear, who in his rashness banishes his loyal daughter, and, on the other hand, Edgar Lee Masters, who ruined his own life and career because he chased too many women, wrote too quickly, and revised too little? I do not think so, although I admit the hideous fascination of the story of someone whose obsessions and vulnerabilities prove steadily self-destructive. In admitting this fascination, I hope I am not merely confessing to a kind of biographical rubbernecking, since my sense is that the power of Russell’s portrait of Masters’s life lies not in the fact that that life is distinguished from or ennobled above other lives by tragedy but that that life confirms its kinship with all other lives by showing us the complicated entanglements of freedom and limitation.

A better model than Greek or Shakespearean tragedy comes from Masters’s own hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson surfaces throughout Russell’s biography, appearing first in 1898, when Masters and his first wife visit Concord, Massachusetts, on their honeymoon; subsequently in 1908, when Masters makes a pilgrimage to his grave; and finally in 1940, when he edits a selection of Emerson’s work. At one point Russell shows Masters recalling, “”I bought Emerson’s essays for a few cents from a Boston publisher and read every one of them,”” and then adds this comment: “Like Masters, Emerson had rejected organized religion in favor of a higher humanism—of the Greeks, Thomas Jefferson, and Goethe—and discovered that an individual’s subjective truths can be as meaningful as those accepted by society at large.”

This is one description of Emerson, but it pertains mostly to the early essays of the 1830’s and early 1840’s, essays such as Nature, “The American Scholar,” “The Divinity School Address,” and “Self-Reliance.” If indeed Masters read every one of Emerson’s essays, then he also would have encountered the later, more skeptical Emerson of such essays as “Experience” (1844) and “Fate” (1860). It is in these essays that Emerson turns away from romantic or sentimental versions of tragedy in order to describe human life as a perpetual antagonism between individual power or freedom and fate or limitation. In “Experience,” for example, he describes temperament as “the iron wire on which the beads are strung” and proclaims, “Very mortifying is the reluctant experience that some unfriendly excess or imbecility neutralizes the promise of genius.” An unfriendly excess or imbecility is much different from, and much humbler than, hamartia, the tragic error Aristotle describes in his Poetics.

Aristotle argues that tragedy arises when, in the translation of S. H. Butcher, someone “not eminently good or just” comes upon misfortune “brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” In Masters’s case, we might prefer to avoid the judgment-laden terms “vice” and “depravity,” but we cannot chalk up his compulsive, lifelong womanizing to a single error of judgment. We can follow Russell’s sound, humane opinion that Masters “was cursed with the need to search all his life for the love his mother failed to give him and doomed not to recognize genuine love, since he had been deprived of it in the most fundamental stages of his existence,” and we can concur in his judgment that such a “fate” (Russell himself puts the word in quotation marks) “would ultimately play itself out in a life involving many women and many wanderings until, his physical energies exhausted, he would end old and alone.” But to follow and concur in these ways is not necessarily to assent to the description of Masters’s life as tragic. Sad, yes. Wounded, yes. Like many of our lives, perhaps. But one is more likely to come away from Russell’s revealing portrait shaking one’s head in he-brought-it-on-himself dismay than weeping the tears of genuine catharsis.


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