It’s ironic that Spoon River Anthology — perhaps the most famous book about an American small town and one that has helped shape the way Americans think about small towns and similar communities — was written by a Chicagoan, Edgar Lee Masters.
And not just a Chicagoan, but the one-time law partner of that world-famous, large-ego, iconoclastic “attorney for the damned,” Clarence Darrow.
Masters and Darrow worked together in the same Chicago office for five years until they soured on each other as partners and as people to the point that neither man mentioned the other by name in his memoirs. Also in that office was another famous Chicagoan, John Peter Altgeld, the former Illinois Governor who had pardoned three Haymarket bombing defendants.
Three Chicagoans, three big-city celebrities — yet each from a small town.
Altgeld was born in the tiny German hamlet of Selters. Darrow grew up in unincorporated communities in northwestern Ohio and was known as “a sophisticated country lawyer.” Masters spent his youth in the villages of Petersburg and Lewistown in west central Illinois.
Masters became famous in 1915 when Spoon River Anthology was published and was immediately a bestseller. And so it has remained for more than a century.
It’s been a staple of high school and college literature classes for its story-telling, accessible free verse — poems in which 212 individuals in the fictional Spoon River, now buried in the town cemetery, look back at their lives from the grave, recollections uncensored by the need of the living to keep up a front, to protect a reputation.
“Arrived — and left”
There is, writes historian Jason Stacy in Spoon River America: Edgar Lee Masters and the Myth of the American Small Town, “a seeming psychological acuteness” to the poems, “characters who existed in a distant America nevertheless suffered fortune’s slings and arrows in a way familiar to modern readers.”
Stacy notes that “Spoon River’s ghosts” — the people and the stories of the poems — offer “the impression that even in America’s distant past, people were like you and me.”
Yet, the literary “acuteness” of Masters in the anthology was something he never replicated, despite producing four dozen of other books. As literary critic Louis Untermeyer observed, “With Spoon River Anthology, Masters arrived — and left.”
He was, in other words, a one-hit wonder. But what a hit! Not only as literature, but also as a work that has strongly influenced the way Americans think about themselves and the country’s roots.
“These men did not babble of glory”
During the nation’s first decades, huge municipalities, such as New York City, mushroomed in a startling and rapid manner, and this led to a wistfulness among many Americans for the more human-scale villages that most people came from, even those who moved to cities. Stacy writes that this led to the first phase of the myth about the American small town:
“In this first myth, a romantic sensibility, coupled with an ambivalence about the economic and social changes wrought by the early phases of the Industrial Revolution, fostered a nostalgic vision of life in the countryside where small communities served as repositories of unaffected, unchanging American ways.
“While cities fostered affectation, pretense, chaos, and vice, the countryside preserved essential truths about nature and the founding of the republic.”
An example of this is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1835 speech honoring the 200th anniversary of the founding of Concord, Massachusetts, a town like many others where, as he saw it, inhabitants were naturally moral and lived an orderly civic existence. Indeed, he said that, during the Revolution, “Those poor farmers who came up….to defend their native soil, acted from the simplest instincts. They did not know it was a deed of fame they were doing. These men did not babble of glory.”
That, in essence, is the image that Emerson and countless others promoted — small town people, simple and moral, not vainglorious and chaotic like city residents. It’s also an image that Walt Disney promoted and further idealized with his Main Street U.S.A. section of Disneyland when it opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California. “A trip to Main Street, U.S.S. was meant to be a homecoming,” writes Stacy, “where the default American town of the past was nineteenth-century and Midwestern.”
“Spasmodic, obscure, fragmentary, and failed lives”
Yet, between Emerson’s speech and Disney’s Main Street, a much different view of the American small town had arisen, one which saw the image as propagated by such people as Emerson and Disney as being simply that, an image. In this view — the second myth as Stacy describes it — “the small town became a place where a pleasant surface fostered a hypocritical underbelly.”
Spoon River Anthology, he writes, “is a voyeuristic work of titillating and tragic tales about a place that appeared quiet and staid on the surface” and a book that emphasizes “psychological, moral ambiguous themes” and is peopled by “the materialistic, hypocritical elite; soil-bound, exploited populist; and the skeptical community exile who understood the town from an insider-outsider perspective.”
Indeed, the anthology, expressing an existential anxiety, is a highly pessimistic look at human life, sharply contrasting with the orderly and moral existence that Emerson saw in Concord. Stacy notes:
“Since Masters’s dead speak authoritatively about the ultimate destination of the living, their spasmodic, obscure, fragmentary and failed lives left the reader with a deeply ambivalent sense of any underlying cosmic order.”
Consider, for instance, the plaint of A.D. Blood, the town moralist who spent his life working to close bars, prohibit card games and drag the loose-living Daisy Fraser into court “to purge the people of sin.” Now, though, he finds that “the milliner’s daughter Dora,/And the worthless son of Benjamin Painter,/Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow.”
“Not a cliché”
Masters wasn’t alone in finding rot behind the façade of the small town. Other works that have told a similar story include Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck as well as, later, such movies as Footloose. However, the success and profitability of Disney’s Main Street U.S.A. shows that the Emersonian ideal hasn’t disappeared.
Instead, for more than a century, these two myths of small town life have been engaged in a debate that is likely to continue, even as the arguments are adapted for settings beyond the small town, such as city neighborhoods or suburban subdivisions.
Masters may have had no second act to Spoon River Anthology, but the power of that one book can be measured in many ways. Perhaps the most intriguing is the use that Howard Decker, a high school teacher in Cicero, put it to in 1968, when he had his students write their own epitaphs, as if for a new anthology.
Stacy writes that “Decker’s students treated the process as an exercise in self-revelation; they ‘seemed to draw from within themselves — to reveal their secrets and emotions.’ ”
From Decker’s perspective, they used the form that Masters had created to say, “This represents me — not a cliché, not a phony front, but me!”
For a work praised by high literati, including Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, to reach across the decades to touch teenagers in a blue-collar suburb in such a direct and personal way says much about its power and significance.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared on 5.13.21 at Third Coast Review.