In 1916 Edgar Lee Masters, then forty-eight, published an expanded version of his collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology. Still in print, it consists of 244 short free verse poems, each standing as an epitaph for someone buried in the hillside cemetery of the fictional town of Spoon River. Nearly all the poems are in the first person and are addressed to the reader, who is given the role of visitor to the cemetery.
West of Peoria, Illinois, flows the real Spoon River, a tributary of the Illinois River. The eponymous town Masters imagined along it contained a wide variety of inhabitants, some more admirable than others. According to Masters, writing in The American Mercury of January, 1933, he arranged the poems to align with the Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “the fools, the drunkards, and the failures came first, the people of one-birth minds got second place, and the heroes and the enlightened spirits came last.”
The first person we meet is Hod Putt, convicted and hanged for murder. His grave is near that of a man who had become wealthy trading with Indians. Putt had “grown tired of toil and poverty” and so “robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,/Killing him unwittingly while doing so.” For that crime he was tried and executed.
Further on, we meet the Circuit Judge, no name given. He heard Putt’s case, although the judge says he reached all his verdicts by “deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,/Not on the right of the matter.” For such serial injustice, he now acknowledges that “even Hod Putt, the murderer,/Hanged by my sentence,/Was innocent in soul compared with me.”
Likewise unnamed is the Village Atheist, found near the end of our tour through the cemetery. He had been “talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments/Of the infidels.” Then he fell ill and “read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.” They “lighted a torch of hope and intuition” in him which not even the shadow of death could put out. His conclusion was that “immortality is an achievement” possessed only by “those who strive mightily.”
In contrast to the paradoxical atheist’s Pelagianism, six graves (or pages) away there lies Lydia Humphrey. She was a spinster who went back and forth to church, “with my Bible under my arm/Till I was gray and old.” Although she lived alone, she found “brothers and sisters in the congregation,/And children in the church.” She kept her dignity even though she was painfully aware that to them she was an eccentric and ridiculous figure: “I know they laughed and thought me queer.”
One of the last voices that we encounter from the grave is that of Jeremy Carlisle. He tells us, “Passer-by, sin beyond any sin/Is the sin of blindness of souls to other souls.” It was a sin long besetting him, and he confesses “a lofty scorn/And an acrid skepticism.” Gradually he came to see that “joy beyond any joy is the joy/Of having the good in you seen, and seeing the good/At the miraculous moment!” The faces and goodness of others grew clearer to him, until “We were ready then to walk together/And sing in chorus and chant the dawn/Of life that is wholly life.”
Someone who does not speak his own epitaph is Father Malloy, whose Christian name we are not told. “You are over there, Father Malloy,/Where holy ground is, and the cross marks every grave.” Separate from the hillside graves we have seen stands the small town’s Catholic cemetery. Unlike the tee-totaling Calvinists active, if not dominant, in the town, the Irish priest was “so human, . . . /Taking a friendly glass sometimes with us.” The core of this tribute needs to be quoted in full:
You were like a traveler who brings a little box of sand
From the wastes about the pyramids
And makes them real and Egypt real.
You were part of and related to a great past,
And yet you were so close to many of us.
Quietly exotic, his appeal to some of the Protestants of Spoon River came from his steady realism: “You faced life as it is,/And as it changes.”
In the 14 December, 1927, issue of The Commonweal (the definite article has since been dropped) Masters wrote about “Father Malloy.” Masters noted that in the midst of the daily conflict between “the prudent and the shiftless,” Father Malloy “kept his way in a high tranquility at the parish house at the edge of town” beside his church, which “had nothing to do with all this village turmoil.” Father Malloy’s forays into the town square were “to get his mail, or to attend to the errands of the day, or to visit with the men with whom Peter would have fished.” Then he left them to the arguments that seemed so important to them, went home, and “calmly celebrated the Mass.”
Primarily among the intelligentsia along the eastern seaboard, Spoon River Anthology at once won high praise. Editors sought permission to reprint poems from it, and the book became a staple in high school English classes. Students learnt that Masters based his anthology on an ancient text, The Greek Anthology, and probably more than one bespectacled boy walked across his own Spoon River sort of town to check out the older anthology from the public library.
Masters went on to write other poems, as well as essays and novels, but he knew he would be remembered only for his anthology, so he called his autobiography Across Spoon River (1936). Whenever Masters wrote about the real-life models for Spoon River’s cast of characters, he described several small Midwestern towns from his boyhood. He sketched their settlers as contrasting kinds of Protestant, conservatives from New England (such as his mother’s family) and liberals from Virginia (his father’s family).
He admitted that the former lot and “Tories everywhere” disliked Spoon River Anthology, and yet no less a champion of evangelical Protestantism than William Jennings Bryan, recalled Masters, “bestowed a wry smile of congratulation upon me, having read the book at the home of a Presbyterian preacher who was keeping it hidden from his children.” Masters left unsaid what Bryan thought of the description of the town’s Catholic priest, but Catholic priests and seminarians especially would do well to meditate upon Masters’ poetic portrait of Father Malloy.