Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)
Contributing Editor: Ronald Primeau
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Some students expect--even demand--that poetry be very "difficult" to be deemed worthwhile. When Masters is relatively simple in form and message, that throws them. To address this issue, talk about popular arts, the oral tradition, the enormous popularity of Spoon River, and the fact that all poetry need not be academic.
Masters provides a good chance to talk with students about what they think poetry is or ought to be and how the literary establishment can or cannot control popular opinion. Use some multimedia presentations, reading out loud. Bring in some actors from university theater.
Students are interested in events from the poet's life and factors that led him to write this kind of poetry. They wonder how any book of poems could have been that popular. No TV back then, they suspect.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Consider what it means to live in small-town America, how it is attractive to try to sum up a lifetime on a gravestone, the importance of peer pressure and what others think. Think about Masters's life as a lawyer and how that affected his poetry.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
It is important to discuss basic elements of form and meter in order to see how Masters alluded to, and modified, existing conventions. It is crucial to see that he was outside developing critical norms and how that has clearly limited his inclusion in the critical canons.
Spoon River reached a mass audience when it was written and still sells better than most poetry. Today, however, the audience is largely academic and concerns are more in the direction of scholarship and how to teach the works rather than popularity and whether they speak to an age. Discuss with students questions of popular taste and the split between mass art and high art.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare with Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Perhaps even show a video if there's time. There are recordings of Spoon River --and a musical. Read Masters alongside Whitman. Talk about how he hid copies of Shelley and Goethe behind law books when people thought he was supposed to be working.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Who are these speakers?
(b) To whom are they speaking?
(c) What is our role as readers?
(d) What have you underlined or written in the margin and why?
(e) Which of these characters would you like to know better and why? What was Spoon River like as a place?
2. (a) Discuss the conflicts between standards for "high" art and "mass" art. Who sets criteria and how?
(b) Compose your own gravestone biography and message to the world--à la Spoon River.
(c) Write a portrait of your home town--à la Spoon River.
Flanagan, John T. The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974. A very useful reference guide.
Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas, 1981. Re-evaluates Master's place in the American tradition; see Chapters 1-2 for useful background on Masters.