| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Edgar Lee Masters
Edgar Lee Masters is best-known for his
internationally acclaimed Spoon River Anthology (1915), a book which prompted
Ezra Pound to conclude that “at last America has discovered a poet” and British
critic John Cowper Powys to call Masters “the natural child of Walt Whitman.”
The Spoon River graveyard epitaphs spoke not only to the heart of America but
to the anxieties and triumphs of humanity everywhere. Masters’s later works
have not received the critical acclaim they deserve. In spite of his popularity
with the public, his poetry and fiction have been slighted by many critics who
complain that he wrote too much too quickly.
was raised in Petersburg in western Illinois—an area he celebrated often in his
hymns to the eternal energy of the midwestern prairies. A lawyer by profession,
he admitted to having read Shelley and Browning on the side camouflaged by law
books in his office. His poetry was influenced by the tightness of the Greek
Anthology and the expanse of Beethoven. He felt “lifted and strengthened” by
Emerson; he was influenced by Whitman’s native genius, Browning’s dramatic
monologues, Goethe’s epic yearnings, Shelley’s liberating imagery. Masters was
also an astute critic of American culture.
variety of Masters’s writing is impressive. Over four decades he published
fiction and critical essays as well as an autobiography, Across Spoon River
(1936), critical biographies on Vachel Lindsay (1935), Whitman (1937), and Mark
Twain (1938), and a wide range of poetry. The New Spoon River (1924) captured
some of the nuances of the original and several volumes from Songs and Satires
(1916) to Along the Illinois (1942) featured short pieces. He paid tribute to
the accomplishments of natural heroes and ordinary folks in the lyrical ballads
of Toward the Gulf (1918) and The Open Sea (1921) and particularly in Poems of
People (1936) and More People (1939). He experimented with innovative verse
patterns and long narrative forms in Lichee Nuts (1930) and The Serpent in the
Wilderness (1933) and drew upon his legal expertise in the courtroom suspense
drama of Domesday Book (1920) and its sequel, The Fate of the Jury (1929).
Though he spent his later years in the East, Masters’s last volumes sang the
praises of his native Midwest—in Illinois Poems (1941), The Sangamon (1942),
and The Harmony of Deeper Music (1976), edited by Frank K. Robinson, published
after his death.
heeded Emerson’s warning that Americans had for too long listened to “the
courtly Muses of Europe.” He wrote about ordinary people and their everyday
experiences. He saw small-town USA as a microcosm of the universe and worked
the rhythms of daily experience into his poems. He felt that poets in his time
had largely avoided the challenges Whitman had issued to sing in the American idiom
and to develop an American mythos. At a time when it wasn’t popular to do so,
he called for “American poetry, plain as the prairies, level as the quiet sea.”
Central Michigan University
In the Heath Anthology
from Lichee Nuts
Ascetics and Drunkards
Great Audiences and Great Poets
from Spoon River Anthology
Petit, the Poet
The Village Atheist
from The Harmony of Deeper Music:
Not to See Sandridge Again
from The New Spoon River
Songs and Satires
Toward the Gulf
The Open Sea
The Fate of the Jury
The Serpent in the Wilderness
Across Spoon River
Poems of People
Along the Illinois
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Spoon River Anthology
Texts of The Hill and Nicholas Bindle from The Spoon River Anthology.
Anti-Imperialist Writings by Edgar Lee Masters
A brief essay by Jim Zwick with links to primary materials.
Books and Writers
A literary and biographical introduction to Masters.
Modern American Poetry
Many resources including a biography, some poetry texts and criticism on the Spoon River Anthology.
John T. Flanagan, Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics, 1974
Hardin W. Masters, Edgar Lee Masters: A Biographical Sketchbook About a Famous American Author, 1978
Ronald Primeau, Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters, 1981
John H. Wrenn, Edgar Lee Masters, 1983