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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Masters 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.

The 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.

Masters 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.”

Ronald Primeau
Central Michigan University

In the Heath Anthology
from Lichee Nuts
      Ascetics and Drunkards (1930)
      Great Audiences and Great Poets (1930)
from Spoon River Anthology
      Lucinda Matlock (1915)
      Petit, the Poet (1915)
      Seth Compton (1915)
      The Village Atheist (1915)
from The Harmony of Deeper Music:
      Not to See Sandridge Again (1936)
from The New Spoon River
      Cleanthus Trilling (1924)

Other Works
Songs and Satires (1916)
Toward the Gulf (1918)
Domesday Book (1920)
The Open Sea (1921)
The Fate of the Jury (1929)
The Serpent in the Wilderness (1933)
Across Spoon River (1936)
Poems of People (1936)
More People (1939)
Illinois Poems (1941)
Along the Illinois (1942)
The Sangamon (1942)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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