So, many of you out there may be wondering, what is Spoon River Anthology? It was a collection of poems, published in 1915 and all written by a poet named Edgar Lee Masters. It took the form of a series of poetic monologues, each spoken by a different resident of the mythical town of Spoon River, Illinois. The twist is that all the characters in this collection are deceased. So they are speaking to us from beyond the grave, as it were, and talking about their own lives, the events they witnessed and participated in, the joys and misfortunes that befell them, and the things they discovered about life, about themselves, and about their community. Although Spoon River was a fictional construct, the town and many of its characters were based closely on people the poet knew or knew of growing up in Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois in the 1880s and 1890s. There is an actual river in that area of Illinois called the Spoon river, and many of the neighboring towns are mentioned in the poems.
The collection opens with a Prologue, where the poet wanders through the town's graveyard, asking:
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,The poems that follow run the gamut, by turns wistful, nostalgic, regretful, sardonic, spiritual, earthy, or comic. They detail just about every facet of human experience imaginable, speaking eloquently but without affectation about love, loss, hope, disappointment, sex, politics, religion, and the quest for self-fulfillment. Masters was equally critical of the narrow-mindedness of small-town culture and of the soullessness and corruption of the increasing industrialization and urbanization of America. There are poems where Masters ridiculed the hypocrisy and backwardness of American social and spiritual mores ('Mrs. Charles Bliss', 'Rev. Lemuel Wiley' 'Sarah Brown', 'Deacon Taylor'), raged against the evils of war and militarism ('Harry Wilmans', 'Knowlt Hoheimer') and revealed the devastation wrought by the avarice and unscrupulousness of the industrial/financial sector ('Mrs. George Reece', 'Eugene Carman' 'John M, Church'). Any of this sound familiar to some of the events of the past 5 and 10 years?
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?
All, all are sleeping on the hill...
In the face of such evils, however, Masters created characters who managed to find peace, love and joy through it all, by opening mind and heart to the beauty of the world around them, to the freedom of the soul and the heart, to artistic and spiritual expression, to a primeval connection with the natural world, and a self-reliance and independence of spirit that Masters traced back to a Jeffersonian ideal of American character and to the example of pioneer ancestors. the ultimate philosophy and optimism of the Anthology is perhaps best expressed by 'Lucinda Matlock', which Masters based on his own grandmother, and the final line of which Thornton Wilder quoted in his seminal play 'Our Town' :
I WENT to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house,
I nursed the sick, I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed--
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you--
It takes life to love Life.