English and Journalism

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)

By Bill Knight

Residents of Lewistown, Ill., pronounce the name of the community Lewis’ TOWN, not Lewis’ TON. But social changes here weighed heavily on ex-newspaperman Edgar Lee Masters, who used Lewistown and nearby Petersburg to conjure his imaginary village of Spoon River, where conflicts were exposed from the grave.

Masters seemed to both love and hate this Fulton County village, according to the first new edition of Spoon River Anthology published since its original release in 1914. After moving to Lewistown with his family when he was 11, Masters eventually wrote sports and obituaries, reviews and news, and weddings and trials for the Lewistown News and the Fulton County Ledger.

“As with Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, Masters’ newspaper background provided a thrust toward the use of factual material in his literary works,” wrote author/editor John Hallwas in Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition (University of Illinois Press). “Without a doubt, the small-town newspaper, with its intimate account of ordinary people and its revelation of countless conflicts and interrelation, had an enormous influence on the poet.”

In 1936, Masters remembered, “As a boy I always hung around the print shop, fascinated by the presses and the smell of printer’s ink. I was only 15 then, and I hired out at a dollar a week. My job was to start fires, sweep out and run errands. Also, I was taught to set type. After a while, the old editor, Selah Wheadon, an ex-pastor, let me try my hand at writing a few items.”

Masters also sent election stories and human-interest pieces to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, and the Peoria Journal. He contributed items to the Quincy Herald, the Bushnell Democrat, and the Chicago Herald, and stories to Boston’s Waverly Magazine and the Peoria Saturday Evening Call. He became city editor for the Lewistown News and was a correspondent for the Fulton County Ledger.

The personalities of both Lewistown and Petersburg—where Masters and his family also lived—provided profound examples of conflict and contrast. Frequently regarded as pleasant, perhaps unique, package of poetry, the book’s personal and political observations about rural Illinois, an ideal America and individual people came to be forgotten in the decades following its release in 1914-15. But Hallwas’s illustrated work, a splendid portrait of Masters and his mindset, offered new appreciation for what’s been called “Illinois’ classic of classics.”

Consisting of monologues spoken by the dead in a prairie cemetery, Spoon River Anthology was received as innovative and influential, ambitious and even shocking. The anthology “is a depiction of the struggle for self-realization in a society that has lost contact with the great democratic vision that once gave purpose and meaning to American lives,” wrote Hallwas, whose compelling, 80-page introduction notes that Masters sought to help restore the American democratic ideal and show the nation’s cultural decline.

Masters saw the Midwest of his youth in terms of a clash between traditional settlers from the South and modernists from the East. In 1927, Masters himself explained that “these two hostile and never-to-be-reconciled kinds of human nature fought each other at every point and all the time.”

Petersburg changed for the worse because Yankee modernizers advocated social improvement at the expense of individual freedoms, Masters believed, while more agrarian settlers there and in Lewistown opposed change and supported personal freedom, whether the “right” to own slaves or to drink whiskey.

Also embodied in the clash between Abraham Lincoln (a Yankee reformer) and Stephen A. Douglas (an Andrew Jackson conservative), the fight persisted and festered here, felt Masters, who saw “most Americans as frustrated, alienated citizens of a degenerated republic,” Hallwas wrote.

At least Masters’ newspapering permitted him to observe and at least vicariously experience worldly matters, from society news to scandals. And it may have contributed to Masters being considered “a chronic dissenter,” as one Peoria newspaper columnist wrote. In fact, at a 1918 lecture commenting on his acclaimed anthology, Masters’ reflection on the characters sounds like a journalist.

“They were largely true characterizations of real persons and could not be accurate if any different,” Masters said.

It’s from this background that Masters drew the anthology’s 243 characters. Many were based on area people, and this volume also reveals the identities of the real-life residents who Masters recalled in fictional epitaphs. “Anne Rutledge,” the collection’s most familiar single entry, is based on Lincoln’s legendary romance of his youth in New Salem. But readers for almost 80 years have wondered about other sources of inspiration. Hallwas—a Western Illinois University English professor—outlined his research’s findings.

Like a masterful murder mystery, Hallwas’s own writing showed clues and glued them together into facts. For example, the sweetheart of Masters’ own youth, Margaret George, is remembered fondly (“Julia Miller” and “Francis Turner”) and the Masters’ family enemy William Taylor Davidson—who eventually married Ms. George—is scorned (“Deacon Taylor” and “Editor Whedon”).

“Hamlet Micure” recalls Masters’ 5-year-old brother Alex’ death from diphtheria when Masters was only 10. When the future poet was 11, his best friend, George Mitchell Miller, was killed trying to jump onto a moving train, an event remembered in “Johnnie Sayre.”

Lewistown News editor Lewis C. “Lute” Breeden, for whom Masters worked for four years after high school, was a hero. As such, Breeden’s “commitment to democratic ideals, outspoken opposition to repressive forces, and leadership in journalism and politics are reflected in ‘John Cabanis,’ ‘Carl Hamblin,’ ‘Enoch Dunlap,’ and three others,” Hallwas wrote.

Other, more notable, figures return, such as Illinois’ reform governor John Peter Altgeld (“Herman Altman”) and writer Theodore Dreiser (“Theodore the Poet”).

Masters himself in 1892 became an attorney, despite little formal education (his father cut short his stay at Knox College in Galesburg, according to Herbert Russell’s Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography (University of Illinois Press). Practicing in Chicago, Masters became a law partner of Clarence Darrow for eight years, when the two had a productive, if abrasive, relationship.

But he had moved to Chicago to pursue a newspaper career.

A version of this first appeared in Knight’s 1992 book R.F.D.

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