This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

August 6, 2001 — It was the one of the first books to take America by storm almost entirely for aesthetic reasons, and it was a book of poetry, to boot. Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology" completely dominated the American literary scene for years after its publication in 1915, in terms of sales, discussion, and influence.

Written in free verse and first person, with changing characters speaking in alternating bursts to describe their representative American town — the fictional Spoon River, Illinois — the style of the book was like nothing Americans had ever seen before, and led to a surprising furor in the popular press as to whether it was poetry or not, with indignant champions on both sides of the issue.

The blunt language and bitter views of the book's speakers, meanwhile, was also shocking, as was the fact that they spoke from beyond the grave — Masters called their monologues, in fact, "epitaphs."

All of which made "Spoon River" a huge bestseller and, as one literary historian put it, "the most read and talked–of volume of poetry that had ever been written in America."

"AT LAST!" wrote Ezra Pound, "America has discovered a poet." He went on to call Masters and another young midwesterner — T. S. Eliot — the best poets in the country.

It wasn't the only major accomplishment of Masters' life — he'd published several earlier books while maintaining a law practice in Chicago with his partner, Clarence Darrow. He even argued cases before the Supreme Court.

But the success of "Spoon River" let him quit lawyering, and put him in the literary empyrean where he became friends with renowned writers such as Theodore Dreiser and H.L. Menken.

So how come there have been no major biographies of Masters since his death in 1950?

"Because my mother always refused permission," Masters' son, novelist Hilary Masters, tells me. The lone child of what was the poet's second marriage (Edgar Lee Masters was 60 when Hilary was born) says even he had to beg his mother to let him quote letters from his father in his own 1982 memoir, "Last Stands."

He says despite the fact that his parents' marriage was strained — particularly due to his father's womanizing — his mother, Ellen, was "still very protective of his reputation. And clearly she was hurt by his fooling around with women. I think she had a kind of an Irish pride about that and didn't want it particularly known, at least while she was alive."

But by the time rights had passed down to Hilary, he says it was as if his father was "slowly disappearing."

"I just thought something had to be done," he says. "I mean, here was a man who, to be objective about it, was a leading American poet of the 20th century, and certainly affected contemporary poetry to a great degree — and still does. There are lots of foreign translations, and in the U.S., the book today still sells 14,000 copies a year."

So, Masters contacted Herbert Russell, an academic who had written several scholarly assessments of his father, and asked if he would be interested in writing a biography if given "carte blanche — all the papers, the letters, everything, whatever he wanted to look at."

Russell agreed, and thus began a ten–year effort that has resulted in the just-published "Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography" (University of Illinois Press, $39.95), the first–ever biography of the "Spoon River" author. It's an absorbing account, detailing Masters' inspiring rise from a hard–scrapple background to his tumultuous partnership with Darrow, on to the literary heights and back down in a sad decline — Masters could never match the success of "Spoon River" and spent his last years separated from his family, living in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel in near poverty.

"He wouldn't go back to the law," Hilary Masters explains. "He just hated it. He was determined to survive by his writing."

But how he wrote, Masters says, turned out to be one of the surprises awaiting him in Russell's book — Masters, who says one of his most vivid childhood memories of his father is watching him write at his desk in the Chelsea, now says he was "shocked" to learn that his father "didn't revise or edit anything he wrote. And of course, at that moment of his fame everybody would publish him, but as a result it would be in print and it would, you know, count against him because it was poorly written."

The book contains surprises of another variety, too, he says. "I never knew about the affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay," Masters notes with a laugh.

It's the sort of detail he says ultimately helps to humanize his father for him once again. "I've gotten so objective about him," he says. "You know, he died in 1950. I'd come to think of him like an old actor in a black and white movie that comes on the screen every now and then."

And of course, there's the fact that "My father's story is a sad one," Masters says, "but in some ways it's a great one — the story of this little farm boy, with almost no education, who comes into Chicago and after years of trying all kinds of things in terms of writing, suddenly comes up with this inspired piece of work. It might have been his only really big book, but, I mean, what a book."

For father and son both, it seems, "Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography" has arrived at the right moment. "It was time," says Hilary Masters. "It was time."

Last Week’s Column: MS. EUDORA WHEN LAST SEEN At a public reading, Eudora Welty quietly delivers the writing lesson of a lifetime.


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