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Edgar Lee Masters: epitaph voices

A portrait of small-town rural America

Image by Anna-Louise/Pexels
  • Alfred Moir
  • Why was I not devoured by self-contempt, 
  • And rotted down by indifference 
  • And impotent revolt like Indignation Jones? 
  • Why, with all of my errant steps 
  • Did I miss the fate of Willard Fluke? 
  • And why, though I stood at Burchard’s bar, 
  • As a sort of decoy for the house to the boys 
  • To buy the drinks, did the curse of drink 
  • Fall on me like rain that runs off, 
  • Leaving the soul of me dry and clean? 
  • And why did I never kill a man 
  • Like Jack McGuire? 
  • But instead I mounted a little in life, 
  • And I owe it all to a book I read. 
  • But why did I go to Mason City, 
  • Where I chanced to see the book in a window, 
  • With its garish cover luring my eye? 
  • And why did my soul respond to the book, 
  • As I read it over and over?
  • “Indignation” Jones
  • You would not believe, would you,
  • That I came from good Welsh stock? 
  • That I was purer blooded than the white trash here? 
  • And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders 
  • And Virginians of Spoon River? 
  • You would not believe that I had been to school 
  • And read some books.
  • You saw me only as a run-down man,
  • With matted hair and beard
  • And ragged clothes. 
  • Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
  • From being bruised and continually bruised, 
  • And swells into a purplish mass,
  • Like growths on stalks of corn. 
  • Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
  • Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow, 
  • With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter, 
  • Whom you tormented and drove to death.
  • So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days 
  • Of my life. 
  • No more you hear my footsteps in the morning, 
  • Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
  • Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal 
  • And a nickel’s worth of bacon.
  • Willard Fluke
  • My wife lost her health,
  • And dwindled until she weighed scarce ninety pounds. 
  • Then that woman, whom the men 
  • Styled Cleopatra, came along. 
  • And we—we married ones
  • All broke our vows, myself among the rest.
  • Years passed and one by one 
  • Death claimed them all in some hideous form, 
  • And I was borne along by dreams 
  • Of God’s particular grace for me,
  • And I began to write, write, write, reams on reams
  • Of the second coming of Christ.
  • Then Christ came to me and said, 
  • “Go into the church and stand before the congregation 
  • And confess your sin.”
  • But just as I stood up and began to speak
  • I saw my little girl, who was sitting in the front seat—
  • My little girl who was born blind! 
  • After that, all is blackness!
Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) was an American poet, novelist, biographer and playwright, best known for his 1915 volume of verse, Spoon River Anthology, a series of dramatic monologues spoken by “residents” of a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (named for the river that flows through that region of the state). The 244 poems in the book featured characters providing their own epitaphs – each revealing details of their lives and their manner of death. Many of the poems also included cross-references to other characters in the book, thereby creating a portrait of the Spoon River community as a whole. The poems were based on his childhood experiences in Western Illinois and first appeared in serial form in a St. Louis publication. Masters, who was a lawyer by trade, sought to present a realistic portrait of small-town rural America through the poems. In 1924, he published The New Spoon River, a sequel to Spoon River Anthology, in which the eponymous town has become urbanized and transformed into a suburb of Chicago. Despite published many other volumes of verse, as well as numerous novels and biographies, Masters never enjoyed the same level of literary success he found with Spoon River Anthology.

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  • Alfred Moir
  • Why was I not devoured by self-contempt, 
  • And rotted down by indifference 
  • And impotent revolt like Indignation Jones? 
  • Why, with all of my errant steps 
  • Did I miss the fate of Willard Fluke? 
  • And why, though I stood at Burchard’s bar, 
  • As a sort of decoy for the house to the boys 
  • To buy the drinks, did the curse of drink 
  • Fall on me like rain that runs off, 
  • Leaving the soul of me dry and clean? 
  • And why did I never kill a man 
  • Like Jack McGuire? 
  • But instead I mounted a little in life, 
  • And I owe it all to a book I read. 
  • But why did I go to Mason City, 
  • Where I chanced to see the book in a window, 
  • With its garish cover luring my eye? 
  • And why did my soul respond to the book, 
  • As I read it over and over?
  • “Indignation” Jones
  • You would not believe, would you,
  • That I came from good Welsh stock? 
  • That I was purer blooded than the white trash here? 
  • And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders 
  • And Virginians of Spoon River? 
  • You would not believe that I had been to school 
  • And read some books.
  • You saw me only as a run-down man,
  • With matted hair and beard
  • And ragged clothes. 
  • Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
  • From being bruised and continually bruised, 
  • And swells into a purplish mass,
  • Like growths on stalks of corn. 
  • Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
  • Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow, 
  • With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter, 
  • Whom you tormented and drove to death.
  • So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days 
  • Of my life. 
  • No more you hear my footsteps in the morning, 
  • Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
  • Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal 
  • And a nickel’s worth of bacon.
  • Willard Fluke
  • My wife lost her health,
  • And dwindled until she weighed scarce ninety pounds. 
  • Then that woman, whom the men 
  • Styled Cleopatra, came along. 
  • And we—we married ones
  • All broke our vows, myself among the rest.
  • Years passed and one by one 
  • Death claimed them all in some hideous form, 
  • And I was borne along by dreams 
  • Of God’s particular grace for me,
  • And I began to write, write, write, reams on reams
  • Of the second coming of Christ.
  • Then Christ came to me and said, 
  • “Go into the church and stand before the congregation 
  • And confess your sin.”
  • But just as I stood up and began to speak
  • I saw my little girl, who was sitting in the front seat—
  • My little girl who was born blind! 
  • After that, all is blackness!
Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) was an American poet, novelist, biographer and playwright, best known for his 1915 volume of verse, Spoon River Anthology, a series of dramatic monologues spoken by “residents” of a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois (named for the river that flows through that region of the state). The 244 poems in the book featured characters providing their own epitaphs – each revealing details of their lives and their manner of death. Many of the poems also included cross-references to other characters in the book, thereby creating a portrait of the Spoon River community as a whole. The poems were based on his childhood experiences in Western Illinois and first appeared in serial form in a St. Louis publication. Masters, who was a lawyer by trade, sought to present a realistic portrait of small-town rural America through the poems. In 1924, he published The New Spoon River, a sequel to Spoon River Anthology, in which the eponymous town has become urbanized and transformed into a suburb of Chicago. Despite published many other volumes of verse, as well as numerous novels and biographies, Masters never enjoyed the same level of literary success he found with Spoon River Anthology.

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