Circumstances of how it came to me are forgotten now, but way back years ago at a time I was living in New York there was a record album in my home stack that got played on rare occasions. I was trying hard then to shed a thick southern accent and a part of that was taking ‘elocution’ classes at the well-known HB Studio on nearby Bank Street, where one of the names on this rarely played LP was teaching. Maybe the familiar name had something to do with my having the record. Regrettably, most of my friends groaned at the first sounds from this unusual Broadway cast recording of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, an adaptation that had a short run from September 1963 to January of ’64. Even now I can hear my friend Norman’s reaction at the first chords from that dark drama…“All is blackness!” which indeed were the words of one character in the play.
American poet, biographer, and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas in 1868. His family eventually moved to Illinois, settling in Lewistown. The people and society of Lewistown, including the town’s cemetery at Oak Hill, and the nearby Spoon River were inspirations for many of the writer’s works, most notably Spoon River Anthology. Masters wrote verse throughout his life, publishing collections from 1898 until 1942, but he is remembered chiefly for Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of interconnected poems about a fictional town in western Illinois. He began the poems about his childhood experiences in that small town, writing under the pseudonym Webster Ford. The series of poems first appeared in the literary journal Reedy’s Mirror, and in 1915 were bound into a volume and retitled Spoon River Anthology under the poet’s real name. Masters died in 1950.
I owe a debt to that old original cast recording of Spoon River Anthology, something that in those greenhorn days was to me little more than a novelty. But somehow or another a seed was planted and years later I remembered that scratchy old record with its wail of “All is blackness!” and bought for 25¢ a stained and wrinkled paperback copy of the poems. Each poem in the series is a spoken monologue, an epitaph of sorts, delivered by the deceased, with his or her peculiar observations of life, each revealing secrets long swollen by the pall of silence. With no reason to lie or fear of consequence, the stories paint a picture of small town life stripped of pretense. Below are a three excerpts from the complete series of 246 poems.
How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—
How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering weed?
At first I suspected something—
She acted so calm and absent-minded.
And one day I heard the back door shut,
As I entered the front, and I saw him slink
Back of the smokehouse into the lot,
And run across the field.
And I meant to kill him on sight.
But that day, walking near the Fourth Bridge,
Without a stick or a stone at hand,
All of a sudden I saw him standing,
Scared to death, holding his rabbits,
And all I could say was, “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t,”
As he aimed and fired at my heart.
They called me the weakling, the simpleton,
For my brothers were strong and beautiful,
While I, the last child of parents who had aged,
Inherited only their residue of power.
But they, my brothers, were eaten up
In the fury of the flesh, which I had not,
Through making names and riches for themselves.
Then I, the weak one, the simpleton,
Resting in a little corner of life,
Saw a vision, and through me many saw the vision,
Not knowing it was through me.
Thus a tree sprang
From me, a mustard seed.