New Poetry’s Dead Folk: Whiteness and Community in Spoon River Anthology
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
While its role in histories of American modernism has diminished, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915) was considered—by poets and critics like Ezra Pound, Harriet Monroe, and Louis Untermeyer—to be central to the development of the American new poetry in the late teens and early twenties. By tracing the metapoetic gestures of Spoon River's epitaphic sequence, this essay examines how the volume theorizes the new poetry as a genre defined by its racial community-making power. Masters's text constructs a pioneer poetics that links the new poetry to a renewal of whiteness while also troubling the generic and social stability of the white community it imagines. Spoon River Anthology should be a crucial text for a modernist poetry studies that has turned increasingly toward considerations of the new poetry's social and racial imaginaries and the influence those imaginaries exert on our own critical reading practices.
Keywords Edgar Lee Masters / Spoon River Anthology / poetry / modernism / race
In one of the epitaphs in Edgar Lee Masters’s wildly popular Spoon River Anthology (1915), a character named Petit the Poet (hereafter “Petit”) supplies a vision of the new poetry. Petit, like all of the characters in the volume, is dead and speaking from his grave in the cemetery of the fictive Spoon River, Illinois. Like the other speakers, he provides a more honest epitaph than the one on his headstone, and, along with many of Spoon River’s dead, he has regrets. He looks back on a life’s work characterized by “Faint iambics,” comparing them to “Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick” (173), and fixed forms, “Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, / Ballades” (173). Petit understands, all too late, that while he was busy with his “tick, tick, tick,” “Homer and Whitman roared in the pines” (173). The poem appears to function as a metapoetic site for the entire volume. Petit, a mere “poetaster” (154), as Amy Lowell later wrote of the character in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), represents Masters’s own disavowal of the more conventional verse he wrote prior to 1914, the year he began to publish the poems that would become Spoon River Anthology.
Throughout 1914 and early 1915, Masters published a series of epitaphs under the pseudonym Webster Ford in the St. Louis-based literary journal Reedy’s Mirror. In a nod to the Greek Anthology, the magazine’s editor, William Marion Reedy, labelled the clusters “garlands,” printing twenty-six of these groupings in total. The compilation of these garlands, published as Spoon River Anthology in April 1915, was a best-seller. Publisher’s Weekly declared it the outstanding book – “not only the outstanding book of poetry”– for the year (qtd. in Wrenn and Wrenn 58). The first edition of the volume consists of 214 free-verse epitaphs narrated by the deceased townspeople of Spoon River. The epitaphs are prefaced by an introductory poem, “The Hill,” and succeeded by the fragmentary mock epic “The Spooniad.” For the 1916 edition, Masters added more epitaphs and an epilogue in the form of a closet drama.1
Petit's epitaph maps onto a fairly familiar literary historical narrative: one in which American poetry in the 1910s breaks away from worn-out traditions, makes them new, and finds itself again for the first time.2 Petit’s “tick, tick, tick” recalls Frank Stewart Flint's claim made in Poetry (1913) that Imagists seek “to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (199). In this “tick, tick, tick,” Masters asks his readers to catch the Imagist critique of conventional nineteenth-century verse. Petit's confession that his own poetry rehashes “the same old thought: / The snows and roses of yesterday are vanished; / And what is love but a rose that fades?”(173) also disavows conventional Victorian versification through an allusion to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Ballade of Dead Ladies” (1870), a translation of François Villon’s “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (1450).3 In contrast, Whitmanian and Homeric influences reinvigorate poetry because they connect it with life “here in the village: / Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth” and with the “Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers” (173). This liberated verse appears to arise naturally from, and to authentically voice, the surrounding landscape and suggests a poetics rooted in everyday American life.
It was just this kind of poetics that led Ezra Pound, in a review of Spoon River Anthology published in The Egoist in 1915, to declare, “AT LAST! At last America has discovered a poet” (11). Joining Pound in his embrace of Masters was nearly every other architect of the polemic gathering force under the names of the American new poetry or new verse: Harriet Monroe, Alice Corbin Henderson, Amy Lowell, and Louis Untermeyer.4 The accolades, however, center a particular type of America, a particular type of verse, and a particular type of poet. The analysis here attempts to render visible a quality left latent by poet and critics alike: the centering of whiteness as crucial to this new national poetry. In Spoon River Anthology, Masters theorizes the new poetry as an emergent genre defined by its capacity to renew the creative power of whiteness and reinvent the bonds of racial and national community. Spoon River's epitaphic sequence develops a broader metapoetics that allows the volume to think not only about itself but also about the social function of the new poetry at a moment when the concept is coalescing.
The text theorizes this social function as what I term a white pioneer poetics. This poetics invests the figure of the mid-western pioneer with both the decay and the rebirth of American poetry and whiteness. In what follows, I trace how Spoon River links its imagined rejuvenation of poetry with a rejuvenation of whiteness. Epitaphs, which have long played a role in considerations of the sociality of verse genres, enact the volume’s metapoetic concerns with the future of a white national poetry. They allegorize a genre capable of organizing a new sociality, one that realizes the unfulfilled promise of a pioneer folk. This genre is imagined by, and not actualized within, the volume; it appears in poetic allegories and in proleptic gestures. At the same time, however, because the volume displays the processes of conceiving of an allegedly new poetry prior to its consolidation, it also tends to trouble the stability of this category. Some of the volume’s most powerful, and most socially and racially invested, epitaphs highlight the negative ground of the new poetry: its constitutive reliance on dead white folk. Finally, the volume’s excessive and multiple non-epitaphic conclusions undercut its poetic fantasies of generic and social coherence, exposing the fragility of its pioneer whiteness.
My argument builds on and complicates work in modern American poetry studies that has, as Walter Kalaidjian puts it, “opened onto a democratic conversation that recovers a hitherto forgotten diversity of poetic voices” (2). John Timberman Newcomb's work on the new poetry contributes to these more democratic conversations. Newcomb’s inclusion of a broader set of writers, discourses, publications, and cultural institutions in the new poetry troubles received accounts of modernism, challenges the valorization of certain canonical authors, and erodes the barriers between so-called high and popular modernist poetries.5
My return to Spoon River Anthology, a text now largely overlooked in modernist scholarship, draws on Newcomb’s framing to address the unmarked whiteness at Spoon River’s core. In other words, Newcomb and others perpetuate the new poetry's own narrative of its transformative break without examining the ideological inflections of this narrative; these accounts continue, in some sense, to take Petit the Poet at his word. Critics such as Michael Golston, Sharon Hamilton, and Erin Kappeler have complicated this broadly normalized account of the new poetry, and emphasized the stakes of perpetuating it, by showing how this received literary history elides ideological entanglements with romantic racialism, nationalism, and white supremacy.6 Erin Kappeler argues that the new poetry’s architects “abstracted social relations into verse traits, drawing on anthropological and ethnological discourses to argue that what made the new poetry new was its ability to organize communities around a shared set of national and racial concerns” (902). Similarly, as Spoon River imagines the community-making role of the new poetry, it also addresses its own position toward these “national and racial concerns.” While the text was a central component in the stories that figures like Lowell, Untermeyer, and Monroe were telling about a new movement in American verse, Spoon River Anthology was not an inert object of their critical discourse. Rather, the volume itself contributes to and theorizes the new poetry, helping to construct its national and racial imaginaries. In Spoon River, these imaginaries envision a future poetry that will renew the promise of pioneer spirit and community. For Masters and for critics like Monroe and Lowell, this midwestern pioneer community figures a waning white folk who, if revitalized by the new poetry, might serve as the backbone for a new American race. While the importance of Spoon River to modernist poetry has receded, its poetics—partly on display in “Petit, the Poet”—continues to inform our readings of modernist verse.7 Spoon River is not only, then, a significantly understudied text but also a text available to critical methods that denaturalize narratives about American poetic modernism by excavating the ideological work of those narratives. This excavation necessitates looking beyond Petit's familiar vision and unearthing the volume's attempts to theorize the social function of the new poetry.
Although Masters once described Spoon River Anthology as a “thoroughly Anglo-Saxon production” (“Genesis” 38), he does not seem explicitly concerned with race in the volume. Neither does he limit its personae to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, although white speakers are in the majority. Rather, by performing a shift from depletion and decay to an anticipated restoration of originary pioneering spirit, the epitaphic sequence stages an understanding of how the new poetry may restore white American community. Critics have followed suit: The work has long been read as concerned with the death of the folk. Many of its epitaphs—particularly those in the first third of the volume—focus on violence, sexual scandal, hypocrisy, ruined marriages, political corruption, labor exploitation, and bitter personal failures.8 Spoon River has sometimes been interpreted through the paradigm of Carl Van Doren's “revolt from the village,” which highlights the text’s antipastoral strain and dissent from the idyllic village fantasy. More recently, critics have focused on the dynamism in the text, emphasizing its commitment to a revitalized white pioneer community. John Hallwas, for example, reads the epitaphic series as the poet's quest to overcome and redeem the failures of community life described earlier in the volume. As the series draws to a close and turns to the future, it reaches further into the past to meditate on the pioneers who founded the town. Hallwas points to such epitaphs as “John Wasson,” “Rebecca Wasson,” “Lucinda Matlock,” and “Anne Rutledge” as celebrations of Masters's “Jeffersonian and Jacksonian roots” (“Introduction” 58) and representations of his “yearning for wholeness and struggle for a restorative vision” (58). This struggle, for Hallwas, leads Masters to “Aaron Hatfield,” in which the poet “imaginatively identifies with the pioneers, achieves a sense of unity and confidence in the face of death, verifies that the Jeffersonian ideal existed on the Jacksonian frontier, and secures the vision that his culture needs for spiritual regeneration” (58).
Enmeshed in these resurgent national narratives is the promotion of America’s future as a white one. Thus, I would amend Hallwas’s description of the volume’s trajectory. First, these communities and their poetic backbones are tacitly—and sometimes not so tacitly—imagined as white, as a “thoroughly Anglo-Saxon production.” Second, the text stages the work of the new poetry in creating and sustaining these revitalized white communities. Through this epitaphic sequence, the volume produces an Anglo-Saxon American folk community in decay while also offering a vision of poetry as the grounds for a new white national sociality, a stronger racial community grown from the dead folk.
White Pioneer Poetics
Spoon River Anthology engages with the racial imaginaries developing throughout the late teens and apparent in the work of Monroe, Henderson, Lowell, Pound, and Untermeyer. Influenced by turn-of-the-century ballad theories and social scientific discourses, these writers share a belief that poetic and racial evolution are inextricably linked. As both Hamilton and Kappeler have discussed, the new poetry of the 1910s was influenced by developments in turn-of-the-century literary theory, most particularly the scholarship of Francis Barton Gummere, who—himself influenced by German romantic philology, British anthropology, sociology, and evolutionary biology—theorized primitive poetry as the root of racial community and approached English poetic history as a history of an Anglo-Saxon race. Gummere links what he understands as a literary-historical shift from supposedly communal poetic production to the atomized, personal expression of the lyric with a racial history in which the Anglo-Saxon individual thrives at the expense of the communal bonds of the race.9 Critics of the new poetry, however, look toward the affordances of the so-called New World for racial and poetic regeneration. For these critics, many of the most promising poets of the new movement, Masters included, express the hoped-for racial amalgamation that they see as the future for a New World. For example, in her influential critical work Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Amy Lowell claims the history of American poetry is also a history of an American race. One of the main problems with American poetry before the new era, according to Lowell, is the “racial homogeneity of our poets,” by which she means these poets are “all of good English stock, in their work” (5). Racial homogeneity and poetic imitation are one and the same problem. The poets of sturdy English stock also rely upon sturdy English forms and themes not suited to the realities of the New World. As a result, by the postbellum period, Lowell finds the United States
What Lowell understands to be the Anglo-Saxon race has been transformed by its experiences of conquest and settler-colonialism into a new race of white people with no poetry to give them adequate expression and coherence.
a great country practically dumb. Here was a virile race, capable of subduing a vast continent in an incredibly short time, with no tongue to vent its emotion. How should such a race express itself by the sentiments appropriate to a civilized country no bigger than New York State, and of that country some fifty years earlier, to boot? (7)
Racial and poetic homogeneity are ultimately sterile pathways, evolutionary dead ends, for the development of the nation and its art. Lowell contrasts this sterility with the racial and poetic fecundities of the new modern American poets, claiming
Lowell’s metaphors of botanical production —the “fusing” of different racial stocks—and chemical experiment—the melting pot as a “crucible”—operate in the registers of racialist and eugenicist discourse and reflect Lowell’s debt to race science as it was elaborated through rhythmics, ethnography, and sociology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her earlier description of whiteness as colonial conquest and her deployment of these racialist discourses, Lowell envisions a new American poetry and race that subsume multicultural or multiracial elements of American society into a guarantee for the fertility of a white supremacy that might otherwise be sterile.10
we shall see them endeavoring to express themselves and the new race which America is producing; we shall see them stepping boldly from realism to far flights of imagination; We shall see them ceding more and more to the influence of other, alien, peoples, and fusing exotic modes of thought with their Anglo-Saxon inheritance. This is indeed the melting pot, and its fumes affect the surrounding company as well as the ingredients in the crucible. (4)
The persistence of a white American future in Lowell’s version of modern American poetry becomes most explicit in a later chapter, in which she uses Masters and Carl Sandburg as examples of the transition to a new poetry for a new race. She writes of Masters that “no author writing in America to-day shows more clearly the breaking down of an old tradition, the effect on the Anglo-Saxon mind of much contact with the minds of other people” (140). For Lowell, Masters is a transitional figure and Spoon River is a Janus-faced book, on the threshold of becoming in forms of poetry and whiteness. Spoon River makes possible a new poetic and racial future, even if the text is unable to realize those possibilities itself. Lowell predicts, “Some day, America will be a nation; some day, we shall have a national character. Now, our population is a crazy quilt of racial samples. But how strong is that Anglo-Saxon groundwork which holds them all firmly together to its shape, if no longer to its colour!” (201). Lowell’s ideas about racial stock, national character, and Anglo-Saxon identity were widespread during this time. The white race that Lowell envisions will emerge from the “crazy quilt,” strengthened by assimilating the multitude of “racial samples” in the United States into an “Anglo-Saxon groundwork.” The foundation of new national character will retain the shape and framework of whiteness even as she claims the (skin) “colour” may alter. Masters is a crucial figure in Lowell’s unfolding of this national spirit because the Anthology figures the eventual realization of a poetically masterful white American race.11
Harriet Monroe, ever the champion of the Midwest, links this future of poetic and racial rejuvenation more explicitly than Lowell to the artistic and genealogical legacy of the white pioneers. In her essay “The Great Renewal,” published in Poetry in September 1918, Monroe argues that “The arts, like groups and races of men, inherit too much from the super-civilized past; even more than super-civilized human beings do they need the great renewal from Mother Earth who bore them” (321). Nature is, for her, “the great renewer of the race” (320) and of the arts, as well as “the ultimate modernist” (323). Although this argument is part of the larger primitivist vein in modernism, for Monroe, writing during the twin crises of the World War I and the influenza pandemic, “super” civilization begets degeneration and decadence, a racial and artistic dead end. Through a return to nature and the primitive, categories in which Monroe explicitly includes Native peoples and their cultures (323), whiteness may become truly modern and revitalized. She connects this primitivist theory of art to the pioneer, writing that nature in “our ever-growing West” was always an invitation to the pioneer, and now that those days have passed “the children of pioneers feel the same call, and obey it as they can” (320). While the pioneer is no more, the bloodline survives, and it is largely through this bloodline that Monroe asserts the future restoration of white creative energy. She describes Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg as the “educated sons of pioneers” (323) who move beyond the constrictions of East Coast Anglo-European culture as they light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. She points to American expatriate poets, such as H.D., surrounded by the deadening sophistication of Europe, who still produce vital poetry because of “a deeper pioneer strain of wilderness in them” (324). The connotations of strain as both a biological and an aesthetic inheritance (and contagion) are inseparable in Monroe's argument. Settler colonial conquest—elided here by Monroe into the figure of the pioneer—is a transformative and recuperative moment in the history of whiteness that awaits full realization in the pioneer's poetic descendants.
Monroe’s 1918 essay can tout the pioneer as a figure for the new poetry in part because, in 1915, Masters successfully organizes Spoon River Anthology’s metapoetics around this figure. The volume's epitaphs are the primary site for this work. While Masters does not advocate for epitaphs as the sole genre for the new poetry, he uses them to theorize the social function of verse genres more broadly and to stage a revision of this function. Masters understands, along with Lowell and Monroe, that restoration first requires loss and decline. The earlier epitaphs—often associated with small-town exposé—focus on social and poetic failure, dwelling on how Monroe’s “pioneer strain of wilderness” deteriorates. As Hallwas argues, Masters was steeped in popular midwestern discourses that celebrated the pioneer and the frontier and mourned the apparent gap between pioneers and their descendants, which “contributed to Masters's conviction that midwestern culture had degenerated since the frontier” (“Introduction” 32). For Masters and his contemporaries, this degeneration was understood as racial. In “The Genesis of Spoon River,” Masters begins by tracing his own lineage because he believes his “blood and stock had something to do with the book” (38) and with the midwestern cultures he strives to represent. Masters understands his pioneer ancestors, the ancestors of Spoon River, as “thoroughly Anglo-Saxon” (38), coming as they did from New England and Virginia and, further back, from England and Wales. In Spoon River's valorization of white pioneers and their acts of settlement (never framed in terms of violence), and its exposure of the fractured and sick culture that followed in their wake, Masters explores a social and artistic failure and announces the promise of a particular form of whiteness. While the earliest poems in the volume seldom discuss race, pioneers, or degeneration explicitly, they survey what Masters understands as a white social body in racial and poetic decline.
These poems map social and poetic failure onto one another through criticism of lapidary epitaphs (epitaphs engraved on tombstones), allegorizing the inadequacy of verse conventions and gesturing toward their potential revisions in the genre of the new poetry. “Cassius Hueffer,” the fifth epitaph in the book, illustrates this allegorical strategy. In two stanzas, “Cassius Hueffer” imagines a corpse speaking an epitaph, first reading the original and then offering a revision, thus telling the truth that has been obscured by convention. The first stanza provides exposition about what an anonymous “they” has “chiseled on my stone”:
The anodyne “gentle” and “man,” claims the speaker, are “empty rhetoric” (93) that must make those who knew him smile. In the second stanza, Cassius provides a revision:
‘His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man.’ (93)
Following this revision, Cassius laments that he must “submit to an epitaph / Graven by a fool!” (93). This fairly general depiction of a character who lived a secret inner life, who felt and thought and acted in ways that are not adequately captured by the conventions of lapidary epitaph, could apply to numerous speakers in Spoon River. In fact, Cassius seems in part to function as a generic model for many of the speakers in the early portion of the volume, and his revision from the grave highlights Spoon River's central device. By calling attention to an oral revision of an inscribed epitaph, “Cassius Hueffer” suggests that all of the epitaphs in the volume are spoken revisions. Spoon River offers the conceit of poems uttered from within the grave, belonging solely to the order of speech and voiced only, paradoxically, out of the negative space of death. In this way, the volume insists that the corpses speak more authentically than their headstones ever could.
My epitaph should have been:
‘Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain.’ (93)
These pieces belong to a tradition that Diana Fuss identifies as the “corpse poem,” a poem “spoken in the voice of the deceased” (“Corpse Poem” 1), yet they do not fit comfortably in this category. Fuss distinguishes the corpse poem from the literary epitaph primarily through their “treatment of voice” (2). While traditional literary epitaph emphasizes the absence of voice from the tombstone, “the corpse poem betrays a desire to wed itself eternally to voice, a voice capable of surviving death, a voice that conveys not a distant trace but a proximate presence” (2). For Fuss, then, while some epitaphs may also be corpse poems, “not all epitaphs conjure speaking corpses” (2).12 Masters's epitaphs, which Fuss mentions only in a footnote, occupy a more complicated position in this category. They are corpse poems that are also epitaphs or epitaphs that are also corpse poems, but, more than this, they are corpse poems that use the genre of the epitaph to correct, exceed, or undo that genre.
“Cassius Hueffer” sets the stage for a series of poems that challenge the epitaph genre as a purveyor of hypocritical social pieties. Take, for instance, “Knowlt Hoheimer,” in which the gap between written and spoken epitaphs stages a social fracture in the rhetoric and actuality of military sacrifice. Knowlt died in the Civil War battle of Missionary Ridge and wishes he had gone to jail for theft instead of running away to the army. The poem concludes as follows:
This poem, written at the outset of the First World War and published two years before Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” treads similar ground to Owen’s iconic work. The irony of the speaker's inability to comprehend his own epitaph—is the final question philosophical inquiry or practical request for information?—registers larger social disjunctions: Knowlt's class status and lack of education; the state machineries of incarceration and conscription and the expendability of the lives it coerces; and the gap between Knowlt's experience and the patriotic ideologies of sacrifice. In the poem, these social disjunctions are inseparable from generic disjunctions. The conventions of the epitaphic genre, much like Petit's “tick tick tick,” have failed to account both for Knowlt's experiences and for social relations. In a spoken epitaph that exposes and revises this failure, the poem envisions a transformative new poetry with Knowlt as one of its first, if unwitting, avatars. As a speaker, Knowlt figures a poetry that draws its social power from the dead and lost white folk it makes present.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, ‘Pro Patria.’
What do they mean, anyway? (113)
Masters is not interested in criticizing the epitaph specifically or in proposing a revised epitaph as the future of American verse; rather, epitaphs seem to play such a large role in the volume's, and Masters’s, metapoetics because they have long been sites for theorizing, debating, and fantasizing about the social function of verse genres.13 For Masters, the epitaph is a space for fantasies of genre. In the self-reflexive poems “Cassius Hueffer” and “Knowlt Hoheimer,” Masters encodes a rejection of verse conventions that have proven to be inadequate or inauthentic, linking these rejected tropes to ruptures or tensions in the social fabric. He also, in presenting the conceit of the spoken epitaphic corpse poem that includes and counters the lapidary epitaph, stages the possibility of a future genre up to the task of representing modern life in Spoon River and restoring its social cohesion.
The move to imagine the grounds for joint artistic and social restoration comes late in the volume, when the speakers are drawn from older generations and the white pioneers who originally settled the town. Through this turn, the sequence begins an upward spiritual, political, and aesthetic trajectory. Many of the epitaphs in this part of the text position their pioneer speakers as proto-new poets who attempt to redress the community's earlier record of failure and serve as sites for newly imagined—and still white—racial communities. “Lucinda Matlock,” for example, presents us with a character from the town's older generation who directly addresses previous speakers. After describing her own long life, which she presents as largely fulfilling despite its many hardships, she responds to the book's earlier corpse poems:
This moment condenses several of Spoon River’s crucial concerns. First, the term “degenerate” in Lucinda's address resonates with contemporary public discourses in eugenics and race science, working to imply social and racial decline. The white sons and daughters of the pioneers have lost their ancestors' vitality, vigor, and moral fortitude. Second, her address serves as an example of speakers in the volume listening and responding to one another. In “Lucinda Matlock,” this response is both an admonishment and an attempt to reconstitute a fractured folk; she hails the degenerate sons and daughters into a community of the dead that can imagine its own racial resuscitation. Lucinda’s version of the vitality she thinks her degenerate successors require echoes Monroe’s invocation of nature:
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. (295)
As speaker, Lucinda figures the white pioneer as a natural and a seemingly native poet capable of doing what Petit, the supercivilized poet, could not. Her shouting and singing project an ur-new poetry authentic to life in and around Spoon River. Lucinda, a righteous descendant of Petit's roaring Homer and Whitman, thematizes what the new poetry might be able to realize.
[I] 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. (295)
“Aaron Hatfield” couples these possibilities for the new poetry with the fantasy of a resurgent pioneer community. The character of Hatfield, based on Masters's paternal grandfather, exemplifies what Masters means when he claims that the roots of the volume are in his own racial stock.14 A minister and a community leader, Hatfield's ur-poetry is his preaching. He begins with a the now-familiar gesture of referencing and surpassing his own lapidary epitaph:
The memory-picture is, for Hatfield, a more fitting memorial and a living poem. The memory-picture, much like Lucinda Matlock's “shouting,” is natural and it suggests the bonds of the pioneers who, aligned with the “peasant youth of Galilee,” have fled annihilation and struck out into the wilderness. Hatfield's address to the congregation, figured in the poem with the speaker's Whitmanian “O pioneers” (329), is a large part of what constructs and sustains the community through the challenges that punctuate their settlement. Here, building on the possibilities laid out in “Lucinda Matlock,” the epitaph allegorizes the new poetry as a genre of imagined white community.
Better than granite, Spoon River,
Is the memory-picture you keep of me
Standing before the pioneer men and women
There at Concord Church on Communion day,
Speaking in broken voice of the peasant youth
Of Galilee who went to the city
And was killed by bankers and lawyers (329)
Shortly after “Aaron Hatfield,” the final epitaph, “Webster Ford,” unites these allegories of poetically reconstituted white pioneer community with the larger poetic and social project of Spoon River Anthology itself. Masters initially published the Spoon River epitaphs in Reedy's under the pseudonym Webster Ford. If “Petit, the Poet” is Masters's rejection of his pre-Spoon River poetic persona, then “Webster Ford” embraces the Spoon River poetic persona and reflects on the role of the volume in the American new poetry. This epitaph features a poet who blossoms belatedly, almost—but not quite—too late. Ford recalls how, in his youth, he experienced a vision on the riverbank while in company with two other characters from the Anthology, Mickey M'Grew and Ralph Rhodes. Ford believes the “Delphic Apollo,” the god of poetry, called him to be among the “fearless singers and livers” (332). But Ralph Rhodes—corrupt son of the powerful banker Thomas Rhodes, who owns half of Spoon River—mocks him, insisting that the vision is merely light “By the flags at the water's edge” (332). Ford turns away from the call of Apollo in this moment and hides the vision deep within for “fear” of Ralph, calling instead on Plutus, god of wealth and death, to save him. The “call of Apollo,” in the world of the text, is a call for a poetic, racial, national communion, a call to be what Ford calls the “fearless singers and livers,” figured most profoundly in the volume as those robust, pioneering proto-poets and visionaries of the republic valorized in poems such as “Lucinda Matlock” and “Aaron Hatfield.” The god Plutus suggests the corrupted, life-suppressing forces in the text that have led to the degeneration of the folk. In “Webster Ford,” the children of the pioneers have become the despised bankers excoriated in “Aaron Hatfield,” fleeing the call of Apollo and fallen from the promise of their ancestors.
But while this final epitaph surveys failure and decline, it also gestures toward the future of the new poetry. Later in Ford's life, Apollo is “avenged” for the “shame of a fearful heart,” by returning to Ford at a time when he
In his dying moments, Ford awakens to himself as a poet. He is visited again by Apollo, whose inspiration takes the form of burgeoning laurel leaves, denoting the potential for poetic greatness that comes too late for Ford but suggests the urgency of the new American poetic project. While this poem is an allegory for Masters's own career, coming as he did belatedly away from the dry “tick tick tick” of Petit to the “burgeoning” laurel leaves of Spoon River, “Webster Ford” also allegorizes the role Spoon River Anthology should play in the poetic and social future the volume envisions. The final lines, which read as Ovid by way of Whitman and Keats, bring the poem's understanding of Spoon River to the foreground:
. . . seemed to be turned to a tree with trunk and branches
Growing indurate, turning to stone, yet burgeoning
In laurel leaves, in hosts of lambent laurel,
Quivering, fluttering, shrinking, fighting the numbness
Creeping into their veins from the dying trunk and branches! (332)
The speaker undergoes a poetic metamorphosis and his leaves, the pages of Spoon River, become fit for “urns of memory,” suggesting the volume's memorializing function. Ford imagines his poetry may prove valuable for the “fearless singers and livers,” the true descendants of Lucinda Matlock and Aaron Hatfield, who represent the hope of the work. In this way, the volume marks its own rejuvenating poetic and political potential. Its leaves, and its poetics—focused on absence, loss, memory, and death-—support the “fearless singers and livers” of the republic, the ones who might fulfill the promise of the pioneers in a new poetry and a (re)newed race.
O leaves of me
Too sere for coronal wreaths, and fit alone
For urns of memory, treasured, perhaps, as themes
For hearts heroic, fearless singers and livers—
Delphic Apollo! (332)
The theorizations of the American new poetry that we find at work in these epitaphic corpse poems are, however, troubled from within by their constitutive negativity, their reliance on absence. While these poems allegorize the socially and racially transformative potential of the new poetry, they also highlight its fragility, its reliance on the imagined community of the necropolis. “Webster Ford” admits his reliance in its characterization of Spoon River as “fit alone / For urns of memory,” but “Anne Rutledge,” one of the most frequently anthologized poems in the volume, powerfully brings the community-making aspirations of the new poetry together with its negative foundations. The poem reads:
One of a series of speakers in the volume who represent its hope for democracy, Anne Rutledge figures the community-imagining power that Masters invests in his poems. Though she was a historical person who lived in New Salem, IL, knew Lincoln, and died in 1835 at the age of thirty-two, Rutledge appears here in her posthumous guise as folk heroine. After her death, locals began to claim that she had been Lincoln’s true love, a legend that, in “The Genesis of Spoon River,” Masters described as “part of the twice-told tales of my formative years” (51).15 Masters’s poem develops a vision of white imagined national community through a series of metonymic shifts pertaining to the Lincoln-Rutledge romance. Rutledge locates her corpse as the origin point for “vibrations of deathless music,” which then become a phrase from Lincoln's second inaugural address, given on March 4, 1865, roughly one month before Robert E. Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House on April 9. Rutledge singles out a line from the closing portion of the address: “'With malice toward none; with charity for all.’” Here Rutledge's corpse is metonymically bound to Lincoln through absence, “wedded to him” through “separation.” The loss of Rutledge serves as the source for the mythic, oratorical Lincoln, whose speeches Harriet Monroe describes as “prose-poems of incomparable beauty” (“Century” 91). This Lincoln seeks to heal the nation with the “deathless music” of his oratory, another of the volume's many prototypes for a nationalizing, community-forming poetry. The “vibrations” of Lincoln's address, which emerge out of Rutledge's corpse, become the bonds of a reconstituted postbellum nation. After quoting the address, Rutledge provides her own gloss on the line as “the forgiveness of millions toward millions.” Her gloss strikes a note of white reconciliation. The millions who are forgiving other millions in parallel on both sides of the conflict do not seem interested in seeking forgiveness from millions of formerly enslaved Black Americans. It seems rather to point to Reconstruction-era attempts by whites to mend the fractured nation by establishing a common racial ground that ensured the continuance of white supremacy after emancipation.16 If renewed social relations extend contiguously from Rutledge's deceased figure, then these relations ultimately take the form of a thriving white republic.
Out of me unworthy and unknown
The vibrations of deathless music:
‘With malice toward none, with charity for all.’
Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions,
And the beneficent face of a nation
Shining with justice and truth.
I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom! (288)
At the same time, however, the piece thematizes the reliance of this social structure on a dead community. “Wedding” here is separation and her “dust” is the soil out of which Rutledge desires this republic to grow. Although this trope of life from death suggests that the forgotten figures of history might enjoy a rich afterlife, vivifying the nation, the piece also stresses that the white community it imagines requires death in order to thrive. This poem allegorizes how the new poetry may give life to racial communities, but it also reminds that on this errand of life, the new poetry roots community in death. Epitaphs like “Anne Rutledge” serve to complicate the volume's social and poetic vision, suggesting that the new poetry's new American race must remain, at its core, a dead white folk. The power of this racial community comes from it being imagined as always already lost.
Specters Haunting the New Poetry
In addition to registering structural tensions through poems like “Anne Rutledge,” the volume troubles the project of the epitaphic sequence with its two non-epitaphic conclusions. Following the final epitaph “Webster Ford,” “The Spooniad” is prefaced with the note that Jonathan Swift Somers, one of the epitaph speakers and “laureate of Spoon River,” “planned ‘The Spooniad’ as an epic in twenty-four books but did not live to complete even the first book” (334). It continues with the conceit that Masters’s publisher Reedy found the fragment in Somers’s papers and published it in the December 18, 1914 issues of The Mirror, where it did actually appear. In 1915, Spoon River Anthology concluded with this mock-epic fragment, but by the time the second edition of the Anthology appeared in 1916, Masters had added an epilogue to follow “The Spooniad”: a closet drama modeled on the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust. These two conclusions disrupt the balanced and self-contained sequence of the volume, in which interwoven narratives about the town form an upward spiritual, social, and aesthetic trajectory. The volume's critics, from Amy Lowell in 1917 through John Hallwas in 1992, see “The Spooniad” and the epilogue as the biggest mistakes in the work—extraneous, derivative, ill-chosen pieces that mar the formal innovations and the harmony of the epitaphs and demonstrate Masters's shortcomings as a poet.17
The endings are indeed excessive, and they do contradict, disrupt, and even upend the work of the epitaphs. Yet, rather than approach these pieces as missteps or failures, I view them as further indications of how the volume simultaneously theorizes and troubles the new poetry. “The Spooniad” and the epilogue both brush against the grain of the rest of the work and, in doing so, they underscore the operations of the volume's central poetic fantasies while emphasizing their fragility. To this end, the excessive conclusions function as the return of the generically repressed. On the one hand, the mock-epic fragment and the closet drama represent the sentimentality and metronomic rhythms Petit critiques, but mock epic and closet drama as genres are not Masters’s targets any more than epitaphs are the genre embraced. Rather, they signal genres that are incapable of organizing the white folk communities envisioned by the epitaphic corpse poems of the volume. Just as corpse poems criticize the lapidary epitaph as outstripped by the social formations they had once helped to organize, “The Spooniad” and the epilogue gesture toward the volume's own understanding of a socially disconnected, failed poetics. On the other hand, by recasting the characters and narratives of the epitaphs in different genres, “The Spooniad” and the epilogue highlight how reliant the new poetry is on its own conventions. Once the volume, through these endings, undoes its central conceit, much of the social and political work of the epitaphic series falls apart.18 “The Spooniad,” which features many of the characters from the epitaphs, narrates a fight that breaks out between John Cabanis and A.D. Blood over the mayoral election in Spoon River. By cutting it off after eight pages, Masters undercuts the power of speakers in the epitaphs, leaving them to founder without the narrative and thematic cohesion of the epitaphic sequence. While the rejected genre of the mock epic maintains the metapoetic primacy of this epitaphic sequence, it also demonstrates how easily the volume's vision of the new poetry's community-making potential dissipates under different generic conditions.
With the addition of the 1916 epilogue, the vulnerability of the central sequence to formal shifts intensifies, further highlighting the reliance of the volume on the conventions of a poetic speaker and restricting the text's attempts to form a community from its internal audience of speakers. This epilogue is set in the Spoon River graveyard and casts it in a new, mystical light by adding the characters Beelzebub, Loki, Yogarindra (one of the aspects of the Hindu deity Durga), and, eventually, God. The characters and events from the epitaphs recede as a cosmic order of meaning directed by larger forces—epitomized by the piece’s final lines, “Infinite Depths: —Infinite Law, / Infinite Life” (361)—shapes the world of Spoon River. The corpse speakers from the epitaphs no longer speak, but instead become the audience for the play staged by the divine cast of characters. Beezlebub blows his trumpet and “there is a rustling as of the shells of grasshoppers stirred by a wind; and hundreds of the dead, including those who have appeared in the Anthology, hurry to the sound of the trumpet” (354; emphasis in original). Here, at a kind of mock Judgment Day, the speakers that have served as the metapoetic foundation of the text take the place of an audience.
As in “The Spooniad,” Masters removes the fiction that had made it possible to read the volume as a part of the “genre” of the new poetry, which is to say, it has removed the fiction of these poems as the utterances of speakers in dramatic situations. In addition, this conclusion provides its own special twist on the volume’s speakers by positioning them as audience members. Through the sequence of epitaphs, the volume presents itself as using the conceit of dead speakers, the fantasy of a lost folk, to shape a live audience, to rejuvenate the communities addressed and constructed by poetry. This epilogue, however, suggests that the putatively white audience is just as dead as the speakers. Or to put it another way, it highlights the volume’s recognition that the audience addressed by its speakers is phantasmatic and must remain so to be imagined as a community. This generic troubling of the volume, then, is also a way to trouble the racial horizon of the text. The epilogue's dead audience suggests the tension that braids and unbraids the new poetry's racial imaginaries: the only true white community is a dead one.
These racial imaginaries, troubled from the start in one of the new poetry's founding texts, should be of central concern to scholars of modern American poetry who have begun to follow the direction of new modernist studies more broadly in attending to the relations between modernist poetry and race science, ethnography, settler colonialism, and imperialism. As American poetry scholarship looks increasingly to the new poetry to help expand its archives and rethink its accounts of American modernism, it must do more to scrutinize the new poetry's accounts of itself. To persist in taking the new poetry's own narratives at face value, to read them as merely descriptive, is to erase the ideological work that Masters theorizes and sometimes worries over. Spoon River Anthology has much to contribute to these newer conversations on modern American poetry because it illuminates the new poetry's nascent racial and social formations and destabilizes its own poetic and ideological underpinnings.
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Virginia Jackson, Michael Cohen, Nicole Flynn, Seth Studer, and Jose Alvarez for their generous help with this essay.
1 For more on the publication history of Spoon River, see Wrenn and Wrenn 47.
2 In many accounts, American poetry comes into its own around 1914, in part by fulfilling the potential of nineteenth-century figures identified as proto-modernists, such as Walt Whitman. In this sense, the new poetry is understood as both radically new and a continuation of the unappreciated innovations of the previous century.
3 Rossetti renders Villon’s “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Masters's criticism seems directed toward Victorian poets like Rossetti, not toward Villon. Villon’s influence can be seen in Masters’s use of the ubi sunt motif in “The Hill” and “Hare Drummer.”
4 The “New Poetry” or the “New Verse” is a term used by American poets and critics throughout the late 1910s and into the 1920s to describe what these writers perceived to be innovative poetic work that broke with previous verse traditions. The terms became more official with publications like the anthology The New Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson, in 1917.
5 See Newcomb, Would Poetry Disappear, How Did Poetry Survive? and “Emergence.”
6 Scholarship on the new poetry that emphasizes the roles of anthropology, sociology, and race science includes Golston, Hamilton, and Kappeler (“Editing America” and “Free Verse”).
7 There is a dearth of recent criticism on Spoon River Anthology in the United States, though the text is quite popular in Italy. John Hallwas has done some of the most influential new work, including his introduction to the critical edition and his edited collection (with Dennis Reader) The Vision of this Land. Jason Stacy's recent Spoon River America offers an important cultural history of the book. Pedagogical scholarship on using Spoon River in literature, composition, and drama classrooms is widely available.
8 While the volume's early critics were certainly attuned to these antipastoral elements, many also located its potency in its more proleptic, optimistic postures. Alice Corbin Henderson, co-editor of Poetry, observes that “Back of this sense of tragedy is a flaming idealism not entirely masked by the cover of sarcastic irony” (147). She emphasizes that “an ample vision of the future beyond the scope of this [failed, lost] generation is also presented” (147). Louis Untermeyer, writing in 1919, notes that the epitaphs in the latter third of the volume are “an eloquent contradiction to those detractors who granted Masters nothing but a crude and static irony” and contain “some of the most condensed pieces of poignance that contemporary literature offers” (171). These pieces, he adds, sometimes culminate in “a crescendo of exulting” (172).
9 For more on Gummere and his influence on the new poetry, see Kappeler, “Editing America.
10 Lowell's racialism has broader nineteenth-century underpinnings. Many racial theorists believed that “the Anglo-Saxon [had] a marvelous capacity for assimilating kindred races, absorbing their valuable qualities, yet remaining essentially unchanged” (Higham 33). For more on racial thinking, see Horsman. For a discussion of Lowell's nativism and Anglo-Saxonism in Tendencies, see Bradshaw; Kappeler, “Editing America.”
11 Lowell also asserts that Masters's work is American because “he is of the bones, and blood, and spirit of America. His thought is American; his reactions are as national as our clear blue skies” (184).
12 See also Fuss, Dying Modern.
13 For scholarship on the history and cultural work of poetic epitaphs, see Mills-Court, Scodel, Guthke.
14 In “The Genesis of Spoon River,” Masters writes of his grandfather: “I celebrated him in the Anthology in such pieces as 'Aaron Hatfield,' having memory of his talks at Concord [IL] church when he stood before the pioneers with his hair as white as the archangels of the Apocalypse” (39).
15 See Hallwas, Western Illinois Heritage.
16 While Masters seemed to revere Rutledge, he was deeply critical of Lincoln himself. For more on Masters's views of Lincoln and his work for the Populist Party, see Stacy. For an extensive history of reconciliationist ideologies from Reconstruction through the start of the First World War, see Blight.
17 In 1917, Amy Lowell describes “The Spooniad” as “a dreary effusion, which fits but slightly into the general scheme, and should never have been included” (164). In 1962, May Swenson characterizes “The Spooniad” as “an unfinished summary of the same material in derivative blank verse” and the epilogue as “a further reiteration in play form that begins like Faust and ends a ‘mishmash’” (10). John E. Hallwas, in 1992, condemns both “The Spooniad” and the epilogue for betraying the spirit and unity of the volume. He finds “The Spooniad” “inappropriate within the context of the Anthology. Not only does the mock-heroic style jar against the predominantly serious tone of the epitaph-poems, it undercuts one of the great strengths of Spoon River Anthology—the depiction of everyday people as fit subjects for poetic analysis” (10). He calls the epilogue an “altogether unnecessary poetic drama” (19) that “seems utterly foreign to the rest of the Anthology” (20).
18 As Herbert Tucker points out, the near-ubiquitous critical practice of reading poems as the utterance of a fictive speaker is a legacy of New Critical reading practices based, in part, upon the development of the speaker in modernist poetics. He claims it was “upon the establishment of Yeats’s mask, Pound’s personae, Frost’s monologues and idylls, and Eliot’s impersonal poetry, [that] it became a point of dogma among sophisticated readers that every poem dramatized a speaker who was not the poet” (239). In addition to adding Masters to this list of experimenters, I suggest that Masters positions the speaker as a central component in the new poetry's generic coherence.
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