A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 2

So how did the Spoon River Anthology  get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.

I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”

Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.

Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.

Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River,  Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.**  Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.

One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River.  Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.

And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,***  but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry  prior to Spoon River.

Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror  in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry  was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.

Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.

Epigrams from the Greek Anthology

A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?

 

Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River  epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American  and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.

Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.

Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:

“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”

By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology  published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.

For today’s Spoon River  piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,”  showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.*****  Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.

Reading “Fiddler Jones”  I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.


Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.

 

 

From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones”  I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s  in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.

In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.

 

 

 

*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River  shows he’s listening to women.

**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s  prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio  in 1919.

***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?

***Yes, I should have included Masters along with a remarkable group of folks from the turn-of-the-century south-east Iowa, south-west Illinois area, some of whom were key figures in the emergence of American Modernism.

****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River  so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.

*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River  soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles  that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.

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