Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas in August of 1868. His mother was Emma J. Dexter and his father was Hardin Wallace Masters, an attorney. The family had moved to Kansas with the hope that Hardin Masters would be able to set up a law practice, this proved to be unsuccessful and resulted in their move back to a farm in Menard County, Illinois where their extended family lived. They did not remain in one place for long and soon moved on to Lewistown, Illinois. Masters’ youth was not easy. The family consistently struggled with finances and Masters’ father was unwilling to support his son when his literary passions came to the surface.
Masters attended high school in Lewistown, and it was in the 1880s that his first work was published, appearing in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889 Masters went on to attend Knox Academy, a program run by Knox College. His time there was brief as his family’s financial troubles came back to haunt him. He was forced to leave due to their inability to pay for his education. Although no longer studying in an institution, Masters continued his studies on his own. His hard work, and time spent within his father’s law practice, resulted in his admittance to the bar in 1891.
A year later, in 1892, Masters moved to Chicago where he worked collecting bills for the Edison Company. Over the next decade Masters built his law practice alongside his partner Clarence Darrow. His new stable financial footing allowed him to published his first collection of poetry, A Book of Verses.This volume was strongly influenced by the Romantic poets of England. The same year this work was published, he married his first wife Helen Jenkins. Together the couple would have three children.
Masters law practice and his partnership with Darrow, was defined by his dedication to helping the poor. It lasted from 1903-1908. The next years of Masters’ life were chaotic. He began arguing with his partner and was engaged in a number of extramarital affairs. In 1910, his volume Songs and Sonnets was released. The next year Masters decided to start his own law firm.
Spoon River Anthology
It was also around this period of time that Masters began work on a novel. The inspiration for the subject matter came from his time living in small town Illinois and the forms he would pursue were drawn from a prolonged engagement with J. W. Mackail’s Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. He admired the style of this collection and chose to challenge himself by attempting to utilize and combine a number of different poetic forms. These included free verse, or poems written without a structured rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, epitaph, or statements written in memory of someone who has died, as well as realism and cynicism. These pursuits coalesced the his best-known and most celebrated work, Spoon River Anthology.
The title is derived from a river in Illinois and the locations and personalities originated from Masters’ childhood home of Lewistown as well as nearby Petersburg, where his grandparents lived. In 1914 the poems were serialized by Reedy’s Mirror, a literary journal based out of St. Louis, Missouri. By 1915 the entire first edition had been issued with the help of Harriet Monroe, the founder, editor, and publisher of Poetry magazine. It would be reissued in 1916 with Masters adding another thirty-five poems.
The volume was extremely successful and became one of the most popular books of poetry ever published in America. It was Masters’ goal with the collection to demystify small town American life and shine a light on the wildly interesting and distinct lives of the residents of rural communities. The book includes 212 characters and 244 accounts of their own losses and deaths. One of the most interesting features of the work is the way in which the poems relate to one another. They create a whole community within the volume. Some of the most notable characters are Tom Merritt and Fiddler Jones. They speak on their own histories, deaths, and petty complaints.
Masters followed Spoon River Anthology with a sequel titled, The New Spoon River. This collection focused on the urbanization of the once rural areas and was much less successful. Although Masters published over forty books in his life, including biographies, novels, and plays, he could never replicate the success of Spoon River Anthology. In 1917 Masters left his family. He remarried in 1926 to Ellen Coyne, who was thirty years his junior.
In 1950 Edgar Lee Masters died in a convalescent home in Philadelphia. He was buried near his hometown in Petersburg, Illinois.