Buried, but speaking from the grave in Spoon River

by cheri block

My favorite character in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) is Washington McNeeley. He, like The Circuit Judge, Barry Holden, Russian Sonia, and Yee Bow, long gone from this earth, speaks from the grave to us, the reader.

We learn the truth of each person’s difficult life (all 212 of them), now that they are dead and free to share the secrets they held so long, close to the vest or the bosom.

Spoon River is a fictitious town, rife with the full spectrum of humanity. Each person has a short story to tell and Masters delivers it in free verse. The characters’ lives are often intertwined, like crusty turns of rope, left out in the sun to harden and rot, or an intertwining of hot bodies, often one husband to another’s wife. And as with life above the dirt, the truth is sometimes buried.

Consider Washington McNeeley’s story:

Rich, honored by my fellow citizens,

The father of many children, born of a noble mother,

All raised here in the great mansion-house, at the edge of town.

Note the cedar tree on the lawn!

I sent all the boys to Ann Arbor, all the girls to Rockford,

The while my life went on, getting more riches and honors—

Resting under my cedar tree at evening.

The years went on.

I sent the girls to Europe; I dowered them when married.

I gave the boys money to start business.

They were strong children, promising as apples before the bitten places show.

But John fled the country in disgrace.

Jenny died in child-birth—

I sat under my cedar tree.

Harry killed himself after a debauch, Susan was divorced—

I sat under my cedar tree.

Paul was invalided from over study, Mary became a recluse at home for love of a man—

I sat under my cedar tree.

All were gone, or broken-winged or devoured by life—

I sat under my cedar tree.

My mate, the mother of them, was taken—

I sat under my cedar tree

Till ninety years were tolled.

O maternal Earth, which rocks the fallen leaf to sleep.

Or  Yee Bow’s, probably the only Chinese person in Spoon River:

They got me into the Sunday-school in Spoon River

And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus.

I could have been no worse off

If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius.

For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,

And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley, the minister’s son,

Caved my ribs into my lungs, with a blow of his fist.

Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Peking,

And no children shall worship at my grave.

When I taught American literature, my students selected one of these poems, memorized it, and animated the life in dramatic monologue. We laughed, blushed, and sometimes, even welled up.

Now that I am older, these poems have taken on more meaning.

What might I reveal from the grave?

And you?

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
This entry was posted in Education, Life, People and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Buried, but speaking from the grave in Spoon River

  1. Richard says:

    Oh dear! Perhaps I should wait until I am dead.

  2. Phil says:

    These two short poems tell so much in so few words, and so clearly.

    I love them.

    • Cheri says:

      I am so tickled that you love them because I do too.
      We tend to be sensitive about those literary works we adore and thus risk disappointment in others’ reactions, right?

  3. wkkortas says:

    I am, personally, most fond of “Dippold The Optician” and “Alexander Throckmorton”. You have captured the essence of why Masters outshines his contemporaries–where the works of Anderson, Sinclair, Norris et al are too much products of their time, the late residents of Spoon River tap into the universal, the timeless which is why, even now, Masters deserves to be considered in the top rank of American writers.

    • Cheri says:

      Welcome to the blog wkkortas. I see that you, too, are a poet and a darn good one…

      Masters has always been considered low brow (sort of like the opera Madame Butterfly) by the Lionel Trillings of the world. To them, I say “fooey.”

  4. I’ve never read Spoon River Anthology. Thanks for giving me the motivation to do it now!

  5. Cyberquill says:

    Is that the one that’s wider than a mile?

  6. Cheri says:

    My journalism students had to recite this one:

    Editor Whedon

    To be able to see every side of a question;

    To be on every side, to be everything, to be nothing long;

    To pervert the truth, to ride it for a purpose,

    To use great feelings and passions of the human family
    For base designs, for cunning ends,

    To wear a mask like the Greek actors–
    Your eight-page paper–behind which you huddle,

    Bawling through the megaphone of big type: “This is I, the giant.”

    Thereby also living the life of a sneak-thief,
    Poisoned with the anonymous words
    Of your clandestine soul.

    To scratch dirt over scandal for money,
    And exhume it to the winds for revenge,
    Or to sell papers,
    Crushing reputations, or bodies, if need be.

    To win at any cost, save your own life.
    To glory in demoniac power, ditching civilization.
    As a paranoiac boy puts a log on the track
    And derails the express train.

    To be an editor, as I was.
    Then to lie here close by the river over the place
    Where the sewage flows from the village,
    And the empty cans and garbage are dumped,
    And abortions are hidden.

    • dafna says:

      and there you have it.

      if you add to this verse that all men of this ilk must have there marbles removed in order to sublimate their wretched characters, you will get your 87 + comments. men and their balls, soccer balls basket balls, foot balls…

      cheri, you once wrote “why are the rich so vilified?”

      “why is the media so vilified?” (as in the verse)

      my guess… because with great power, etc. and examples of misuse of this power (of media) tend to stand out more?

  7. Cheri says:

    Well, I did get 39 comments when I suggested that David Letterman and Tiger Woods were scumbags, didn’t I? And most were from men…

    Gee, I hit a nerve ( as my dentist would day).


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