marcia lee masters | the man, my father

12 06 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 238 | June 11, 2008

Poems for the Father #3
in celebrations of Father’s Day, June 15, 2008

MARCIA LEE MASTERS, born in 1917, was the daughter of Edgar Lee Masters, a lawyer by profession, poet and author of one of the seminal volumes of small town American life, SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY which, along with Sherwood Anderson’s, WINESBURG, OHIO shaped our sense of rural culture in America to this day.

Marcia Lee grew to be a poet as well, though always under the shadow of her father. I met her once at a literary awards banquet in Chicago in the 1970’s. She must have been in her 60’s then. A lively, passionate woman, her heart dedicated to the literary life—the presence of poets and writers always in her midst. She was the poetry editor of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine at the time—a wonderful column showcasing many talents. I remember her taking my hand in hers, congratulating me for the award I had received for my first book of short stories and inviting me to visit her sometime. I was somewhat swept away, a stranger to the historical literary scene of Chicago, not to mention one degree of separation from Masters himself, whom I admired immensely.

Years later I discovered this poem by Marcia about her father. There seem to be more poems written about fathers by sons than poetry by daughters about their fathers. I find this one particularly poignant because we so seldom get this personal glimpse of the ‘famous father’ by a daughter who so obviously understood his life and simply loved him for who he was and what he wrote.

I am reminded too by something the poet, Anne Sexton once said: “It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.” Norbert Blei

The Man, My Father by Marcia Lee Masters

Whether you strode from court to court,
Biting the streets off with opinioned feet,
Or climbed the hills—the land was in your blood:
Your boyhood farm where all men worked, and made
The green come up, the seasons sing.

You knew all skies—all weather—you had known
Since youth when you toiled in the prairie heat;
You knew the warmth of hayfields steaming when
The sun arose and drove like golden bees
Into the mist; you knew the smell of soil
New-crumbled, waiting for the seed; you loved
The juice of things hard-earned like your first books.

No matter where you walked—that early farm
Was in your step, your glance; and when you talked—
The pungent sounds of cornfields, and the long
Terse-drying winds swirled up from turgid wheat
Were in your words; even your silences
Had sinew—like tree roots.

Yet, when you lolled, it was with gusto—in
A chair that needed paint, no cushion at
Your back; your feet thrust in the grass, your boots
Still wet from hikes through morning fields, while books
Rose at your side, soon to be husked like corn.

You wrote while other slept, while flowers
Faded in vases, and the rooms grew cold;
The papers mounted: pencils grown too short
To use were cast aside like bits of kindling
Snapped to pieces on a roaring fire.
You had no sympathy for blights that spread
Unchecked, for idle orchards left to crows;
You sprayed potato plants until the bugs
Fell to their death like words knocked from a line.

Something American—bred in the cattle’s strength,
The roosters’ battles by the road,
Something that gathered substance from the trees—
Was in your spirit’s force, your body’s pride.

from HEARTLAND II, Poets of the Midwest, edited by Lucien Stryk, Northern Illinois University Press, 1975

Poetry Dispatch No. 2 | August,23 2005

leemastersportraitneu.jpg“Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure –
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!”

(‘Petit, the Poet,’ from Spoon River Anthology)

This is a good day (August 23rd) to take another look at an American masterpiece celebrating small town life.

The village, the town, the rural may be an old fashioned lifestyle to some, given the magnetism of our great cities, the scope and sameness of our suburbias, gated communities, concrete, steel, and neon landscapes peopled with strangers. It may even be a very old fashioned way to write a poem about provincial life, though narrative poetry seems as natural as gossip, and often achieves greatness because of the story within the poem we all wish to hear, and some to write. I can think of no greater book of American poetry reflecting the power and beauty of the narrative poem than Edgar Less Masters’s SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY.

The opening poem in SPOON RIVER introduces the people and place, and like a good short story, a well designed narrative, begins where it all ends:

The Hill
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom, and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife–
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie, and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?–
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in a search for a heart’s desire,
One after life in faraway London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag–
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution?–
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying–
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

Today, August 23, is the birthday of the poet Edgar Lee Masters born in Garnett, Kansas (1869). He was one of the first writers to portray the American small town as a place of terrible secrets, lies, and scandals. Masters grew up in two towns in the Illinois Corn Belt, Lewistown and Petersburg, along the Spoon River. He became a lawyer and moved to Chicago. He was a partner with Clarence Darrow. He met Carl Sandburg, who was writing for a socialist newspaper, and Masters got involved in the Chicago literary scene. He published a series of books of poems and several plays.

One day, Edgar Lee Masters’ mother came to visit, and he spent a day with her talking about all the characters he remembered from the towns where he grew up. His mother told him all the gossip that she knew about those people. He put her on the train and went back home and started writing Spoon River Anthology.

He had recently read a book of Greek poems written in the form of fictional epitaphs about famous dead men, and so he got the idea for a book of poems written in the voices of the dead in a graveyard.

spoonriver.jpgHe published Spoon River Anthology in 1915 under a pseudonym. He was worried it would have an effect on his law practice, and he was right to worry. The book was considered very scandalous at the time, but it became a best-seller. It went through 70 printings, and it allowed Masters to retire from his law practice. The people in the towns that he had grown up in were angry at him for decades. It took more than 50 years before the town where he went to high school was able to put Spoon River Anthology in the town library. (source: Writer’s Almanac)

LUCINDA MATLOCK by Edgar Lee Masters

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
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.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
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.

In 1914 Masters began a series of poems about his boyhood experiences in western Illinois, published (under the pseudonym Webster Ford) in Reedy’s Mirror (St. Louis). This was the beginning of Spoon River Anthology (1915), the book that would make his reputation and become one of the most popular and widely known works in all of American literature. In “The Genesis of Spoon River” (American Mercury, Jan. 1933), Masters recalls how his interest turned to “combinations of my imagination drawn from the lives of the faithful and tender-hearted souls whom I had known in my youth about Concord, and wherever on Spoon River they existed.”

Though he would never equal the achievement or fame of Spoon River Anthology, he continued publishing poetry, novels, essays, and biographies for nearly thirty years. The amount and wide range of his production far exceeded its quality, by most accounts, and Masters’s place in twentieth-century American literature is still debated. (source: Ronald Primeau)


Edgar Lee Masters (August 23, 1868 – March 5, 1950) was an American poet, biographer and dramatist. He is the author of Spoon River Anthology, The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, Songs and Satires, The Great Valley, The Serpent in the Wilderness An Obscure Tale, The Spleen, Mark Twain: A Portrait, Lincoln: The Man, and Illinois Poems. In all, Masters published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman.

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868 to Emma J. Dexter and Hardin Wallace Masters in Garnett, Kansas, where his father had briefly moved to set up a law practice. The family soon moved back to his paternal grandparents’ farm near Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois. In 1880 they moved to Lewistown, Illinois, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. The culture around Lewistown, in addition to the town’s cemetery at Oak Hill, and the nearby Spoon River were the inspirations for many of his works, most notably Spoon River Anthology, his most famous and acclaimed work. Spoon River was Masters’s revenge on small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness. It gained a huge popularity, but shattered his position as a respectable member of establishment. Masters attended The Knox Academy from 1889-1890, a defunct preparatory program run by Knox College, but was forced to leave due to his family’s inability to finance his education.

After working in his father’s law office, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and moved to Chicago, where he established a law partnership with Kickham Scanlan in 1893. In 1898, he married Helen M. Jenkins, the daughter of a lawyer in Chicago, and had three children. During his law partnership with Clarence Darrow, from 1903 to 1908, Masters defended the poor. In 1911, he started his own law firm, despite the three years of unrest (1908-1911) due to extramarital affairs and an argument with Darrow.

Masters died March 5, 1950 and is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois. His epitaph includes his poem, “To-morrow is My Birthday” from Toward the Gulf (1918):

Good friends, let’s to the fields…
After a little walk and by your pardon,
I think I’ll sleep, there is no sweeter thing.
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep.

I am a dream out of a blessed sleep-
Let’s walk, and hear the lark.

Masters first published his early poems and essays under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace (after his mother’s maiden name and his father’s middle name) until the year 1903, when he joined the lawfirm of Clarence Darrow.

It was in 1914 when Masters truly began developing as a notable American poet, when he began submitting a series of poems (this time under the pseudonym Webster Ford) about his childhood experiences in Western Illinois, which was published in Reedy’s Mirror, a St. Louis publication. In 1915, the series was bound into a volume and re-titled Spoon River Anthology.

380px-usstamp-edgar_lee_masters.jpgThough he never matched the success of his Spoon River Anthology, Masters was a prolific writer of diverse works. He published several other volumes of poems including Book of Verses in 1898, Songs and Sonnets in 1910, The Great Valley in 1916, Song and Satires in 1916, The Open Sea in 1921, The New Spoon River in 1924, Lee in 1926, Jack Kelso in 1928, Lichee Nuts in 1930, Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma in 1930, Godbey, sequel to Jack Kelso in 1931, The Serpent in the Wilderness in 1933, Richmond in 1934, Invisible Landscapes in 1935, The Golden Fleece of California in 1936, Poems of People in 1936, The New World in 1937, More People in 1939, Illinois Poems in 1941, and Along the Illinois in 1942.

Masters was awarded the Mark Twain Silver Medal in 1936, the Poetry Society of America medal in 1941, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1942, and the Shelly Memorial Award in 1944.


  • * A Book of Verses (1898)
  • * Songs and Sonnets (1910)
  • * Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  • * Songs and Satires (1916)
  • * Fiddler Jones (1916)
  • * The Great Valley (1916)
  • * The Open Sea (1921)
  • * The New Spoon River (1924)
  • * Selected Poems (1925)
  • * Lee: A Dramatic Poem (1926)
  • * Jack Kelso: A Dramatic Poem (1928)
  • * Lichee Nuts (1930)
  • * Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma: A Dramatic Poem (1930)
  • * Godbey: A Dramatic Poem, sequel to Jack Kelso (1931)
  • * The Serpent in the Wilderness (1933)
  • * Richmond: A Dramatic Poem (1934)
  • * Invisible Landscapes (1935)
  • * Poems of People (1936)
  • * The Golden Fleece of California (1936)
  • * The New World (1937)
  • * More People (1939)
  • * Illinois Poems (1941)
  • * Along the Illinois (1942)


  • * Maximilian: A Play (1902, drama)
  • * Althea: A Play (1907, drama)
  • * The Trifler: A Play (1908, drama)
  • * Eileen: A Play (1910, drama)
  • * The Bread of Idleness: A Play (1910, drama)
  • * Dramatic Dialogues: Four Short Plays (1934, drama)


  • * Lincoln: The Man (1931)
  • * Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935)
  • * Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (1936, memoir)
  • * Whitman (1937)
  • * Mark Twain: A Portrait (1938)




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