Edgar Lee Masters
1868 – 1950
Edgar Lee Masters occupies a transitional place in American literature, straddling the divide between narrative poetry of the 19th century and modern American poetry of the 20th century. He was a prolific and diverse writer, belonging to the Chicago Group of Midwestern writers. His career saw the decline in influence of the Midwest as the Eastern literary establishment rose to prominence in American literature.
Masters was born August 23, 1868 on a Garnett, Kansas homestead, the son of Hardin W. Masters and Emma Masters née Dexter. The family moved thereafter to Illinois, where Masters grew to maturity on his grandfather’s farm and attended the public schools of Petersburg and Lewistown. These towns later were the inspirations for Masters’ best known and most influential work, Spoon River Anthology.
Masters was not encouraged in his literary ambitions; his father, a lawyer, wanted his son to also pursue the legal profession. Masters accordingly studied law and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1891. He practiced law first in Chicago, then New York, for nearly thirty years. He initially formed a law partnership with Kickham Scanlan (1893 – 1903); he later joined the law firm of famed attorney Clarence Darrow (1903 – 1911). He married Helen Jenkins, daughter of another Chicago lawyer, in 1898 and with her had three children. During his early period Masters wrote several undistinguished plays and books of poetry under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace. He became part of the Chicago Group of writers and poets, which included Harriet Monroe, editor of the Poetry magazine, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay.
In 1909 Marion Reedy, editor of Reedy’s Mirror of St. Louis, gave Masters a copy of Epigrams from the Greek Anthology; this fortuitous event, along with Master’s conversations with his mother about the people he grew up around, inspired Masters to write his magnum opus, Spoon River Anthology. The poems of Spoon River Anthology were initially published pseudonymously in serial form by Reedy’s Mirror in 1914 and 1915. Only later were they bound together in book form. A sequel, The New Spoon River, was published in 1924, but was less successful than the original.
Masters’ personal life was turbulent and unsettled. Overwork from trying to balance both his law practice and writing led to a lingering and near-fatal bout of pneumonia. When his wife Helen refused him a divorce, he fled America for Europe in 1921; the divorce was settled two years after and Masters moved to New York where he continued his law practice. In 1926 he married a much younger Ellen Coyne, a teacher. Their union produced a son. During times when the new Mrs. Masters’ teaching duties dictated that they live apart, Masters took up residence in the Chelsea Hotel. After retiring from the law, Masters devoted himself entirely to writing. He wrote many volumes of poetry, as well as novels and biographies of important American literary figures, never achieving the early success of Spoon River Anthology.
Edgar Lee Masters died in Philadelphia on March 5, 1950 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.
A Book of Verses (1898)
Spoon River Anthology (1915)
Songs and Satires and The Great Valley (1916)
Toward the Gulf (1918)
Starved Rock (1919)
The Open Sea (1921)
Domesday Book (1920)
The New Spoon River (1924)
Selected Poems (1925)
The Fate of the Jury (1929)
Lichee Nuts (1930)
The Serpent in the Wilderness (1933
Invisible Landscapes (1935)
Poems of People (1936)
The New World (1937)
More People (1939)
Illinois Poems (1941)
Along the Illinois (1942)
The Sangamon (1942) (Rivers of America series)
The New Star Chamber (1904)
The Bread of Idleness (1911)
Blood of the Prophets (1905)
Mitch Miller (1920)
Skeeters Kirby (1923)
Kit O’Brien (1927)
Lincoln: The Man (1931)
Vachel Lindsay (1935)
Mark Twain: A Portrait (1938)
Across Spoon River (1936)
University Review, Summer, 1935
Providence Evening Bulletin, May 4, 1936
Dun’s Review, April, 1940
New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1942
Poetry Society of America medal
Shelley Memorial Award
Academy of American Poets Fellowship
Sources: Primeau, Ronald, American National Biography, Vol 14. ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999