From beyond the grave: the voices of America’s Malgudi

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Edgar Lee Masters may have had little on R.K. Narayan, but his Spoon River Anthology brought just as eclectic a set of characters to life way back in the early 20th Century.

Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology is a standard part of collegiate literature curricula, and often used by aspiring thespians as their audition monologue.

In January 1915, the London literary magazine The Egoist featured Ezra Pound’s review of a recently-publiished book. That Pound — path-breaking poet, mentor of TS Eliot and later, during WWII, fascist cheerleader — chose to use such glowing terms as ‘At last! At last, America has discovered a poet,’ is proof that this was no ordinary book. Pound praised the poet’s ability to deal ‘… with life directly … without resonant meaningless phrases’ and the fact that he was able ‘to say what he has to say and shut up when he had said it’. Pound wasn’t alone in his praise. In May 1915, fellow poet Carl Sandburg too was similarly effusive and praised the book’s ‘vitality’.

The poet was one Webster Ford and he was in august company. Among other things, The Egoist at that time was serialising James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and receiving such praise from Pound and Sandburg clearly demonstrated that the work in question was a masterpiece in the making.

Webster Ford was the pseudonym of Edgar Lee Masters and the book in question was Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River is of course, real, and is located in Illinois, United States. But the anthology itself featured individuals from the fictional town of Spoon River, said to be located on the banks of the eponymous river and modelled after Masters’ hometown of Lewistown, Illinois. The anthology features more than two hundred individuals, all speaking from the cold comfort of their graves.

 

 

For some, death has loosened their tongues and they are happy to state the facts bluntly with no attempt at obfuscation or pretension. ‘Constance Hately’ confesses that she isn’t quite the bleeding heart the townsfolk thought her to be. While she did bring up her late older sister’s children — Irene and Mary — she now confesses to have forever reminded them of their dependence and thus poisoned her act of kindness. ‘Julia Miller’, who took her own life at 30, confesses to having been impregnated by someone who later betrayed her, and went on to marry a 65-year-old without revealing to him that she was pregnant.

Some seek to redeem their reputations now that death has put them beyond the pale. ‘Indignation’ Jones claims to be of purer blood than the ‘white trash’ of Spoon River and of more ‘direct lineage’ than the New Englanders and Virginians of the town. He also has actually been to school and read books, but life dealt him bad cards and he became embittered, eventually degenerating into a ‘run-down man’.

Then there are the stock characters — the village idiot, ‘Frank Drummer’, who attempted to memorise the Encyclopaedia Britannica; the village doctor, ‘Doc Hill’, who made up for a terrible family life by burying himself in work even as he hid a guilty secret; the poets — ‘Theodore’, who sat by the Spoon river waiting for the Muse, and ‘Jonathan Swift Somers’, author of The Spooniad, an epic planned to span twenty-four books, of which only a fragment of the first was written and features in the anthology.

Among the anthology’s more interesting denizens is ‘Russian Sonia’, from Europe ‘mistress … of dukes and counts’ who confesses to having lived with Patrick Hummer of the town without having actually married him. Then there are the interestingly named ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley’, who was sent to the University of Montreal, but ‘learned nothing’, ‘Robert Southey Burke’, who wasted away attempting to make ‘A.D. Blood’ mayor and got nothing for his pains, and ‘Isaiah Beethoven’, who has strange visions when told he had only three months to live.

‘George Gray’ appears to be an early version of the modern-age guru, offering as he does a quote-worthy meditation on the meaning of life. ‘… life without meaning is the torture / Of restlessness and vague desire — / It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.’

 

Spoon River remains Masters’ most enduring work. Clearly, he was at his best when, in his head, he wandered amidst its tombstones.

Many poems are a peek into the lot of American women at the turn of the 19th and in the early years of the 20th century. ‘Minerva Jones’, daughter of Indignation Jones is raped by “Butch” Weldy, though one would not know it on reading Weldy’s account beginning as it does from the time he ‘got religion and steadied down’, thereby in his own self-view redeeming him from his earlier despicable act. ‘Margaret Fuller Slack’ had literary ambitions, but gave birth to eight children and had no time to write, eventually dying of tetanus when she accidentally pierced herself with a needle when washing her ‘baby’s things’. ‘Mrs. Charles Bliss’ is advised by judge and priest to stay on in her unhappy marriage and does so. But the loveless marriage takes its toll with two of her children siding with her and two with her husband, thus tearing the family apart.

And so it goes on, laying the lives of Spoon River’s inhabitants bare for view of the larger public.

The book was a success when published, but Masters was subject to opprobrium by his townsfolk — the citizens of Lewistown. Many of the fictional characters who featured in the anthology were modelled after real people and by outing their secrets, Masters had, in their view, spoken ill of the dead and done them a disservice. The book was banned in the local library. It appears that Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, was in favour of the ban.

When the book came out, Masters was in his forties, a practising lawyer and had previous books to his credit. The success of the book eventually allowed him to give up practising law in 1920 and move to New York to concentrate on his writing. The New Spoon River, a sequel, appeared in 1924. In 1936, his autobiography, Across Spoon River, was published.

Spoon River wasn’t the only beat Masters marched to. There were other works including ‘Richmond’, a poem set in the final days of the Civil War and also a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, it appears was a Masters favourite. Spoon River had even featured ‘Anne Rutledge’, supposedly Lincoln’s first love who died young. The biography though was panned by critics.

Spoon River remains Masters’ most enduring work. Clearly, he was at his best when, in his head, he wandered amidst its tombstones.

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