Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950), American author and lawyer, is mainly remembered for his "Spoon River Anthology," a collection of free verse about small-town American life.
Edgar Lee Masters was born on Aug. 23, 1869, in Garnett, Kans. A year later his father's law practice failed and the family moved to the grandfather's Illinois farm. Edgar's father won appointment as state's attorney in Petersburg, and there the young boy started school. In 1880 the family moved to Lewistown near the Spoon River. Masters continued his schooling, worked in a printer's office, and reported for local newspapers. He read James Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Burns, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote poetry, and read law in his father's office. In 1889 he entered Knox College, but his father refused help, so he returned to law in Lewistown. Admitted to the bar in 1891, in 1892 he left for Chicago.
Masters entered a law partnership in 1893 and succeeded professionally, socially, and financially. He married Helen Jenkins in 1898 and published A Book of Verse. He was active in Democratic party politics, traveled west in 1904, and in 1906 toured Europe. He contributed to Reedy's Mirror and met novelist Theodore Dreiser. Masters's next two volumes—The Blood of the Prophets (1905) and Songs and Sonnets (1910)—were published under pseudonyms. Between 1907 and 1911 he wrote four plays. When his second law partner defaulted in 1910, Masters set up his own office. When Poetry magazine started publication in Chicago in 1912, he joined its coterie, meeting Carl Sandburg and others.
Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915) drew on the values and frustrations of his youth in Lewistown, the style of the Greek Anthology, and contemporary experiments in free verse or rhythmical prose. In it, Masters reveals the spiritual impoverishment of the small midwestern town as its dead speak of their repressed, frightened, hypocritical, stoical, and occasionally fulfilled lives and sometimes contrast hardy pioneer days with the decadent present. The book was immediately controversial.
Masters's next volume of poems, Domesday Book, appeared in 1920, as did the first of seven novels, Mitch Miller. Meanwhile his two careers, law and literature, the breakup of the Chicago literary movement, and his wife's refusal to grant a divorce were bringing his life to a crisis. Finding no relief in a 1921 Mediterranean vacation, he abandoned both family and the law and moved to New York to concentrate on literature. Divorced in 1923, in 1924 he brought out The New Spoon River, an unsuccessful treatment of American urban life.
Masters married again in 1926 and published the first of a series of historical verse plays. In the 1930s he turned to biography and history, writing of Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and his friend Vachel Lindsay and of Chicago. His autobiography, Across Spoon River, appeared in 1936. He died on March 6, 1950.
Further Reading on Edgar Lee Masters
A short study of Masters is in Lois Teal Hartley, Spoon River Revisited (1963). He is also discussed in Poets and Their Art (1926; rev. ed. 1967) by Harriet Monroe; in Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska, A History of American Poetry (1946); and in Literary History of the United States, edited by Robert E. Spiller and others (1948; rev. ed. 1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Masters, Edgar Lee, Across Spoon River: an autobiography, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, 1936.
Masters, Hardin Wallace, Edgar Lee Masters: a biographical sketchbook about a famous American author, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.
Masters, Hilary, Last stands: notes from memory, Boston: D.R. Godine, 1982; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984, 1982.