Although quite prolific as a writer of poetry, drama, essays and novels, the work for which Edgar Lee Masters has always been known and likely will always be known is his 1915 collection of more 200 poems titled Spoon River Anthology. Based largely upon his own hometown of Lewiston, Illinois, Spoon River is a fictional small town that could be anywhere in the USA. The town has good people and bad people and secrets of people thought good who may have actually have been bad and bad people who regret that they could not have died having something good.
A substantial cross-section of the population of Spoon River gets to state their case from beyond grave thanks to the brilliant conceit of Masters in which collection of poems are monologues from those already buried in the town’s crowded cemetery. Although the deceased often fill in a gap or contradict a story told by another and though the collapse of the bank is an event which touches upon enough of the citizens to act as a kind of unifying force for a generation, each individual occupant of a grave dug into the earth in the cemetery tells a story that is unique and not dependent upon others to create meaning. Some of the stories told by others may lend contextual clues or help to identify a subtext, but Spoon River Anthology is truly an anthology of poetic memoirs in which none are deemed more important than any other and all can independently co-exist without the necessity of any specific story told by another.
The poems included in Spoon River Anthology had originally been serialized in Reedy’s Mirror over a period stretching from May 1914 to the following January. In magazine form, Webster Ford was attributed as the author, but Masters decided to drop the pen name when republishing the material in book form. In the format as a collection of verse, Spoon River Anthology was an immediate hit with the public because of its accessibility and the universality of its fantasy of speaking the truth from the protection of the afterlife. Critics and scholars praised the content for its unblinking honesty and hailed it as an example a growing backlash to popular fiction that sought to make all such small towns automatically populated by more honest folk simply as a result of their size and geography. This movement was given the name “revolt from the village” and in addition to Spoon River Anthology was characterized by other famous works of the era like Main Street and Winesburg, OH.
Masters continued to be a prodigious and productive writer after the publication of his anthology, but he never managed to duplicate its success. In 1924 he published a sequel and The New Spoon River is often considered his second greatest achievement.