Writing History on the Banks of Spoon River

Writing History on the Banks of Spoon River June 12, 2020

I have been posting about using American poetry as primary historical sources, and last time, I talked about Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning. That appeared in 1915, in an era of extraordinary social, religious and political ferment. Today I’ll discuss another work from that same year, which is famous as a name, but when you actually explore it, it offers some treasures for the historian.

I am referring to Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), and his Spoon River Anthology, which endlessly repays close reading for its assumptions about the everyday lives and beliefs of ordinary Americans. The couple of hundred poems within the collection are interlaced to form a perfect community portrait. This really is the Great American Novel That Never Was. It has been said “that no other volume of poetry except The Waste Land (1922) made such an impact during the first quarter of [the 20th] century.”

Each poem its way stands as a short story, which speaks volumes about community assumptions. The Anthology is a goldmine for social history of all kinds, including gender, sexuality, politics, and religion. You actually could teach a whole course about early twentieth century America with this as the core text, and it would fit beautifully into a typical college offering on the era 1877-1919 or so.

In a time of tight censorship, Masters was boldly going into many topics that were deeply sensitive, including (and not limited to) rape, child abuse, abortion, drug use, lesbianism, adultery, promiscuity, and sexual diseases. Virtually every poem gets into some issue that would have attracted the wrath of the Hays Code if it had ever found its way into the later cinema. Here is the whole of “Julia Miller”:

  We quarreled that morning,
  For he was sixty-five, and I was thirty,
  And I was nervous and heavy with the child
  Whose birth I dreaded.
  I thought over the last letter written me
  By that estranged young soul
  Whose betrayal of me I had concealed
  By marrying the old man.
  Then I took morphine and sat down to read.
  Across the blackness that came over my eyes
  I see the flickering light of these words even now:
  “And Jesus said unto him, Verily
  I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt
  Be with me in paradise.”

Just to take one daring theme of countless, Masters was writing during the first great American discovery of child sexual abuse. Back in 1998 I published a book called Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (Yale), which offered a wide-ranging history of that theme throughout American history. Among my discoveries, I found the first ever study ever written on the topic in the US, in a collection entitled A System of Legal Medicine (1894). This included a path-breaking essay on “Indecent Assault of Children,” by the young gynecologist W. Travis Gibb (1863-1939), which reads as if it could have been written a century later.

Over the next quarter century or so, Americans became firmly conscious of the sexual abuse threat in a way they would not be again until the 1980s. Also as in the 1980s, awareness of that threat was firmly linked to feminist causes and agitation. And if I want to illustrate that concern, how better to do so than to use Spoon River? Here is the wrenching “Nellie Clark”:

  I was only eight years old;
  And before I grew up and knew what it meant
  I had no words for it, except
  That I was frightened and told my
  Mother; And that my Father got a pistol
  And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy,
  Fifteen years old, except for his Mother.
  Nevertheless the story clung to me.
  But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five,
  Was a newcomer and never heard it
  ‘Till two years after we were married.
  Then he considered himself cheated,
  And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin.
  Well, he deserted me, and I died
  The following winter.

There are lots of religious comments and discussions, a great deal about revivals, conversions, faith, and hypocrisy. One poem traces the fate of “The Village Atheist”:

Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels.
But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death
I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow,
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Note the assumption that in the early twentieth century, in a small mid-Western town, a very ordinary person had access to all the arguments of the militant anti-religious writers, the “infidels,” not to mention the (Hindu) Upanishads. He appreciates Jesus’s own words, which he originally read as “poetry” not revelation. The “coughing” reference sadly has a strong relevance today.

Less fortunate was the outspoken anti-religious militant and amateur Bible critic, “Wendell P. Bloyd.” Jailed for blasphemy, Bloyd was then locked up as insane, and beaten to death by a Catholic guard.”

I fight the temptation to quote every last poem here, but just one more, please. In 1915, Americans were deeply divided over the thought of intervening in Europe’s Great War. Masters was obviously thinking of this in his poem about the Philippine war veteran, “Harry Wilmans”:

I was just turned twenty-one,
And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
Made a speech in Bindle’s Opera House.
“The honor of the flag must be upheld,” he said,
“Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs
Or the greatest power in Europe.”
And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
As he spoke.
And I went to the war in spite of my father,
And followed the flag till I saw it raised
By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
And all of us cheered and cheered it.
But there were flies and poisonous things;
And there was the deadly water,
And the cruel heat,
And the sickening, putrid food;
And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now there’s a flag over me in
Spoon River. A flag!
A flag!

Have you ever read accounts of how US soldiers went off to war in 1917 expecting the experience to be romantic and idealistic, with no idea of the realities they would be facing? Uh-huh. If something like “Harry Wilmans” had appeared a decade later, we would immediately attribute it to Lost Generation disillusion.

It’s interesting, or depressing, to note that when the US actually entered the Great War in 1917, Masters yielded to nobody in his exalted rhetoric about the mystical experiences that young men would face in the approaching combat. In that movement from his earlier positions, he shared the trajectory of a great many other liberals, pacifists, and specifically religious believers in that short time span between 1915 and 1917.

Spoon River Anthology offers a wonderfully readable portrait of American society around 1915, and very much from the grass roots. It’s well worth reading, and citing.


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