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174. GRAVEYARD VOICES.

#174: GRAVEYARD VOICES. Just having passed its hundredth anniversary, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology goes quietly on being bought and read, side-stepping the post-this and –that of critical fashion, and has settled in as a classic. It’s a queer little one-off in American poetry, and Masters’ only great success. For those who don’t know it: Spoon River is Masters’ Illinois town, his Yoknapatawpha, his Dorset, and the Anthology is a collection not of epitaphs proper, but of short free-verse monologues spoken by the town’s graveyard dead, recounting their tragedies and their very occasional triumphs. It’s as if the gossip and jabber of the dead in Mairtin O’Cadhain’s Cre na Cille had stopped talking amongst themselves and turned their faces for a moment back towards the living. Spoon River Anthology didn’t come entirely out of nowhere: there are echoes of the biological fatalism of Zola, and with Theodore Dreiser and others in the Chicago literary community of the times, there was an attempt to strip off the old sentimentalities about small town life and the assumption that greed, viciousness and hypocrisy were only big-city stuff. This shows not only in Masters’ use of the small-town setting and the homely idiom to take people’s attempts at grandiosity down a few pegs; it shows in the general tone of the book, which, far from being wistful or melancholic, often bites clean through to the bone. It isn’t bleak; it snarls, at least some of the time. Masters sets off an interplay between the characters, who even in death persist in having their own view of things—an illustration of Jean Renoir’s dictum that “Everybody has their reasons.” So Spoon River reads like a vastly panoramic yet brilliantly particular novel; we read one character’s account and then wait for the next verse to spin it around. Fortunately the fierceness of the earliest verses does, by the end, get its blessed contrast, when Masters surprises us again by his people speaking with joy, with resignation, even with vision. Masters’ Jeremy Carlisle writes “I confess to a lofty scorn / And an acrid skepticism,” but by the end concedes: “We were ready then to walk together / And sing in chorus and chant the dawn / Of life that is wholly life.” Spoon River Anthology is one of America’s own books, with both its sprawl of lofty scorn and, yes, its sightings of dawn.


P.S.: I know I mentioned a few notes back that Balzac’s novel La Rabouilleuse was the only literary instance I knew of of death by foie gras. Mystery novels are full of outré causes of death, from Roald Dahl’s famous leg of lamb to Dorothy Sayers’ much-debated bells in Fenchurch St. Paul; may I suggest that Masters’ poem “Amanda Barker” might be the only literary case featuring murder by impregnation?

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