Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology will have a deep influence on writers of the 1920s, is born in Garnett, Kansas, on this day in 1869.
As a child, Masters lived in small towns in Illinois. His mother, from New England, was homesick for her old East Coast life filled with music and literature, and his father, an attorney, was a cold and distant man. As a result, Masters gained a sense of the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment that could lie below small-town America’s pastoral facade.
Masters studied for a year at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, then studied law in his father’s office. He passed the bar, then moved to Chicago in 1891. There, he found himself surrounded by writers taking part in the Chicago Renaissance and began writing undistinguished poetry himself. He published a collection of verse in 1898, and various essays and blank-verse dramas in the early 1900s. He married twice and had three children
In 1909, a friend gave him a copy of Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, a collection of 4,000 poems written between 700 B.C. and 1000 A.D. The short autobiographical poems inspired Masters to write his masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology. The book contained a series of short, unrhymed poems, the meditations of deceased residents of the small town of Spoon River. In just a handful of lines, the speakers outline their lives-mostly unhappy, unfulfilled, and full of bitterness, anger, or love for other speakers. The poems expose the sterility and small-minded element of small-town life, which became a theme of other writers in the 1920s, notably Sinclair Lewis. The book was a huge success, breaking sales records and allowing Masters to retire from his legal practice and write full time. Although he wrote more than 50 books, including poetry collections and biographies, he is chiefly remembered for Spoon River. He died in 1950.