Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Edgar Lee Masters, All-American

When I was in college, one of my professors said that America was too young a nation to have an author – like France’s Victor Hugo or England’s Charles Dickens – whose works represented the nation.

An older and wise me now knows that statement to be wrong. America has a good number of representative authors: John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain to name but three.

I think to those we should add the name of Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology and The New Spoon River, which I’ve just finished reading (never knew he’d written a second Spoon River until I saw the book at the thrift store).

These four men have much in common when it comes to their writing: They represent, at different times and in different places, an unvarnished America. What bravado they find is commonplace and much of the time hollow. What decency they find is at the core heroic and overlooked. And what they find most of all is a nation of people living mostly inside their own heads.

Masters and Lewis, of course, write of the time when the United States was experiencing a “rebellion against the village,” wherein the young fled the nation’s small towns for the cities. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

So does much in the New Spoon River. Not to say that Masters merely repeated himself. What we have in The New Spoon River is the same concept, but clearly told at a different time, a time after the first world war, and a time when Spoon River’s boosterism apparently worked, leading the small backwater to become one of Chicago’s many growing suburbs.

So to add to the angst of small-town life we have the laments of many who saw the progress and rejected it.

But underneath it all, there is that feeling that home is home, no matter how much contempt familiarity has bred. Consider the epitaph of Marcus Jarrissen:

Why did I become a wanderer?
It was to get different views of the same thing,
Even of you, Spoon River!
Why did I become a wanderer?
To get new views of things never before known!
And even to sing old songs in my wanderings
Was to give them new tones and new meanings,
According to the sky that was over me,
And the land that was about me!

What Masters is saying is that we carry with us what we learn in childhood – adding unto it of course, but always coming back to what we know. We make stumbles and mistakes, we discover wider vistas than we ever thought or imagined. And sometimes we fail in our wanderings and go back tour respective Spoon Rivers to lick our wounds. There’s nothing more American than that.

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