Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spoon River Today?

First of all, I had no idea Percy Grainger wrote a piece of music called “Spoon River,” dedicated to Edgar Lee Masters. Obviously, Masters’ anthology struck a chord with the famed composer.

I’ve written a few posts on my recent reading of Masters’ New Spoon River, so I won’t re-hash them here. I will go on to say that with Sinclair Lewis, Masters has done his part to preserve the times and seasons of the United States in the early 20th century, probably moreso than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who portrayed the new United States that the people in Lewis’ and Masters’ novels were fleeing to.

I’m fascinated by this kind of slice-of-life writing, which was evidently very popular back then. Sinclair Lewis originally intended to write his famous novel Babbitt as 24 hours in the life of one George Babbitt of Zenith, but that went on to different ends. Also, there is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that paints a pleasant if melancholy picture of small-town life in the same era.

What would we write today if we were writing slice of life? We’ve seen it all – but what could be done unique to the age? Maybe the telling of tales of a group of Facebook friends, or friends on some other social network? I’m afraid it’s been done. But something. Something.

I often wish Edgar Lee Masters had continued writing an anthology every decade, with others taking up the torch as he passed on and as time passed. What would the inhabitants of Spoon River be saying, say, in the 1960s, as Chicago enveloped them, and as time passed, and as the inner city and even some of the suburbs slipped into the control of the Mafia and crumbled into crime. Would the characters of the 1910s still have descendants there, or would they all have moved on? What would the new inhabitants of Spoon River say, not knowing the town’s history but feeling oddly connected to it or disconnected to it through their own eyes and through the lives of their contemporaries?

Marcus Jessup

They say long ago there was a village here

With green lawns and apple orchards

Where people rode in buggies

And sniped at their neighbors.

Spoon River, they called it

Surrounded by farms and farmers

Home to the banks and the general stores and the churches

All I see is asphalt

And concrete and crumbing red-brick buildings

Where are the orchards?

Where are the trees?

The sniping, I knew that well, killed as I was by a stray bullet

Someone fired from somewhere at someone else.

Where are the apple trees in Spoon River?

Passer-by, I lie underneath them.

Never having tasted their apples.

Or something like that. Sustained for three hundred or so pages.

It could be done. By someone who knows a Spoon River, subsumed by concrete and time.

Also, some industrious soul has put the entirety of the Spoon River Anthology online.


Milan Smith said...

At first I thought "Marcus Jessup" was something from The New Spoon River that I somehow had glossed over. It's very good. Is this an original poem by you? If so, is this the start of a project about Spoon River? Because if it is, I'd like to see more.

Mister Fweem said...

To be honest, I don't remember if this is original or if I found it somewhere. I'd like to think it's original, but my sieve of a memory isn't all that reliable. I sure can't find it online connected with Masters or Spoon River.

Memory is a funny thing.