Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology: Naturalism in the American countryside
Throughout the ages, many writers have endeavored to portray reality through their works and through the prism of different aesthetics, but also different philosophies. This desire to relate literature to reality probably reached its pinnacle with the naturalism movement during the late nineteenth century. In opposition to Romanticism, literary naturalism emphasizes the scientific approach in depicting a fictional reality. By exploring the scientific laws and parameters influencing individuals' behavior, such as their environment, emotions or heredity, naturalism aims for an objective representation of reality. As such, the notion of determinism is dominant for naturalism: indeed, human beings are deemed to be moved by these forces beyond their understanding. They are not in control of their fate, but simple objects moved by the causality induced by these forces.
A particularly striking example of this philosophy applied to literature is the Spoon River Anthology, composed by Edgar Lee Masters. Published for the first time in 1915, it is a mosaic of 244 epitaphs written in free verses and portraying a small town, Spoon River, through the memories of its dead inhabitants. This brief analysis proposes to develop a few arguments in favor of justifying the classification of the Spoon River Anthology as a Naturalist work.
Firstly, in order to perceive Masters' deep desire to portray the reality of an American small town as it was in the early XXth century, it seems relevant to look a bit closer at his own biography. Indeed, although the "Spoon River" represented in the anthology, small town connecting all of the deceased people whose epitaphs are presented to the reader, is a fictional place, its toponym was nevertheless given after the name of a real river, the Spoon River, which ran near Masters' hometown, Lewistown. As it often happens, the geographical frame of the work already indicates a desire from the author to portray a plausible reality, especially in the case of this anthology, named as a direct reference to an actual, significant place in Masters' life.
At first sight, it may seems paradoxal that, while aiming for an accurate representation of reality, the poet uses the voices of dead people, in the form "self epitaphs". It is, indeed, quite surprising for a naturalist poet to use a supernatural element to depict his reality. However, it is precisely the fact that the characters speaking in the Anthology are dead that grants their monologues the necessary amplitude to portray the reality of their life, and in doing so, to recreate that of Spoon River. In fact, death gave to all of them a unique opportunity to express themselves freed from any social or moral barrier forcing them to depict euphemistic representations of their life; "the characters of the Anthology state all the facts necessary to a delineation of their lives without any concerted effort, considering the whole work, to warp the facts to fit a preconceived, single judgement of life" (Wolf, 1940, p. 26) . By using epitaphs, Master actually maintains the objectivity of naturalism, to the extent that the characters portray themselves as they truly are in essence, beyond the veil of life and death. Thanks to this process, they become both protagonists and narrators of their existence, and are able to reflect on the forces that moved it, as death gave them the necessary detachment to do so. The introductory poems, "The Hill"( Masters, 2022, p. 12), is a relevant illustration of this process:
"Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,// The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the //boozer, the fighter? // All, all are sleeping on the hill." (Masters, 2022, p. 12)
The anaphora of the final line "All, all are sleeping on the hill" in each verse of the poem and the fluidity produced by the syllabic arrangement of free verses work together to create a rhythmic effect similar to an incantation. With it, the reader is passing the symbolic veil that separates the representation of an idealized reality from an accurate one. The determinism characterizing the depicted reality is already perceptible with the repetition of the last line.
As Masters himself verbalized it, his intention was to go beyond the hypocrisy of the representations of a morally idealized society, and he composed the Anthology while "intent on dissipating the false halo of pastoral dignity which surrounds the village"(Wolf, 1940, p. 1). This is a particularity of American naturalism, or at least of Masters' naturalism: it is an artistic revolt, against romanticism and the artificialities of previous American Literature, but also a social one; a revolt of the folksy small towns like Spoon River against the ignorant and romanticized representations of their environment that the urban middle-class and their ideology had produced.
In Masters' work, this revolt is expressed through determinism, and the exposure of the primal forces controlling the people of Spoon River. As it was impossible to do so while they were alive, because of the whole scale of social values obscuring these primal forces, the poet used epitaphs, freeing them from such coercions. Many poems of the Anthology could serve as examples of this passing of the social and moral values to reach the essence of the lives composing Spoon River, but two of them come out as particularly salient illustration of this point. The two epitaphs called "Benjamin Pantier"(Masters, 2022, p.34) and "Mrs Benjamin Pantier"(Masters, 2022, p.36) are, as often in Spoon River, two different points of view on the same events. Both the husband and the wife recount their story, and how Benjamin Pantier, an "attorney at law", ended up in misery :
"Living with Nig [his dog] in a room back of a dingy office." (Masters, 2022, p.34)
In his version of the story, Pantier is accusing his wife to be responsible for his situation:
"The she, who survives me, snared my soul //With a snare which bled me to death,//Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent" (Masters, 2022, p.34)
Finally, the last verse exposes clearly the determinism proper to Masters' naturalist perception :
"Our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!" (Ibid.)
However, the following epitaph, titled "Mrs Benjamin Pantier", shows to the reader another perception of the same story, and shows that Mr Pantier's end was caused by passions, emotional forces dictating the acts of his wife. It is, as previously explained, causality which determined his life. Indeed, freed in death, not being obliged by moral and social values anymore, especially as a woman, Mrs Pantier sets her passions free. In doing so, she exposes the forces that determined Benjamin Plantier's fate:
"You are a woman well endowed,//And the only man with whom the law and morality//Permit you to have the marital relation // Is the very man that fills you with disgust //Every time you think of it - while you think of it // Every time you see him? //That's why I drove him away from home..." (Masters, 2022, p.36)
In these lines, the weight of "law and morality" influencing Mrs Plantier's life is highlighted by the repetition of "every time", and the fact that "law and morality", "marital relation" and "disgust" are all three at the end of their respective lines produces a strongly pejorative association: law and morality, marital relation become strongly associated with disgust. Yet, Mrs Plantier's life is determined by these, as well as Benjamin Plantier's.
The intertext between these epitaphs illustrates the cherished determinism of naturalists. It shows how man is dwarfed in contrast with his milieu, to the extent that man is submitted to forces he does not have control over.
Another primordial aspect of naturalism is the tendancy to explain any behavior by their environment, but also a bio-chemical approach of these passions, what one could call a "body chemistry". The illustration of this thought could be seen in the first lines of the epitaph of "Trainor, the Druggist" (Masters, 2022, p.42). Indeed, they appear to be quite clear once one is familiar with the naturalistic approach of determinism:
"Only the chemist can tell, and not always the chemist, // What will results from compounding // Fluids or solids. // And who can tell // How men and women will interact // On each other, or what children will result? (Masters, 2022, p.42)
These lines particularly make sense once related to the Pantiers' epitaphs, as is made manifest in the following lines, which strive to provide an explanation to their fate, reinforcing the concept of naturalist determinism as the result of both the environment and bio-mechanical dynamics:
"There were Benjamin Pantier and his wife, // Good in themselves, but evil toward each other: // He oxygen, she hydrogen, // Their son, a devastating fire." (Ibid.)
Once more, the incapacity for human beings to properly choose their fate is perceptible with the figure of the son, perceived as a chemical result of his parents, and nothing more. The one and only line mentioning him insists on the fact that he is just a predetermined product of chemistry.
It is also interesting to notice that, even when man is conscious of his chemical and determined nature, man can still not escape it, as the "Druggist" himself ends up being "killed while making an experiment".
By proposing a mosaic of interconnected characters in his Spoon River Anthology, Masters really wanted to "show man in society stripped of the veils and subterfuges which usually hide his real life." (Wolf, 1940, p. 13) As he himself declared to Wisewell during an interview for the Current Opinion periodical: "I meant to analyze character, to satirize society, to tell a story, to expose the machinery of life, to present to view a working model of the big world and put it in a window where the passer-by could stop and see it run..." (Wisewell, 1915, p.256). Indeed, by setting it in a small town, the poet fought the pre-constructed idea of an idyllic American countryside, and at the same time, in a movement going from micro to macro realms, embracing the philosophy of naturalism, exposed what he believed was the profound and universal nature of Man: a bio-chemical product, whose fate is determined by his environment and forces he can not control.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, November 8). naturalism. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Masters, Edgar Lee. (2022, first published in 1915). Spoon River Anthology. Firenze, Demetra, pp.12-42
Masters, Edgar Lee. (1936). Across Spoon River. New York, Farrar & Rhinehart
Parrington, Vernon Louis. (1930). Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. III. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Ross Wolf S. (1940)." A study of Naturalism in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology", Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, Stillwater, Oklahoma, pp. 1-26
Wisewell, C. E. (1915) The Spoon River Anthology, Current Opinion, Vol. LVIII, p. 256.
Cover Image: Macmillan & Co., First edition, frontispiece to Spoon River Anthology.
Figure 1: Karl Smith, An Historical and Geographical Map of the State of Illinois, Curtis Wright Maps , 1934
Figure 2: Garage C. "Viaggi Verde Acido", "blog di viaggi in solitaria di una ragazza curiosa", consulted on 27/01/2023.
Figure 3: Main street in Lewistown, ca 1900, contributed by Lewiston Public Library