Two-thousand-fifteen is the centennial year marking the publication of the curious (though largely forgotten) volume of poems titled Spoon River Anthology.
Written by poet Edgar Lee Masters, the book is a collection of short poems (epitaphs) relating the lives of fictional small town characters (mingled with poems by several true-life figures) who share the same location … they’re buried in the Spoon River cemetery.
Except for the introductory poem, each poem/epitaph is written in the first person, each departed individual telling his or her story from the grave. The poems were initially a series of compositions published in a literary journal.
These compositions eventually became the anthology. Masters published numerous other works including biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and others. However, the Spoon River Anthology appears to have been his most notable and enduring work.
As I mentioned, this is a curious volume. There’s an epitaph of the town drunk (Chase Henry) and another of the town judge (Judge Somers) who complains he lies in an unmarked grave while the town drunk has an impressive gravestone.
Anyone who has visited a cemetery knows families are often buried in a shared plot. The cemetery in Spoon River has its family plots. There’s also a character named Percy Bysshe Shelley who is not the famous poet, but whose life story is short and tragic. Though this Shelley also has a marble grave marker, he relates that his namesake’s ashes are scattered somewhere in Rome.
The Town Marshal says he was once a drinking man who killed a Swede but eventually joined the church and took the marshal’s job because he was “a terrible man.” He admits to striking another bad guy, Jack McGuire, whose epitaph follows. McGuire admits to killing the Marshal and serving fourteen years for the crime.
One epitaph, Anne Rutledge, invokes the words and image of Abraham Lincoln. Another tells the tale of William H. Herndon, law partner and biographer of Mr. Lincoln. Herndon’s epitaph is filled with majestic imagery and a hint of melancholy.
The Village Atheist tells his story. Is it a story of redemption or dashed hope? It depends on how you read it. There are others, both the religious and the irreligious. The final installment is a lengthy narrative poem that ties together the threads of previous poems and explains some of the events referenced in the other epitaphs.
After 100 years, Spoon River Anthology is still an intriguing read. The vignettes bring a fictional town to life (if you will) by exploring the tales of the departed. I recommend it!