A Fiddler, a Poet, and a Graveyard: The Spoon River Anthology’s Happier Poetry

“Fiddler,” early 20th century. Image source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill- only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or a picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle-
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

In 1914, poet Edgar Lee Masters anonymously published a series of poems that were later called “The Spoon River Anthology.” I got the book as a Christmas present and am enjoying reading them. The poems are free-verse and are written as epitaphs of deceased people in the fictional town of Spoon River. But it wasn’t all made up. Masters himself lived in a small town in rural Illinois and used his neighbors as inspiration for his poetry, sometimes barely even changing peoples’ names. Real-life banker Henry Phelps was changed to Henry Phipps. Henry Wilmans became Harry Wilmans.

Spoon River’s fictitious graveyard probably looked something like this one in State College, PA. Photo source: Library of Congress.

There are more than 200 poems in the anthology, each revealing hidden secrets and feelings of each individual as they reflect on their lives. “Freed by the shackles of life,” one writer has recently said,  “the un-living who ‘sleep beneath these weeds’ confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living .”

“The Spoon River Anthology” was written as an attempt to demystify small-town American life, which had been idealized by many at the turn of the century (for more on this see my post on Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past). The changes that industrialization and urbanization brought to America were accompanied by a sense of uneasiness and a longing for a life free of dirty politics, robber baron business tactics, and the dirt and poverty of the big city.  James Thurber later described this nostalgia as “good, clean little communities over cold cruel metropolitan centers…the ancient American myth of the small town, idealized in novels, comedies, and melodramas at the turn of the century and before, supported by Thorton Wilder in “Our Town,” and undisturbed by the scandalous revelations of such irreverent gossips as Sherwood Anderson.” It was actually this quote from Thurber that got me interested in reading “The Spoon River Anthology,” and so far I’m glad I have.

The inscription on the back of this fiddle says it was made in 1850 by John Castor of Woodville, Missouri, the “best jig fiddler in the county.” Image source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

So far though, I’ve found myself drawn more to the happier poems like “Fiddler Jones” I posted above. Here is another poem, “Theodore the Poet,” that captures a fulfilled life that doesn’t seem to have been destroyed by the weight of life in rural America. Masters based this on his friend and author Theodore Dreiser:

As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,
First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.
And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.
But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,
So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,
And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

I wonder if reading poem after poem that about heartbreak, sadness, disappointment and death was getting to me and made the happier poems seem to refreshing and enjoyable to read. Or perhaps Masters is trying to tell us something about why we like the nostalgic “Currier and Ives” version of small towns. Maybe he is saying that life is complicated and not all good or bad, but when a person is on their death-bed, it’s easier to remember the things you never got or that you lost instead of the good things. I’m sure that Fiddler Jones and Theodore the Poet had their share of tragedy and struggle in their lives as well. But their epitaphs reveal satisfied lives that were not squashed by the weight of life in the small town. Even though happy stories are hard to come by in Masters’ brutally honest small town, they still exist and in these cases have thrived. As I keep reading, I wonder if there will be any more poems like these, or if they’ll keep on being pretty sad. Masters seems to be saying that a life in the American small town is either cut short, ends in disappointment or loss, or is satisfied despite difficult circumstances. In this place where troubles are inevitable, your outlook on life seems to be the only thing you have any control over. What do you think?

If you’d like to read “The Spoon River Anthology,” it is available from the Internet Archive here. The Smithsonian also has an original recording of Masters reading his poems out loud, though it looks like you’ll have to visit in person to listen.


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