I was recently invited to take part in a reading of Edgar Lee Masters‘ 1915 book Spoon River Anthology on the Kaidankai: Ghost and Supernatural Stories podcast. The book is a fascinating collection of 244 free verse poems which narrate the epitaphs of 212 residents of the fictional Illinois town of Spoon River as told by their ghosts. The epitaphs tell of their lives, losses, and manner of death.
The poems were originally published from 1914 to early 1915 in the St. Louis literary journal Reedy’s Mirror, under the pseudonym Webster Ford. Upon its publication the following year, Spoon River Anthology became an international bestseller. In his review, the American poet and critic Ezra Pound declared of Masters, “At last! At last America has discovered a poet.” In another review, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carl August Sandburg wrote “Once in a while a man comes along who writes a book that has his own heart-beats in it. The people whose faces look out from the pages of the book are the people of life itself, each trait of them as plain or as mysterious as in the old home valley where the writer came from. Such a writer and book are realized here.”
Despite the anthology’s great success, it was banned from schools and libraries in Masters’ hometown of Lewistown until 1974 because of both the scandalous, at the time, subject matter of some of the poems and the fact that many of the characters, based on real people in the town, were too easily identified by their unflattering epitaphs. Among the members of the Lewistown library board who voted for the ban was Masters’ own mother.
With the offended citizens long gone, Lewistown now celebrates its relationship to its famous son and his poetry. A memorial to Masters was erected in the town’s Oak Hill Cemetery, which offers self-guided walking tours of the graves that inspired the poems, and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of Spoon River Anthology in 2015, Lewistown hosted tours, exhibitions, and theatrical performances.
In the first of two readings of the anthology on the Kaidankai: Ghost and Supernatural Stories podcast, l read the epitaphs of Benjamin Pantier & Andy the Night-Watch. You can hear and free downloaded the podcast at the following link: