“All, all, re sleeping on the hill” by Mike Foster
In April, one of west central Illinois’ best poets and books of poetry, Edgar Lee Masters and Spoon River Anthology, will celebrate its centenary.
It has survived everything from scandalized readers who recognized who these poems were about to amateur and professional readers’ theater productions.
When I first read it 55 years ago, my father Claude Foster, who had grown up on a farm between Fairview and Rapatee and fished in the Spoon River, recalled the uproar Masters’ book had created, especially in western Peoria and Fulton Counties.
This book wanders through an old Illinois small-town cemetery where the ghosts, wakeful beneath their stones, tell their truths. Secret shames are confessed, lifelong loves are celebrated, awe-full aspirations are chronicled.
Masters’ compelling cast of small-town characters utter their own epitaphs in monologues that are lovelorn, wry, outraged, smug, benevolent, bitter, satisfied, witty, mocking: the whole piece of work that man is.
Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915 when Masters, a Chicago attorney with a Populist bent, was 47. It swiftly became that rarest success: a best-selling book of poems, a much-translated international triumph, one of the century’s most popular editions of verse.
It was also the scandal of west central Illinois, clear up to Peoria.
Natives of Lewistown and Petersburg, where Masters grew up and is now buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery that he immortalized, were shocked by these frank free-verse monologues. What once was whispered was now read worldwide.
May Swenson writes:
“His ghosts freely gossip about each other and themselves…Masters borrowed the mouths of the dead to give outlet to all his grudges, beliefs, indignations, insights, prophecies, discoveries of glaring injustice, revelation of life’s mysteries and paradoxes—and his own eccentric philosophy.”
The 244 characters’ lives entwine in 19 separate story lines. Masters said he poached names from Spoon River and Sangamon River area cemeteries. Assembling the book, he sought “a definitive order, the fools, drunkards, and failures came first, the people of one-birth minds got second place, and the heroes and the enlightened spirits came last.”
He boasted that “every ordinary human occupation” was represented. Churchman, atheist, druggist, alcoholic, banker, bully, gambler, poet, editor, suicide, soldier, fiddler, doctor, immigrant, émigré, harlot, husband, wife, undertaker, stonecutter—“all, all sleeping on the hill.”
Rev. Abner Peet grouses at the fact that after his death, the grog-keeper bought his packing trunk with all his sermons and “burned them like waste paper.”
Elsa Wertman, a peasant from Germany seduced by her master, weeps years later, unable to declare that the eloquent esteemed Congressman Hamilton Greene is her son.
George Gray, observing his tombstone’s chiseled marble image of a ship with furled sails, regrets a timid life of shrinking from love, sorrow, and ambition: “a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
Knowlt Hoheimer wishes he’d stayed and faced jail for hog-stealing rather than dying on Missionary Ridge and lying under a magnificent military monument engraved “Pro Patria”: “What do they mean, anyway?”
Hannah Armstrong writes a letter begging the President—“all of us called him Abe, there in Menard”—for a desperate favor and, when that fails, travels to the White House. “Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong/ from Illinois come to see about her sick boy/ in the army.” Lincoln has her admitted at once, writes a discharge for her son, laughing and telling stories of the old days when he was her boarder.
Lucinda Matlock, modeled on Masters’ beloved grandmother, recounts the night she fell in love and then seventy years’ marriage, twelve children, eight dying before she was 60: “At ninety-six, I had lived is enough, that is all/ …Life is too strong for you–/ It takes life to love life.”
Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Masters’ vast readership came more from ordinary folk than the academy. Like Tolkien, he was acutely aware of the nastier effects of the dehumanization of industrialization, the corruption of power, the effects of prejudice, the rivalries of politics, the manipulations of finance, and the class structure.
A popular Populist, he was also a democratic Democrat.
He never equaled this first book’s success. The New Spoon River (1924) let the next de-generation of dead speak, but their tales were too angry and grim.
Still, its predecessor belongs on every bookshelf, ripening with age.
Read it again.
Like fine bootleg wine, it ages excellently.