In 1915, Edgar Lee Masters’s book of poetry, Spoon River Anthology, was published to wide acclaim. The book was an instant and international sensation. One reviewer wrote, “At last, America has discovered a poet!”
The book is composed of a series of free-verse poems that serve as monologues of the dead residents of a mythical cemetery in the Spoon River Valley. The poems told of the lives of the men and women who once lived in Spoon River and were buried in their graves on The Hill. “The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? All, all, are sleeping on the hill.”
The dead were given voice to vent their grievances, to celebrate their victories, and to defend scandalous behavior. Masters drew on his knowledge of the people from the area. He remembered the stories—good and bad—of people dead and still living and used their lives as fodder for the poems. In all, 214 citizens of the valley spoke from their graves to tell the blunt truth of their lives. The monologues were of gossip, despair, loss, and greed…
…the married couple buried side by side, who despised each other,
or the town drunkard buried next the banker and his wife,
or the judge who complained that he lies buried in an unmarked grave,
or the soldier who died from an enemy’s bullet at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.
Those epitaphs gave voice to the dead in poems with stories so well known that the residents of Lewistown and Petersburg recognized who each monologue was about, and they were appalled. As books became available, the residents began to gossip about the book and point out who was who in the book. People were incensed and angry especially as some names were barely masked—such as, Judge Somers for Judge Winters, just a switch of seasons for the last name, or Doc Hill for old Doc Hull—a letter difference is all. Others were figured out by the story in the poem that would have been known by most of the residents of Lewistown or Petersburg. Soon lists were created by locals to identify the actual characters. Because some of the poems drew upon the lives of the still living, the book caused such a stir the Library Board in Lewistown voted to ban the book. This was certainly an embarrassment to Edgar Lee Masters’s mother who was the librarian at the time.
But as the real-life inhabitants of the mythological cemetery died along with their ancestors and the memories of them and their antics were buried along with them, tempers cooled and the scandal the anthology had caused was eventually forgotten. By the 60s there was a renewed interest in the book and the stories contained within its pages. Now there are 40 numbered markers throughout the Oak Hill Cemetery and one marker in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Lewistown marking the names of the fictional people identified in the anthology and who their actual counterpart was printed on a map that takes the reader though the cemetery. The markers are in the shape of a silhouette of Edgar Lee Masters himself. There is also a red granite marker at the entrance to the Oak Hill Cemetery dedicated to the author and his work, Spoon River Anthology.
Memories faded, tempers cooled, and time heals.