Edgar Lee Masters

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Edgar Lee Masters
Usstamp-edgar lee masters.jpg
Born (1868-08-23)August 23, 1868
Garnett, Kansas, U.S.[1]
Died March 5, 1950(1950-03-05) (aged 81)
Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.[1]
Occupation Poet, Biographer, Lawyer
Notable awards Robert Frost Medal (1942)

Edgar Lee Masters (August 23, 1868 – March 5, 1950) was an American poet, biographer, and dramatist. He is the author of Spoon River Anthology, The New Star Chamber and Other Essays, Songs and Satires, The Great Valley, The Serpent in the Wilderness An Obscure Tale, The Spleen, Mark Twain: A Portrait, Lincoln: The Man, and Illinois Poems. In all, Masters published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman.


Edgar Lee Masters as a young man

Born on August 23, 1868, to Emma J. Dexter and Hardin Wallace Masters in Garnett, Kansas, his father had briefly moved to set up a law practice. The family soon moved back to his paternal grandparents' farm near Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois. In 1880, they moved to Lewistown, Illinois, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. The culture around Lewistown, in addition to the town's cemetery at Oak Hill, and the nearby Spoon River were the inspirations for many of his works, most notably Spoon River Anthology, his most famous and acclaimed work. Masters' referenced his Welsh ancestry in the poem “Indignation” Jones.[2]

Masters attended The Knox Academy from 1889–1890, a defunct preparatory program run by Knox College, but was forced to leave due to his family's inability to finance his education.[1]

After working in his father's law office, he was admitted to the Illinois bar and moved to Chicago, where he established a law partnership with Kickham Scanlan in 1893. He married twice. In 1898, he married Helen M. Jenkins, the daughter of Robert Edwin Jenkins, a lawyer in Chicago, and had three children. During his law partnership with Clarence Darrow, from 1903 to 1908, Masters defended the poor. In 1911, he started his own law firm, despite the three years of unrest (1908–1911) due to extramarital affairs and an argument with Darrow.

Two of his children followed him with literary careers. His daughter Marcia pursued poetry, while his son, Hilary Masters, became a novelist. Hilary and his half-brother Hardin wrote a memoir of their father.[3]

Masters died at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81.[4] He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois. His epitaph includes his poem, "To-morrow is My Birthday" from Toward the Gulf (1918):

Good friends, let’s to the fields…
After a little walk and by your pardon,
I think I’ll sleep, there is no sweeter thing.
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep.

I am a dream out of a blessed sleep-
Let’s walk, and hear the lark.

Family history[edit]

Edgar's father was Hardin Wallace Masters, whose father was Squire Davis Masters, whose father was Thomas Masters, whose father was Hillery Masters, and his father was Robert Masters who was born c.1715 in Prince George's County, Maryland.


Masters first published his early poems and essays under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace (after his mother's maiden name and his father's middle name) until the year 1903, when he joined the law firm of Clarence Darrow.

Masters began developing as a notable American poet in 1914, when he began a series of poems (this time under the pseudonym Webster Ford) about his childhood experiences in Western Illinois, which appeared in Reedy's Mirror, a St. Louis publication. In 1915 the series was bound into a volume and re-titled Spoon River Anthology. Years later, he wrote a memorable and invaluable account of the book’s background and genesis, his working methods and influences, as well as its reception by the critics, favorable and hostile, in an autobiographical article notable for its human warmth and general interest.[5]

Though he never matched the success of his Spoon River Anthology, Masters was a prolific writer of diverse works. He published several other volumes of poems including Book of Verses in 1898, Songs and Sonnets in 1910, The Great Valley in 1916, Song and Satires in 1916, The Open Sea in 1921, The New Spoon River in 1924, Lee in 1926, Jack Kelso in 1928, Lichee Nuts in 1930, Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma in 1930, Godbey, sequel to Jack Kelso in 1931, The Serpent in the Wilderness in 1933, Richmond in 1934, Invisible Landscapes in 1935, The Golden Fleece of California in 1936, Poems of People in 1936, The New World in 1937, More People in 1939, Illinois Poems in 1941, and Along the Illinois in 1942.

Masters was awarded the Mark Twain Silver Medal in 1936, the Poetry Society of America medal in 1941, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1942, and the Shelly Memorial Award in 1944.

Lincoln: the Man[edit]

In 1931 Masters published the biography Lincoln: the Man, which demythologizes Lincoln as a tool of bankers wanting a new Bank of the U.S., "that political system which doles favors to the strong in order to win and keep their adherence to the government", and advocates "a people taxed to make profits for enterprises that cannot stand alone." He claims that the Whig Party led by Lincoln's mentor Henry Clay "had no platform to announce because its principles were plunder and nothing else."[citation needed]

Notable works[edit]


  • A Book of Verses (1898)
  • Songs and Sonnets (1910)
  • Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  • Songs and Satires (1916)
  • Fiddler Jones (1916)
  • The Great Valley (1916)
  • Toward the Gulf (1918)
  • Starved Rock (1919)
  • Jack Kelso: A Dramatic Poem (1920)
  • The Open Sea (1921)
  • The New Spoon River (1924)
  • Selected Poems (1925)
  • Lee: A Dramatic Poem (1926)
  • Lichee Nuts (1930)
  • Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma: A Dramatic Poem (1930)
  • Godbey: A Dramatic Poem, sequel to Jack Kelso (1931)
  • The Serpent in the Wilderness (1933)
  • Richmond: A Dramatic Poem (1934)
  • Invisible Landscapes (1935)
  • Poems of People (1936)
  • The Golden Fleece of California (1936)
  • The New World (1937)
  • More People (1939)
  • Illinois Poems (1941)
  • Along the Illinois (1942)
  • Silence (1946)
  • George Gray
  • Many Soldiers
  • The Unknown


  • Lincoln: The Man (1931)
  • Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935)
  • Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (1936, memoir)
  • Whitman (1937)
  • Mark Twain: A Portrait (1938)


  • The New Star Chamber and Other Essays (1904)
  • The Blood of the Prophets (1905)
  • The Great Valley (1916)
  • Mitch Miller (1920, novel)
  • Domesday Book (1920)
  • The Open Sea (1921)
  • Children of the Market Place (1922)
  • Skeeters Kirby (1923, novel)
  • The Nuptial Flight (1923, novel)
  • Kit O'Brien (1927, novel)
  • Levy Mayer and the New Industrial Era (1927)
  • The Fate of the Jury: An Epilogue to Domesday Book (1929)
  • Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma (1930)
  • Godbey: A Dramatic Poem (1931)
  • The Tale of Chicago (1933, history)
  • The Golden Fleece of California (1936)
  • The Tide of Time (1937, novel)
  • The Sangamon (1942, nonfiction)
  • Greg Smith


  • "To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
    But life without meaning is the torture
    Of restlessness and vague desire –
    It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid." "George Gray" Spoon River Anthology


In 2014, Masters was inducted into The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.[6]


  1. ^ a b c "Edgar Lee Masters". Poets.org. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  2. ^ http://www.bartleby.com/84/22.html
  3. ^ Jack Masters. "Edgar Lee Masters bio". Jackmasters.net. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  4. ^ Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982: 206. ISBN 0-19-503186-5
  5. ^ Edgar Lee Masters, “The Genesis of Spoon River,” American Mercury, v. 28, no. 109 (January 1933) 38-55.[1] Masters on the Genesis of Spoon River.
  6. ^ http://www.chicagoliteraryhof.org/PersonDetail.aspx?PersonID=34

External links[edit]