Edgar Lee Masters

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For the Australian footballer, see Edgar Masters (footballer).
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 attorney, 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.

Life and career[edit]

Edgar Lee Masters as a young man

Born in Garnett, Kansas to attorney Hardin Wallace Masters and Emma J. Dexter,[2] his father had briefly moved to set up a law practice, then 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.[3]

Masters attended Knox Academy in 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 three years of unrest (1908–1911) caused by 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.[4]

Masters died at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81.[5] 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, the son of Robert Masters born c.1715 in Prince George's County, Maryland, the son of William W. Masters and wife Mary Veatch Masters. Edgar Lee Masters wrote in his autobiography, Across Spoon River (1936), that his ancestor Hillery Masters was the son of "Knotteley" Masters, but family genealogies show that Hillery Masters and Notley Masters were brothers. [6]


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.[7]

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 Abraham Lincoln, portraying him as a tool of bankers wanting a new Bank of the United States, "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."[8]

Quotations from the book:

"The political history of America has been written for the most part by those who were unfriendly to the theory of a confederated republic, or who did not understand it. It has been written by devotees of the protective principle [tariff], by centralists, and to a large degree by New England."
"For in six weeks he was to inaugurate a war without the American people having anything to say about it. He was to call for and send troops into the South, and thus stir that psychology of hate and fear from which a people cannot extricate themselves, though knowing and saying that the war was started by usurpation. Did he mean that he would bow to the American people when the law was laid down by their courts, through which alone the law be interpreted as the Constitutional voice of the people? No, he did not mean that; because when Taney decided that Lincoln had no power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, Lincoln flouted and trampled the decision of the court."
"The War between the States demonstrated that salvation is not of the Jews, but of the Greeks. The World War added to this proof; for Wilson did many things that Lincoln did, and with Lincoln as authority for doing them. Perhaps it will happen again that a few men, deciding what is a cause of war, and what is necessary to its successful prosecution, may, as Lincoln and Wilson did, seal the lips of discussion and shackle the press; but no less the ideal of a just state, which has founded itself in reason and in free speech, will remain."

Notable works[edit]



*Mark Twain: A Portrait (1938)


  • The New Star Chamber and Other Essays (1904)
  • The Blood of the Prophets (1905) (play)
  • Althea (1907) (play)
  • The Trifler (1908) (play)
  • Mitch Miller (novel) (1920)
  • Skeeters Kirby (novel) (1923)
  • The Nuptial Flight (novel) (1923)
  • Kit O'Brien (novel) (1927)
  • The Fate of the Jury: An Epilogue to Domesday Book (1929)
  • Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma: Three Plays (1930)
  • The Tale of Chicago (1933)
  • The Tide of Time (novel) (1937)
  • The Sangamon (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1942, 1988)


  • "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.[10]


  1. ^ a b c "Edgar Lee Masters". Poets.org. Retrieved 2013-09-10.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "poets.org" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "poets.org" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  2. ^ www.english.illinois.edu
  3. ^ http://www.bartleby.com/84/22.html
  4. ^ Jack Masters. "Edgar Lee Masters bio". Jackmasters.net. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=45819884l; also Jack Masters, The Masters Family (1989); Charles Burgess, "The Maryland-Carolina Ancestry of Edgar Lee Masters," The Great Lakes Review, vol. 8, #2 (Fall 1982-Spring 1983), pp.51-80.)
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ foseti.wordpress.com
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ http://www.chicagoliteraryhof.org/PersonDetail.aspx?PersonID=34

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