Spoon River Revisited

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I always felt at home in Edgar Lee Master᾿s quarters in the Chelsea Hotel. It was all so much like a Petersburg, Illinois, law office that I might have been back in Papa Smoot’s office overlooking the courthouse square. Edgar Lee, plain and short and stocky, sat in a straight chair near a big desk. there was the same smell of books and tobacco. The same southern light filtered through the braches of the ailanthus trees, and the court behind the Chelsea was almost as quiet as the empty Petersburg square with its big elms. there was even a spittoon on the floor near Master’s chair.

I had never known Edgar Lee in Petersburg. When I was growing up there, he lived in Chicago, where he practiced law, and after the shock of Spoon River Anthology he was no longer welcome in his home town. Too many of the characters in the book were recognizable in spite of the made-up names attached to them. In later years he could only return secretly because there was some sort of court order againts him in a matter of alimony. And anyway, if I had talked to him, Papa Smoot would have been furious when he found out (and everybody in town knew everything about everybody).

It was through Miss Edith, Edgar Lee’s cousin and my high school history teacher, that I came to know and revere the poet. Edgar Lee was a secret cult of Miss Edith’s, but one she chose to share with me. She would read to me sometimes from his letters and from poems he sent to her. (“A Corybantic din, as of a Salvation Army, followed Him.…And then along came Paul who almost spoiled it all.”) I have always thought that Edgar Lee might have written “Emily Sparks” with Miss Edith in mind. (And inevitably I became Reuben Pantier. “Dear Emily Sparks”! Dear Miss Edith!) I don’t remember if I ever betrayed these great confidence at home. If I did, Mama and Papa Smoot would have put it down to Miss Edith’s spinsterish eccentricity. All Edgar Lee ever said to me of her was that she had wasted her life caring for her mother and father.

He always seemed glad to see me, and i think he enjoyed my visits, because he loved Petersburg and it was of Petersburg that we talked. I believe that the Petersburg of long ago was more real to him than the great city outside the Chelsea Hotel. I was proud of the fact that he had mentioned me in his book about the Sangamon, the river that flows past New Salem and Petersburg, but I had an uneasy feeling that it was my origins he was interested in and that it was not I he was seeing but my Grandfather Laning’s house, “all of pressed brick and Victorian towers and balconies, standing picturesque view at the foot of the hill which one passes going out of town toward Tallula.” He seemed to me to be lonely and sad and to be living in the days of his youth. Sometimes, though, my visits were interrupted by the appearance of a pretty young woman who lived upstairs who took a proprietary interest in him that visibly brightened his day. She would come in smiling to fuss about his health and to tell him, “I think I’ve found a first edition; I’ll know for sure tomorrow,” and she would leave me wondering whether, except for my being there, she might not have stayed. And this was not like Papa Smoot’s office.

When she had gone, we were back in Petersburg. Edgar Lee would light a cigar, lean back comfortably in his chair, and look out at the ailanthus trees. “The old Courthouse America is dead,” I would hear him say. “The old Jeffersonian democracy is gone. The beginning of the end was the rise of the Republican Party after the Civil War.” Then he would launch into a tirade against Roosevelt and the New Deal. When I left him to walk back to the pier in the Hudson River where I was painting Prometheus for the ceiling of the New York Public Library, a New Deal project, I felt annoyed with him. He was in his seventies, I in my thirties, and life in the present seemed glorious to me.

Several years after Papa Smoot’s death I went back to Petersburg to paint a picture of the old farmhouse on the Schirding place north of town. I walked from the house past a barnyard where John Schirding kept some fine horses, including a great white stallion, and then along a fence behind which a fat grunting sow was suckling her squealing pigs and into a pasture where I set up my easel. It was June and the countryside was verdant. The deep grass of the pasture rippled like waves in the fragrant west wind. There were sparrows and meadowlarks in the bright air, and butterflies, and in the grass there were beetles and field mice and sometimes a green snake.