Spoon River Revisited

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The old Schirding place was not far from the top of the long grade where the C. P. & St.L. chugged slowly up from the Sangamon Valley to the high prairie that stretched away as level as the sea to a far horizon. In the late afternoon I would hear the freight train’s steam engine puffing hard to make the grade and then see it appear over the top, where it seemed to sigh with relief and go rattling away to the northwest in the direction of the Masters’ place at Sandridge, its great spreading plume of smoke red against the late afternoon sky. I thought to myself that I had not realized when I was a child how rich and abundant was the land I grew up in. I had almost forgotten the yellow violets that sprang up in the springtime under layers of last year’s leaves in hidden gullies; the little, secret springs of fresh water that flowed away in brooks where crawdaddies hid under the rocks; the beautiful birds that abounded everywhere, orioles and cardinals and bluebirds; the coveys of speckled quail that thrived on the scattered wheat at threshing time; the mourning doves on the telephone lines, their contralto note mingling with the singing of the wires in the wind; the whippoorwill’s call in the river-bottom woods where it was cool on summer nights.

 
 

I recalled what Edgar Lee had written about his grandfather’s farm at Sandridge, where he spent his boyhood:

all with green fields in the spring, golden fields in harvesttime, with sweet smells of the clover blown from afar and from near by the long winds in the June days. So often I walked and raced the four miles from Atterberry to the Masters farmhouse, so eager to get there that I could scarcely contain myself. There was bindweed on the rail fences, horsetails, cattails and pondweeds on the pools of water. There was rich meadow grass, and in season dandelions, milkweed, ironweed, and the purple blossoms of the jimson weed. Around the rim of the landscape seemed to soar the forestry in that clear atmosphere. If I had taken time to loiter in the woods along the way I would have found May apples, wood violets, the flower of Illinois, spring beauties, jack-in-the-pulpit, wake-robin and lady-slippers.

It was from Masters that I learned that in the Potawatomi language sangamon means “where there is plenty to cat.” And I thought as I stood in the Schirding’s pasture that what Edgar Lee and I had in common more deeply than anything else was not people, but the place.

One day at the Chelsea, Masters gave me the typescript of a new poem, “Owen’s Bridge,” about a rickety crossing of the Sangamon that I remembered, and, as we always did while talking of these things, we had a good time. I said to him, “Lambert Hutchins in Spoon River is my Grandfather Laning, isn’t he?”

He looked at me with a sly smile and said, “Well, you know, nobody in Spoon River is any particular person exactly .”

I mentioned my Grandfather Smoot and his disapproval of the poem about Ann Rutledge that had been carved on her tombstone at Oakland Cemetery. “Smoot!” he snorted. “That prig!”

“Papa Smoot is the best man who ever lived,” I said.

He made a face. “I don’t doubt it,” he replied.

But Papa Smoot was the best man who ever lived. In spite of Edgar Lee Masters, I will always think so. One has to believe in something besides Art. And it was always easy for me to admire him, even as a child. He was the patriarch of a large family, and wherever any of us lived, in one or another of the houses he owned in the town, we always gathered at Papa Smoot’s house for Sunday dinner and on holidays. After dinner he would take me for a long walk to the brickyard or the canning factory, and it always made me proud to walk beside him. In the summertime we would go out to the farm at Curtis to see how the wheat was coming along. I often went with him to political rallies at Oakford or Fancy Prairie or Pleasant Plains. Once he took me to Springfield to hear Teddy Roosevelt make a speech at the armory. (I only remember that when Teddy was introduced, he unfastened the velvet rope across the platform, shouted, “Let nothing come between me and the people!” bared his teeth, and the audience went wild.)

Papa and Mama Smoot had always been my second parents, and after my mother died and my father ran away, they were simply Mama and Papa to my sister and me. It was Mama who actually ran things, but her worship for Papa was complete, and she ruled through seductiveness and outward submission. I was their favorite grandson and they spoiled me. It was through Mama that I had my own way. Mama and Papa slept in a big double bed downstairs, and I always knew that if she agreed with me, Papa would wake up agreeing with me in the morning.