Spoon River Revisited

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This moral dominion wasn’t limited to the poor people who lived down near the tracks in “Joe Town” or over in “Nigger Heaven,” or even to the whole town and county, but it extended to people who lived famously and successfully in the great world beyond. When a friend asked my little cousin Dorothy in Kansas City what her grandparents in Illinois were like (Dorothy had just returned from a visit to them), she said, “Mama Smoot writes checks and Papa Smoot walks up and down and spits.” And what Papa was spitting about as he paced the floor in the evening might be Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who, according to the Chicago Tribune , had just married after divorcing their former partners. Papa had never seen a picture show and would as readily have been caught entering Madam Patton’s in Springfield as going into a theater. He anathematized the guilty couple and expectorated into the spittoon on the hearth near his big black leather chair.

When the Chicago Tribune failed to provide a target for his wrath, there was always Edgar Lee Masters, and in many ways Edgar Lee was even more satisfactory than Mary Pickford, because he was a local boy. Everyone knew him. He had gone to Chicago, where he became a law partner of the successful but infamous Clarence Darrow, who was always defending sinners. And when Edgar Lee came home, it was often in defense of local sinners like the rich merchant whose wife had discovered that he had been carrying on a long love affair with her sister. Edgar Lee himself had recently been divorced. And then he had gone from bad to worse, leaving Darrow’s law office to spend all his time writing poetry and leaving Chicago for New York. And on top of everything else—That Damned Book. When Spoon River Anthology appeared and won national fame, all hell broke loose. Half the town found itself mirrored there; and all the righteous were condemned, and all the sinners were pardoned. Perhaps the worst of it to Papa Smoot was the poem about Ann Rutledge, especially those lines, “ Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln,/Wedded to him, not through union,/But through separation .” This smacked to Papa of some peculiarly horrible moral turpitude which by association he attributed to Edgar Lee. “If that man came to this door and rang the bell, I wouldn’t let him in the house!” he would thunder in his courtroom manner, and then he would spit angrily into the spittoon.

This bitterness toward Edgar Lee didn’t extend to the poet’s Uncle Will, old Billy Masters, or to Aunt Norma, or to their daughter, Miss Edith. Often in the evening after supper, when Uncle Harold and I would take Papa out in the car for his ritual drive, we would stop to pick up Billy, and the two old men would talk, Billy in a high, piping voice that was the relic of an attack of scarlet fever in his youth. Harold would drive first to the C. P. & St.L. station to wait for the 7:15 to go through. At the first faint whistle from the south, Papa would say, “It’s Number 49.” As the little train rolled past, the conductor would be standing on the back platform to return Papa’s and Billy’s waves. Then we would speed down Main Street to the crossing a mile away and pull up at the edge of the track, where the conductor would wave just before Number 49 began the long pull up the hill north of town.

Edgar Lee was never mentioned. It would have been morbid to talk of him. Nobody ever did. Sometimes Uncle Harold would ask Billy to tell us about the cyclone that had struck his house out at Sandridge years ago, and Billy would give us a hair-raising account of it. After we had dropped Billy at home, my uncle would assert that Billy hadn’t even been there at the time, but Papa Smoot would never take this up. He liked Billy Masters’ company better than Harold’s. Billy’s motto, I would recall, was “Tell a lie never, and the truth not always.”

The Masters family, like Lincoln and the Smoots and most of the early settlers of Menard County, had come from Virginia to Kentucky and across Indiana into Illinois, and during the Civil War there were many Copperheads—southern sympathizers among them. (Wrhen he was running for Congress, Lincoln said to his law partner, William H. Herndon, “Next week I’m going back to Menard to make a speech and I’m not looking forward to it. They don’t like me back there.”) It was years after I had left Petersburg, returning to it only to visit Mama and Papa Smoot, that I came to realize that it was in many ways a southern town. This southern enclave prospered in its isolation until the First World War. The land was fertile and the farmers were rich. Roads were so bad that in winter and spring it was often impossible to make the twenty-mile trip to Springfield. “The Burg” was the busy center of the county’s life.