Spoon River Revisited

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Papa Smoot’s last years were sad, as sad as those of Edgar Lee. The world had broken in and laid waste to Papa Smoot’s Petersburg. I couldn’t tell him that its heart still beat there in Edgar Lee’s room at the Chelsea. While the rest of America advanced under the sign of “Honest Abe” through the years of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, Menard County declined. The Depression that was to devastate the whole nation in the early thirties struck the farmers long before. When I came back to visit Papa and drove through the countryside with him and Uncle Harold, he would look out at the unplowed fields and say, “All our troubles come from back there where you are, in New York.” And mentally I was looking at another ruined landscape, one described by John Sloan, my teacher (and another resident of the Chelsea). He used to picture for us a ghastly scene in no man’s land at night. Over the edge of a shell crater a frightened figure scrambled. It was a banker seeking refuge from the holocaust. Suddenly, by the light of a bursting shell, the banker saw that he was not alone there. Another man sprawled in the dirt and darkness at the bottom of the hole. “Who are you?” demanded the banker. “I’m an artist,” the other man said. “I live here.” The story comforted me, but I didn’t tell it to Papa Smoot.

He welcomed the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but as the Depression wore on and he grew old, it seemed to him that the cures prescribed by the government were worse than the disease. “The one thing I hope God will forgive me for when I die,” he said, “is that I stumped the county for that man.”

Mama Smoot died before Papa, and he didn’t want to live any longer after that. I tried to remind him of the consolations of his religion, but the Bible and the Chicago Tribune had both lost their efficacy. I don’t think Mama and Papa died altogether unfulfilled. I had received some publicity before Mama’s death, and she held Life magazine before her and said over and over, “And to think that he did it all by himself.” And I know that she had persuaded Papa to her point of view once again, because on his deathbed he asked me, “How is your painting going?”—a thing he had never done before.

In 1936 Edgar Lee was invited by the Boosters to make a speech at the celebration of Petersburg’s centennial. Miss Edith sent me a copy of his remarks. “No matter where life has taken me,” he said, “my heart has remained here.…I am one of you. I am prouder that I am sprung from this land than of anything else in my life. I have written books about you, with the idea of making you beloved where you are not known. My thanks go to you always.” He said to them, “The world is upset.…In America we are adrift from our old moorings.…If anything can save America it will be the Petersburg idea and conception of life, by which I mean self-reliance, courage, integrity, thrift, happiness.” Until that last word I’m sure he had his audience with him. If he had said righteousness instead…

It was not long after this that I began going to see him at the Chelsea. He was a myth of my childhood, an archetype on whom, knowingly and unknowingly, I had modelled myself. He had always lifted Petersburg, for me, to a plane broader and higher than its own view of itself. He had enhanced my life. He told me he had been back home. “I stayed with Uncle Will and Aunt Norma,” he said. “I said to them, ‘You know how much I’ve always loved Petersburg. I’m getting old and tired and Fm thinking about coming back and settling down.’ Uncle Will piped up, ‘Don’t you do it! Don’t you do it! They’ll pluck out every pinfeather you’ve got!’ ”

Edgar Lee died in 1950 and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. The Petersburg paper wrote, “Let us not discuss his books or his philosophy or his individualism. Suffice it to say that Edgar Lee Masters has come home.”