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Spoon River Revisited

May 2024
19min read

An artist recalls his Midwestern home town and the poet who made it famous

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.

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.

Papa Smoot’s great goodness hadn’t been difficult to achieve; he had always had everything going for him. He had inherited a lot of rich, Illinois farm land; he was intelligent and educated; above all, he was perfectly beautiful. It was no wonder that his goodness was marred by self-righteousness. Petersburg, Illinois, was a very selfrighteous community, and Papa was very much a part of Petersburg—in many ways, in fact, its leading citizen. His grandfather had come to Illinois when it was virgin prairie and had acquired a big tract of government land. Abe Lincoln had settled in the locality about the same time and had worked for Papa’s grandfather as a hired hand (and borrowed two hundred dollars from him for clothes and travelling expenses to get to Vandalia when he was elected to the legislature). But Lincoln was an ambitious politician, and he moved on to Springfield and Washington, and Petersburg never liked him very much. The Smoots stayed put and lived comfortably off the fat of the land and were satisfied with themselves.


I always liked to go and sit in Papa Smoot’s law office on the courthouse square. When I was a boy, he practiced law in partnership with my father, and the office was a busy place. Papa didn’t need to make money from his profession and never tried to. There were endless questions of property rights, and everyone in the county trusted him, and his law practice was an exercise in civic virtue. When now and then someone came to him about a divorce, he would order him out of the office. He didn’t believe in divorce. In his last, lonely years, when I would return from New York to visit him, I found him alone there more often than not. His law business had declined along with the town during the Depression. He would look out of the window in long silent meditation on the empty square. Then he would say, as much to himself as to me, “I wonder if these towns will ever come back.” We both knew they never would.

My Grandfather Laning, who died when I was twelve, was very different—almost as bad a man as Papa Smoot was good. He spent most of his time far away in Oklahoma on his “plantation,” and I saw him only on his annual visits to Illinois, when he came back to open the house. He fascinated me, but it was an evil fascination. I was proud of him because he was reputed to be rich, but I always dreaded it a little when he called me to him in the square, because his talk frightened me. I might hear him say to some admiring crony, “When you’ve got an enemy, don’t attack him directly. Put your arm around him—and drive a knife in his back—and twist it!” Once he told me and my companions how, when he was our age, he used to sneak into the Menard House, a tavern that then stood on the south side of the square, to listen to the men’s talk. Usually the proprietor ignored him, but sometimes he would chase him away, saying, “Ed, you run along. Abe Lincoln’s here, and I don’t want you to hear the stories he’s got to tell.” Sometimes he would invite me to bring my friends up to the house, where he would show us his hunting trophies, the hides and mounted heads of big game he had brought back from his expeditions to the Rocky Mountains, and I would feel very important. By the time I went to high school, I already knew by heart the poem about Grandfather Laning from the Spoon River Anthology:

I have two monuments besides this granite obelisk: One, the house I built on the hill, With its spires, bay windows, and roof of slate; The other, the lake-front in Chicago, Where the railroad keeps a switching yard, With whistling engines and crunching wheels, And smoke and soot thrown over the city, And the crash of cars along the boulevard,— A blot like a hog-pen on the harbor Of a great metropolis, foul as a sty. I helped to give this heritage To generations yet unborn, with my vote In the House of Representatives, And the lure of the thing was to be at rest From the never-ending fright of need, And to give my daughters gentle breeding, And a sense of security in life. But, you see, though I had the mansion house And traveling passes and local distinction, I could hear the whispers, whispers, whispers, Wherever I went, and my daughters grew up With a look as if someone were about to strike them; And they married madly, helter-skelter, Just to get out and have a change. And what was the whole of the business worth? Why, it wasn’t worth a damn!

I was proud of him, but I didn’t love him. I loved Papa Smoot.

Though happily married, Mama Smoot harbored some deep dissatisfactions; but I was the only one who knew this. As sometimes happens between grandparents and grandchildren, the difference in age was no barrier between us. Mama liked to go to Springfield, the state capital, twenty miles away, and as soon as I was allowed to drive her car, I would take her there. She would go to Madame Heimlich, the dressmaker, while I went to Barker’s Art Store, where there were not only paints and brushes but also a big collection of Civil War books. At the time I was fighting the Civil War all over again—and I was on the side of the Rebellion. Mama Smoot and I would both have such a good time that we were late starting back, and I would have to drive at sixty miles an hour—a fearsome speed for a 1922 Buick over the narrow and unbanked concrete road—in order to get us home ahead of Papa, so that he wouldn’t know we had made the trip. On these excursions Mama would tell me that Papa should not have returned to Petersburg from Kansas, where they had gone just after their marriage and where Papa had begun to practice law. If he had stayed in Kansas instead of coming back when his father died, he’d have gone on to become governor. Or he might, if he’d been a little more ambitious, have become senator from Illinois. And he shouldn’t have said No when the Chicago & Alton Railroad asked him, after he had helped them obtain their right-of-way through Illinois, to come to Chicago to head their legal department. It was nice to be the first lady of Petersburg and Menard County, but Mama was jealous of Mrs. Potter Palmer. “Papa failed me,” she said, “and Harold failed me.” (Harold was her only son.) “Now you mustn’t fail me.” It wasn’t enough for her that Papa was the keeper of Petersburg’s conscience, state’s attorney, and the fundamentalist teacher of the men’s Sunday-school class.

Even Papa Smoot betrayed a certain restlessness that seemed to center in me. He would draw me out and argue with me as if it were wicked old Ed Laning, my bad grandfather, the one who hadn’t said No to the railroad, that he was sparring with. I did my best in these verbal contests because I knew that the lawyer in him, and the actor, enjoyed the exercise. Uncle Harold would turn white at my temerity, and Mama Smoot would signal her disapproval, but Papa Smoot wouldn’t let me ofT. Once it was Prohibition—the Eighteenth Amendment had just been adopted. I opposed it and he took the defense. He looked angry, but I knew he was pretending. Finally he said to me, “You mean you’re not your brother’s keeper?” I said of course I wasn’t; my brother was a free man and could look out for himself. As soon as I had said it, I knew I had been outwitted. Papa was infinitely pleased with himself—and with me.

I guess they were all restless and dissatisfied, and that’s why they sought consolation in moral superiority. Mama defeated herself in this, however. She was an incorrigible gossip, and she poured oil on the flames of Papa’s righteous wrath. In the years just before her death she became saintly, and this fault fell away from her; but in her prime she was an awful scourge of sinners. And she always took her discoveries of sin to Papa, and he took them, when he could, to court.

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.

But the war changed everything. When I was eleven, I carried a big flag at the head of the procession that escorted the first group of drafted boys from the courthouse square to the C. & A. depot. Papa Smoot was chairman of the draft board. Down at the Ring Barn, where Ed Shipp’s circus had its winter quarters, a little girl in spangled tights sang, “ How’re you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree? ” A new, flag-waving patriotism swept the country, and this spirit seized upon the image of Lincoln as its symbol. Irving Bachelier, who was writing A Man for the Ages , came to Petersburg and stayed at my friend Hubert’s house and strolled through town and over New Salem hill in search of inspiration. A group of “Boosters” led by Judge Nelson, Hubert’s father, organized the Lincoln League for the purpose of restoring the village of New Salem, where Abe Lincoln—and Ann Rutledge—had lived. Papa regarded this as foolishness, and the Lincoln League languished for lack of local support.

Ann Rutledge’s coffin had been moved from the rural Concord cemetery and brought to the Oakland Cemetery at Petersburg in 1890 (Papa said there wasn’t anything in her coffin but a handful of dust and some buttons), and in 1921 the little stone at the head of her new grave, just across the path from Grandfather Laning’s granite obelisk, was replaced by a large square block on which was carved Edgar Lee’s poem:

Out of me unworthy and unknown The vibrations of deathless music; ” With malice toward none, with chanty for all.” Out of me the forgiveness of millions toward millions, And the beneficent face of a nation Shining with justice and truth. I am Anne Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds, Beloved m life of Abraham Lincoln, Wedded to him, not through union, But through separation. Bloomforever, O Republic, From the dust of my bosom!

I expected a terrible explosion, but none came. Things were changing, even in Petersburg. William Randolph Hears! bought the New Salem hill and gave it to the state of Illinois—on the condition that the state complete the reconstruction of the pioneer village and make it a state park. This development reached the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune reached Papa Smoot. His reading had become restricted to the Bible and the Chicago Tribune (he was, in both cases, a cover-to-cover man), and when I asked him why, he told me, “Everything else is a matter of opinion.” The next thing I knew, he was taking visitors to New Salem, and to Oakland Cemetery, too, and he was pointing to these things with pride. And I thought that if Edgar Lee were to come to the door now, Papa would welcome him.

But the explosion did come at last. It came from Edgar Lee. Far away in New York he published a new book, Lincoln—the Man . In it he wrote that Lincoln had always been an opportunist politician and that furthermore there had never been any romance between Abe and Ann, that this story was nothing but a fond delusion of Herndon’s.”…Lincoln had no lasting love, if any love, for Ann Rutledge,” he wrote. I thought when I read this that it was no more than we had always known. Uncle Harold had long since told us that Aunt Parthena Nance Hill, the last survivor of New Salem, had often told him that while Abe and Ann had known each other, there was certainly no love on either side. But it was awful for Papa Smoot. He got to his feet, with some difficulty now, and he denounced Edgar Lee just the way he used to. “That son of a bitch! If he came to this door and knocked, I wouldn’t let him in the house!” And he spat violently into the spittoon.

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.”


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