Spoon River Anthology

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Spoon River Anthology
Macmillan & Co., First edition, frontispiece to Spoon River Anthology.
Author Edgar Lee Masters
Country United States
Language English
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Publisher William Marion Reedy (1914 & 1915), Macmillan & Co. (1915 & 1916)
Publication date
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Spoon River Anthology (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of short free-form poems that collectively narrates the epitaphs of the residents of Spoon River, a fictional small town named after the real Spoon River that ran near Masters' home town. The aim of the poems is to demystify the rural, small town American life. The collection includes two hundred and twelve separate characters, all providing two-hundred forty-four accounts of their lives and losses. The poems were originally published in the magazine Reedy's Mirror.


The first poem serves as an introduction:

"The Hill"
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire;
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution?—
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.[1][dead link]

Each following poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves. They speak about the sorts of things one might expect: some recite their histories and turning points, others make observations of life from the outside, and petty ones complain of the treatment of their graves, while few tell how they really died. Speaking without reason to lie or fear the consequences, they construct a picture of life in their town that is shorn of façades. The interplay of various villagers — e.g. a bright and successful man crediting his parents for all he's accomplished, and an old woman weeping because he is secretly her illegitimate child — forms a gripping, if not pretty, whole.

The subject of afterlife receives only the occasional brief mention, and even those seem to be contradictory.

The work features such characters as Tom Merritt, Amos Sibley, Carl Hamblin, Fiddler Jones and A.D. Blood. Many of the characters who make appearances in Spoon River Anthology were based on real people that Masters knew or heard of in the two towns in which he grew up, Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois. Most notable is Ann Rutledge, regarded in local legend to be Abraham Lincoln's early love interest though there is no actual proof of such a relationship. Rutledge's grave can still be found in a Petersburg cemetery, and a tour of graveyards in both towns, especially Oak Hill Cemetery, reveals most of the surnames that Masters applied to his characters.

Other local legends assert that Masters' fictional portrayal of local residents, often in unflattering light, created a lot of embarrassment and aggravation in his hometown. This is offered as an explanation for why he chose not to settle down in Lewistown or Petersburg.

Spoon River Anthology is often used in second year characterization work in the Meisner technique of actor training.[citation needed]

1916 Edition

Spoon River Anthology was originally submitted as a couple of poems to Reedy's Mirror in 1914, and then first published in 1915 with a total of two-hundred and nine poems. Masters added thirty-five new poems in the 1916 addition, expanding on new characters with connections to some of the originals.[2] Among those poems, Andy the Night-Watch, Isa Nutter, Plymouth Rock Joe, and The Epilogue were included in the new edition.


  • In 1943, the book was published in Italy (translated by Fernanda Pivano). This version was issued on LP by the Italian Cetra label in 1959, the readers being Paolo Carlini, Arnoldo Foa, Vera Gherarducci and Elsa Merlini
  • In 1956, the German composer de (Wolfgang Jacobi) set a selection of four poems as a song cycle for baritone and accordion entitled "Die Toten von Spoon River".
  • On June 2, 1957, the CBS Radio Network broadcast a radio adaptation of Spoon River Anthology, "Epitaphs", as part of its CBS Radio Workshop series. The adaptation was directed and narrated by William Conrad, with a cast including Virginia Gregg, Jeanette Nolan, Parley Baer, Richard Crenna, John Dehner and John McIntire.
  • In 1963, Charles Aidman adapted Spoon River Anthology into a theater production that is still widely performed today.
  • In 1964-74 Mario Giacomelli, master of Italian photography produced "Omaggio a Spoon River" a series of abstract photographs inspired by Edgar Lee Master's collection of poems.
  • In 1971, the Italian songwriter Fabrizio De André released Non al denaro non all'amore né al cielo, a concept album inspired by Spoon River Anthology.
  • In 1985, the British Composer Andrew Downes set a selection of five poems as a song cycle entitled "Songs from Spoon River."
  • In 1987, the Spanish writer Jon Juaristi wrote a poem entitled Spoon River, Euskadi (included in his book Suma de varia intención) to denounce the crimes of the Basque terrorist group ETA.
  • In 2000, alt-country singer Richard Buckner adapted parts of the Spoon River Anthology for his album The Hill.
  • Since 2004, writer and songwriter Mariana Figueroa and artist and author Francisco Tomsich works on Rio Cuchara project, a cycle of songs after Spoon River Anthology poems.[3]
  • in 2005, the Utah State University's Creative Learning Environment Lab created a serious game entitled Voices of Spoon River, in which the player explores an environment and solved puzzles based on the Spoon River Anthology.[4]
  • Songwriter Michael Peter Smith's song "Spoon River" is loosely based on Spoon River Anthology.
  • In 2011 "Spoon River Anthology" was adapted into a theatre production with music, called The Spoon River Project. It was performed at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.[5]
  • In 2014, Toronto's Soulpepper theatre launched the musical production Spoon River, adapted by Mike Ross and artistic director Albert Schultz.[6]
  • In 2015, American poet Samuel Binns exhibited "Larger than Life," an adaptation featuring photos and poems in response to the 100th anniversary of Spoon River Anthology.[7]


  1. http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/masters/sranthology6x9.pdf
  2. http://spoonriveranthology.net/spoon/river/article/editionOrder
  3. Río Cuchara. "Río Cuchara en MySpace". Retrieved 31 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Creative Learning Environments Lab. "Voices of Spoon River". Utah State University. Retrieved 13 June 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "A True-to-Life Setting for Voices From the Dead, ''The New York Times'', June 16, 2011". Theater.nytimes.com. 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2013-04-16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Soulpepper. "Performances - Spoon River". Retrieved 21 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Binns to present "Larger than Life" exhibit". University of the Ozarks. Retrieved 2 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Adaptation authors