August 23 – Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters was an American attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist.

Masters was born August, 23, 1868 in Garnet, Kansas. His family moved back to Illinois shortly after, and like his father Masters became an attorney. He was a practicing lawyer for nearly 30 year in Chicago, and for a time partners with Clarence Darrow, who later became famous as the counsel for the defense at the 1925 Scopes trial. In 1989 he married Helen M. Jenkins, and they had three children, two of whom later pursued literary careers. In 1922 Masters’ former law partner, Darrow, represented his wife Helen in the couple’s divorce trial. 

He began his writing career first publishing poetry in magazines under pseudonyms, before his first collection, A Book of Verses was published in 1898. He followed that collection by publishing Maximilian, a drama in blank verse (1902), The New Star Chamber and Other Essays (1904), Blood of the Prophets (1905), and a series of plays: Althea (1907) and The Bread of Idleness (1911). Later in life Masters would regret practicing law to please his father instead of turning to writing full time. 

Masters is best remembered for his Spoon River Anthology, a book of free verse about small-town American life, published in 1915. Offering candid poems about sex, moral decay and hypocrisy that lay bare a cynical view of Midwestern small town values, it influenced a whole generation of writers and their works.  Spoon River Anthology was wildly successful, going through several editions rapidly, becoming one of the most popular books in the history of American Literature. In the Little Review  Carl Sandburg noted “Once in a while a man comes along who writes a book that has his own heart-beats in it.”

In 1917, Masters left his family, and in 1920 gave up his law firm and moved from Chicago to New York City, where he retired to the Chelsea Hotel to write. In 1926 he married Ellen Coyne, thirty years his junior. (He was 57 and she was 27). By the 1930s his second wife had left, as Masters reportedly lived alone in the Chelsea Hotel from 1931-1944, and in 1936 met Alice Elizabeth Davis, his secretary, lifelong companion and romantic partner, in the lobby. 

Although nothing matched the success of the Spoon River Anthology, he went on to write other novels are Mitch Miller (1920) and The Nuptial Flight (1923), and biographies, Lincoln the Man (1931) which was poorly received, Whitman (1937), Mark Twain (1938) and Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935) about his friend. Also notable are his autobiography, Across Spoon River (1936), and The Sangamon (1942), a volume in the “Rivers of America” series.

In the 1940s Masters was found malnourished and living in poverty in the Chelsea Hotel, and removed to a care home, paid for by the Authors League. His second wife returned and helped care for him until his death. Edgar Lee Masters died March 5th, 1950, in a convalescent home in Pennsylvania.

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