“All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”
That is a refrain from Spoon River Anthology, the epic poem Edgar Lee Masters published in 1915. The hill referenced is the cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River.
Although it is written in free verse, Spoon River reads like a novel. It consists of more than 200 voices of those who are interred on the hill. Each has his own story, each is willing to unabashedly share that story; those who took secrets to the grave are now more than willing to spill those secrets.
The honest, chaste and law-abiding lie next to corrupt, failed scoundrels. Town drunkards are buried astride the celebrated. Some graves are left unmarked, untended.
The great equalizer that is death has woven an uneven tapestry across the graveyard.
The notion of resting in peace, free of life’s burdens offers comfort to the living — but Masters illustrates that life continues to play out, in strange ways, in the cemetery. The work is intriguing and disturbing, but always engaging.
Spoon River was an instant best seller. It has been featured on the stage — several times as a musical — and screen. It has been successfully recorded. Even Pope Francis, during his 2015 visit to the United States, quoted from it.
Seldom has a work so convincingly dealt with the mysteries, loves, tragedies, deaths and lives after death of the characters. They have fictional names (such as Fiddler Jones, A.D. Blood and Blind Jack), but their tales reek of reality.
That’s because, for the most part, the stories are true or are based on real gossip. The names of the characters are lightly disguised names of real people; in some cases, real names are used. Spoon River is a fictional town, but Spoon River does exist — it flows by the town of Lewistown, Illinois, which is where Masters lived. It’s reality seen through a thin veil of illusion.
It’s no surprise that the book was not an instant success in Lewistown. People were so incensed with Masters that the book was banned in the community for sixty years.
In his brutal honesty, Masters had destroyed the myth that sin is the province of the big city; the small “our town” hamlets also have a sizeable share of the dishonest, the abusive, the criminal and the petty. One character in Spoon River, a headstone engraver named Richard Bone, figures this out — he realizes that his markers contain “false chronicles.” The dead are often less devout and less virtuous than described by their living relatives and friends. The central theme here is that those who know the real truth about the Spoon River community are the dead.
Carl Sandburg had this to say about Master’s anthology: “The people whose faces look out from the pages of the book are the people of life itself, each trait of them as plain…as in the old home valley where the writer came from. Such a writer and book are realized here.”
At the time Spoon River was published, Masters was practicing law — his one-time partner was the famed Clarence Darrow. Masters had even argued a case in front of the Supreme Court.
The success of Spoon River allowed him to leave the law and turn his attention to writing. Prior to his death at the age of 81 in 1950, Masters produced more than 50 books, including 21 poetry collections. None were nearly as well received as Spoon River: like many writers who produce a touchstone masterpiece, he became a victim of his own success, nothing could ever measure up again.
The community of Lewistown eventually accepted Spoon River — indeed, embraced it. In 2015 there was a celebration of the publication of the original. Today outside Oakhill Cemetery, the model for the hill in the poem, is a monument that proclaims the grounds to be the “inspiration and setting” for Spoon River. The Oakhill website calls itself “most famous fictional cemetery in the world.”
Thanks to the brilliant poetry of Edgar Lee Masters, it has been firmly established that cemeteries have stories to tell. People pass away, but current events still connect those stories.