Spoon River Anthology – E.L. Masters – 1915
Reviewed by: Anne McMaster Welch Date: 10 January 2003
There is something timeless about the voices of these dead souls – they touch something essentially human and understanding in us with their tales of love, loss, disappointment and profound loneliness. Yet we find all this emotion wrapped up in the clear, single image of a small American town. What stuns me most is the power encapsulated in even the shortest of poems – a few sparse lines capturing the heartache of a lonely doctor, a ruined child and an avid collector of machinery who has never put his own life to any use.
If the characters themselves are dead, the poems and the carefully crafted words create voices still redolent with life: reading a lot of the poems together has a strange effect on the reader – you will find that the ‘dead’ move quietly off the page one by one and come to stand around you. Stop reading after a while and look around you – there are lawyers, soldiers, widows, scarlet women – all standing quietly by. This book is not showy or colourful – but a quiet, resonant masterpiece. Please – read it if you can!!!
Reviewed by: Andrew Scal Date: 25 September 2002
This book is one of those classics whose popularity has faded due to changing tastes and styles rather than flaws or the inability of readers to feel what the author intended. Steinbeck is another such example. I first read SRA more than thirty years ago when I found it in my grandfather’s library.
It tells the story of a town in the US from the time it was on the frontier of settlement through the beginning of the industrial age.
The citizens of Spoon River lie in the town cemetery. Each page is a tombstone containing short epigraph for that person, written in the first person about some significant aspect of their life.
Ever wonder about secrets that people take with them to the grave? You’ll find them here. In one case, a young man writes that he ran off to fight in the Civil War because he was to be arrested for stealing a pig. A few pages later, a woman writes that she knows what he said, but the truth was he proposed to her and she turned him down for another fellow.
My favourites are a linked group of five which I will not reveal except that it connects an incompatible husband and wife, their son, someone who secretly loved him, and their next door neighbour. Tremendous irony is the main theme of most of the poems.
Through the stories/poems we can read between the lines and see the United States in one of its most dynamic periods. A time when the basis for the great engine of economic might was first being generated.
These are not the stories of the Andrew Carnegies and J.P. Morgans. Few of us could identify with them. But the stories the dead of Spoon River tell transcend time and you will find bits and pieces of your own story throughout this book.
Although it is one of my favourite books of any kind, it does leave me with a sadness that comes of seeing that so many people seem somehow to miss their chances in life. Accordingly I give it four hearts out of five, solely for that reason rather than any identifiable flaw.
I have read comparisons made between SRA and Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I have read neither of those, so can’t comment on this. I will say I find great thematic similarity with A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, another book of poetry where the themes of people’s lives are explored.