Pleasures in Reading: Edgar Lee Master’s “Spoon River Anthology”

One of the reasons I started this site was to try to write about this evanescent thing that everyone who reads/watches has had, yet no one speaks of — namely, the pleasure of reading this book or of watching this movie. In this case, Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology.

We say, that was a thought-provoking book or a silly, trite book; or an excellent, thrilling movie or a horrible, dumb movie, (or a good film, if we are fancy). But can we describe the actual pleasure? It’s really hard to say what feeling good is.

How do we express the pleasure, the experience?

Die Sache Selbst*: Spoon River Anthology

Were I to come across this book on the shelf, it would not stand out among all of those other books by MAS- last-named authors. My eyes would have continued browsing.

The title, Spoon River Anthology, sounds like something provincial, about sitting on a river, a collection of stories thereabout (because this is what I associate with the word anthology). In short, boring (what a dreadful thing to confess!). What’s more, I’ve never heard of Edgar Lee Masters hitherto, so why should this volume call my attention?

The Anthology is actually a collection of poems, each addended to the names of their confessors, all inhabitants of the graveyard in Spoon River.
The epitaphs of the dead.

The Book Itself

My copy comes from the second printing of the 2008 Penguin edition of the Spoon River Anthology and bears an introduction by Jerome Loving. As you can see, this is a weathered paperback copy borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia. Somehow, a couple of pieces of the front cover have been removed.

What of that pleasure?

In a message to a friend I described the book as an understated version of Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsMurder Ballads, set to verse. That may be a bit strong.

Such comparisons seem reasonable if you consult that of Amanda Barker, for example, below, which ends with the lines:

Traveler, it is believed in the village where I lived
That Henry loved me with a husband’s love,
But I proclaim from the dust
That he slew me to gratify his hatred.

Heavy stuff.

The contempt of Trainor, The Druggist is plain:

I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,
Killed while making an experiment,
Lived unwedded.

What’s more, these dead speak of each other, some responding immediately to the prior epitaphs of a family member. Jack McGuire’s testimony follows that of The Town Marshall, whom was killed by McGuire (wondering what a “loaded cane” is?).

Note that in all of the preceding, I have yet to describe that pleasure.

* die Sache selbst is German philosophical expression that means the thing at issue or what we’re talking about.