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Masters on Dreiser

In his classic poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters immortalized (or, in his charming vernacular, "pickled") the novelist Theodore Dreiser, his good friend and literary influence.

Theodore the Poet
As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,
First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.
And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.
But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,
So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,
And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Masters took a few liberties with reality here, as Dreiser didn't grow up in "Spoon River" (the Petersburg/Lewiston vicinity in western Illinois where Masters grew up) nor did he even visit there until he was well into adulthood. But given that Dreiser was also a Midwesterner, from Terre Haute, Indiana (two hundred miles to the east) it seems likely that he had similar boyhood experiences. Regardless, I love the imagery of a small-town boy closely watching crawfish, thus developing a talent for observation and reflection which would later, when the boy became a man, be so effectively applied to urban dwellers ("hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities") as the grist for Dreiser's many great novels. Masters clearly shared Dreiser's gift of observation, which combined with each writer's love of narrative realism undoubtedly solidified the bond between the two.

In his extensive introduction to this edition of Spoon River Anthology, John Hallwas nicely expands on the relationship between Masters and Dreiser.

By the spring of 1914 Masters's plans to write a realistic novel of small-town life had changed, and he had embarked on the Anthology, a series of poetic character sketches. One of them, which appeared the following July, was inspired by Dreiser, and it was apparently Masters's way of paying tribute to the writer who had influenced him. In an August 20 letter to the famous novelist he commented, "I have you pickled in my Anthology as 'Theodore the Poet,'" and he sent the poem along. "Theodore the Poet" is not a monologue, and there is no indication that the man who sat and examined life "On the shore of the turbid Spoon" is dead, so the poem violates the epitaphic conventions of the Anthology. Nevertheless, Masters was by then writing poetry that was specific, based on people he knew, and related to his downstate Illinois background - and he undoubtedly hoped to become the Dreiser of "the turbid Spoon." Hence, "Theodore the Poet" testifies to the influence of the great American novelist, who prompted Masters's poetic realism.

August 17, 2007 in Books | Permalink