Jason Stacy, author of Spoon River America: Edgar Lee Masters and the Myth of the American Small Town, answers questions about his inspirations and discoveries while writing his book.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I’ve wanted to write about Spoon River Anthology for a long time. My mother taught English in a small-town high school and presented Masters’s book to her students as a realistic portrayal of small-town life. She brought home a copy for me when I was around 12, and I remember staying up late reading its weird little poems.
As I got older, I started to see echoes of Spoon River Anthology’s themes in popular culture, especially where the small town served as the setting for a character to escape the boundaries of a repressive society. In the 1980s, there were still a number of movies and television shows that presented the small-town or the suburbs in these terms. So, it started to seem to me to be a kind of mythology, where common tropes, repeated and reworked, came to have the veneer of truthfulness. Needless to say, these myths were limited in their purview, as they were shaped by the racial and economic blind spots of the period, which is one of the reasons I think this myth became increasingly untenable in the late 20th century, as I argue in my last chapter.
This is a long-winded way of saying that my mom gave me Spoon River Anthology when I was a kid and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Hopefully writing this book will help me move on to something else!
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
Well, beyond family members, David S. Reynolds’s book Walt Whitman’s America (1995) has been very influential. Reynolds found a way to seamlessly thread cultural history, biography, and literary analysis into a book that made me think that I could unite my interest in literature with an interest in history. I wrote him a letter after I read his book all those years ago and he was kind enough to write back and give me some encouragement.
Beyond that, two works of “book history” have been very influential: Martin Barker and Roger Sabin’s The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth (1996) and Sarah Meer’s Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (2005) have really shaped the way I do history of literature. Both of them look at books as artifacts that were shaped by the contexts in which they were consumed and recycled. That’s a very compelling idea to me because it implies that literature has a life of its own that is formed by the place in which it lives. In this way, Spoon River America is an attempt to treat Masters’s book as a living artifact that was born in one context, thrived in another, and ultimately shaped a third.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I was surprised by the generally positive reception Spoon River Anthology received during its first year in print. Part of the popular reputation around the book today was that it was shocking and banned and such. This was true in some places, but I found the reviews from newspapers across the country overwhelmingly positive.
However, the reasons it was well received differed according to the audience. Literary critics found in it a sensibility later termed “modernist,” whereas popular reviews often read into the book populist themes and long-standing, traditional bromides. I was also surprised that some of the debate about the book was whether it was, in fact, poetry at all.
While I had some inkling of this before I began my research, it became apparent that our conception of the book as a revolt against small towns was really an interpretation by critics writing five or more years after it was published. Masters, himself, rejected the claim that he was revolting against anything. In this regard, Spoon River Anthology’s initial “shock” was something read back into its origins a number of years after it was published.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
That’s a funny question for a book about a myth!
I guess one thing I discovered is that Spoon River Anthology grew from 19th century economic and social discourses, but served 20th-century concerns about individual self-actualization. This ideal of self-actualization was popularized over the eighty years or so after the publication of the book, eventually filtering into popular media and psychology. After the 1920s, a “revolt from the village” came to be understood by many Americans as part of an individual’s maturation process.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
I think they should pick up Spoon River Anthology and read it again, or even for the first time. I wrote a history of it, but I don’t think it’s a relic. There are many themes within it that still feel vital, and many characters who will seem familiar.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I’m addicted to print periodicals, especially long-form books reviews (New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, etc.). My wife and I like to watch movies after the girls go to bed, but nothing particularly intellectual or high-brow. Regarding music, I’m mostly still stuck on British post-punk from the late 70s and early 80s. If New Order reads this: do you play birthday parties? It would be…ahem…for my daughters….