Son of Spoon River

The photographer from Newsweek has walked me around to the rear of St. Pats and to a corner in the gothic masonry where the light is even. He has pulled a light meter out of his kit and holds it before my face.

“A Luna-Pro,” I say. “I just got one myself.”

“Oh, yeah.? You a photographer, too?” He’s begun shooting me with the heavy, black Nikon. The cameras film advance whirs disinterestedly and I sense any subject, breathing or still, might excite its mechanism. Even the author of a newly published family biography.

“Yes, I do some” I answer. I was about to give him a short resume: my time as a Naval Correspondent, using the old Kodak Medalist; the two or three shows I have mounted in pizza joints and basement galleries; the calendar shots I have sold to a stock agency. But his casual proficiency, his expertise with his equipment, makes me shy to suggest a collegiality.

Just last month, in an hubristic rush, I traded in my old  Weston exposure meter, a reliable tool in my photo kit for many years, for one of these same 9-volt Gossens whose complex computations have made the mystery of illumination for me even darker. On the other hand, this new meter has revealed the deception the Weston has played upon me all the years I’ve held it up to subjects, allowing me to think its measurements of reflected light were simple factors rather than the complicated theories of phenomena which the Luna-Pro posits again and again. To be sure, the selenium photocell of the Weston had transposed available light into equations of shutter speeds and lens stops that had given me perfect exposures every time, but, clearly, the process has been too easy—incomprehensibly correct if not accidentally accurate. When I offered the Weston as part of a trade on the Luna-Pro, the owner of the photo shop was amused by its antique naïveté and finally, as a favor, took it off my hands.

This ambition to make better photographs can inspire a lust for more and more equipment, the most advanced gadgetry, because once the shutter is clicked, the image registered becomes permanent. In that instant, the subject has been taken for all time, so the picture should be “perfect.” This freeze of reality is perhaps a dubious achievement of photography and makes for a curious cannibalism of subject matter. For example, the monumental clay bulk of the St. Francis Church in Ranchos de Taos, N.M. has been printed indelibly in our minds by Ansel Adams’s photograph of its back wall, the eloquent play of shadow and light along the curve of its adobe buttress. No other photographer, professional or amateur, has been able to take that church from a different angle, though many have tried, and most end up with a photograph very similar to the one Adams made in 1929. He made the picture of it.

So, it comes down to who first holds the camera, puts the angle held on the object—the “third eye,” as Cocteau observed about the relationship between camera and photographer. The ingenious mechanics that function between this eye and its object merely convey and compute the glance; then, make the image permanent. Similarly, another kind of mechanical focus, no less automatic, is sometimes turned upon an individual which measures the surface reflection to make a quick study; then, prints this view to make it instantly archival and nearly impossible to revise.

“You know what they are calling you at the office?” The Newsweek photographer is packing up his gear. My image has been fixed on the film of his Nikon. “They call you, ‘Son of Spoon River’.”

My reason for writing the book that has caused this photo session was to put down on paper for my children some of the stories my grandfather had told me—the history of his immigration to this country from Ireland and his adventures toward a citizenship never fully granted within the cruel freedom of America.

But to write about Tom Coyne, I would have to write about my grandmother, and to write about my grandparents, I would have to write about their daughter who had left me with them, at the age of 1 year, to be raised in Kansas City, Mo. And to write about my mother, I would have to write about my father, Edgar Lee Masters.

The father, then, is only one of the four characters in this family biography, and he is by no means the most important to the narrative—as he was not to my life. Moreover, during the course of the book’s composition, the figure of the mother forged a commanding presence in the text as she had done in all of our lives. However, my father was this lawyer turned poet who published a book of poems in 1915 that turned the American literary establishment on its head, thereby acquiring a fame that had not been foreseen and a success probably never to be forgiven.

At the same time, to say that his importance in this work was secondary is to shuffle over the hole card I must have hoped to play in this game of chance called publishing. However small his part in the drama might be, it seemed to me his appearance in it might attract some interest in the manuscript. But this didn’t happen. My agent refused to offer it, and I circulated the manuscript, mostly on my own, for three years and to every major publishing house, some more than once, until David Godine of Boston finally published it, in 1982, under the title “Last Stands: Notes from Memory.”

True, it is a difficult book to categorize—always a necessity for the marketing dons of publishing. Was it a biography or a memoir; a novelized autobiography? Also, its narrative was said to be too eccentric, not the usual sequential plotting and with jarring juxtapositions , of time and place, startling shifts forward and backward. The wise-heads at Houghton-Mifflin Macmillan;, Farrar, Straus ,& Giroux;, Doubleday, Knopf and on down the line didn’t like it. Once published, the same “problems” they had with the manuscript were lavishly praised, even imitated, and the book has been called an “American classic.”

But perhaps those editors had been influenced by the portrait of Edgar Lee Masters hanging in their minds—the picture of a “one-book author” whose damnable luck had exceeded his commonplace sifts and for whom room was never to be made on William Blake’s mountain. And here comes the son, they may have said, daring to put words on paper that allude to this embarrassing figure in American literature. Maybe I should have left the father out of the book altogether? Could I have written the memoir under a pseudonym?

A farmer’s son inherits the farm and his husbandry will be evaluated by the jury down at the Grange, comparisons will be drawn between his and his father’s management. That he decided to take up agriculture is almost never held against the son. A similar tolerance is extended in other lines of work; coal mining and steel wrangling; the law and medicine; insurance. High-wire acts. Parent and child working at the same task; weaving straw hats, taking up arms or turning pots—it’s an old custom. But in the arts, and especially literature, a peculiar filter puts a harsh vignette around the child who dares to follow a parent into the business of putting ideas and emotions into words on paper. Often, the offspring’s work is seen from this angle; his or her modest attempt sometimes found insulting by its very attempt. And it is true, some of us have struck foolish postures before the camera, have made ourselves into curios by dropping the name of a parent to advance our own scribblings. But is this a class picture?

Like all first novelists, I had no say in the biographical material printed on the cover flaps of “The Common Pasture” by Macmillan in 1967. Since then, I’ve been able to keep my fathers name off of subsequent book covers and out of publishers press releases—save for “Last Stands.” After all, he is a character in the story. But as my virtue frustrated publicists, surely I had to admit the relationship had already been established with the publication of that first novel. The late Granville Hicks reviewed this book as one of “Nine Bright Beginnings” in the Saturday Review of Literature. His complimentary notice singled out the book’s compact structure and the style while he identified me as “the son of Edgar Lee Masters who takes as dark a view of human nature as his father.”

Now, every writer carries in his kit bag a packet of instant insecurity that can be dissolved by an innocuous comment, or even a casual observation, into a draught of toxic Kool-Aid. Just to reproduce a clear and faithful image of human experience is, almost by definition, impossible (read Mary Shelley), and to even attempt this feat is to raise an insolence that courts eternal punishment. If nothing else, it makes for a chronic case of the jitters. But add to this common doubt the thought that one’s work may be scolded or praised because of a single roll in a bed, way in the past, and the ingredients for a stew of paranoia are in the pot.

Some 30 years later, I still wonder if that decent, little book was put into that honored circle of first novelists because Granville Hicks, as literary historian and critic, was amused by its authors parentage. If I have felt that this might have been so—that a special privilege had been extended—surely, the idea must have occurred to others. Let me shoot this from another angle. What if Robert Stone, another one of those “nine bright beginnings” on Hicks’s list, had been born of a famous writer—would his fiction be valued any more or any less for it?

Dissatisfaction with one s fauxcelebrity might have something to do with who happens to be next to you when the shutter clicks. We should be careful of whom we stand near during these moments of record: class reunions, family picnics. Who wants to be fixed for all time, shoulder to shoulder with the classmate who helped Nixon fix the Constitution or with Uncle Jack, the jolly embezzler? But sometimes we are not given the chance to choose our place; we are arranged alphabetically, if you will. So perhaps my complaint is that my father wasEdgar Lee Masters, the one-shot author from Chicago. If his name had been Cheever or Van Doren or Hemingway, would I be taking these coy pains with the reader to establish a little distance between him and me? I hope that I would be.

What if his name had been Dumas?

As young Alexander was getting into print, le père wrote him, “You shouldn’t sign your name Dumas. My name’s too well known, and I can’t really add the Elder. I’m too young for that!” But this colossus of French literature (Michelet called him “one of the forces of nature”) was clearly a very hard act to follow. He authored over 300 novels, hundreds of plays, many of which he had adapted from

his own novels, such as “The Count of Monte Cristo,” or wrote his own versions of “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” The senior Dumas offered to collaborate when young Alexander expressed an interest in writing, but the son turned down the offer. Even so, when Junior published “Camille” in 1848, at the age of 24, salon gossip whispered that the father had written the novel for him.

After all, it was known that father and son shared a mistress or two so why not a plot—especially one that concerned a consumptive courtesan, modeled on an actual woman they both might have bedded? However, the delight with which Paris embraced the appearance of this son following his father overwhelmed such calumny. When the novel became the play “La Dame aux Camélias” and later, with Verdi’s help, the opera “La Traviata,” Dumas filst had named his own path. “My best work, dear boy” his father wrote him, “is you.”

The photograph we have of Alexander Dumas Jr. shows him lounging in a chair, heavy lidded and with a comfortable girth about him that projects his success. But as that photographer (could it have been Nadar?) counted off the seconds it took to fix this image on the gummed paper plate, did he think to himself, “This is the Son of Monte Cristo?” Surely, he did not raise the question with the author of “La Dame aux Camélias.”

Virginia Woolf has ably documented the fate of Shakespeare’s sister, but she has ignored—for reasons we can only guess at—to mention the playwright’s son, the one that survived him. Brother to Hamnet and named for his grandfather, John Shakespeare made a number of appearances as a boy in his father’s early plays—assorted babes in arms and pages. When he landed the role of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” tongues must have wagged. No account has been found of his performance but all must have agreed that he cost the company very little. Two years later, the plum of Ophelia in “Hamlet” was denied him because his voice had changed—a kind of leveling by the gods that probably gratified the ale klatch down at the Mermaid. So, with or without his father’s influence, John’s performing days were over. Apparently, he didn’t have the presence to do tragedy.

Meanwhile, he had been scribbling little scenes of his own, mostly improvisations and fantastical stuff involving bears and nymphs. Some of these were played out during the intervals of his fathers tragedies as the audience bought oranges and milled about. His name has never been attached to these interludes—those that survive—probably because his father was already having trouble with Francis Bacon, who had been bankrolling some of the productions and was even pressing him to have his own name put on some of the plays. Considering all that, the charge of nepotism was something father William surely did not want to deal with. “My name is too well known here in London for you to prosper und’it,” the Bard probably wrote his son. “Sign yourself by any other name, your work will be the same.”

One source indicates that in 1610 a fringe company in Hempstead produced a play by a certain John Brokespear that was said to be based on a recent essay by Montaigne: It was all about cannibalism in the New World. The play’s dark view of human nature may have seemed familiar to some in that suburban audience, and it is even likely that the senior Shakespeare attended opening night, because “The Tempest” appeared the following year. Backstage, during the cast party, father threw arms around son’s neck. “Dear boy,” he might have said, “you have given me my best work.”

The son’s play has been lost, perhaps another reason Mrs. Woolf never mentions him, nor did Ben Jonson refer to it in any of his journals, no doubt to save his good friend, Will, further embarrassment. Evidently, Junior went back to Stratford and got into real estate, subsequently to be joined by his father who had burned out after 38 plays, a couple of which he needed John Fletcher’s help to finish. Curiously, this ironic twist has escaped mention in even the most scrupulous biography of the Avon master.

So, it can go both ways.

Halfway through high school, it dawned on me that my father was a person of some importance, but from the beginning, this importance was oddly marred. The work on which his fame rested was faulted by some, dismissed by others. A lucky hit. If “Spoon River Anthology” was granted a place in literature at all, that place would be qualified by some as being accidentally won, like the lottery; therefore, unearned. His sudden, unaccountable promotion in 1915 from a lawyer-poetaster, hardly known to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry bunch, into a front-rank literary figure raised the mean jealousy of a Sandburg and engendered the undying competitive hatred of a Frost.

Certainly, “Spoon River” stands far above the rest of his work, some 50 or more published novels, books of poetry and plays, but so does it stand high in the American anthology as well. The metaphorical village he raised on the banks of an Illinois river can even be located on the maps of Poland or Korea or Brazil—pick almost any plate in the atlas, and the aspirations and confusions of its citizenry are a permanent part of the human comedy. That Masters had somehow put this masterpiece together stretched the credulity of the salon wisdom—and still does. It should not have happened to him. Let’s see him do it again, the cry went up!

I’ve always been struck by the similarity between the machine politics I observed my grandmother manipulate as a worker for the Pendergast organization in Kansas City and the kind of associations and tradeoffs that occur in what is sometimes called “po-biz.” You-dofor-me-and-I-do-for-you is standard operating procedure for both institutions, and the figure of an independent is regarded with suspicion in both of these precincts. An individual who has nothing to trade and no outstanding IOUs is never completely accepted by either, certainly never to be trusted.

So probably my father’s feelings were hurt. He had expected to be received into that legislature that Shelley had talked about but, instead, he found a membership not much different in kind from the ward heelers of Chicago politics. Here, he thought, he had produced this volume of poems that a lot of people thought were kind of special; yet, far from accepting him, the Sandburgs, the Frosts, the Untermeyers and the Van Dorens immediately questioned his credentials. He had only one outstanding IOU, to William Marion Reedy who had originally published the poems in his Mirror, and

though he might have offered free legal advice—and often did—he had no literary favors to trade any of these new peers. Also, his prairie boy’s enthusiasm for the classics must have bored the hell out of them.

On occasion, I would hear him mutter a defense to this charge of being a one-book author, calling up such witnesses as Cervantes and Chaucer, Boccaccio and Whitman. No doubt, the commercial success of “Spoon River Anthology,” as much as its critical acclaim, also contributed to him being put on a different set of scales. So he became bitter and, for some, this reaction was further confirmation of his smallness. He was caught in a bad light and couldn’t turn away.

Today’s popular entertainment of celebrity-bashing, similar tothe bear-baiting of early times, is a way to punish an individual or a group that does not enforce the image our society has of itself, the way it wants to appear. The idea is to distort the camera angle or paste up a picture of these outsiders and offenders that presents a profile which will deserve the establishment’s scorn and ridicule. An archival image. The technique is the staple of supermarket tabloids, but to come across the same design in more worthy journals comes as a shock.

Recently, Elizabeth Hardwick had a merry time with my father’s history in the New York Review of Books. In an essay, ostensibly a review of a new biography of Vachel Lindsay, Ms. Hardwick presented a picture of my father’s last half dozen years and death that resembled the farcical helter-skelter of a scene by Feydeau—how my mother supposedly pulled him this way and that, across one state line and another—to fabricate a rather ludricrous picture of a period in their lives that, while economically stringent, was actually very serene and comfortable, to be concluded with his death in dignified circumstances not all poets have enjoyed. Hardwick had the chronology wrong, the states wrong, the dates wrong, the circumstances wrong and the whole package delivered with the saucy verve of the National Enquirer.

But was this only sloppy research? Surely, Ms. Hardwick is not unaware of the pitfalls and uncertainties of a poet’s life in America,

so her paste up of my parent’s history is a little puzzling. Could her distortions have been a reflection of that first picture of my fathers life and work that the establishment took back in 1915? The editors of the Review printed my corrections and Ms. Hardwick, in a somewhat sullen response, admitted to most of her errors and omissions.

But, one last exposure and this one from an architectural angle, if you will. Like Adams’s church in New Mexico. On the red sandstone facade of the Hotel Chelsea in New York City are plaques commemorating the different tenancies in this old hostel of various poets, writers and composers; all are worthy to be so noted. From 1930 until 194414 yearsEdgar Lee Masters lived and worked in rooms on the second floor of the Hotel Chelsea, but his name does not appear on this quaint poets’ cornice on West 23rd Street. Not on Blake’s mountain, not even on this pile of rock.

About the Author

Hilary Masters

Hilary Masters was born and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. His recent novel “Post” includes an account of the demise of the passenger pigeon.

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