6¢ Edgar Lee Masters
Issue Date: August 22, 1970
City: Petersburg, IL
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Lithographed, engraved (Giori)
Color: Black and olive bister
Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)
Birth Of Edgar Lee Masters
Poet Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas.
The Masters family later moved to Illinois where Masters attended high school. It was also there that his work was first published in the Chicago Daily News. Much of culture that surrounded him there, particularly the town’s Oak Hill Cemetery and Spoon River, would later inspire some of his most famous works.
Masters attended the Knox Academy but had to leave because his family couldn’t afford his tuition. After that, he worked in his father’s law office before being admitted to the Illinois Bar. Masters then moved to Chicago and established a law partnership in 1893. He later started his own law firm.
In addition to his law practice, Masters always had an interest in writing. However, for several years he wanted to keep his occupations separate and published his early essays and poems under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace (his mother’s maiden name and his father’s middle name). It wasn’t until about 1903 that he started publishing his work in his own name.
Masters published his first collection, A Book of Verses, in 1898. Around this same time, he started considering writing a novel about the lives of people in a small Illinois town. While he was considering this idea, he was also sending poems to Marion Reedy, of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis. Though Reedy didn’t publish the poems, he continued to correspond with Masters. He also sent Masters a book – J. W. Mackail’s Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. Reading that book inspired Masters to evolve his idea – instead of writing a standard novel, he would use free verse to tell his story.
In 1914 Masters began releasing these poems in Reedy’s Mirror under the name Webster Ford. The stories were based on his childhood in Western Illinois. The following year, he bound all 200 poems into a volume titled, Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River is an imaginary midwestern village, and each poem of the anthology is “spoken” by a deceased former resident of the town, providing a revealing look at the secret lives of small-town America. Each of the dead speakers attempts to illuminate the meaning of life on Earth. Spoon River Anthology was very popular – it went through several editions quickly and became one of the most popular books of poetry in American history.
Masters would continue to write for the rest of his life but never produced a work as successful as Spoon River Anthology. In all, he published 12 plays, 21 books of poetry, six novels, and six biographies. The subjects of his biographies included Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman.
Masters died on March 5, 1950, in a nursing home in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.
Click here to read some of Masters’ poetry.