Across Spoon River
In our Common Sense, Poetry and Journalism speak distinct and separate kinds of truth. This belief helps underwrite the most widely accepted narrative of the rise of modernism—in which expatriate experimental writers figure as brilliant, adventurous risk-takers, rightly seeking in Europe a more sophisticated and worthy environment for their work, rejecting a nineteenth-century American culture which is coded as dull, tasteless, formulaic, and confining. The related conclusion—here quoted from an official history of the state of Illinois—that "about 1912 poetry rose suddenly as a more vivid factor in American life" found its way into common sense by the 1930s (Bogart and Mathews 53).1 Yet the configuration of arguments surround the "place" of poetry in turn-of-the-century Chicago demonstrates that the redefined domain exemplified by Poetry magazine depends for its legitimacy upon an altogether formulaic depiction of the American public sphere: it is demonized as a low, threatening, and unworthy setting from which a romanticized poetry must be rescued. In this scenario "true" poets are those who identify themselves primarily with their literary work. This definition constructs the artist as necessarily a person of leisure—contingent in Harriet Monroe's case entirely upon the patronage of wealthy Chicago industrialists—who is above politics, outside history, "transcendent." Through a series of (un)critical relays, we have come to take for granted the truth value of Monroe's narrative about the state of poetry in her time. This essay subjects that account to extended criticism, treating it not as fact but as [End Page 671] rhetoric. I propose that we consider turn-of-the-century Chicago poetry, constructed as "lack" for so long, on its own terms. We know that this body of work does not reflect the aesthetic imperatives of Monroe or Pound: the question then is what aesthetics it does reflect or create.
"Carl Hamblin," a poem in Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 bestseller Spoon River Anthology, provides information about those incompletely erased aesthetics and the conditions of their erasure. Counterpointing the allegorical language of dream-revelation with the grotesque imagery of Midwestern popular justice, the poem links the publication of poetry to the free speech agendas of late nineteenth-century newspapers and thus to the censorship of the press surrounding the 1886 Haymarket incident.2
The press of the Spoon River Clarion was wrecked,And I was tarred and feathered,For publishing this on the day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago:"I saw a beautiful woman with bandaged eyesStanding on the steps of a marble temple.Great multitudes passed in front of her,Lifting their faces to her imploringly.In her left hand she held a sword.She was brandishing the sword,Sometimes striking a child, again a laborer,Again a slinking woman, again a lunatic.In her right hand she held a scale;Into the scale pieces of gold were tossed [End Page 672] By those who dodged the strokes of the sword.A man in a black gown read from a manuscript:'She is no respecter of persons.'Then a youth wearing a red capLeaped to her side and snatched away the bandage.And lo, the lashes had been eaten awayFrom the oozy eye-lids;The eye-balls were seared with a milky mucus;The madness of a dying soulWas written on her face—But the multitude saw why she wore the bandage."(148)
In accordance with other poems in Spoon River, Hamblin's epitaph delves beneath the surface of small town appearances and exposes a hidden, complicated, and often sordid inner life. In this respect the book is a modernist project, combining lyric dramatic monologues and tones of romantic nostalgia with the harsher elements of naturalism and Gilded Age yellow journalism, not only undermining commonly held beliefs but also disturbing our perspectives on the town so many times that, in the end, generalization itself becomes a suspect activity. Bearing this in mind, I want to trace in this essay one of the many socio-aesthetic relationships whose presence helps shape Spoon River.
The speaker of "Carl Hamblin" embodies to some degree our preconceptions of Gilded Age journalists—his...