Literary Daybook, May 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
May 29, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On May 29, 1944, the sapper (Kirpal Singh) observes the Marine Festival of the Virgin Mary in Gabbice.
-- "Coma" (1977)
by Robin Cook

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in Literary History
On this date in 1914, the first installment of Edgar Lee Master's "Spoon River Anthology" was published in Marion Reedy's weekly magazine, the Mirror. Over the next six months Masters would write the remainder of his 244 "epitaphs," publishing them in book form in 1916. Both the magazine and book publications carried the pseudonym "Webster Ford" as protection: Masters was a successful lawyer, and he feared that the backlash from local readers who objected to his realistic and unflattering view of life in a Midwest village -- a "degenerated" New World Eden, says one critic -- would ruin him. The book was an instant hit, and when the author was revealed he was indeed targeted, but the national praise so outdid the local anger that Masters was eventually able to give up practicing law and become a full-time writer.

In his 1936 autobiography, "Across Spoon River," Masters reflected on "the really glorious year of 1914 that was making all of America happy." Gone were the Republicans and the "puerile imperialism" of Roosevelt; here were Wilson and the New Deal. Masters was 43 but feeling younger:

The ideas of Ibsen, of Shaw, of the Irish Theater, of advancing science, of a re-arisen liberty were blossoming everywhere, and nowhere more than in Chicago, where vitality and youth, almost abandoned in its assertion of freedom and delight, streamed along Michigan Avenue carrying the new books under their arms, or congregated at Bohemian restaurants to talk poetry and the drama. All this came to my eyes as though I had been confined in darkness and had suddenly come into the sunlight.

Into this springtime came Masters' mother for a visit. They reminisced about the old days in Lewiston and Petersburg, Ill., "bringing up characters and events that had passed from my mind," tracing their neighbors "to their final fates, to the positions in life that they were then in." On the morning his mother left, Masters went home and wrote "The Hill" and the first prose poems of those who would speak out from their graves there -- often bitterly and critically, but with a fresh candor that would make it the bestselling book of American poetry to date. Of Masters' 50 books -- poetry, novels, plays, biography -- none other came close to the popularity of "Spoon River."

-- Steve King

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To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.


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