Selected Criticism

Masters, Edgar Lee (1868?-1950)
Britton, Wesley A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A midwestern lawyer who took on literature as an avocation, Masters gained fast fame for his popular Spoon River Anthology (1915), for which John Cowper Powys hailed him as "the natural child of Walt Whitman" (qtd. in Primeau 94). His initial success was followed by a prolific series of poems, novels, and plays.

In his 1936 autobiography, Masters wrote, "What had enthralled me with Whitman from my days with Anne in Lewistown was his conception of America as the field of a new art and music in which the people would be celebrated instead of kings; and the liberty of Jefferson should be sung until it permeated the entire popular heart" (Across 336). In his 1937 Whitman, Masters called Whitman "a tribal prophet and poet" (306) who knew that poetry "must come out of the earth" (307). Whitman, writes Masters, "[s]piritually . . . placed himself at the center of America . . . as Jefferson did, through his heredity, environment and native genius" (8). The greatness of Whitman, he continues, lay in the fact that by the time of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 he had acquired his prophetical powers concerning his country—had "the prospect before his eyes of what American poetry could and should be" (76). Masters liked Whitman's celebration of a future America with democratic art in which Whitman would act as a new Hesiod. According to Masters, a new Homer, ostensibly Masters himself, would follow in the Whitmanian future.


Burgess, Charles E. "Masters and Whitman: A Second Look." Walt Whitman Review 17 (1971): 25–27.

Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Across Spoon River: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1936.

———. Whitman. New York: Scribner's, 1937.


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