The year 1915 was momentous in the history and development of American poetry and poetry in general. Poetry Magazine published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, launching the era of modernism in poetry. And a number of poems which had been published off and on by William Reedy of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis were collected and published under the title of Spoon River Anthology.
The collection by Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), a Chicago attorney, rocked the poetry world, the literary world, and even popular culture. The book went through seven printings in seven months. By 1916 (and 19 printings), an augmented edition was published. It was the top-selling poetry book for the next five or six years.
The more than 200 poems written as tombstone epigraphs struck a deep, responsive chord in American culture and among the broad general public. People recognized the characters who emerged from the poems. They weren’t so much types as they were cleverly drawn and succinct summaries of your family members, friends, and neighbors.
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Photograph: Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950).