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Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas on August 23, 1868. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Lewistown, Illinois, a town near Springfield where Masters grew up. His youth was marred by his father’s financial struggles with a faltering law practice and reluctance to support his son’s literary interests. Masters attended Knox College for a year but was then forced by the family’s finances to withdraw and continue his studies privately. He was admitted to the bar in 1891 and moved to Chicago in 1892, where he found a job collecting bills for the Edison Company. He gradually built a successful law practice and, for eight years, he was the partner of Clarence Darrow. In 1898, Masters published his first collection, A Book of Verses (Way & Williams), and married Helen Jenkins. His first books, some of which were published under pseudonyms, showed strong influences from the English Romantic poets and Edgar Allan Poe.
Masters soon considered writing a novel about the relationships between people in a small Illinois town. This idea was transformed through a chance acquaintance. Masters had been submitting poems to Marion Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror in St. Louis. While Reedy didn’t publish these poems, he kept up the correspondence and gave Masters a copy of J. W. Mackail’s Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. After reading these, Masters felt the challenge to adopt the idea for his novel into this form, combining free verse, epitaph, realism, and cynicism to write Spoon River Anthology, a collection of monologues from the dead in an Illinois graveyard. The Spoon River of the title is the name of an actual river in Illinois, but the town combines Lewistown, where Masters grew up, and Petersburg, where his grandparents lived. These poems were serialized in Reedy’s Mirror from 1914–15, and then discovered by Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, who helped Masters issue a complete edition in 1915. Spoon River Anthology was wildly successful, going through several editions rapidly and becoming one of the most popular books of poetry in the history of American literature. His success and friendship with Monroe also brought him into the Chicago Group and contact with such poets as Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay.
Masters was never to equal the success of Spoon River Anthology. He published thirty-nine more books, including novels, plays, collections of poetry, and biographies of Lindsay, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Lincoln. In 1917, Masters left his family; he and his wife would divorce in 1923. In 1920, Masters gave up his law firm and moved from Chicago to New York City, where he retired to the Chelsea Hotel to write. In 1926, he married Ellen Coyne, thirty years his junior. In his later years, Masters received several awards based on his earlier successes, including a Poetry Society of America Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy Fellowship in 1946. He died March 5, 1950 in a convalescent home in Philadelphia and was buried in Petersburg, Illinois.