Spoon River Anthology (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of short free-form poems that collectively describe the life of the fictional small town of Spoon River, named after the real Spoon River that ran near Masters’ home town. The collection includes two hundred and twelve separate characters, all providing two-hundred forty-four accounts of their lives and losses. The poems were originally published in the magazine Reedy’s Mirror.
Each following poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves. They speak about the sorts of things one might expect: some recite their histories and turning points, others make observations of life from the outside, and petty ones complain of the treatment of their graves, while few tell how they really died. Speaking without reason to lie or fear the consequences, they construct a picture of life in their town that is shorn of façades. The interplay of various villagers — e.g. a bright and successful man crediting his parents for all he’s accomplished, and an old woman weeping because he is secretly her illegitimate child — forms a gripping, if not pretty, whole.
The subject of afterlife receives only the occasional brief mention, and even those seem to be contradictory.
The work features such characters as Tom Merritt, Amos Sibley, Carl Hamblin, Fiddler Jones and A.D. Blood. Many of the characters that make appearances in Spoon River Anthology were based on real people that Masters knew or heard of in the two towns in which he grew up, Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois. Most notable is Ann Rutledge, regarded in local legend to be Abraham Lincoln’s early love interest though there is no actual proof of such a relationship. Rutledge’s grave can still be found in a Petersburg cemetery, and a tour of graveyards in both towns reveals most of the surnames that Masters applied to his characters.
Other local legends assert that Masters’ fictional portrayal of local residents, often in unflattering light, created a lot of embarrassment and aggravation in his hometown. This is offered as an explanation for why he chose not to settle down in Lewistown or Petersburg.
Spoon River Anthology is often used in second year characterization work in the Meisner technique of actor training.