Spoon River Anthology: from the grave…to us


Composizione di Zoa Studio dedicata all'Antologia di Spoon River

If we think of a work for today October 31st, Halloween, the day in which the dead are traditionally “brought out”, which one could be more suitable than Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology?

Among other things, this collection of poems brings to the Zoa Studio team’s mind an episode from high school, in which Spoon River Anthology was used as the basis for a creative writing exercise.

We bought the volume in a bookshop, as it was done two or three decades ago (you can comfortably buy it on Amazon) and we were inspired to compose epitaphs in abundance. Ah … good times, when you still knew the emotions of other teenagers (and flirted with them) through poetic verses found in a book and not with hashtags or “pics”!

Spoon River Anthology: work overview

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, is a collection of short poems in free verse that collectively tell the epitaphs of the inhabitants of Spoon River, a fictional town that takes its name from the river of the same name, which passed near the hometown of Masters , Lewistown, Illinois.

The purpose of the poems is to demystify American life in the countryside and in small towns.

The anthology includes 212 distinct characters, providing a total of 244 accounts of their lives, loves, losses and death modalities. Many of these poems contain cross-references that create a kind of community tapestry.

The collection was originally published in 1914 in the literary magazine Reedy’s Mirror of St. Louis, Missouri, under the pseudonym of Webster Ford and then finally published in 1915.

Spoon River Anthology is a classic in the United States, but also in Italy, where this title is a bestseller and has even been adapted into songs by the Genoese Fabrizio de André in his album Non al denaro non all’amore nato al cielo (1971) .

In the next paragraphs we will go into detail on what has been said so far.

Contents of Spoon River Anthology

As foretold, each poem in Spoon River’s Anthology is an autobiographical epitaph of a dead citizen, spoken by the dead themselves. Characters include Tom Merritt, Amos Sibley, Carl Hamblin, Fiddler Jones, and AD Blood.

They talk about the kind of things you would expect: some recite their stories, others look at life from the outside, younger ones complain about the treatment of their graves, while few tell how they really died.

The afterlife theme receives only occasional brief hints, and even these seem to be contradictory.

Speaking for no reason to lie or fear the consequences, they construct an image of the life of their city stripped of every facade.

The interaction of various villagers – such as a brilliant and successful man who credits his parents for everything he has accomplished, and an elderly woman who cries because he is secretly her illegitimate child – creates a captivating thread that unravels. in the whole work.

Here, for example, is the epitaph of AD Blood:

If you in the village think that my work was a good one, 
Who closed the saloons and stopped all playing at cards,
And haled old Daisy Fraser before Justice Arnett, 
In many a crusade to purge the people of sin; 
Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora,       
And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier 
Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?

Composition and history of publications

Many of the characters appearing in Spoon River Anthology were based on people Masters knew or heard about in the two cities he grew up in: Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois.

The writer sometimes considerably masked the names of these real-life inspirations, but sometimes barely concealed them, and in some cases not at all.

The most noteworthy example is that of is Ann Rutledge, considered in the local legend the first love interest of Abraham Lincoln (although there is no real evidence of such a relationship): it seems that Edgar Lee Masters had heard this legend from his grandfather. 

Rutledge’s grave is located in a Petersburg cemetery. Indeed, if we took a tour of the cemeteries in both of the aforementioned cities, we would discover that most of the surnames that Masters applied to his characters come from here.


After growing up and moving from Lewistown to Chicago, Masters met and befriended William Marion Reedy, owner and editor of the St. Louis literary magazine Reedy’s Mirror. By the time Masters wrote the poems that later became the Spoon River Anthology, he had already published poems with some success.

These early poems, however, were more conventional in style and subject. Masters later wrote that it was Reedy, through his criticism and his friendship with him, who encouraged him to write “something more distinctive than what I was doing, one way or another, but without telling me how to do it.”

Masters in particular attributed to Reedy initiation into the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrams from the classical period, to which the Spoon River Anthology is stylistically similar.

Spoon River Anthology was originally published as a series in Reedy’s Mirror from May 29, 1914 to January 5, 1915, under the pseudonym Webster Ford. William Marion Reedy, owner and editor of the magazine, revealed the true authorship of the poems only in November 1914, after 21 weekly issues.

The first hardcover edition of Spoon River’s Anthology was published by The Macmillan Company in 1915 with a total of 209 poems. Masters added 35 new poems in the 1916 edition, developing new characters with links to some of the originals. Among these new additions were “Andy the Nightlight”, “Isa Nutter”, “Plymouth Rock Joe” and “The Epilogue”.

Critical reception and the second Spoon River

Spoon River Anthology immediately became a critical and commercial success, a bit like the Van Halen albums! Ezra Pound’s review of Spoon River’s poems states, “Finally! America has finally discovered a poet! “

Meanwhile, those who lived in the Spoon River area were opposed to their depiction in the Anthology, especially since, as previously mentioned, many of the characters in the poems were based on real people.

The book was banned from Lewistown schools and libraries until 1974. Even Masters’s mother, who was on the Lewistown library council, even voted for the ban. Despite this, the anthology remained widely read in Lewistown.

Local historian Kelvin Sampson observed that “every family in Lewistown probably had a hidden newspaper or notebook with their copy of the Anthology, indicating who was who in town.”

Masters capitalized on the success of Spoon River’s Anthology with the 1924 sequel The New Spoon River, in which Spoon River becomes a Chicago suburb and its inhabitants urbanized.

The second book was less successful and received worse reviews. In 1933, Masters wrote a retrospective essay on the composition of Spoon River’s Anthology and the response he received, entitled “The Genesis of Spoon River”.

In this he tells, among other things, “the exhaustion of the body” that happened to him while he was writing, which in the end manifested itself in pneumonia and a year of illness while preparing the work for publication.

Spoon River Anthology: Adaptations

In 1952 and 1956, the Swedish composer Laci Boldemann and the German Wolfgang Jacobi respectively composed a series of songs from the anthology.

On June 2, 1957, the CBS Radio Network aired a radio adaptation of Spoon River’s Anthology, “Epitaphs,” as part of its CBS Radio Workshop series.

10 years after the essay on Spoon River, the original book was published in Italy (translated by Fernanda Pivano). This version was also released as an LP by the Italian label Cetra in 1959, with readers such as Arnoldo Foa and Elsa Merlini.

In 1963, Charles Aidman adapted today’s leading opera into a theatrical production that is still widely performed today.

Changing the typology of art, from 1964 to 1974 the photographer Mario Giacomelli created “Homage to Spoon River”, a series of abstract photographs inspired by Edgar Lee Master’s collection of poems.

This makes us understand how transversal this work is.

De Andre’s Spoon River anthology

We come to what was said at the beginning of this article. In 1971, the Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André released Non al denaro non all’amore né al cielo, a concept album inspired by Spoon River Anthology. For each of the pieces De André is directly inspired by various poems by Masters; the poems, however, unlike the tracks on the disc, all have the proper name of the character whose story they tell, except for the prologue The Hill.

Different mythology

But the desire to choose the Anthology as a concept is linked to the value that the book has taken on in Italy.

It all begins with the first translation of Spoon River by the anti-fascist writer and Americanist, Cesare Pavese, and his pupil, Fernanda Pivano. It is said that the 26-year-old Pivano, with the help of Pavese, subverted the fascist censorship by asking for the publication of the Anthology of S. River, knowing that “S. River ‘would be interpreted as an abbreviation of the holy’ Saint River ‘.

The alleged stratagem worked and Einaudi managed to pass the book through censorship on March 9, 1943. Pavese and Pivano thus became literary partisans and members of the resistance to the fascist regime.

This story, widely considered apocryphal, is told in nearly every new edition, as Spoon River and Italian partisanship have become closely related in the mythology surrounding the book.

When De André released his album in 1971, he included an extensive interview with Pivano and connected Pivano and Pavese’s original bias with his countercultural stance during the 1970s.

He concludes the interview: “Fernanda Pivano is an author for everyone. For me she is a 20-year-old girl who begins her professional career by translating a libertarian’s book while Italian society has all other tendencies. It happened between 1937 and 1941, when this really meant being brave ”, in a clear reminder of the historical and political stakes.

Fernanda Pivano often recalled how she saw the lines of her translation painted on buildings in 1943 and 1944 as a form of youthful subversion of fascism, while in 1969 Pivano’s translation of the anarchist epitaph, “Carl Hamblin”, was carved on the anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli’s tombstone after his death, in relation to police corruption after the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan.


Spoon River anthology was considered a revolt against conformism in Italy during World War II, and when De André released his 1971 album, he guaranteed that legacy.

The violinist Jones, mentioned in De André’s “Jones Player”, is the hero of the album and acts as a representation of the singer-songwriter himself.

In 2005 a faithful reinterpretation of this album was released by the singer Morgan, awarded for this work with the Targa Tenco for best performer. Out of fidelity to the original album, this cover album was also titled Non al denaro non all’amore nè al cielo (Morgan). 

And if you want to know how Morgan is screwing up his Tenco award, check out Dancing with the Stars on air in recent weeks.

Spoon River Anthology today

From 2000 to today, there has been no lack of tributes and references to the Anthology. From country singers to theatrical productions, opera has also conquered the world of video games.

In 2005, Utah State University’s Creative Learning Environment Lab created a game called Voices of Spoon River. In the game the player explores an environment and solves puzzles based on the Spoon River Anthology.

Also, in 2015, one hundred years after the release of the work, Lewistown celebrated its relationship with the poetry of Masters. The Oak Hill Cemetery houses a memorial statue of Masters and offers a self-guided walking tour of the graves that inspired the poems. Absolutely to do : Tourist (spoonriverdrive.org)

Later that year, again to celebrate the centenary, but in Italy, the documentary Return to Spoon River, directed by Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini, shot in Lewistown, was premiered at the Turin Film Festival.

Also this year, in the Covid-19 era, this important work has not been forgotten: on March 13, 2021, “Anthology of Spoon River” was presented as an online verse reading by the Oxford University Dramatic Society, accompanied by a limited edition illustrated booklet.

We at Zoa Studio too have not forgotten this important work. However, unlike others, we have chosen to celebrate it on the gothesr day ever! Happy Halloween everyone!



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