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Who Is Listening To The Dead

Chicago Tribune Article2015

'Spoon River' voices speak from grave for a century; who's still listening? Ed Emig, 66, stands in Oak Hill Cemetery on Oct. 30, 2015, in Lewistown, Ill. Emig, who lives across the street, is an expert on the cemetery and its role in the Edgar Lee Masters book "Spoon River Anthology." (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)Joan CaryChicago TribuneFolks from Lewistown, Ill., to Italy mark 100th anniversary of "Spoon River Anthology." Ruby and Brian Berryman traveled from New Hampshire to this small central Illinois town recently just to walk among the graves at the Oak Hill Cemetery.A playwright, Ruby yearned to read the fading script on the gravestones that inspired literary history.From Our Partners: PG-13 is Deserving of an All-Star Nod | Thunder LiveOne hundred years ago, Edgar Lee Masters, who spent much of his youth in Lewistown, used the cemetery as the basis for "the hill," the resting place for characters who speak from the grave about their lives and — often critically — about the lives of others in his book "Spoon River Anthology.""It's like you are standing in their story," said Ruby, who has been a fan of the book since she used it in a theater workshop five years ago. "It's pretty fantastic."But the Berrymans, virtually the only ones in the cemetery that October afternoon, were surprised to learn that few local residents are interested in the town's most famous citizen, despite diligent attempts by some to change that mindset.Folks were more emotional when Masters' book of modern free verse poetry was published in 1915. Nationwide, it was an immediate hit, acclaimed by literary fans and critics. But at home, it was just as quickly condemned.The local residents were taken aback by how clearly they could see themselves and their families in it, even though the characters were supposedly fictional. Family secrets were now in print, people were embarrassed, and the book was quickly banned in the local library and high school. Hard feelings remained for years."Spoon River Anthology," a collection of 244 poems, was published in 1915."Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley," begins the " Spoon River Anthology." "The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? All, all, are sleeping on the hill."It wasn't hard in 1915 for residents here to figure out on whom many of those characters — and others who emerge later in the book — were based."I'm 61. I remember older people you could not talk Masters with," said area newspaper reporter Larry Eskridge, who grew up in Lewistown and is a fan of Masters' work. "When his book first came out, Masters' own mother was on the library board and voted to ban the book. He was exposing family secrets. People were more private then, and they didn't want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it."Some say bits of anger still linger in this area, known as the Spoon River Valley. If not anger, then indifference and ignorance.Yet Lewistown welcomes visitors from across the country and world who come to see the gravestones behind Masters' poems.The visitors log at the Lewistown and Fulton County Visitors Center, just blocks from the cemetery and Masters' boyhood home, includes signatures of people from California and Japan among other places, says retiree Ed Emig, who mans the place as the sole volunteer, selling copies of "Anthology" and teaching about local history.About three years ago, an Italian singer shot a video in the cemetery, a performance that aired live in Italy, recalls Lewistown Mayor John King.Last year an Italian film crew stayed in the area for three weeks and selected local citizens to recite passages of the book for the documentary "Return To Spoon River," which is scheduled to premiere Nov. 26 at the Torino Film Festival in Italy."I'd say that the Italians know more about Masters than the people of Lewistown do," said the mayor who, along with Eskridge, was among the Lewistown High School class of '72, one of the first classes assigned to read the book in school after the ban was lifted. "We were kind of ignorant. It wasn't allowed in libraries. The people hated it in the '30s and '40s. People don't understand what it is, and that's a shame. It could be good for us."Each poem in the famed anthology is an epitaph. The residents of the fictional town of Spoon River speak from the grave about their life — the good and more often, the bad or bitter parts of it, dreams unfulfilled and hopes repressed.Most of the characters are believed to be based on people Masters knew in his town and nearby Petersburg where he is buried.There's the banker, the newspaper editor, the town drunk, the prostitute, the fiddler, the do-gooder. They and others speak of corruption, abortion, rape, betrayal — issues that most often were attached to the cities at the time, not small-town America, Eskridge said.Masters knew both the small town and the city. He was born in Kansas but lived on a farm outside neighboring Petersburg as a small child and moved to Lewistown with his parents at age 11 or 12. In his early 20s, he left for Chicago to practice law and to write.Initially, some poems that ended up in "Anthology" were published under the pseudonym Webster Ford in Reedy's Mirror, a St. Louis periodical. In 1915, the entire collection of 244 poems was published. Masters continued to write novels and poetry, but none garnered the attention "Spoon River Anthology" did."Don't think because the book was banned people didn't read it," said local historian Kelvin Sampson. "Banning a book just makes people want to read it all the more. Every family in Lewistown probably had a sheet of paper or a notebook hidden away with their copy of the 'Anthology,' saying who was who in town."Masters died in 1950. Two decades later, teacher Joan Johnson-Blackwell got permission to lift the ban on the book at Lewistown High. She also organized a Masters Day each June, which included a poetry contest. Masters Day died with her in 2012, but a few people like Emig, Eskridge and Sampson work to keep Masters' story alive.Emig has taken thousands of pictures of local sites, including the cemetery, where he has conducted tours. "I'm just trying to keep history alive," he said. "It's not for the people who are here now, but those who will be here another 100 years from now."Last year Sampson persuaded his daughter, Amanda Woodruff, president of the Fulton County Arts Council, to help in a yearlong effort to honor the noted author.Sampson, who also makes exhibits for the Dickson Mounds Museum outside Lewistown, created a traveling display chronicling Masters' life. He and his daughter coordinated entertainment and educational programs about Masters. And the two organized a poetry contest that they promoted online, hoping to bring back Johnson-Blackwell's tradition.John Smith, an English and drama teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, N.Y., was happy to see three of his students win that contest."I loved 'Spoon River' for over 50 years since I was introduced to it in college," Smith said. "I think why 'Spoon River' is so important, and easy and fun to teach, is the universality of the characters. The kids can easily relate to the anxieties, frustrations and yearnings of the various residents of the hill."Lewistown High School English teacher Susie Lafary also saw that connection between her students and Masters when they helped Emig create a Masters video, for sale at the visitors center. Profits go to the Lewistown Historical Society."Nobody else here teaches Masters, and it makes me said," Lafary said. "I think it's important for people to understand where they came from. You have your negative characters, but you have people who stimulate hope and aspiration because of who they are and what they did."The characters that make Masters so great are the characters we see in our community today," she said. "We see the kid who has gotten into trouble, the woman who dedicated her life to teaching. These people are real to my students, and that's what appeals to the kids. They see the people in the community today that he wrote about many years ago."In Italy, "Anthology" has been well-known for a long time, said Francesco Conversano, one of the two filmmakers who came to town last year to create "Return To Spoon River.""We chose 'Spoon River Anthology' because the 'Anthology' became very famous in Italy after World War II (when it was translated into Italian). And in the 1970s another generation was introduced to it when Italian folk singer, Fabrizio De Andre' wrote and sang an album based on the 'Anthology,'" Conversano wrote in an email. "We love small-town America."Eskridge, who works at the Canton Daily Ledger, said local residents need to understand the message Masters has about small-town America. "If all this book was was the dirt on some small-town people, we wouldn't be still talking about it today," he said."It's a book of everyday life in small-town America and how in these conditions people can still thrive. He saw the dreariness of life but also how people get through it. The same problems they had back then are still going on today."Robert Martin of Havana, Ill., was among those who grew up hearing about Masters. The owner and publisher of the Mason County Democrat and the Fulton Democrat is also a descendant of William Taylor Davidson.In "Anthology," the prominent editor, "Editor Whedon," who speaks of perverting the truth and publishing scandal to sell papers, is believed to be based on Davidson, of whom Masters was critical in real life. In fact, Masters' first published poem at 16 ran in another local newspaper blasting Davidson.Davidson was Martin's great-great uncle, and although Masters' words are critical, inflamed and accusatory, "now, if anything, 100 years later it's a little comical," said Martin, who owns a signed copy of "Spoon River Anthology.""Back in the day, I'm sure they took it very seriously."Ruby Berryman took it seriously enough to travel halfway across the country to visit "the hill.""Just the idea that somebody from a small town like this could do something that monumental should be a beacon to those here," Eskridge said. "Do the best you can with what you have."

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