Monday, August 27, 2012

A Broken Fiddle, A Broken Laugh & A Thousand Memories: Revisiting The Spoon River Anthology

In my naivete I used to think that the course of human history, at least during my lifetime, was more or less a straightline thing -- society was getting better and better, humanity was growing more tolerant and inclusive, we were leaving all the bad things behind, to be waved at through the rear view mirror, we were moving toward a bright and better future.

I thought America had made irreversible progress in protecting the rights and dignities of ordinary people -- workers, women, minorities, immigrants, the elderly and the infirm, all the downtrodden people who took it and took it hard in the 'bad old days.'

Whew! When I look at the politics of the day, and the pressures from the radical right to erode hard won achievements in human dignity, I'm increasingly struck by how little we have progressed, how much danger there is for hatred, ignorance, intolerance, greed and exploitation to return.

That and how much there is to learn from revisiting the literature of the muckrakers, activists and progressives of the early 1900s -- who fought the good fight against such things a century ago.
People Like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Norris and Carl Sandburg. I mean they ought to be required reading for anyone presuming to hold the values of American citizenship dear.

And Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology I recently picked up again after many years.

The man takes on some surprisingly contemporary issues head on. On page after page in the little midwestern town he created, we're confronted with unscrupulous bankers, influence-peddling politicians, rapacious corporations working hand in hand with judges, media moguls and flat-earth religious leaders to maintain the status quo of t
he 'Robber Baron" era -- ie, unharnessed economic and political domination by the rich and powerful. Coarse swaggering, abuse and corruption. Brutal subjugation of workers and the poor.

Masters gets mighty specific about it.

A woman is raped, and dies in a back alley abortion. Another women dies in childbirth because she's forced, against medical advice, to carry a baby to term.

Unregulated banks speculate wildly, ruining homeowners, businesses and small investors. Corporations buy or bully their way out of accidents in an unsafe workplace. Political, judicial and media institutions protect the interests of giant corporations and a tiny elite of the most wealthy people.

Sound familiar?

Interestingly, these themes come out in Spoon River Anthology through a patchwork kind of reading -- as if they are a series of 'depositions' to be matched up against each other.

Makes sense really. After
all, Edgar Lee Masters was a career lawyer, and the son of a lawyer -- accustomed to taking depositions from witnesses, for all their lack of objectivity and self-serving nature -- and then stacking those depositions up against each other to see what patterns and truths emerge.

That's what I've been doing this week, examining the whole patchwork of dramatic monologues. It's startling to me how many of the issues Masters addresses are back in the national discourse -- the deleterious effects of materialism, capitalism, puritan zealotry, anti-rationalism, xenophobia and religious closemindedness.

Most of the characters in the collection are part victim and part perpetrator. That's a nuance which tends to confirm my sense that in an unhealthy society even the perpetrators are victims, forced by circumstances at least as much as their own weaknesses into becoming agents of its worst dynamics.

But some of the characters are unapologetic villains, like the banker Thomas Rhodes -- who even at death sneers at those he has ruled and rode over. The best he can offer the trampled down is an acknowledgement of how hard it is for 'small folk' to 'keep the soul from splitting.' Join the exploiters, he urges -- the ones who embrace corruption, 'seekers of earth's treasures, getters and hoarders of gold,' who are 'self contained, compact, harmonized, even to the end."
Masters does offer a glimpse of people who've managed to keep their souls together, however -- and who we might emulate. Like Lucinda Matlock, who is untouched by modern corruption and has conducted her life in accordance with a simpler and more innocent past. In her youth she went to dances, fell in love, married and had children. Over the course of her life, she spun, wove, kept house nursed the sick, made a garden, and for fun, she
    rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
   and by Spoon River gathered many a shell
   and many a flower and medicinal weed--
   shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.

At the age of 96, she'd live enough, that's all, and passed to a sweet repose.
Hard to emulate her. But then there's Fiddler Jones, who, through his focus on his art rather than possessions, manages to remain untouched by his lack of material success, and is therefore able to retain a Whitmanesque conception -- he sees Original Grace, and the transcendental hum, all around him, in all things. 'The earth keeps some vibration of joy," he declares, 'there in your hearts, and that is you.'

Because of his musical talent, he's called on to play so often for the people that he never has a chance to prosper or fail according to society's terms -- and it doesn't bother him one bit.
    I ended up with a broken fiddle
   and a broken laugh and a thousand memories
   and not a single regret.

Finally, and almost as a call to arms, Masters tells us through the voice of Jim Brown that it's up to each individual to decide which side they're on. You're either 'for men or for money,' says Brown. You're either 'for the people or against them.'

I suppose my poetic temperament makes me more of a Fiddler Jones type, happy with a broken fiddle, a broken laugh and a thousand memories. But t
his week as the Republican Party prepares to offer its heart and soul to the very people who would return us to the dark ages of willful ignorance, unchecked capitalism, and back alley abortions, I'm thinking that for America in 2012, a healthy dose of 'which side are you on' progressivism may be just what the doctor ordered. 

1 comment:

  1. Watching the GOP convention right now. O Lord. Yours is a timely post.