I saw where it was the 155th birthday of famed defense lawyer, civil libertarian, and general champion of the weak and oppressed, Clarence Darrow the other day. Darrow has been an inspiration to me since high school. In his honor, I went to find out what his friend and former law partner Edgar Lee Masters had to say about him. I liked what I found.
Masters was the author of one of the greatest single volumes of American poetry ever—The Spoon River Anthology. That book in which the denizens of a small 19th Century Illinois village graveyard tell their stories, is still a shock and an eye opener for anyone who bought into the Disney version of small town life as a kind of perfect idyll.
Masters was born on August 23, 1868 in Kansas where his father had briefly established a law practice. When that failed the family moved back to his grandparents farm near Petersburg in Menard County, Illinois. In 1880 the family moved again to nearby Lewistown where the boy attended high school and showed an interest in both writing and following his father’s shaky footsteps in the law. He had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News—a Democratic challenger to the dominance and hegemony in the state of the Republican Chicago Tribune.
In the late 1880’s he attended Knox Academy, the prep school for Knox College but was forced to drop out when his family could no longer support him. After that he read law at his father’s law office. His dad was the village Freethinker and thus something of an outcast. The practice revolved around the margins of local life, petty civil cases for those who could not afford the lawyers who hobnobbed with the judges and bankers, criminal cases, divorces, anything that exposed the underside of the community. It was an eye-opening experience.
After passing the Bar, young Masters hot footed it out of town to Chicago in 1893 where he hoped to advance both his legal and writing careers. He went into practice with Kickham Scanlan and began to publish poetry under the name Dexter Wallace.
In 1898 he married the daughter of a prominent lawyer and began a family that grew to include three children including a daughter Marsha who grew up to be a poet and a son Hilary who became a novelist. But the union grew stormy due to Master’s extramarital affairs.
In 1903 Masters went into partnership with Clarence Darrow, already noted as a top labor and defense attorney. They were united in their Democratic politics, instinctive radicalism, Free thought, and admiration for the labor Democrat hero, Governor John Peter Altgeld. As a junior partner in the firm, master handled mostly routine criminal and civil cases for the poor, often pro bono.
Despite an amicable beginning, the partnership foundered in 1908 and formally broke up in 1911 due to business dispute with Darrow and a messy, scandalous marriage. Despite the bitter personal falling out, he remained an admirer of Darrow.
He published two little noted volume of poetry under pen names in 1898 and 1910.
During his hiatus from the active practice of law as his partnership with Darrow disintegrated he began work on writing and polishing poems inspired by his home town. In 1914 he began to publish these in Reedy’s Mirror out of St. Louis under another nom de plume, Webster Ford. A year later the poems were collected and issued as The Spoon River Anthology with the assistance and encouragement of Harriet Monroe of Poetry Magazine to instant critical and popular acclaim.
Suddenly the obscure lawyer was famous. He gradually wound down the practice of law to concentrate on a literary career. Although he was embittered in old age that none of his subsequent work got the attention of that book, he produced prolifically and with great skill. In all there were 19 more volumes of verse including a sequel The New Spoon River, 12 plays, 6 novels and 7 biographies. Among the subjects of his biographies were fellow Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman to each of who he owed a debt of gratitude.
He had quit the practice of law entirely by 1920 and moved to New York to concentrate on writing. Masters finally divorced his first wife in 1923 years after abandoning the family. In 1926 he married Ellen Coyne with whom he had another son, Hardin.
Although Masters won plaudits and honors including the Mark Twain Silver Medal in 1936, the Poetry Society of America medal in 1941, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1942, and the Shelly Memorial Award in 1944 he never matched the fame and glory of his contemporary Carl Sandberg and often felt snubbed the Eastern and academic poetry elite. He was not experimental enough to be ranked with the Imagists and modernists.
He died March 5, 1950, in a convalescent home near Philadelphia and was buried back home in Petersburg in the cemetery that inspired his greatest book.
Here are his three poems on Darrow. The first was written with the still bitter taste of their estrangement in his mouth. The second two written eight years later reflect his persistent admiration and affection.
On a Bust
A giant as we hoped, in truth, a dwarf;
A barrel of slop that shines on Lethe’s wharf',
Which at first seemed a vessel with sweet wine
For thirsty lips. So down the swift decline
You went through sloven spirit, craven heart
And cynic indolence. And here the art
Of molding clay has caught you for the nonce
And made your shame our shame—Your head in bronze!
This is Darrow,
Inadequately scrawled, with his young, old heart,
And his drawl, and his infinite paradox
And his sadness, and kindness,
And his artist sense that drives him to shape his life
To something harmonious, even against the schemes of God.
Darrow 2 (unpublished)
This is a man with an old face, always old...
There was pathos, in his face, and in his eyes.
The early weariness; and sometimes tears in his eyes,
Which he let slip unconsciously on his cheek,
Or brushed away with an unconcerned hand.
There were tears for human suffering, or for a glance
Into the vast futility of life,
Which he had seen from the first, being old
When he was born.
–Edgar Lee Masters