For a good stretch of time in 20th-century America, Spoon River Anthology was required reading in countless high-school English classes and a staple of every small-town drama club’s repertoire. It’s O.K. if you haven’t heard of it. Most people haven’t. Published in 1915 by Edgar Lee Masters, the book is a sequence of more than 200 free-verse epitaphs, all spoken by the dead from the graveyard in Spoon River, a fictional hamlet in Illinois modeled after Masters’s own.
Filled with tales of hypocrisy, sexual repression, and moral decay, the book stirred controversy—and made Masters one of the country’s most celebrated writers, a poet on par with Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot, someone who understood the character and desires of his fellow citizens. As Ezra Pound wrote in The Egoist in 1915, “At last! At last America has discovered a poet.”
Despite this early success, though, the work faded from America’s literary canon long ago. The strange thing is, it remains revered in Italy. The Italians’ attachment to the book is not based on their love of its story. Not that they don’t love the story—they do. It’s just that their love is based on a complete misreading of the text, a result of Italians’ seeing it through the context of their own culture and time.
To this day, Italians still translate, read, and love Masters’s book, and as the country reels from the coronavirus, they find a poignancy and a point of reference in it, with many in the press and in private saying that the crisis has created “a Spoon River for medical workers,” where they are left haunted by faces and voices of the dead.
When Masters wrote his free-verse poems, he wanted to take on the notion that small-town, turn-of-the century America was merely bucolic. He wanted to challenge the Calvinist idea that success in life comes only through divine grace. So he created a chorus of provincial characters who speak to us from the grave, voices telling us not to let our fear of what people think prevent us from living our lives.
Italians, who didn’t discover Masters’s work until almost 30 years after it was published—and who were living under Mussolini’s oppression during World War II—saw Spoon River Anthology more as a manifesto for political freedom and embraced it.
Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas in 1868 and grew up in the small Illinois town of Petersburg and, later, Lewiston. He became a lawyer but dreamed of being a poet, and at 24 moved to Chicago to escape the narrow-minded dreariness of those towns. In Chicago, he imagined that “all [the people from those towns] are sleeping on the hill” of the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown, and he wrote poems in which those dead people could at last lament their frustrated lives. Masters wanted to give voice to the stifling mediocrity and hypocrisy of small-town life. He depicted characters, often modeled after real people, defeated by the petty moralism that stigmatizes harmless vices while praising overrated virtues. In the hyper-judgmental society he fled, the wealthiest were usually identified as being the most virtuous, even though that was highly improbable.
In March 1943, the first Italian translation appeared, the result of the efforts of Cesare Pavese—a poet and translator of American authors including Melville, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Faulkner—and Fernanda Pivano, who would become one of the most famous Italian translators of American literature. Pavese had taught Pivano in high school, and in 1938 he met her again. He gave her some American books, including Spoon River. Intimidated by Pavese’s achievements as a translator and poet, Pivano decided to translate Masters’s work in secret. Pavese discovered her translations and was delighted: he took care of the printing, editing the translation for Einaudi, the publisher, which released an abridged version of the book in 1943.
The book made Masters one of the country’s most celebrated writers, on a par with Whitman.
At the time, Italy was under the heel of Fascism. Famine was beginning to set in among civilians, the Allies were bombing cities, and the military was suffering defeat. Italians immediately identified with the characters’ recriminations in Spoon River but misunderstood their target: they read the book in the historical context of Italy’s political situation. No matter. The book was a huge success. (In 1947, a full translation was released. Pivano and Pavese became lovers, and he proposed to her twice: but she refused, as she was in love with another man.)
In the following decades, the book became so popular in Italy that it was translated again. Then, in 1971, the famous Italian songwriter Fabrizio De André published a musical version of Pivano’s texts: he chose nine poems, making Masters’s characters play out human passions such as envy, resentment, freedom, and love. In 1987, Antonio Porta, one of the most important Italian avant-garde poets of the 20th century, tried to adapt Masters’s style to contemporary Italy: he maintained some English words (the 80s had seen the beginning of the spread of English, thanks to American television), but the characters spoke with a literary flourish, the opposite of Masters’s plain, unvarnished voices.
In 2016, thanks to Luigi Ballerini, another poet, Italian readers could finally read the book as Masters conceived it: Ballerini’s translation contains detailed descriptions of the circumstances that inspired Masters. Ballerini restored the cultural context of the original, showing how Masters’s characters reacted against puritanism, an element which is obviously not part of Italian culture. Instead of being perceived as the end of a literary myth, Ballerini’s translation illuminated the process through which Masters re-interpreted the reality of his childhood, showing the basis of his literary masterpiece. Seventy years after its first appearance in Italy, Spoon River is indeed more and more interpreted through the lens of literature.
The Fascist dictatorship that sparked the original misunderstanding is long over, but that hasn’t diminished Spoon River’s appeal. The everyday language Masters used to depict small-town existence was striking and alluring for Italians: Italian literature has always employed an elevated language, modeled after Petrarch and Boccaccio, very distant from the variations of Italian spoken in day-to-day life.
Masters wrote a masterpiece of realism, bringing alive his imagined characters from two Midwestern cities, each character speaking in his or her own individual American voice. Fabrizio De André loved the book because in each one of the characters he discovered a part of himself. Like De André, Italian readers perceived the characters as antiheroes finally giving voice to their repressed desires. And that’s why we Italians still love, read, and (mis)translate their voices.
Iuri Moscardi teaches at the Graduate Center, CUNY