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.”