Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels. But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death I read the
Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Through the Lens Backwards

Today, Galesburg, Illinois, is unprepossessing. My old hometown has seen better days. As you drive through various residential neighborhoods, you see signs of urban decay. 

Still, there is a vitality. People are doing things. 

Main Street Underpass. Contractor photo.

New overpasses and underpasses have liberated Main Street traffic from its former bondage to the railroads’ freight-hauling schedules. 

The commercial section of Seminary Street was remodeled decades ago, its old brick pavement lovingly restored. Stores, restaurants, and a coffee shop line both sides of the street for a three-block stretch, south and north of Main. Establishments like the Landmark Café have been in business for a long time now and do a steady trade. Redevelopment of this old street is a retail success story.

Knox College looks prosperous. There are new buildings, and some of the old classics, such as Alumni Hall, have been rehabbed and repurposed beyond their former glory. The Knox Bowl football stadium is a big step up from the old field where we used to watch the hapless Siwashers struggle against the bruisers of Lawrence and St. Olaf. 

The very term “Siwashers,” once a proud and unique moniker, has been officially retired in favor of “Prairie Fire.” Ladies and gentlemen, applaud as the Knox Prairie Fire take the field. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we learned in 1993 that “Siwash”—which the college had used in all innocence for nearly a century—was also an ethnic slur against Native Americans, used especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Victorian house, Buffalo, New York. Note the fishscale siding on the tall mansard roof. Photo by Andre Carrotflower, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Another sign of the times: There is now a nice soccer pitch beside the Knox Bowl. Not quite as nice as the gridiron for American football. Still, it’s something.

The tony streets north of Main in the central part of the city—Broad, Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, and Seminary—are still lined with very nice, well-kept houses. Some of them are gorgeous Queen Annes or other late Victorian castles. Here and there one of these old dowagers crumbles down towards her foundations—neither rehabbed nor yet plowed under. Such eyesores tend to bring the neighborhood down. But it’s still a nice neighborhood. Some of the streets are still made of brick and lined with old globe-style streetlamps. 

Charming it is, as in quaint.

That fin-de-siècle architecture, and the town’s disused streetcar tracks, prompted the late Jack Finney to pen a classic short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” In case anyone under sixty is reading this, I ought to explain the story’s title was a sidelong allusion to a line from “I Love Paris,” a very popular song penned by Cole Porter in 1953.

Finney, a Milwaukee native, was a 1934 Knox college graduate. Most of his best work was what today we call speculative fiction—a mélange of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. The basic thrust of “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime” was a comforting conceit that the old red-brick and fishscale-sided town was possessed by a benevolent antiquarian spirit which actively subverted the schemes of developers to tear things down and modernize. 

You might not enjoy the story—if you can even find it. I, however, have long been captivated by Finney’s atavistic sensibility. 

James Daly in “A Stop at Willoughby.” CBS Television photo. Public Domain.

The late Rod Serling penned a favorite episode for the first season of The Twilight Zone called “A Stop at Willoughby.” In it, a harried, hounded, and henpecked New York ad exec looks out the window of his commuter train as he goes home in the evening and sees a little town called Willoughby—a town that’s never been on the train’s route before. 

In Willoughby, the sun always shines. A band plays in the park. Men and women in outdated garb stroll down streets traversed by horse-drawn rigs. Young boys roll hoops along board sidewalks. The ad man, portrayed by actor James Daly, longs for the slow-paced serenity of the little town. 

The story has a Serlingesque dark side in the harsh forces of modern life that impel the ad man to crave a life in Willoughby. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but my point is that the protagonist’s yearning to turn back the clock is pure Jack Finney. 

Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Galesburg harbors a stubborn, almost animate, resistance to change. Perhaps that’s why not everything has gone right for this grand old American city. 

But speaking as a native, I still love it—springtime, summer, or fall. 

Winter is another thing altogether.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

P.S.–COME TO MY BOOK LAUNCH PARTY, in person or online. Details here: https://www.mysterytomebooks.com/larry-sommers-price-of-passage

The Units

Daddy’s friend Clark drove standing up. That’s the first thing I noticed. “That’s how milk trucks are,” he explained. “You have to drive standing up.” I was still amazed at this when we arrived at the circus. 

A three-ring circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. Public Domain image from State Archives of Florida, published under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license.

There in the gathering darkness: a big tent on a dusty lot. We sat high up and saw people called “acrobats” fly through the air and drop into a big, bouncy net. And there came a little car that drove around the three circus rings and dropped off clowns, one by one—at least a dozen of them. The little truck, by some magic, seemed to to have an inexhaustible supply of clowns. 

A milk truck. You had to stand up. “DSC_5874” by improbcat is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 .

Clark drove the milk truck but did not own it. He was not a regular milkman. He was a college student like Daddy. He drove an early morning milk route for extra cash and could use the truck in off hours.

It was 1949; I was four. We lived in The Units—three or four rows of jerry-built shacks on the campus of Knox College. Each unit, one of three connected side by side, had a kitchen, a bath, a small livingroom, and two small bedrooms. Each unit housed a mommy, a daddy, and one or two very young children.

The occupants were families of war veterans attending college on the newly-enacted GI Bill. We moved in when I was three months old, in September 1945, and left in June 1949, not long after Daddy took me to the circus. 

Special Bond

The families who lived in The Units shared a special bond and a certain kind of outlook. The men were college students, the women housewives. They were all, on average, four or more years older than the typical entering freshman. They were householders, married, with young children. The usual campus hijinks of the era held no charm for them. They had their own hijinks. 

They were more serious men, you see, having just fought a war. Yet, like all students everywhere, they sometimes put studies on the back burner, accepting lower grades as a  reasonable price for the rich social life of The Units. That social life included beer, cigarettes, the needs of their toddlers, and late-night bridge games.

The family next door, with whom we shared a wall, was Bud and Helen Steele and their daughter Heather. Helen and Bud played bridge with Mommy and Daddy most nights in their place or ours. When the visiting couple got the contract, the one who was dummy got up and ran next door to check on the ostensibly sleeping child. Bud, whose name was Virgil, was a wiry man with a ready smile, from a family that farmed just south of Galesburg. Helen was a fresh-faced and friendly young woman from Saskatchewan. I don’t know how they managed to find each other, but they made a great match. They remained fast friends with our family long after The Units and until their dying days. My younger sister and I still keep in touch with Heather and her siblings, Hugh and Linelle.

Diversions and Hijinks

One of the men in The Units sought to beautify the little patch of green grass in front of his place by planting two or three sapling trees. Several of his colleagues, by dark of night, dug up the trees and, perhaps inspired by the beer, re-planted them upside-down.

Iceman and children. German Federal Archives, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Life was likewise fun for us tots. A small pack of us roamed The Units, outdoors in almost any weather, older ones picking on younger ones. In summer the iceman came twice a week. Our iceboxes had to be replenished with large blocks of ice, which were slid into the upper compartment to cool the meat, butter, eggs, and milk in the lower compartment. The iceman used black wrought-iron tongs to lug these ice blocks into our kitchens. We kids waited beside the iceman’s idling truck until he came out, tongs empty, to get another ice-cake. Then the boldest of us, Dale Price, begged ice chips from the iceman. He gave us each a two- or three-inch sliver of ice to hold in our hands, very cold under the hot sun. You had to brush dirt and sawdust off the ice chip. Then you sucked on it for as long as you could stand, dropped it, and ran off to play another game. 

It may not sound like much, Gentle Reader; but for us it was a treat.

One time Dale Price drank turpentine from an old Campbell’s soup can my mommy had left on the back stoop, midway through a furniture painting project. Dale was rushed to the hospital to get his stomach pumped out. “Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy said. “Always getting into things.”

The Railroad

Burlington engine No. 5633, no longer going anywhere, on static display in Douglas, Wyoming. Photo by Wusel007, published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Galesburg was a railroad town, astride two great lines: The Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. The Units stood across South Cherry Street from the main line of the CB&Q. I clearly remember standing in our front yard on a bright morning, watching a fast train zoom by, pulled by a chugging black steam locomotive, perhaps a 4-8-4 “Northern,” a long cone of white smoke streaming out behind it. At night, I lay in my crib beside Teddy, my bear and best friend, and listened to the imponderable chug, roll, and bump of iron thunder as switch engines sorted and grouped railcars in the nearby Burlington yards. 

Mrs. Grable’s School

Life went on. Daddy had a part-time job taking the Galesburg Register-Mail to the outlying district of Bushnell in the afternoons. The GI Bill provided tuition, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for veterans in college; but daily  expenses, beyond “subsistence,” could be tight. When I was three, Mommy got a part-time job as a secretary in an auto parts company, and I began attending a nursery school, “Mrs. Grable’s.” 

1950 DeSoto Suburban ad, Public Domain. Scanned by Alden Jewell, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Mrs. Grable had a large house with a big backyard and lots of toys and crayons. One or two other old ladies helped her wrangle kids. She had maybe a dozen of us. She picked us in the morning in her DeSoto Suburban—a big car with jump seats and room enough for the whole dozen of us. Later in the day she drove around The Units and dropped us off one by one, like circus clowns alighting from a mystery vehicle every afternoon at three.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

No No Nostalgia

Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future. 

Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does. 

Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.

Two Views of History

A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions. 

In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man. 

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.

Jack Finney

In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.

Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.

Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.” 

Willoughby, Anyone?

Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.

Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.

At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future. 

Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author