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Edgar Lee Masters "Nancy Knapp"

Updated on April 30, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Nancy Knapp"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Nancy Knapp" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker offers a vague report. Most epitaphers reveal how they died, but Nancy does not. The speaker offers only a glimpse into her life. She is obviously upset with how things turned out. She undoubtedly thinks her siblings-in-law caused her husband and her to have a miserable life.

Nevertheless, Nancy puts forth some interesting images and claims, but they offer no clues about vital facts that would clarify important issues. This epitaph leads its readers to hope that some future speaker will shed more light on this subject as does happen in some of the related series.

Nancy Knapp

Well, don’t you see this was the way of it:
We bought the farm with what he inherited,
And his brothers and sisters accused him of poisoning
His father’s mind against the rest of them.
And we never had any peace with our treasure.
The murrain took the cattle, and the crops failed.
And lightning struck the granary.
So we mortgaged the farm to keep going.
And he grew silent and was worried all the time.
Then some of the neighbors refused to speak to us,
And took sides with his brothers and sisters.
And I had no place to turn, as one may say to himself,
At an earlier time in life; “No matter,
So and so is my friend, or I can shake this off
With a little trip to Decatur.”
Then the dreadfulest smells infested the rooms.
So I set fire to the beds and the old witch-house
Went up in a roar of flame,
As I danced in the yard with waving arms,
While he wept like a freezing steer.

Reading of "Nancy Knapp"

Commentary

The epitaph spoken by "Nancy Kanpp" remains one of the more baffling reports. While miffed by life's events, Nancy keeps her listener in the dark about important facts that would shed light on how she and her husband died.

First Movement: Origin of an Idiom?

Well, don’t you see this was the way of it:
We bought the farm with what he inherited,
And his brothers and sisters accused him of poisoning
His father’s mind against the rest of them.
And we never had any peace with our treasure.

Nancy is speaking of her husband, but she never names him. He will henceforth have to be know simply as Mr. Knapp. She reveals that he inherited enough cash which with they "bought the farm." Interestingly, the expression "bought the farm" has come to mean "die." The origin of "bought the farm" becoming an idiom for "died" is unknown, but apparently it did not appear as that exact form until 1955. Might the idiom's origin have been Master's use of it in this poem? While various other speculations exist, none is conclusive.

Nancy begins her beef with the fact that her husband's brothers and sisters accused Nancy and Mr. Knapp of turning the old man, Mr. Knapp's father, against them. Mr. Knapp became the only beneficiary of the father's inheritance. Because of the accusation from the Knapp siblings, Nancy and her husband were unable to enjoy their good fortune. She frames it this way: "we never had any peace with our treasure."

Second Movement: Trials, Tribulations, and Loss

The murrain took the cattle, and the crops failed.
And lightning struck the granary.
So we mortgaged the farm to keep going.
And he grew silent and was worried all the time.

Nancy reports that they lost their cattle to a dreadful disease. They also lost their crops. Then Mother Nature interceded to destroy their granary with lightning. These sorrowful events led to their having to mortgage the farm just "to keep going." But the sad events lead to Mr. Knapp become depressed. Mr. Knapp stopped talking, and he was filled with worries that led to his depressed state.

Third Movement: Then Things Got Worse

Then some of the neighbors refused to speak to us,
And took sides with his brothers and sisters.
And I had no place to turn, as one may say to himself,
At an earlier time in life; “No matter,
So and so is my friend, or I can shake this off
With a little trip to Decatur.”

Then things got worse. Their neighbors turned against them and would not speak to them. Those neighbors "took sides with the brothers and sisters" of Mr. Knapp. Nancy, who seems to be in a rambling mood of blabbering, then states that earlier in their lives they could shake off their difficulties with a "trip to Decatur." The speaker implies that now things were so bad that they could no longer soothe their sorrows with distractions such as pleasure trips.

Fourth Movement: Bizarre Confession

Then the dreadfulest smells infested the rooms.
So I set fire to the beds and the old witch-house
Went up in a roar of flame,
As I danced in the yard with waving arms,
While he wept like a freezing steer.

Nancy concludes with a truly bizarre confession. She complains that every room in the house became plagued with "the dreadfulest smells." Unfortunately, she gives no indication of what those smell might be.

Did Mr. Knapp die in the house and his corpse become the source for those "smells"? No, he appears in another odd image at the end of the poem. Did they both just become so downtrodden that they no longer practiced cleanliness and hygienic routines? This speculation seems the only logical one. Whatever the origin of the smell, Nancy's reaction to them is nothing but disastrous: she burns the house down.

First, she set fire to the "beds." Is she implying that the beds were the origin al the smells? Did she stop changing the sheets? Then she says that "the old witch-house / Went up in a roar of flame." She refers to her home as a witch-house, seeming to imply that the place was haunted. But again the speaker's vagueness does not allow the reader much room to speculate about actual events.

Then without adding any clarity to the entire episode or their lives in general, Nancy concocts a stark, raving mad image of herself, dancing and waving her arms out in the yard, as her home burns down. And while Nancy does her mad dance, her husband is weeping "like a freezing steer." This speaker leaves her listeners not having a clue as to how either she or Mr. Knapp died. Nancy Knapp's report is one of the vaguest and oddest of the Spoon River epitaphs.

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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