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Edgar Lee Masters' "Aner Clute"

Updated on June 16, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 "Aner Clute"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Aner Clute," from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is a prostitute, who blames others for her own life choices, as many of the Spoon River soliloquists are wont to do.

The bulk of Aner Clute's drama plays out in her comparison of her choosing "the life" to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store. Like many other Spoon River speakers, Miss Clute dabbles in a ridiculous fantasy designed solely to relieve her of her own guilty life choices.

Aner Clute

Over and over they used to ask me,
While buying [adult beverages],
In Peoria first, and later in Chicago,
Denver, Frisco, New York, wherever I lived,
How I happened to lead the life,
And what was the start of it.
Well, I told them a silk dress,
And a promise of marriage from a rich man—
(It was Lucius Atherton).
But that was not really it at all.
Suppose a boy steals an apple
From the tray at the grocery store,
And they all begin to call him a thief,
The editor, minister, judge, and all the people—
"A thief," "a thief," "a thief," wherever he goes.
And he can’t get work, and he can’t get bread
Without stealing it, why the boy will steal.
It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple
That makes the boy what he is.

Reading of Masters' "Aner Clute"

Commentary

Edgar Lee Masters’ speaker in "Aner Clute" compares her choosing "the life" to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store.

First Movement: Getting into "The Life"

Over and over they used to ask me,
While buying the wine or the beer,
In Peoria first, and later in Chicago,
Denver, Frisco, New York, wherever I lived,
How I happened to lead the life,
And what was the start of it.

Aner begins her drama by reporting that her johns would always ask her how she got into "the life," which is a euphemism for prostitution. They supposedly wanted to know "what was the start of it." These johns in Peoria, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, New York, or "wherever [she] lived" would put these questions to her as they were "buying the wine or the beer."

No doubt, they asked not so much because they cared how she became a "working girl," but likely just to have something to say. They probably had little else in common with their companion for the night, and such a question would seem personal enough yet non-intimidating.

Second Movement: Blame it on a Dress and a Promise

Well, I told them a silk dress,
And a promise of marriage from a rich man—
(It was Lucius Atherton).

Aner claims she would tell them she got into the business because of "a silk dress, / And a promise of marriage from a rich man." She even names the man, Lucius Atherton.

Third Movement: A Lie and Ludicrous Comparison

But that was not really it at all.
Suppose a boy steals an apple
From the tray at the grocery store,
And they all begin to call him a thief,
The editor, minister, judge, and all the people—

Aner then admits that her claim about the marriage promise and the silk dress was a lie, and she begins a ludicrous comparison of her choice to sell sex for a living to a boy stealing an apple from a grocery store. Clute's pitiful plaint is that "the editor, minister, judge, and all the people" took up the refrain of calling the boy "a thief."

Fourth Movement: The Label Makes the Man

"A thief," "a thief," "a thief," wherever he goes.
And he can’t get work, and he can’t get bread
Without stealing it, why the boy will steal.
It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple
That makes the boy what he is.

Clute continues her analogy and chorus of "all the people" calling the boy, "A thief," "a thief," "a thief." Everywhere the poor lad goes someone calls him a thief. The boy's reputation as a thief prevents the boy from finding any job. He cannot even supply his own meals, so the boy can do only one thing—continue to steal.

According to Aner, the boy’s predicament was not engendered by the boy stealing an apple; his life as a theft resulted from "the way the people regard the theft of the apple." Their heartless taunting "ma[de] the boy what he is." Aner’s analogy to the boy-turned-thief sounds utterly asinine. She is implying that because she took money once for sex, she had to continue because everywhere she went, people would call her names like whore, slut, slattern or whatever.

So Aner's difficulty was not her own. Her downfall was having other people label her a whore that made her actually become a prostitute. Such is the convoluted thinking of many of these Spoon River cemetery inmates. They are never to blame for their choices—they blame society in the town of Spoon River.

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

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    17 months ago from U.S.A.

    Certain weak individuals given to vanity and lack of empathy find blaming others for their own weaknesses a way of excusing their own guilt. Many of the characters who speak in these epitaphs fall into that frame of mind. Many of them are obviously just making excuse for themselves as they make others seem the guilty party.

    Masters' ability to create these characters demonstrates quite a skill. Although some of the epitaphs seem vague at times, even the vagueness can be laid at the door of the speaker of the epitaph.

    Thanks for your continued interest in my commentaries, Mark. Really appreciate your feedback.

  • Mark Tulin profile image

    Mark Tulin 

    17 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

    Thank you for presenting this poem. It brings up some good issues relating to choice and the power of public opinion. Sometimes public opinion/label overwhelms a person enough for them to believe they don't have a choice.

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