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Edgar Lee Masters' "Harry Carey Goodhue"

Updated on January 26, 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

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Introduction and Text of Poem, "Harry Carey Goodhue"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Harry Carey Goodhue" is poem number eleven in the Spoon River Anthology. As many of these speakers do, this speaker dramatizes his complaints against the citizens of the town while also announcing how he finally was able to avenge himself.

Harry Carey Goodhue

You never marveled, dullards of Spoon River,
When Chase Henry voted against the saloons
To revenge himself for being shut off.
But none of you was keen enough
To follow my steps, or trace me home
As Chase’s spiritual brother.
Do you remember when I fought
The bank and the courthouse ring,
For pocketing the interest on public funds?
And when I fought our leading citizens
For making the poor the pack-horses of the taxes?
And when I fought the water works
For stealing streets and raising rates?
And when I fought the business men
Who fought me in these fights?
Then do you remember:
That staggering up from the wreck of defeat,
And the wreck of a ruined career,
I slipped from my cloak my last ideal,
Hidden from all eyes until then,
Like the cherished jawbone of an ass,
And smote the bank and the water works,
And the business men with prohibition,
And made Spoon River pay the cost
Of the fights that I had lost?

Reading of Harry Carey Goodhue

Commentary

First Movement: “You never marveled, dullards of Spoon River”

Addressing his listeners by calling them “dullards of Spoon River,” Harry reminds the town’s residents that they “never marveled,” that the drunkard Chase Henry “voted to shut down the saloons.”

It might seem odd that a drunkard would vote for Prohibition, but the saloons had stopped giving Chase credit; thus, he could no longer get drunk anyway, and thus he got his revenge by helping to shut down the taverns.

Harry gives his listeners credit for not finding anything odd about Chase Henry’s revenge, but he then zaps them for their lack of awareness about Harry, who calls himself “Chase’s spiritual brother.” This appellation alerts the reader that Harry must have rebelled in some way that the townspeople did not recognize.

Second Movement: “Do you remember when I fought”

Harry then asks his phantom listeners if they remember when he “fought / The bank and the courthouse ring / For pocketing the interest of public funds?” Harry does not reveal how he fought these entities, but he continues by asking another question. He asks if the Spoon River citizens remember when he fought “our leading citizens / For making the poor the pack-horses of the taxes?”

Harry also wants to know if they remember when he “fought the water works / For stealing streets and raising rates?” and finally, he wonders if they recall when he “fought the business men / Who fought me in these fights?”

Harry leaves his listeners wondering just how he did all of this fighting without their knowing it. And too, his hearers must wonder how successful all that fighting has been. But Harry saves his surprise until the last few lines for the most impact.

Third Movement: “Then do you remember”

In a final question, Harry then reveals that all of this fighting resulted in his own defeat: he wonders if anyone saw him “staggering up from the wreck of defeat.” Harry lost his battle; he even lost his own job, “the wreck of a ruined career.” He does not reveal what his career was, just that it was ruined because of his standing up for his ideals.

But because of all of this defeat, he “slipped from [his] cloak” his “last ideal,” which he had kept hidden. This last ideal made him vote for Prohibition along with his “spiritual brother” the drunkard, Chase Henry.

Thus, Harry contends that as Samson (Judges 15:16) wielded the “jawbone of an ass” and killed a thousand enemies, Harry did the same with his vote for Prohibition. He claims that he “smote the bank and the water works, / And the business men.” With one vote, Harry made Spoon River pay for all “the fights that [he] had lost[.]”

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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