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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Hod Putt"

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 Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters Stamp
Edgar Lee Masters Stamp | Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Hod Putt"

The deceased inhabitants of Spoon River in Masters’ Spoon River Anthology are finally free to let loose their venom on whoever crossed them in life. They now feel free to testify, but their testimony is only their side of it. They can say whatever they like without reprimand.

The beauty of this kind of scenario, masterfully created by the poet, is that each dead person has the same stage. Readers will be enticed, seeing how things looked to one while they looked so different to another.

The character study begins with a short pithy verse with a gripping punch that offers a scope on human nature, featuring the character, "Hod Putt"; the poem delivers that interesting punch as it reveals a truth about human nature and its desire to justify the unjustifiable.

2. Hod Putt

Here I lie close to the grave
Of Old Bill Piersol,
Who grew rich trading with the Indians, and who
Afterwards took the bankrupt law
And emerged from it richer than ever.
Myself grown tired of toil and poverty
And beholding how Old Bill and others grew in wealth,
Robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,
Killing him unwittingly while doing so,
For the which I was tried and hanged.
That was my way of going into bankruptcy.
Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.

Dramatic Reading of "Hod Putt"


First Movement: “Here I lie close to the grave”

Hod Putt informs that he lies near the “grave / Of Old Bill Piersol.” He claims that Piersol was an Indian trader, who became wealthy through his lucrative trade association. Piersol, however, went bankrupt but then recovered his wealth quickly and grew “richer than ever”—causing Putt’s jealous nature to seethe with hatred.

Second Movement: “Myself grown tired of toil and poverty”

Putt, admits that he was a lazy scoundrel, with no interest in achievement; just keeping bread on the table caused him to grow “tired of toil and poverty.” While not fond of work, he also found poverty inconvenient.

Putt assumed that “Old Bill and others” had used the system to become wealthy; thus he assumed he could also use the system for his own purposes.

Thus, he contacted a plan: instead of working for his pay, he would take from others. He then “robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove.”

Third Movement: “Killing him unwittingly while doing so”

To Putt’s chagrin, he kills the victim while trying to take his property. This felony then gets Putt “tried and hanged.” Like any other act of faulty logic, he assert that his act just constituted "bankruptcy." He believes he is clever in comparing his crimes to what he assumes to be the crimes of others; he obviously had quite a tenuous grasp of the reality of bankruptcy laws.

Fourth Movement: “Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways”

Putt shows that he is morally bankrupt; he concocts a moral equivalency between his felonious crimes and those of successful men, in this case Old Bill Piersol, who merely followed bankruptcy laws.

The smug Putt claims that he and Piersol “sleep peacefully side by side”; this claim implies that their “bankruptcies” are just the same.

A Two-Fold Felon

Readers will understand the difference: Hod Putt is a criminal, trying to vindicate himself, while in fact, revealing his felonious nature. Bankruptcy laws work within the legal system for those who declare bankruptcy; they do not do so in order to encourage theft but to allow the unfortunate to place their financial endeavor on the path to recovery, Putt declares that he meant to rob a man, but while committing the robbery, he killed the man.

Thus, Putt becomes a two-fold felon, failing to even understand his criminal acts. Now after death, he erroneously claims to be "sleeping peacefully side by side" with Old Bill Piersol. Putt does not see to know that karma will catch up to him—if not today, nor tomorrow, then some day in future.

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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