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Edgar Lee Masters' "Margaret Fuller Slack"

Updated on April 4, 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 Poem, "Margaret Fuller Slack"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Margaret Fuller Slack" from Spoon River Anthology depicts a tormented woman who believes motherhood doomed her ambition to become a great writer.

Ironically named after the first American feminist, "Margaret Fuller," Mrs. Slack does possess the egotistical personality of her namesake, while suffering the ills that they both decry.

Margaret Fuller Slack

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

Reading of "Margaret Fuller Slack"

Commentary

Named for America’s first feminist writer, Margaret Fuller, Mrs. Slack laments marriage and motherhood that crushed her dreams of greatness in becoming the next George Eliot.

First Movement: She Would Have

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.

Mrs. Slack begins her tirade by proclaiming the greatness she "would have" accomplished: she "would have been as great as George Eliot."

Nevertheless, this speaker did not ascend to such a great height, because "untoward fate" stepped on her dreams.

Second Movement: A Photo of Profunity

For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.

Mrs. Slack possesses a "photograph of [herself] made by Penniwit," an artist who later also speaks in the Spoon River Anthology.

Margaret uses the photograph to support her contention that she was marked for greatness: in the photo, she sits with her "chin resting on hand," and she has "deep-set eyes" that are "gray" and "far-searching." These qualities in her estimation reveal a profundity that should have allowed her to accomplish greatness, the absence of which she now laments.

Third Movement: The Age Old Problem

But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?

Margaret then philosophizes about the human condition, claiming the "old, old problem" is whether one should remain celibate, marry, or simply commit fornication.

Mrs. Slack does not reveal how deeply she thought about those alternatives, or even if she had thought about them at all. As the speaker reminisces, she, no doubt, adds to her own self worth, by implying that she had thought and pondered those issues.

Fourth Movement: The Promise of Leisure

Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.

Before Mrs. Slack had the opportunity to determine which path was the right one for her to travel to fame, she found herself "wooed" by "John Slack, the rich druggist." The druggist "lur[ed]" her by "promis[ing] [her] leisure"—time she would use to write "[her] novel."

With this promise of leisure, Margaret married the druggist, but instead of writing, she proceeded to give birth to "eight children." Of course, with eight children, she can fall back on the excuse that she "had no time to write." Apparently, Mrs. Slack remained blissfully unaware that famous poet, Anne Bradstreet, created a significant body of writing while birthing and raising eight children.

Fifth Movement: Dying of Lock-Jaw, Filled with Words

It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.

Margaret then reveals how she died, "It was all over with me, anyway, / When I ran the needle in my hand." She met with this sad fate, while "washing the baby’s things." She contracted "lock-jaw" and died.

Mrs. Slack finds dying of lock-jaw to be "ironical," no doubt, because she considered herself filled with words—words unfortunately that would remain unexpressed because of the time-consuming servitude of raising a family. And, of course, in keeping with her own selfishness, she does not consider how her absence will impact the lives of the children she leaves behind.

Sixth Movement: The Urge vs the Philosophy

Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

Margaret’s final statement oversimplifies her lot but reveals her philosophical conclusion about "life" as she remarks, "Sex is the curse of life!" Readers, unfortunately, will never be able to experience the profundity of that statement because Margaret’s ambition to write was obliterated by her urge to procreate.

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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