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Edgar Lee Masters' "Sersmith the Dentist"

Updated on January 28, 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

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Sersmith the Dentist" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker asks four rhetorical questions and then offers a final philosophical summation.

This dentist proves to be one of the more bankrupt characters of the lot. He sees everything in terms of money. Although he does not offer a personal complaint as most of the speakers do, he goes on carping about societal and political issues.

Unfortunately, Sersmith's clouded mind remains a one dimension of mediocrity and error. Misinterpreting religious and historical events leads him to ludicrous conclusions.

While Sersmith the Dentist surely thinks himself clever as remarks about the hollow tooth filled up with gold, his quip merely signals the hollow mind of the speaker.

Sersmith the Dentist

Do you think that odes and sermons,
And the ringing of church bells,
And the blood of old men and young men,
Martyred for the truth they saw
With eyes made bright by faith in God,
Accomplished the world's great reformations?
Do you think that the Battle Hymn of the Republic
Would have been heard if the chattel slave
Had crowned the dominant dollar,
In spite of Whitney's cotton gin,
And steam and rolling mills and iron
And telegraphs and white free labor?
Do you think that Daisy Fraser
Had been put out and driven out
If the canning works had never needed
Her little house and lot?
Or do you think the poker room
Of Johnnie Taylor, and Burchard's bar
Had been closed up if the money lost
And spent for beer had not been turned,
By closing them, to Thomas Rhodes
For larger sales of shoes and blankets,
And children's cloaks and gold-oak cradles?
Why, a moral truth is a hollow tooth
Which must be propped with gold.

(For a reading of this poem, please visit "Sersmith the Dentist" at PoemHunter.com.)

First Movement: "Do you think that odes and sermons"

First, Sersmith denigrates religion. His question reveals that he thinks "odes and sermons," "the ringing of church bells," and people whose faith brighten their spirit did not, in fact, "accomplish [ ] the world’s great reformations."

By forming his deliberations into questions, Sersmith tries to emphasize the resounding "no" that he believes is the correct answer to each query.

In fact, the dentist's narrow-minded view can easily be refuted by pointing to the meaning of great historical movements: the birth of each of the world’s five major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam demolishes his putative claims utterly.

Each religion has had its martyrs and their names live in the hearts of the reformed. Thus, the "no" that Sersmith expects is not forthcoming.

Rhetorical questions can also be employed as weasel questions signaling that the questioner is basically unsure of his stance. While the effective rhetorical question offers a unique emphasis for its truth, when employed by imbeciles an jerkwaters, the device falls flat.

Second Movement: "Do you think that the Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Sersmith’s second question is merely foolish. Slavery was abolished primarily because of moral reasons, not economical ones. Those who take the bash-America-first side always look for ways to malign events that prove otherwise.

Those who continue to disparage the United States over slavery turn a willful blind eye to the fact that hundreds of thousands of brave men and women died in order to accomplish that feat. As an educated man, Sersmith should know this historical fact.

Third Movement: "Do you think that Daisy Fraser"

Sersmith now alludes to the character, "Daisy Fraser," a prostitute who seems to know all kinds of lurid details about other members of the Spoon River community.

Unfortunately, Daisy’s credibility is suspect, and now by associating his lot with hers, Sersmith adds yet another block of incredulity to his stack.

Fourth Movement: "Or do you think the poker room"

Beginning to repeat himself, again Sersmith decries the selling off of one establishment in order to benefit another. He invokes the name, "Thomas Rhodes," which becomes a spoonian meme for evil.

"Thomas Rhodes" turns up often throughout the Spoon River Anthology, whenever a villain is needed.

Fifth Movement: "Why, a moral truth is a hollow tooth"

Sersmith’s final couplet attempts to couple his dental wisdom and his political acumen by likening a "moral truth" to a "hollow tooth," which is filled with gold.

The dentist's quip is more comical than wise, more pathetic than informative. Such is the nature of this mindset, forever and anon.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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