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Edgar Lee Masters' "The Town Marshal"

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 Stamp

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Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Town Marshal"

"The Town Marshal" is followed in the sequence by "Jack McGuire" in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. And the two need to be read together in order to get the total essence of the marshal's personality, as well as his name.

Logan, the town marshal, speaks in Edgar Lee Masters’ "The Town Marshal." Although he remains nameless in his own poem, he is called "Logan" in the companion piece, "Jack McGuire." Marshal Logan, who was hired by prohibitionists, is killed because he was a bully, but in the final analysis, he can be credited with admitting his fatal flaw.

The Town Marshal

The prohibitionists made me Town Marshal
When the saloons were voted out,
Because when I was a drinking man,
Before I joined the church, I killed a Swede
At the saw-mill near Maple Grove.
And they wanted a terrible man,
Grim, righteous, strong, courageous,
And a hater of saloons and drinkers,
To keep law and order in the village.
And they presented me with a loaded cane
With which I struck Jack McGuire
Before he drew the gun with which he killed me.
The Prohibitionists spent their money in vain
To hang him, for in a dream
I appeared to one of the twelve jurymen
And told him the whole secret story.
Fourteen years were enough for killing me.

Reading of Masters' "The Town Marshall"

Commentary

The town marshal, hired by prohibitionists, is a man named Logan, who meets his demise because of his bullying personality.

First Movement: Marshal by Prohibition

The prohibitionists made me Town Marshal
When the saloons were voted out,
Because when I was a drinking man,
Before I joined the church, I killed a Swede
At the saw-mill near Maple Grove.

Logan begins by reporting that he became town marshal because of prohibition. He had been "a drinking man" and had once "killed a Swede," before he "joined the church."

Logan's reputation seemed to lend itself to the kind of individual the prohibitionists wanted to enlist to enforce the new statute. Logan’s personality is that of a braggadocio who is not shy about tooting his own horn. His assessment of the conclusion of the trial of the man who shot him demonstrates this trait.

Second Movement: A Strong Anti-Boozer

And they wanted a terrible man,
Grim, righteous, strong, courageous,
And a hater of saloons and drinkers,
To keep law and order in the village.

Logan explains that prohibitionists wanted a strong, anti-booze man who was "a terrible

man, / Grim, righteous, strong, courageous, / And a hater of saloons and drinkers."

Logan, no doubt, sees himself as his "terrible man," who could "keep law and order in the village." Again, the town marshal shows the high estimation he has of himself. His strong sense of self accomplishment motivates his actions.

Third Movement: Armed with a Loaded Cane

And they presented me with a loaded cane
With which I struck Jack McGuire
Before he drew the gun with which he killed me.

Logan reveals that the prohibitionists armed him with "a loaded cane," that is, a walking-stick that contains lead in one end, which renders it a legal weapon. Quickly, the marshal cuts to the heart of the matter, stating that he struck Jack McGuire with this loaded cane just before McGuire pulled a gun and shot Logan dead.

The details of the encounter with McGuire are recounted in McGuire’s testimony, the poem that follows "The Town Marshal" in the Spoon River Anthology. After the reader is apprised of those details, Logan’s personality becomes clearer.

Fourth Movement: Fourteen Years Instead of Hanging

The Prohibitionists spent their money in vain
To hang him, for in a dream
I appeared to one of the twelve jurymen
And told him the whole secret story.
Fourteen years were enough for killing me.

Logan boastfully takes credit for McGuire’s receiving a sentence of only fourteen years, despite the fact that the prohibitionists "spent their money in vain" trying to get McGuire to swing at the end of a rope.

Marshal Logan claims that he visited one of the jurymen in a dream and told him the whole sordid tale about how he was shot. The story vindicates McGuire, at least, enough so that hanging was not the recommended punishment. Thus McGuire was sentenced to only fourteen years, and Logan feels that that punishment is appropriate. At least, Logan does finally recognize himself as a bully and wants to see justice prevail.

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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