I just read The Spoon River Anthology for the first time. Somehow, it had escaped me. Though the preface assures me that Edgar Lee Masters is among the pioneers of psychological naturalism and a sort of bridge from Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot and the great American modernists, I’d never been taught that.
I was struck, reading Spoon River by its tonal similarity to Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders. Both are tales told from the grave and both rely on, as Masters put it, the idea that we’ll never know truth until the dead can speak for themselves. The main difference in style is that Bardo is a fully realized novel while Spoon River is a collection of related poems, tied by numerous narrative threads but less unified, even than Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson also owes Masters a debt).
To me the most significant difference between Spoon River and Bardo is the treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Saunders simultaneously humanizes and lionizes Lincoln, in a manner very much in step with modern political thought. Masters, living and writing closer to the Civil War and a seeming pacifist (he criticizes U.S. military adventurism in the Philippines in the book and seems very much to believe that most wars are engineered by moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else) is highly critical of Lincoln. Already, in the early part of the 20th century and more than five decades removed from the end of the Civil War, Masters reveals himself as, at best, a political crank with his criticisms of Lincoln.
In many ways, Bardo is an answer to Spoon River and a corrective.
Even in the age of the Internet, literature remains our longest running an most vital conversation.