It is one of those peculiar twists of fate that Edgar
Lee Masters, who a few decades ago was one of the best-known poets in America, is likely to be remembered in our day not for his own work but for the portrait of him that emerges in this, his youngest child's memoir. Edgar Lee Masters' poems are rapidly disappearing from the anthologies in which they once had a central place, but he has been given a new life of sorts in his son Hilary's Last Stands, a lovely and candid book that is less an autobiography than an effort to understand the legacy its author received from his parents and grandparents.
The story's roots are deeply entwined in American history, not because Hilary Masters' father was for a time a famous poet but because the family's connections with that history were so intimate. Masters' maternal grandparents, who raised him in Kansas City while his parents lived the literary life in New York and environs, had their own associations; his grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland after the Civil War, patrolled the Little Big Horn during his service in the Army, and his grandmother many years later worked as a vote-getter for the Pendergast machine in Missouri. As for Edgar Lee Masters, he was six decades older than his youngest son and could look back into another world:
"The summer of 1932 he would be sixty-four years of age and the violet distance of that Connecticut twilight would be foreshortened by fireflies and shadows. He could remember his grandmother on her deathbed, talking of Andy Jackson, of how she had heard him speak one time. His father and grandfather had known Lincoln, had hired Abe as a lawyer. The pulse of fireflies casts other shadows more familiar to him. William Jennings Bryan. Vachel Lindsay. Altgeld. Teddy Roosevelt. Here, gone. There, gone."
As a family history that manages -- through imagination as well as recollection and research -- to connect and interweave the American past, present and future, Last Stands deserves comparison with William Maxwell's classic of the genre, Ancestors. But though Masters is deeply concerned with the relationship of his family's history to his country's, he is even more deeply involved with attempting, as any serious memoir must, to figure things out -- to search for answers to the mystery of identity, to speculate about what it is that brought him to where he is now. Though he tells us little about his present life, we know that he has taught at colleges and that he has published novels; therefore when he writes about his father's struggles to fulfill his expectations as a poet, and his mother's struggles to keep the family afloat through her income as a schoolteacher, it goes without saying that he is describing, in the most intimate way, his own roots.
Edgar Lee Masters' marriage to Ellen Coyne was his second. His first had ended in a bitter divorce the settlement of which had stripped him of most of the possessions acquired in his careers as lawyer and poet; he had three children by that first marriage, though Hilary -- the only child of his second marriage -- seems scarcely to have known them. Ellen Masters, three decades his junior, admired his poetry almost without reservation and chose to overlook his incessant sexual rovings, yet she declined to tender him mere subservience; she attempted, with some measure of success, to strike a workable balance between the demands of his creative impulse and the needs of his family.
One such effort at balance was the decision to leave young Hilary in Kansas City with his grandparents: the feisty bantam rooster, Tom Coyne, and his ample, motherly wife, Mollie. This was done in order to give Hilary a Midwestern boyhood and to allow his father to write undistracted by the noise and bother of a child, and doubtless it profited both of the the aim. But father and son missed each other greatly, and their summer reunions seem to have contained large measures of happiness and love. A letter from Masters to his son -- a letter that may be as fine a piece of writing as the poet ever did--suggests how vast the distance seemed between New York and Kansas City:
"For a long time to come you must understand how this separation from you has hurt and grieved me. Your schooling there in Kansas City where you started, as compared with opportunities here, gives you an American breeding. Then that yard and that house instead of hotel rooms; then my own work, trying to get out of me all that I have planned to write, of which I have doubts as to its value. Perhaps, and this hurts, I should have given up writing, and devoted my time to you. That might have been a contribution to America better than I have made by isolating myself to do it. Who knows? At any rate I would have had the happiness of being with you every day -- that surely would have been real. All my life has been loneliness: and since you came into the world it has been loneliness with you as much when I am separated with such painful and doubtful frequencies. And now in these days that loneliness is less endurable than ever. Meanwhile, I hope I have laid up for you something of an income; and I feel you will never feel ashamed that you were my son."
To his immense credit, Hilary Masters neither denigrates his father for choosing this separation nor overrates the work he was able to do as a result of it. In no sense does Last Stands attempt a critical evaluation of Masters' father's career, but the book leaves little doubt that the son understands as well as do the critics that apart from the poems collected in Spoon River Anthology, the work of Edgar Lee Masters has vanished into the past. Hilary Masters sees his father more as a man than as a poet, and he sees him clearly: a man of enormous energy and passion, unsure of his literary worth yet determined to leave his mark on American letters, in love with his wife yet drawn to other women, self-centered and vain yet unexpectedly thoughtful and generous.
Masters also sees his mother plain. Her portrait is painted more slowly and subtly than that of her husband, but at the end of the book she is its dominant figure. She obtained her master's degree against her husband's resistance and scorn, and the teaching jobs she was able to get as a consequence of having the degree never satisfied him as adequate to his own station. Yet in the last years of his life she supported all three of them; she was able to "make the arrangements and pay the bills," and there was "a freedom in her stride, a sense of moving out of the dark, near tragic times and into the brighter prospect that she had put together." Masters fully understands that it is his mother, more than anyone else, who is the true hero of his tale.
It is a tale that he has told with exceptional grace and artistry. He has not written a narrative but woven a tapestry, in which he moves back and forth in time without any warning to the reader yet without ever creating confusion. He pays loving tribute to his forebears but declines to sentimentalize them. And he never loses sight of the essential truth that we can never know the past, that it can only and always be a mystery, that the most we can hope to do is reinvent it for whatever meaning it offers to the present. This Hilary Masters has done in his small, luminous, consequential book.