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Literature / Spoon River Anthology

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Spoon River Anthology is a book of mostly short poems by Edgar Lee Masters, first serialized in 1914 and then collected in volume form in 1915. A lesser-known sequel, The New Spoon River, appeared in 1924. The sequence takes the form of epitaphs of people who lived in an Illinois community. It's available on Project Gutenberg, and can also be read online here.

Tropes featured in Spoon River Anthology include:

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  • Accidental Murder: How Hod Putt got himself executed.
  • The Alcoholic: Chase Henry, Benjamin Pantier, Deacon Taylor.
  • Amoral Attorney: John M. Church.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Ollie and Fisher McGee still loathe each other, even though they're both dead.
    • The Pantiers, who wound up separated.
    • Mrs. Charles Bliss believes that her family would have been much better off if she and her husband had divorced.
    • The Sibleys.
    • The Purkapiles, although in this case the husband is unaware of the wife's actual opinions.
  • All Are Equal in Death: Much to the fury of some of the speakers, who dislike where they've been buried or how their graves are being treated.
    • Chase Henry, the town drunk, is delighted to find himself next to some of the town's wealthiest citizens. Judge Somers, by contrast, is irate about the contrast between his own "unmarked" grave and Henry's.
    • Invoked more positively by Homer Clapp, who welcomes this outcome.
  • Big Bad: The banker Thomas Rhodes is the source of much of the town's corruption.
  • Broken Pedestal: A. D. Blood to Robert Southey Burke.
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  • The Casanova: Lucius Atherton is a small-town example.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Thomas Rhodes promises not to prosecute Clarence Fawcett for theft, then does it anyway.
  • Close-Knit Community: The entire sequence takes this trope apart and shreds it.
  • Cultural Cringe: The artist Archibald Higbie moves abroad and does everything in his power to conceal his origins.
  • Da Editor: Carl Hamblin, who crusades against political corruption, and is subjected to Tar and Feathers for his pains.
    • Editor Whedon is a corrupt version of this trope.
  • Dead to Begin With: The conceit of the whole sequence.
  • Death by Childbirth: Amanda Barker, who points out that her husband knew that it would kill her, yet impregnated her anyway.
  • Death by Irony: Robert Fulton Tanner, who was "bitten by a rat/While I was demonstrating my patent trap."
    • Knowlt Hoheimer steals some hogs and escapes prosecution by "running away and joining the army." Then dies in battle. Now that he's dead, he admits jail would have been a better idea.
    • Justice Arnett dies when an old court docket falls on his head.
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  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Willard Fluke's narrative notes that after sleeping with a woman named Cleopatra, many of the local men died "in some hideous form." As Willard's own daughter was born blind, he's likely describing syphilis.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After a lifetime of being teased because he is short and poor, Judge Selah Lively uses his elevation to the bench in order to get back at everyone who tormented him.
  • Double Standard: Mrs. Merritt and her teenage lover Elmer Karr go on trial for the murder of her husband, although even the deceased Mr. Merritt admits that this was probably a spur-of-the-moment act on Elmer's part. Although she's innocent, she dies in jail. Elmer, meanwhile, serves a lighter sentence, has a Heel–Faith Turn, and is welcomed back.
  • Dramatic Irony: Frequent, as the characters cannot communicate with each other and often are unaware that someone has died since their own death. Examples:
    • Reuben Pantier (son of Benjamin and Mrs. Pantier) and Emily Sparks. He never received her letter, and she had no idea what kind of life he was living abroad. They're both unaware that the other has died.
    • Knowlt Hoheimer can't read the Latin epitaph on his tombstone, "Pro Patria." It certainly wasn't why he died...
    • Mrs. Charles Bliss' marriage was a nightmare. A few poems on, Rev. Lemuel Wiley brags that preventing her divorce was one of the highlights of his career.
    • Even in death, Hamilton Greene has no idea that his real mother is Elsa Wertman.
  • Driven to Madness: Nancy Knapp, by family in-fighting that originates from an inheritance.
    • And her brother Barry Holden, from financial desperation.
  • Driven to Suicide: Julia Miller, Harold Arnett, Jonas Keene, Ralph Rhodes. Implied with Clarence Fawcett.
  • Dry Crusader: Prohibition activism comes up in multiple poems. The alcoholic Deacon Taylor is one of the more hypocritical examples.
  • Emotion Eater: Not a literal example, but it's how Robert Davidson sees himself.
  • God Is Evil: Wendell P. Bloyd's opinion, which gets him consigned to an insane asylum.
  • Heel–Face Turn: State's Attorney Fallas, who had "the madman" Barry Holden executed, devotes his life to care of the mentally ill after a botched delivery renders his own son permanently disabled.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Butch Weldy, or so he says.
    • Willard Fluke.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Ann Rutledge.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Margaret Fuller Slack, who wanted to be "as great as George Eliot."
    • John Horace Burleson, although more successful in his business career, was also stymied in his artistic ambitions.
    • Franklin Jones' death happened before he could become a famous aviator.
    • Subverted by Walter Simmons, who concludes, "I did not have the brains."
  • I Own This Town: Thomas Rhodes, thanks to holding the mortgages and debts of several characters.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Roger Heston dies from a Horn Attack by an angry bull.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted with Johnnie Sayre, Charlie French, and Zenas Witt.
  • Inverse Law of Fertility: Margaret Fuller Slack wanted no children. She wound up with eight.
    • Barry Holden murders his wife because she is pregnant with their ninth child.
  • Ironic Name: The characters Named After Someone Famous do not live up to expectations.
    • Mrs. Charles Bliss was anything but happy.
  • Karma Houdini: Thomas Rhodes.
    • Harry Wiley, who doesn't have his own poem, wasn't prosecuted for the murder of Yee Bow.
    • Searcy Foote gets away with murdering his wealthy aunt.
  • Kill It with Fire: Silas Dement tries to destroy the court house forever by burning it down. It's immediately rebuilt.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Butch Weldy, never prosecuted for the rape of Minerva Jones, gets no compensation after an accident leaves him blind and permanently disabled.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To The Greek Anthology.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Going by the index of names at the beginning, around 210.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: An exasperated A. D. Blood complains that Reuben Pantier and the "milliner's daughter Dora" are having sex on top of his grave. That being said, it's not clear when this is happening, as both Dora and Reuben are dead themselves.
  • May–December Romance: A tragic version for Julia Miller, who was pregnant out of wedlock, and her unnamed husband. She's in her thirties; he's in his sixties.
    • Another tragic version with Mrs. Merritt and nineteen-year-old Elmer Karr.
    • The Hon. Henry Bennett was also about three decades older than his wife, who was really in love with a much younger man.
  • Named After Someone Famous: Hamlet Micure, John Hancock Otis, Jonathan Swift Somers, W. Lloyd Garrison Standard, Robert Fulton Tanner, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey Burke, Margaret Fuller Slack, Thomas Rhodes, Georgine Sand Miner, Isaiah Beethoven.
  • Near-Death Clairvoyance: Subverted. The speakers are conscious of what's going on immediately around their graves (see All Are Equal in Death), but have no other knowledge of what has happened since their death. Hare Drummer's speech reflects on this problem.
    • Henry Bennett, who knows that his widow has remarried, is an exception.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The eponymous town is fictional, but it's named for a real river and closely based on the Illinois towns of Petersburg and Lewistown and their residents (who, contrary to the trope name, objected to the whole thing quite strongly).
  • No Name Given: The Unknown.
  • The Nothing After Death: How Benjamin Fraser describes the afterlife, a "wingless void."
    • However, not everyone agrees. Lucius Atherton, for example, mentions that he's been listening to Dante recite the Divine Comedy, Blind Jack is one of a group gathered around Homer, and Sam Hookey runs into Robespierre.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Subverted, thanks to no antibiotics. Robert Fulton Tanner, Charlie French, and Margaret Fuller Slack all die from minor wounds.
  • Parental Substitute: Emily Sparks tried to be this for Reuben Pantier, and had more of an impact than she thought.
  • Parody: The sequence ends with The Spooniad, a parody of The Iliad.
  • Posthumous Narration: Naturally, since you're reading their epitaphs.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Johnnie Sayre's death.
  • Rape as Backstory: Minerva Jones and Nellie Clark are tragic examples.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: There are some linked stories in which people tell their side of the story in a slanted way.
    • The worst married couples, like the McGees and the Pantiers, tell contradictory stories.
    • Logan (the Town Marshal) and Jack Maguire have very different accounts of why Maguire only got fourteen years in prison for Logan's death.
  • The Runaway: Sam Hookey runs off with the circus.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Minerva Jones' story. She's bullied because of her appearance, raped by Butch Weldy, and finally dies as a result of a botched abortion.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The darkest narratives are clustered at the beginning. As the collection progresses, the tone slowly becomes more optimistic and spiritual.
  • Social Climber: In a series of relationships, the impoverished Dora Williams goes from milliner's daughter to Contessa Navigato.
    • Anthony Findlay ascends from poverty to considerable power.
    • Lambert Hutchins, with the result that his children marry badly and are miserable.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: Dora Williams suspects that her last husband murdered her.
    • Nancy Knapp's brother, Barry Holden, murders his pregnant wife.
  • Together in Death: Not usually, as lovers rarely know that the other has died. William and Emily, who share a poem and a grave, are an exception.
  • Unrequited Tragic Maiden: Mary McNeely, although her lover Daniel M'Cumber regrets his mistake.
  • War Is Hell: Harry Wilmans, who died in the Phillipine-American War, is not pleased to see a flag over his grave. The speakers who follow him critique his position, however.
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