Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas, the son of Hardin Wallace Masters, a lawyer, and Emma J. Dexter. Though his father had moved the family briefly to Kansas to set up a law practice, Masters grew up in the western Illinois farmlands where his grandparents had settled in the 1820s. He was educated in the public schools in Petersburg and Lewistown (where he worked as a newspaper printer after school) and spent a year in an academy school hoping to gain admission to Knox College. Instead of entering college, he read law with his father and, after a brief stint as a bill collector in Chicago, formed a law partnership in 1893 with Kickham Scanlan.
Over the next ten years he expressed his Populist views in a series of essays and plays, written under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace. In 1898 he married Helen M. Jenkins, the daughter of a Chicago lawyer; they had three children. In 1903 he joined Clarence Darrow's law firm, where he defended the poor over the next eight years. Some dozen plays and books of poems during this period are undistinguished, serving mostly as political tracts and verse exercises. Extramarital affairs and an argument with Darrow unsettled his personal and professional life from 1908 to 1911, when he went into law practice on his own.
In 1914 Masters began a series of poems about his boyhood experiences in western Illinois, published (under the pseudonym Webster Ford) in Reedy's Mirror (St. Louis). This was the beginning of Spoon River Anthology (1915), the book that would make his reputation and become one of the most popular and widely known works in all of American literature. In "The Genesis of Spoon River" (American Mercury, Jan. 1933), Masters recalls how his interest turned to "combinations of my imagination drawn from the lives of the faithful and tender-hearted souls whom I had known in my youth about Concord, and wherever on Spoon River they existed." Though he would never equal the achievement or fame of Spoon River Anthology, he continued publishing poetry, novels, essays, and biographies for nearly thirty years. The amount and wide range of his production far exceeded its quality, by most accounts, and Masters's place in twentieth-century American literature is still debated.
There is no doubt about the impact of Spoon River Anthology. Critical reception ranged from English critic John Cowper Powys's view that Masters was "the natural child of Walt Whitman" to Ezra Pound's proclamation that "at last, America has discovered a poet." Perhaps more impressive was the book's enormous popularity with nonspecialist readers, an achievement that has outlasted the ups and downs of many a literary reputation in the academic canons. Spoon River Anthology is a series of poignant and often sardonic graveside monologues that capture small-town America, Midwestern values, and the angst of modern life. Representatives of the community from librarians to preachers bare their souls; poets and atheists speak their minds; women drop their polite-society guard; corruption is exposed. "Petit, the Poet," speaks for Masters when he laments those who prefer trivial formalities, while "Homer and Whitman roared in the pines." Needless to say, these monologues upset fundamentalists, "patriots," and political and literary conservatives and earned Masters a place in what would come to be called "the revolt from the village." These at once caustic and loving short poems began a lifelong celebration of the region that can be traced through The New Spoon River (1924) and in some three dozen lyrical and nostalgic poems published in various books and now collected in The Enduring River: Edgar Lee Masters' Uncollected Spoon River Poems, edited by Herbert K. Russell (1991). Spoon River Anthology has been adapted for the stage, and music has been added, and demand for the book and the dramatic adaptations has continued. The work was to earn the Spoon River poet a reputation as a one-book author, a distinction that understandably annoyed so diverse and prolific a writer.
Masters never did match the success of the original Spoon River--even in The New Spoon River or in several volumes of poems set on the Illinois prairies--Songs and Satires and The Great Valley (1916), Toward the Gulf (1918), Starved Rock (1919), and The Open Sea (1921). In Domesday Book (1920) and The Fate of the Jury (1929) he drew upon his legal career to create courtroom poems indebted to Robert Browning's dramatic monologues. His later poetry reflects the wide range of his interests--from the pithy Lichee Nuts (1930) to the lengthy Shelleyan narratives The Serpent in the Wilderness (1933), Invisible Landscapes (1935); and The New World (1937). His celebration of the midwestern landscape continued even in the later poetry he wrote while living in New York. Poems of People (1936) and More People (1939), as well as Illinois Poems (1941) and Along the Illinois (1942), are charactersketches and tributes to the land and the prairie myths. In 1942 he again expressed his sense of place in The Sangamon, a well-received volume in the Rivers of America series.
In the 1920s and 1930s Masters also tried his hand at fiction and biography. The novels--Mitch Miller (1920), Skeeters Kirby (1923), and Kit O'Brien (1927)--are mostly about growing up in Illinois and have gained little repute. The biographies are either adulatory, as in Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935) and Whitman (1937), or controversial, as in Lincoln: The Man (1931) and Mark Twain: A Portrait (1938). Masters saw biography as a form of revisionist history and set out to correct prevailing misconceptions about America's heroes and values. For much of his life he was a political and social outsider. His father had been a liberal in rural conservative Illinois, a Democrat in Republican territory. Masters often expressed contempt for the small-mindedness that hurt his father, a theme carried through in his own later populism as well as in literary values that went against the grain of mainstream opinion. He described himself as committed to "the Democratic creed of 1896 and 1900," standing with "Americanism and Democracy as against European domination and Toryism."
In the years of his greatest notoriety for Spoon River, Masters's personal life was less fortunate. While trying to balance two careers as lawyer and writer, he suffered a lingering and near-fatal bout of pneumonia. In 1923 he experienced a bitter divorce and moved to New York, where he practiced law for some years. After a literary tour of the country in 1925, he published Selected Poems (1925), a collection that drew deserved attention for its variety. In 1926 he married Ellen Coyne. They lived in New York, though later her teaching required that they live apart at times. Masters retired to the Chelsea Hotel to write a series of biographies as well as an autobiography covering his boyhood years and his career up to 1917. Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (1936) is blunt and cranky about a life he saw as largely "scrappy and unmanageable." Emphasizing life on his grandfather's farm, his school days, his political battles, the workday world, and the growth of a poet's mind through wide reading, the book is a valuable record of Masters's work habits and offers considerable insight on his position as a critic and his place in American literature.
Retired and not in the best health, Masters moved with his wife to her teaching positions in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Throughout the 1940s he received several literary awards, including the Poetry Society of America medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. He died in Melrose, Pennsylvania and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.
Masters is a transitional figure in American literary history. The Spoon River poems are distinctly modern, leading one to forget that he composed poems on the deaths of Whitman and Browning. He was comfortable with nineteenth-century long narrative poems but also contributed much to the development of the modern idiom. For over four decades he celebrated the prairie landscapes, the people of Illinois, and the values of his midwestern heritage. Though what he called "soul fatigue" drove him away from the loneliness of the prairie towns he both satirized and praised, in his later poems he still pictured himself choking with unfulfilled longing, reaching to the sky for his kite floating above the hills of Mason County.
As a biographer, Masters took the historical figures out of "the dust bins" and tried to "correct" the country's "vast mendacity" with a "sane record of men and affairs." He has been underrated as a critic and commentator on American culture, particularly in the tradition of Whitman as against the more dominant Wasteland and imagist schools. Much of his literary career reflects the marginalization of midwestern opinion and influence in light of eastern establishment power and control. Masters bemoaned what he felt was the takeover of the "Knickerbocker schools" of poetry after the death of Whitman; when Romanticism was out of favor, he argued for the universality of regional values and for Shelleyan poetry and politics. He once described his poems as following either the "cyclopean eye" of realism or the "dreaming eye" of mysticism. The poems and essays of this lawyer who hid poetry behind law books (he said the law and poetry were like "oil and water") may yet gain new attention from cultural historians and intertextual critics. Masters's attempt to balance two very different careers no doubt hurt his law practice and his books, though he once suggested that "if I had lived a cloistered life I should not have learned much besides books." Masters sought space for his own work in a closed critical environment and, in the process, challenged the assumptions upon which literary canons had been formed.