The Sangamon, Soured: Lincoln, The Man, & Its Twisted Tropes

The Sangamon, Soured: Lincoln, The Man & Its Twisted Tropes 

Bethany Villaruz 

A slight summer breeze ruffled through the leaves lining the shimmering Sangamon River. A young Edgar Lee Masters, known to his family as only “Lee,” frolicked along Menard County’s defining feature. The winding river curved like an artist’s desultory brushstroke through the landscape of central Illinois, providing a backdrop for Masters’ first brush with the folkloric history surrounding President Abraham Lincoln.

He perched upon the riverbanks alongside his father, laid on the courthouse lawn, and drove along the Illinois countryside throughout his childhood, all while William Henry Herndon told stories “grave and obscene” about Lincoln. Herndon relayed to Masters what were likely the beginnings of his own biography, unknowingly providing fodder for Masters’ own scathing rendition of Lincoln’s life. As he grew into a lawyer and biographer in his own right, Masters warped Herndon’s nostalgic tales into one of his own: Lincoln: The Man, an unrelenting criticism of Lincoln and all that he represented.[1]

Lincoln: The Man came to fruition slowly; Masters’ research began with Herndon’s first retellings of Lincoln’s exploits and ended with Albert Beveridge’s own biography, which was published around the same time as his own. Masters proclaims that he sets out not to give mere details of Lincoln’s life, as Beveridge does, but rather to form “an analysis of Lincoln’s mind and character.” His analysis proved to be a critical one, an attempt to debunk the legend that had defined Lincoln’s legacy up to that point. Given that Masters endeavored to produce not a pure history but a biographical narrative, it’s only natural that common themes come to the fore in his work surrounding Lincoln’s life. In Lincoln in American Memory, Merrill D. Peterson posits that all Lincoln “lives” characterize Lincoln as one of five archetypes: The “Savior of the Union,” the “Great Emancipator,” the “Man of the People,” the “First American,” and the “Self-made Man.” Lincoln appears as all these things throughout Masters’ works: Biography, poetry, and pure prose alike. However, the theme that is most prominent—and that Masters most seems to despise—is Lincoln as the “Self-made Man.”[2]

To be a self-made man would seem, put simply, a good thing. At the very least, Peterson says so, stating that through “ambition and a handful of books, [Lincoln] achieved the eminence of a ‘self-made man.’” Peterson’s use of the word “eminence” to describe the fruits of Lincoln’s labor implies that he, and society at large, believe his “rags-to-riches” narrative is a positive one. Masters would disagree. Therein lies the question—what might Masters, himself a man who “thought he was destined to be a farmer—” have against Lincoln’s own rise from the sludge that lines the Sangamon? Masters’ opinion of the virtues of the “self-made man” differs greatly from that of Peterson. Where Masters criticizes Lincoln’s tendency to be “profoundly ashamed of the poverty of his youth,” Peterson identifies this “fierce desire to rise above the life into which he was born” as a positive narrative throughout the canon of Lincolniana, echoing that of other self-made men of the time like Frederick Douglass and Henry Clay (who is known for coining the term). Masters flips the “self-made man” archetype on its head in order to supplement his critical analysis of Lincoln’s mind and presidency, creating dissonance between the traditional tools of biographing Lincoln and the light in which he is portrayed. That is to say: Archetypes as Peterson describes them are usually used in adulation of Lincoln, whereas Masters subverts a specific archetype in order to pose a critique. Lincoln: The Man is the product of resentment for Lincoln that grew over the course of Masters’ entire life. The book made his long-standing frustration with Lincoln and his policies explicit rather than implied, as it had been in his previous works.[3]


Masters’ professional interest in Lincoln began early in his career, his opinion only festering as the Progressive political movement marched on and his career dwindled. Masters was a born and bred Democrat. His grandfather’s political convictions sparked Masters’ own long-held admiration for Stephen Douglas, which manifested itself in both vitriolic Progressivism and hatred for Lincoln.



Masters’ earliest reference to Lincoln is also his most famous. Spoon River Anthology, which shot him to literary fame in 1915, is home to a poem that once decorated Anne Rutledge’s grave. The poem itself implies a rosy view of Lincoln’s alleged dalliance with Rutledge—Masters described her as “Beloved in life of Abraham Lincoln, / Wedded to him, not through union, / But through separation.” Taken at face value, it seems a standard rendition of the legend that makes Lincoln and Rutledge’s relationship out to be a tragic romance—for indeed, “when [Masters] wrote Spoon River in 1914 the Anne Rutledge story was unquestioned so far as [he knew].” Spoon River perpetuates the very myth of everlasting love that Masters would come to disassemble. However, his romanticization of “separation” hints at the future bitterness he would feel towards both Lincoln’s interpersonal life and his policies.[4]

First, the interpersonal: In Lincoln: The Man, he declared that Lincoln had “no lasting love, if any love, for Ann Rutledge.” To prove this, Masters quoted letters from Lincoln to Mary Owens, a woman with whom Masters claimed Lincoln had been involved at the same time he was ostensibly seeing Rutledge. However, Rutledge had already died by the time Lincoln began corresponding with Owens. He also pointed out the suspicious lack of letters from Lincoln to Rutledge—despite their physical proximity in New Salem, it seems strange in Masters’ mind that Lincoln would be so diligent in his correspondence to Owens but not with Rutledge (if indeed he had been in love with her). In proving this, he returns to the concept of separation—according to Masters, “lovers in separation do not so act.” He paints a picture of a coarse man without the capacity to love Rutledge, being too caught up in his own political motivations (for Mary Owens “was born of an excellent family, of means”) for marrying to pay her much mind. This brazen claim led to a proposition that Masters’ epitaph be chiseled off Rutledge’s grave. If Rutledge and Lincoln were separated not because of a tragic love, as in Masters’ original epitaph, but because of a historical lack of connection, it followed that the epitaph was not historically accurate and mustn’t remain on Rutledge’s tombstone. Though never carried out, the proposed destruction mirrors Masters’ own deteriorating views on Lincoln.[5]


Second, the political: throughout his biography, Masters criticized Lincoln’s mission of prioritizing the Union above all else. The romanticization of physical separation in “Anne Rutledge” reflects the romanticization of political separation, or secession, in Lincoln: The Man. “The South knew and had been saying for years that under the guise of freedom for the negro lurked centralization,” said Masters of Lincoln’s abolitionist stance. Separation was preferable to the centralization that was Lincoln’s real goal. Despite his Midwestern upbringing, Masters sympathized with the South’s desires and writes that “secession was perfectly legal.” Even in a work elegizing Lincoln’s relationship with Ann Rutledge, Masters romanticizes the notion of separation. This idea manifests in the form of Masters’ agreement with the South’s secession and disagreement with Lincoln’s drive to centralize and preserve the Union. His Democratic roots, coupled with his own Progressivism amid its rising popularity, ensured this criticism of Lincoln’s overtly Republican actions.[6]

Spoon River Anthology also houses Masters’ poems “William H. Herndon” and “Hannah Armstrong.” Told from Herndon’s point of view, the former exemplifies the glorified stories of Lincoln that Masters heard as a boy. The Herndon of Masters’ mind “saw a man arise from the soil like a fabled giant,” painting an image of grandeur out of Lincoln’s rise to power. The latter poem relays the story of Hannah Armstrong, a figure from Lincoln’s childhood who requests that he discharge her son from the army. She succeeds; Lincoln greets her with “a laugh” and spends time talking about “the early days” in a nostalgic vignette. The idealistic view of Lincoln that Masters expresses through Herndon and Armstrong in the poems, however, is discordant with Masters’ later opinions on Lincoln. Although it seems as if Masters portrayed the “self-made man” trope positively in “William H. Herndon,” the use of the words “fabled giant” once again foreshadows his eventual disdain. Even in “Hannah Armstrong,” there is a moment wherein Armstrong worries that Lincoln “ain’t the same” and has become callous in his newfound power. Masters believed the perception of Lincoln as a “man of the people” was a “myth,” a product of “the American folk-making lore of the times.” To Masters, Lincoln’s rise from poverty to the presidency was merely a folktale grown from American citizens’ desire to have a hero. The language Masters used to describe Lincoln in 1915—that is, that of a fable—predicates his argument in 1931. In Lincoln: The Man, he argues that the perception of Lincoln as a “self-made man” is just that: A fable and a falsehood. Here, Masters manipulates the common trope of the “self-made man” in order to pose his own critique of Lincoln.[7]

One wonders if Herndon’s voice is not just a vehicle for Masters’ own dissatisfaction with Lincoln. For example, below are lines 20-26 of “William H. Herndon.”

O Lincoln, actor indeed, playing well your part,
And Booth, who strode in a mimic
play within the play,
Often and often I saw you,
As the cawing crows winged their
way to the wood
Over my house-top at solemn
There by my window,

Although subtle, Masters’ chosen metaphors imply a skepticism that later manifested in Lincoln: The Man’s harsh critiques. By referring to Lincoln as an “actor,” he conveys a disingenuous view that taints his impression of Lincoln’s legacy throughout his works. To Masters, Lincoln’s achievements were shallow. What is metaphorical in “William Henry Herndon” becomes explicit in Lincoln: The Man. Unadorned with figurative language, Masters states that “Lincoln was profoundly an actor.” In his career as a trial lawyer, argues Masters, Lincoln relied on dramatic effect to win his cases. This is, of course, inaccurate; Lincoln was widely known to have relied on his own logic in court. In Peterson’s words, Masters described Lincoln as “a lazy sneak without brains.” He acknowledges that Lincoln’s strategy in court was successful. However, according to Masters, they did “not need the learning and the skill of a man well read in the law, and studiously grounded in its principles.” Lincoln’s successes were coated by the sheen of what Masters perceived as his ignorance. Needless to say, this is another example of Masters subverting Peterson’s trope of the “self-made man.” Masters’ disdainful tone in his biography is his poetic metaphors in full bloom—as in Herndon’s nostalgic reminiscence, Lincoln is an actor not only on the stage of the Civil War but in his intelligence and career. The poem as a whole is tinged with skepticism that mirrors Masters’ skepticism of the “self-made man.” It seems almost as if Masters viewed Lincoln as a mythical figure, as he is portrayed in the poem—but a mythical figure that needed to be disproven in his own biographical undertakings.[8]

Masters did not wait until his biographical work, however, to start sharing his own burgeoning critiques of Lincoln. His 1922 novel Children of the Market Place began the pursuit in earnest. Following James Miles, a fictional disciple of Stephen Douglas who believes Lincoln is a cheap hack, Children of the Market Place is the first explicit documentation of Masters’ hatred towards Lincoln and “veneration of Douglas.” Once again, Masters flips the “self-made man” archetype to degrade Lincoln. He is “an educated gawk, a rural genius, a pied piper of motley followers.” Although Masters acknowledges Lincoln’s command of words and of his voters, his use of the words “gawk” and “motley” betray his true opinion. Miles is unimpressed by Lincoln and his debates with Douglas. His description of Lincoln as a “pied piper” implies that he is almost like a charlatan—all of Lincoln’s arguments are shrouded in falsity and the ignorance of an uneducated man.[9]

Despite Masters’ broadly negative portrayal, Lincoln’s image in Children of the Market Place contains much more nuance than in Lincoln: The Man. When Lincoln appears in the former, Masters focuses chiefly on his campaign in contrast to that of Stephen Douglas. The latter, of course, covers the entirety of Lincoln’s life. Masters’ portrayal of Lincoln’s campaign in Lincoln: The Man is unrelentingly acrid. Any reference to “his lowly origin,” writes Masters, is naught but a “guise” meant for political gain. In Children of the Market Place, however, Miles is at one point impressed by Lincoln’s “face out of the womb of poverty and sorrow.” This sentence, written a decade before the publication of Lincoln: The Man, reflects the opposite sentiment that one would expect from Masters. The contradictions in Children of the Market Place set out a puzzle—why, when Masters so clearly views Lincoln as the aforementioned “pied piper,” would he then go on to compliment his rise from poverty through Miles? The answer might be a mere matter of characterization—perhaps Masters was only attempting to paint Lincoln as Miles would have seen him. Then there is the book’s subject matter. In a novel that amounts to a glorified Douglas campaign booklet, it is not unbelievable that Masters may have been trying to show Lincoln some small mercies. Might he, for once, have been buying into Peterson’s notion that Lincoln “called attention to his commonness, thereby shaping his own myth?”[10]

The answer lies in Masters’ own life. Although he clearly preferred Douglas to Lincoln, Masters still composed near-poetic musings that convey a rosier image than one might expect. In Children of the Market Place, Masters says of Lincoln:

“…I saw for a swift moment in the glancing of the sun, as he uttered these words, the genius of the poet who knows and states, who has lived years of loneliness and failure, who has seen others grow rich, notable, and powerful, and who has remained obscure and unobeyed, with nothing but a vision which has become lightning at last in a supreme moment of inspiration.”

Lincoln’s story in this quotation bears a striking resemblance to Masters’ own. His comparison of Lincoln to a poet, of course, echoes his own profession, and the following descriptions are reminiscent of Masters’ own experiences at the time. Masters “had tried and failed to produce an equal to Spoon River [Anthology],” and “there was by mid-1921 some justification for referring to him as a one-book author.” Masters, as Lincoln with Douglas in Children of the Market Place, watched contemporaries like Carl Sandburg rise to fame as he lost notoriety. His struggles in his professional life gave him newfound sympathy for what he viewed as Lincoln’s own struggles in overcoming Douglas. Although the novel is primarily a treatise on the Jeffersonian democracy Masters held so dear and a vehicle promoting Douglas, the flashes of sympathy for Lincoln stem from Masters’ own similar struggles.[11]

By 1928, Masters’ anti-Lincoln opinions were firmly cemented. Children of the Market Place was neither a commercial nor a critical success, and Masters embarked on a new attempt to maintain his place in the literary canon. He did so through Jack Kelso: A Dramatic Poem. Jack Kelso is exactly what it sounds like—a dramatic poem surrounding the folkloric life of Jack Kelso, one of Lincoln’s alleged childhood teachers. Although Kelso did not achieve the commercial success Masters had hoped for, it reveals a great deal about his changing attitude towards Lincoln’s mythos. Lincoln becomes a caricature of himself, a bumbling cartoon who stumbles into glory. “I’m for you, Kelso. Here is my paw,” says Lincoln as he introduces himself. His simple language is played for laughs, once again demonstrating how Masters subverts the trope of the “self-made man” to imply his own criticisms. By the end of the poem, says biographer Herbert K. Russell, “Lincoln was on his way to becoming an American ogre, and Jack Kelso had tried to throw himself down a well.” Kelso was so critical of both Lincoln and several groups that it was never staged and secured Masters’ place as a “writer of verse dramas never performed.”[12]

However, it was quite successful in beginning to debunk the Ann Rutledge romance and in establishing Masters’ profound dislike for Lincoln. Although Kelso bears witness to Lincoln and Rutledge’s burgeoning courtship within the poem, Rutledge’s fiancé later states that “never, so they say / At any time did [Lincoln] evince / An interest in her.” Although this may seem to be merely a matter of characterization, Masters’ later claim in Lincoln: The Man that “Lincoln never courted Ann Rutledge” indicates that the line in Kelso is simply the start of Masters’ disillusionment with the Rutledge romance. Moreover, Masters refers to Lincoln’s more concrete courtship of Mary Owens in Kelso; one character notes that “Abe sometimes provokes / A woman with his careless ways, / Means nothing by it.” Not only did Lincoln care little for Rutledge, he was also a callous lover in general. This is in keeping with Lincoln’s political characterization in Lincoln: The Man as a man without “definite vision.” Douglas, Masters’ most favorite politician, comments that “Lincoln would ruin the state on a chance / Theory to save it.” In both Kelso and Lincoln: The Man, Masters portrayed Lincoln as a man without any real knowledge of how to properly lead and govern. In both the personal and the political, he was rash and indecisive. Lincoln’s ignorance, a product of his humble upbringing, prevented him from becoming great in Masters’ eyes. The “self-made man” type is all the more reason to dislike Lincoln, rather than a reason to venerate him.[13]

In the few years between Jack Kelso and Lincoln: The Man, Masters’ resentment for Lincoln only grew. Rarely did Masters publish political opinions unmasked by the guise of fiction, but his work speaks for itself—he lived and died for Douglas’ view of democracy in Children of the Market Place, and according to scholar Matthew D. Norman, fixated on the “continuing struggle between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian principles” throughout his life. Indeed, the rise of progressivism might be the impetus for Lincoln: The Man. Political scientist Bradley C.S. Watson writes that the Midwestern progressivism in which Masters would have partaken had one “ultimate purpose: democracy.” As the mid-century approached, progressivism and democratic ideology grew ever more popular in the Midwest and across the United States. Such an increased acceptance of Masters’ own beliefs, held dear since childhood, gave him both reason and excuse to write a work so openly critical of the man who was the country’s gold standard for moral Republicanism. The first pages of Lincoln: The Man criticize his policies and the glorification thereof, claiming that “his acts were against liberty, and so much to the advantage of monopoly and privilege, from his first days in 1832 at New Salem, Illinois, to the end of his life.” As Russell writes, Masters “regarded [1860 to 1912] as a half-century of Republican misrule.” The political undertones in “Ann Rutledge” are no longer undertones in Lincoln: The Man. Rather, the Midwestern progressive movement buoyed Masters’ expression of discontent with the Republican party in both the Civil War era and his own.[14]

The vitriol with which Masters attacks Lincoln from the very beginning of his biography results from the “Masters family tradition to be suspicious of Lincoln.” Squire Davis Masters, Edgar Lee Masters’ grandfather, had instilled in his son and grandson an instinct to criticize Lincoln after his own negative experiences with him in the Black Hawk War.

Although he “had liked” Lincoln, Squire Davis “voted against Lincoln for United States senator because he thought Lincoln’s policies would bring on war between the states.” That the youngest Masters resisted this anti-Lincoln mindset long enough to convey a broadly positive view of Lincoln in Spoon River Anthology and brief moment of praise in Children of the Market Place is almost impressive, especially taken with his claim in Lincoln: The Man that Lincoln had “something of distaste for the specimens of Democracy about him.” His political motivations, implied in “Ann Rutledge,” are stronger than ever in Lincoln: The Man. Although none of Masters’ work can be called “pro-Lincoln,” there is a stark contrast between his previous work and Lincoln: The Man. The slight progression in his hatred for Lincoln from Spoon River Anthology to Children of the Market Place to Jack Kelso does not account for his sharp switch in tone—such a startling change can only be explained by external factors, the political among them.[15]

The progressive movement and political motivations that came with it were not the only reasons driving Masters’ tome. His personal and professional life were in a rut that would require a strong push to exit—not only was he recently divorced, but he still had yet to produce any work that compared to Spoon River Anthology in either critical acclaim or commercial success. Moreover, other Lincoln biographies rose in prominence as the Great Depression set in and American citizens looked to the glory of historical figures to cope. Fellow Midwesterners Albert Beveridge and Carl Sandburg had also published new biographies of Lincoln. Sandburg, himself a poet, wrote multiple volumes on Lincoln’s childhood and presidency.

Sandburg’s idyllic portrayal of the Lincoln legend was “so popular that it was making people think of Sandburg rather than Masters when they spoke of the New Salem-Petersburg area.” Masters, a profoundly bitter man, could not let this stand. In his eyes, Sandburg owed his own notoriety in literary circles to Masters, inasmuch as Spoon River Anthology popularized the New Salem-Petersburg area and the idyll of the Sangamon. Furthermore, Sandburg’s biography was inaccurate. Not only did he lean into the “self-made man” type that Masters so hated, making Lincoln “one who grew from the common folk and the great national experience of pioneering,” but also presented a “blend of fact and fiction, the whole presented as truth.” Aside from Masters’ own political motivations, he needed to prove that he could produce a Lincoln biography founded on facts rather than a whimsical fiction. Strangely enough, Masters fails to mention Sandburg in the opening pages of Lincoln: The Man. Although he references William H. Herndon and Albert Beveridge as fellow trustworthy contributors to the Lincolnian canon, he pointedly leaves out any reference to Sandburg’s own set of biographies in what may be a petty slight. Instead, he calls the complimentary “stuff that has been written about Lincoln… pure unctuous twaddle.” Masters was keen on discrediting not only Lincoln, but those authors who had spoken highly of him.[16]
Considering Masters’ many motivations, it’s unsurprising he set out to write Lincoln: The Man with the express purpose of reckoning with “the corruption of the intellectual life of the country… with such regard to Lincoln as the colossal and sacred figure of a just war raged for liberty!” From the start, Masters endeavored to write what he considered a realistic portrait of Lincoln. He attempts to dismantle the “self-made man” type under the guise of realism—and although most of his writing is based in fact, Masters cannot help but slander Lincoln and his Republican policies throughout. Writes Russell of his process:

“If Masters discredited Lincoln’s politics and character, the Republicans would also be discredited, and with them the Lincoln mythmakers—the chief and most popular one now being Masters’ competitor for public hearts and minds, Carl Sandburg. Masters would discredit Sandburg by discrediting Lincoln, by showing the American people that Sandburg had been wrong, and in the process reclaim his homeland, ‘the Lincoln country’ that was his by birth.”

From Russell’s writing about Masters and Masters’ own, his twofold motive is evident. He set out to dismantle both the Lincoln folklore Sandburg had created and Sandburg’s reputation itself. His disillusionment with both Republican politics and his own declining reputation turned Lincoln from a creature of shaky mythology—as seen in Spoon River Anthology—to a full-blown scapegoat for governmental wrongdoing.[17]
Masters executes this mission by dismantling Peterson’s “self-made man” archetype. In each section of Lincoln: The Man, he takes great pains to bring up Lincoln’s upbringing and lack of formal education. Although he acknowledges “Lincoln was the better candidate” than William H. Seward for the Republicans in the 1860 presidential election, he cannot do so without a reminder of Lincoln’s past as “the rail splitter, the self-educated flatboat man.” He weaponizes Lincoln’s past to discredit him, even when acknowledging his political merits. Peterson states that “no issue had been more marked in the definition of Lincoln’s character than that between the folk hero and the godlike statesman,” and Masters was interested in neither. Rather, Lincoln “showed his profound ignorance” at every turn. His upbringing and lack of formal education prevented him from becoming either a folk hero or a godlike statesman. Masters’ dual motivations caused him to ignore both dueling aspects of Lincoln’s legacy—his commitment to destroying the “self-made man” type eliminated the potential to portray him as a folk hero, and his mission to criticize Republican politics meant he certainly would not opt to make him a godlike statesman.[18]

It may be that Masters’ “almost… irrational hatred” for Lincoln stemmed from shame about his own roots. In Across Spoon River, he speaks to his grandfather’s “meager” education—but Squire Davis Masters is a “farmer gentleman,” not a rube. Lincoln, despite having a similarly meager education, “had luck all the way” and “could not forget the meanness of his origin.” As the son of a lawyer, Masters had an altogether different upbringing than Lincoln. He had access to a college education and resources that Lincoln likely did not. However, he was perhaps closer to being a “self-made man” than he would have liked—for after all, Masters’ home was the rural town by the Sangamon, too. He, like Lincoln, had a “new life” when he began to read books other than the limited options he had at home. Masters, like Lincoln, knew what it was like to struggle out of obscurity (as shown by his sometimes sympathetic portrayal in Children of the Market Place). And although much of Masters’ early education was done through books, like Lincoln, he pictured himself a success where Lincoln was “ignorant” and “unversed” in the knowledge he needed. By the time Lincoln: The Man was published, however, Masters may have grown to be ashamed of his roots and criticized Lincoln’s as a manifestation thereof.[19]
In an interview published about a decade after Lincoln: The Man, Masters claims with fervor that his origins are political, not geographical. When asked what his roots are, Masters replied:

“The America of Jefferson—of Jeffersonian democracy. I date back a long time. I believe in an America that is not imitative, that stands alone, that is strong, that leans on nothing outside itself and permits
nothing to lean on it. I date back. I have a number of Revolutionary ancestors. Israel Putnam was a  collateral ancestor of mine—in my mother’s family. And a soldier of the Revolution who was born in Virginia and died in Tennessee was my grandfather. Hilary Masters—I once saw his grave.”

When describing his own origins, Masters names Jeffersonian America as his homeland and emphasizes his connections to the Revolutionary War. He glosses over his family’s farming history in New Salem-Petersburg, and instead intentionally foregrounds his inherited political beliefs. Perhaps this is the difference that allows Masters to disparage Lincoln’s journey from Illinois to Washington—Lincoln’s origins are somewhat similar to Masters’, but they are also in Hamiltonian politics. He stands in complete antithesis to what Masters defines as his origins in Jeffersonian democracy. This is but one instance when Masters “faulted Lincoln for doing things he himself had done.”[20]

Whatever the reason for Masters’ aggression towards what he perceived as Lincoln’s ignorance, his “demolition of the Lincoln myth” was poorly received. His son Hilary Masters writes in his own memoir that the “Lincoln biography was still being clubbed by the press” up to a year after its publication. Russell describes the varied and abundant published critics of the book, as well as the public’s “spontaneous, immediate, and lasting” reaction of hatred towards Masters and Lincoln: The Man. Masters took a gamble when he pursued the unpopular avenue of criticizing Lincoln, and it failed to pay off. Indeed, sociologist and Lincoln scholar Barry Schwartz references Lincoln: The Man solely in the context of the criticisms that “ranged from contempt to outrage.” In destroying Lincoln’s image as a “self-made man,” Masters accomplished very little (aside from destroying his own image). His “outright sloppiness” in doing so caused him to become an object of ridicule in the press, only serving to exacerbate the professional troubles that drove him to write the book in the first place.[21]

Perhaps it was the intense backlash to Lincoln: The Man that contributed to Masters’ “mellowed” opinions in his later works. In Richmond: A Dramatic Poem, he tells the story of a Southern family torn apart by the Civil War. Although the poem is sometimes sympathetic to the people of the South, ruined by conflict, Masters does not attribute the destruction he describes to Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln is never mentioned by name—why, after establishing his anti-Lincoln opinions so clearly in Lincoln: The Man, would Masters refuse to do so in Richmond? It was likely a matter of professional worry; after the backlash sparked by his first criticism, it is doubtful that Masters would care to criticize Lincoln further in his other works if he wanted them to sell. This phenomenon holds true in The Sangamon, Masters’ personal history of New Salem – Petersburg. Lincoln remains a constant presence—he is in the stories Masters hears, the places he visits, the people he knows. Published about a decade after Lincoln: The Man, The Sangamon conveys a broadly positive view of Lincoln. Instead of framing Lincoln’s success as a result of “luck” and “devoted friends” whose intelligence concealed his lowly beginnings, as he does in Lincoln: The Man, Masters uses the “self-made man” narrative as a positive attribute. He looks fondly on the stories he heard about Lincoln’s goodbye to New Salem, noting that he “fittingly acknowledged his indebtedness” to the town whence he came. In The Sangamon, Masters returns to the whimsical tales William H. Herndon relayed in his youth, trading embittered criticism of Lincoln for an idyllic history of the hometown they shared.[22]

The trajectory of Masters’ opinions on Lincoln, though unusual when compared to those of his contemporaries, is consistent across all historians’ accounts of the matter. From the few scholars that have delved into Masters’ motive for writing such a controversial piece as Lincoln: The Man, it is clear that the convergence of political, personal, and professional troubles is what caused his merciless destruction of the Lincoln myth to take shape. Despite his dislike for Lincoln, his history was entangled with Masters’ own. The presence of Lincoln throughout Masters’ life—from hearing stories in his childhood to his pro-Douglas writings to his harsh criticisms—forced Masters to have a mutable opinion of the man. The gradual growth in his hatred for Lincoln followed by his eventual sentimentality does not reveal much about the American opinion of Lincoln writ large. Rather, it reveals the motivations of one man determined to make himself and his beliefs relevant at any cost. Masters was forever chasing the success of Spoon River Anthology. That he became resentful of Lincoln along the way is only a side effect; Lincoln: The Man might only be collateral damage in Masters’ pursuit of professional success.[23]
Masters had all of the proper tools to write an excellent biography of Lincoln. His origins were inextricable from Lincoln’s influence—Masters had an intimate knowledge of Lincoln’s own hometown, as well as access to a “battery of facts and a privileged position” through Herndon’s oral history. Contemporaries like Sandburg couldn’t hope to use such a wealth of information as Masters had. However, his own biases and desperate need to write an attention-grabbing piece prevented him from writing the “very interesting Lincoln book” for which he was equipped. Although Lincoln: The Man revealed a great deal of new information about Lincoln, the acerbic voice in which it was delivered made certain that very few respected the historical work for what it was. In indulging his own grudge against Lincoln and the Republican party, Masters sealed his own legacy as a washed-up poet “slinging mud” at a man to whom he could never measure up. Had he resisted this urge, perhaps Lincoln: The Man would have flourished as the new definitive Lincoln biography. Instead, it remains a prime example of history contorted by bitterness into a childish rant.[24]

Bethany Villaruz is a student at Princeton University.

The Sangamon, Soured: Lincoln,
The Man and Its Twisted Tropes
by Bethany Villaruz is part of our
reoccuring series, Lincoln Through
The Eyes of History.


[1]Edgar Lee Masters and Lynd Ward, The Sangamon (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942), 73.

[2]. Edgar Lee Masters, Lincoln: The Man (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. [1931] 1997, 2; Herbert K. Russell, Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography (University of Illinois Press, 2001), 275; Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[3] Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 9; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 14; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 11, Kenneth J. Winkle, “Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made Man.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 21, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 5.

[4]Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 275; Edgar Lee Masters and John E. Hallwas, Spoon River Anthology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 288; Edward L. Tucker, “A New Letter by Edgar Lee Masters.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14, no. 3 (March 2010): 31,

[5] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 49-50; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 278.

[6] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 320; Matthew D. Norman, “An Illinois Iconoclast: Edgar Lee Masters and the Anti-Lincoln Tradition,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 24, no. 1 (Winter 2003),, 46.

[7] Masters, Spoon River Anthology, 291 and 294. Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 219.

[8] Masters, Spoon River Anthology, 291, lines 20-26; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 134; Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 287; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 136.

[9] Norman, “An Illinois Iconoclast,” 45; Edgar Lee Masters, Children of the Market Place (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922), 400.

[10] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 219; Masters, Children of the Market Place, 405; Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 232.

[11] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 219; Masters, Children of the Market Place, 405; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 161.

[12] Edgar Lee Masters, Jack Kelso: A Dramatic Poem (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1928), 20; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 258; Hilary Masters, Last Stands: Notes From Memory (Boston, Mass.: D.R. Godine, 1982), 92-93.

[13] Masters, Jack Kelso, 258; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 48; Masters, Jack Kelso, 77; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 426; Masters, Jack Kelso, 25.

[14] Norman, “An Illinois Iconoclast,” 47; Bradley C.S. Watson and Charles R. Kesler, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 120; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 4; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 275.

[15] Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 269, Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 286; Edgar Lee Masters, Sheldon Dick, and Edward Naumburg, Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936), 5; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 24.

[16] Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 271, Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 276; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 271; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 119.

[17] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 2; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 275

[18] Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 27; Peterson, Lincoln In American Memory, 176; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 268.

[19]Matthew D. Norman, Interview by author. March 26, 2021; Masters, Dick, and Naumberg, Across Spoon River, 4-5; Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 357 and 141; Masters, Dick, and Naumberg, Across Spoon River, 60.

[20] Edgar Lee Masters, “An Interview With Mr. Edgar Lee Masters,” interview by Robert van Gelder, New York Times, February 15, 1942; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 276.

[21] Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 286, Masters, Last Stands, 93; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 277; Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln In the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory In Late Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 146; Masters, Last Stands, 100.

[22] Norman, “An Illinois Iconoclast,” 56; Edgar Lee Masters and Gertrude Boatwright Claytor, Richmond: A Dramatic Poem (New York: French, 1934); Masters, Lincoln: The Man, 358, Masters and Ward, The Sangamon, 233.

[23] Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory, 287, Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, Chapter 15, Norman, “An Illinois Iconoclast.”

[24] Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 274; Norman, Interview by author; Russell, Edgar Lee Masters, 279.