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Edgar Lee Masters "'Ace' Shaw"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, Spoon River Anthology, offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "'Ace' Shaw"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Ace’ Shaw" from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, attempts to achieve justification of his unseemly choice of vocation by asserting that all jobs are simply the result of "chance." The epitaph featuring the character of "Ace" Shaw therefore, reveals and features a typical Spoon River braggart, whose report unveils a dodgy personality.

"Ace" Shaw

I never saw any difference
Between playing cards for money
And selling real estate,
Practicing law, banking, or anything else.
For everything is chance.
Nevertheless
Seest thou a man diligent in business?
He shall stand before Kings!

Reading of "'Ace' Shaw"

Commentary

"Ace" Shaw features a typical Spoon River braggart whose report justifies his unseemly choice of profession.

First Movement: A Gambler

I never saw any difference
Between playing cards for money
And selling real estate,
Practicing law, banking, or anything else.

"Ace" Shaw, whose nickname identifies him as a gambling man, claims that to him lawyers, bankers, real estate agents, and all others working in any profession or job for money are all gamblers, that is, all those professions are no different from "playing cards for money."

Point of view is always the most important issue in determining the conclusions each individual will form. "Ace" being a gambling man, and one who is apparently dedicated to his craft, then views his choice as noble and as dicey as the next guy’s. Of course, in order to accomplish this rationalization, he has to filter out the actual impact that each profession has on society.

To this type of personality, narcissistic, egotistic, self-centered to the extreme, others do not matter so long as they render unto him what he thinks he deserves. That gambling for money offers no service to society does not enter into Ace's estimation in determining worth—only the ability to acquire money is his measure.

Ace will never understand that bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, and members of other professions such a medicine, education, media, or even public service actually provide a service to society for which they are remunerated according to the level of service. That each professional might fail at his work is enough for Ace, and his ilk, to denigrate all of the potential service providers to little more than gamblers, like himself.

Second Movement: Life of Choices

For everything is chance.

Ace claims that everything one does in life remains a gamble. But some things are more fraught with the possibilities for negative occurrences than others. If "everything is chance," and nothing is sure, then why not set one’s goal higher than mere card playing?

Why not do something that offers a real service? The only answer is that Ace prefers the life of a card sharp; at the same time, intuitively, he knows his choice is less honorable than the bankers and lawyers he tries to belittle in order to make himself seem more important.

Third Movement: Lazy Man's Philosophy

Nevertheless
Seest thou a man diligent in business?
He shall stand before Kings!

Ace is lazy. So instead of explaining his circumstances in order to prop up his choice, he simply quotes Proverbs 22:29: "Seest thou a man diligent in business? / He shall stand before Kings!" By introducing the quotation with "nevertheless," Ace appears to be contradicting his earlier claims, but his personality would not allow such humility.

The gambler is once again simply justifying his choice by claiming that his proficiency will stand him in good stead. The gambling Ace will "stand before Kings"—and not before the "mean" men who appear in the line, "he shall not stand before mean men," which follows the two lines from Proverbs that Ace quotes.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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