“All, all are sleeping on the hill. … All, all, are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”
These somber sentences are echoed multiple times in the opening minutes of “Spoon River Anthology,” a spoken-word poetry performance presented virtually Tuesday, November 16 as part of the Levy Lecture Series. Paddy and Jon Lynn, both of whom have had successful careers combining theater and teaching, shared the screen in costume as they recited the lines that brought fame and infamy to author Edgar Lee Masters.
He grew up in Petersburg, Illinois, a small town northwest of Springfield. He observed many of the details included in the verses as a young boy while working after-school jobs such as delivering newspapers, working at his father’s law firm, overhearing conversations between his father and townspeople (his father served four terms as mayor) and hearing local gossip from friends or family.
His poems exposed the hypocrisy of life in a seemingly idyllic small Midwestern town, the fictional Spoon River, as one by one, all 244 characters share their stories from their graves in the town’s cemetery.
Masters wrote the verses as free-form poetry in 1915 at the age of 47. He was educated and worked as an attorney in Chicago for nearly 30 years, but he nursed literary ambitions. “Spoon River Anthology” was not his first published work, for he had been sending poems to, and having them printed in, literary magazines for years, always using a pseudonym so as not to harm or influence his law practice. He eventually stopped practicing law to focus on his writing career, publishing nearly 50 works of poetry, drama, essays, biographies and novels. Nothing else he wrote ever surpassed “Spoon River Anthology” in recognition, acclaim or approval from the literary community, a fact that haunted him the rest of his life.
When asked if Masters was vindictive, Jon Lynn nods and says a resounding, “Yes!” He explains: “You can almost look at the book, 244 different epitaphs. Almost all of the ones from when he was a young boy in Petersburg are treated with a very favorable light. And then as he grew up, he could see all the evil and nastiness and the bad side of humans, and that’s what impressed him the most. Most of the ones from Lewiston, when he was an older man, are very dark and sad. He blames people. He tells stories, it’s this person’s fault that this person committed suicide or that they died or left home. It was very vindictive.”
The complete “Anthology” would take two hours to perform. Jon and Paddy Lynn selected their favorite characters to give the audience a 45-minute overview for this Levy Lecture webinar.
The Lynns, who have been married 44 years, met in college at Illinois Wesleyan University and married shortly after graduation. Jon taught in high schools as a drama and English teacher for 35 years; he taught the “Anthology” to his students three times. Twice, in 1981 and in 2021, the production was selected to be performed at the state festival, the highest honor (prizes are not awarded).
The couple has been performing the “Anthology” together for years. Before the pandemic, they also performed with a musician friend who added historically appropriate melodies interspersed with the verses.
Paddy has written children’s books, acted in over 100 plays and served as the Artistic Director for the Kirk Players Community Theater for 16 years. Her primary business, Paddy Lynn Storyacting, has been bringing storytelling programs to schools for children of all ages. Devotees of the Levy Lecture Series may recall seeing her fascinating historical representations of Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Together the Lynns raised two daughters and now are enjoying being grandparents.
“Spoon River Anthology” is a classic piece of American literature and the Lynns bring it to life. One viewer commented, “The interplay of the two added a dimension one doesn’t get when reading the text.” Another added, “I enjoyed Spoon River Anthology when read originally a lot of years ago. The Lynns did an excellent job bringing the mood and drama of the whole work, especially in the zoom format.”
Readers may watch the video on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.