Historical Studies’ Stacy receives Going Award for research on “Spoon River”

Research on the history of the myth of Main Street America has earned Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Jason Stacy, PhD, the University’s 2017 William and Margaret Going Endowed Professorship Award.

Masters’ book of poems paints a picture of small town America that is both nostalgic and ambivalent. It was greeted with such enthusiasm that it sold 80,000 copies in the first year it was published. The characters, all located in the same cemetery, are speaking from the grave about their previous lives and their neighbors.

“I’m arguing that Masters’ portrayal of Spoon River helped shape a modern conception of rural America,” Stacy said.

Masters’ portrayal of Spoon River was a combination of his experience growing up in two Illinois towns, continued Stacy. The author grew up in Petersburg, where he and his family lived happily, and Lewistown, where they experienced some difficult times.

After Masters’ book, authors like Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis began to explore the moral complexity of rural life, reports Stacy. Throughout the 20th century, popular culture began to reflect a mythology of the American heartland that was both wistful and ambiguous. “Myths help us understand things that are complicated or confusing,” he added. “I think that in trying to understand rural America, many people went to Main Street myths. Like a stereotype, a myth creates a template that can be produced exactly the same over and over again. But when you use it, there will always be a degree of inaccuracy.”

“I’m not writing about the history of small towns, but the history of the myth of small towns,” he added. “But it’s important to remember that these myths are generalizations. Each town has its own culture, economics and more. Small towns are living places made up of people who cannot all be characterized as the same.”

Dr. Stacy says this type of research strengthens the already robust fields in the 19th and 20th century history for the Historical Studies Department here at SIUE.

“My hope is that this research helps readers understand the ways in which the mythology of the American small town, especially in the 20th century, has its roots in the Midwest and that Spoon River Anthology (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters was one of the earliest works to first disseminate this mythology.” Replies Stacy.

This is a long-term research project that is on under contract with the University of Illinois Press. I will likely submit the manuscript to the press in 2020 and aims to be published in early 2021.

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