SIUE history professor published book that could change minds on ‘American myth’ of small towns

History professor Jason Stacy has recently published his fourth book, “Spoon River America: Edgar Lee Masters and the Myth of the American Small Town.” Stacy argues that the publication of  Masters’s book “Spoon River Anthology” shifted the ‘myth of the American small town’ from New England villages to rural midwestern small towns throughout his book.

“It was one of the factors that helped shift what I call the ‘myth of the American small town,’” Stacy said. “I then traced the legacy of this new myth as promoted by ‘Spoon River Anthology’ through the 20th century, and what I argue is that the myth changed geographic location from New England to the Midwest but also the contours of the myth changed, from not only this nostalgia for a little New England Village, but to also include ambivalence about the American city.”

Jon Lauck, the editor-in-chief for the Middle West Review, a publication out of the University of Nebraska that focused on the history of the Midwest, said that Stacy’s work disproves the thesis that all Midwestern writers revolt against their region. According to Lauck,  many midwestern writers feel they should turn on their region and leave, but Lauck believes that Stacy’s book is able to counteract that theory and encourage midwestern writers to stay and use their creativity in the Midwest.

“[The book] really is a masterpiece of literary history and theory, and should be read by every writer in the Midwest,” Lauck said.

Stacy also said that Masters’ work created a long-lasting legacy about the “myth of the American small town.” He said he traced that legacy through pop culture throughout the ages.

“I looked at films after the second World War, like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life, or the ‘Best Years of Our Lives,’ and even later in the 20th century in the 1950s, like ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, or books like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ even though it takes place in the city, it has that same kind of sense that ‘the surface belies an underlying phoniness,’ as Holden Caulfield called it,” Stacy said.

Stacy said he was even able to trace the legacy of Masters’ work into the 21st century with popular cultural media such as “Fargo” and “Stranger Things.”

Herbert K. Russell, the author of “Edgar Lee Masters: a Biography,” was someone that Stacy consulted with on his book. Russell said that Stacy’s newest book will change the way people talk about Masters.

“I think [his]  conclusions are solid. He’ll certainly open up new fields of scholarship about Masters,” Russell said. “It is just an excellent book for showing how Masters relates to present times.”

Stacy said it is important to study this myth of American small towns because it exposes blind spots within American culture.

“This myth of the small town in the 20th century left a lot of people out. In fact, I described in one of my footnotes that this myth was effectively a sundown town, that the presence of African Americans, for example, is not incorporated into this mythology,” Stacy said. “And so this myth also exposes some of the blind spots, some of the structural racism that has been part of this country’s history for a long time.”

“Spoon River America: Edgar Lee Masters and the Myth of the American Small Town” is Stacy’s fourth book. He has previously published a book on Walt Whitman and co-authored two textbooks. He is currently working on publishing a couple of smaller pieces soon, but he said that he is planning to take the next semester to reinvest in being a professor.

“I’ve got a chapter and an article coming out, both on Whitman and on Masters but this semester, I’m really reinvesting in my teaching. I’ve retooled a couple of my classes. I’m editing a book with a group of students and so that’s taking up a lot of my memory space,” Stacy said.

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