“Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley?”
This is how poet Edgar Lee Masters begins Spoon River Anthology, the poetic portrayal of Anytown, published in 1915, as told by residents of its cemetery.
President Augie Aleksy of the Historical Society of Forest Park thinks there’s a resemblance between the residents of the fictional Spoon River (a combination of Petersburg and Lewistown, Ill.) and the inhabitants of the cemeteries of Forest Park.
Within the friendly confines of Forest Home, Woodlawn, Concordia and Waldheim Jewish Cemeteries, bankers and revolutionaries lie side by side. Serial killers share real estate with guild tradesmen and disaster victims. Circus performers, prohibitionists, saloon-keepers and pioneers, immigrants and indigenous Americans are all represented in the Forest Park graveyards.
As a fundraising project for the historical society, Aleksy is creating a literary portrait of some of the personalities buried in Forest Park. He proposes to call the collection, “Des Plaines River Anthology.” The group of short literary portraits would be performed live twice a year as a historical society event and fundraiser.
Some of Forest Park’s featured deceased celebrities include Dr. Clarence Hemingway (father of Ernest); international anarchist Emma Goldman; and Belle Gunness, the Norwegian alleged serial-killer of lonely bachelors. Pro-baseballer-turned-prohibitionist Pastor Billy Sunday and local victims of Chicago’s 1915 Eastland ship disaster are also on the list.
“I think it can be a great literary venture and would leave quite a legacy,” Aleksy said.
The bookseller, who owns Centuries & Sleuths on Madison Street, has a personal relationship with many regional authors because of his shop. So far he has approached Chicago crime historians Rich Lindberg and Bob Loerzel about telling the stories of murderers Gunness and Adolph Luetgert (the Chicago “sausage vat murderer”). Jay Bonansinga will pen the story of the Eastland drowning victims. Forest Park labor historian Mark Rogovin will write about the Haymarket martyrs. Other authors have been approached to help with the project as well.
Aleksy is an old hand at literary- and history-inspired performances, having produced 18 of his regionally renowned Meeting of Minds performances. Modeled after TV pioneer Steve Allen’s highbrow history “talk shows” from the late ’70s/early ’80s, actors immerse themselves in the lives of literary or historical figures and then perform a partially scripted, partially ad-libbed conversation that sells out every year.
The new Des Plaines River collection would also include local historical notables Henry Austin, state legislator, temperance advocate, banker and property developer; Ferdinand Haase, founder of Forest Park and Forest Home Cemetery; and Doris Humphrey, choreographer, as well as others.
The cemeteries have always been economic drivers of Forest Park business since the 1800s, supporting local funeral luncheon restaurants, monument companies and florists. Some of the graves go back to the earliest indigenous people, who built burial hills on soft sandbar soil near the Des Plaines River’s banks.
The Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest has for 20 years hosted an award-winning “Tale of the Tombstones” cemetery tour in Forest Home Cemetery around Halloween. The Forest Park book would be a transportable tombstone tour that could be performed in multiple locations and at different times.
Aleksy said he borrowed Masters’ 1915 volume from the library recently to refresh his memory. (He had read it in high school and had seen it performed regularly by drama staff of a college.) He was surprised that some of the Spoon River portraits were more “depressing” than he remembered.
The poetry collection is based on the author’s hometowns. Masters, who started his career as a Chicago lawyer, loosely fictionalized local tales he had heard growing up, including one woman who had been an “early love interest” of Abraham Lincoln, according to Wikipedia. He used names he gathered from headstones at the local cemeteries. Spoon River Anthology elicited a strong negative reaction among the local townspeople when it was published. Masters never returned to the area until he himself was buried in the Petersburg cemetery.
Aleksy said he envisions the historical society project to be “less of a downer” and more of a celebration of the personalities of Forest Park and the environs.
“Some people buried in Forest Park cemeteries had happy, fulfilling or loving lives and perhaps all three in some cases,” he said. He told authors that a “resignation to death” should always be balanced with “new life spirit” in their profiles.
He’s shooting for an initial draft in spring 2013.
In his introductory poem, “The Hill,” Masters explores the wide variety of human souls, all succumbing to death, the Great Equalizer: “The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter.”
“Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley?” Like some of the residents of the Forest Park cemeteries, “All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”