Masters’ memoir originally was published by David R. Godine in 1982. At that time, the Boston Globe called the book “an American classic,” and The New Yorker called it “a model demonstration in the uses of memory.” The new version of the book includes an afterword by the author and a foreword in which essayist Phillip Lopate dubs the book the best memoir written in the past twenty years. Masters is a North Side resident and Carnegie Mellon University writing professor who has authored 13 books.
“Last Stands: Notes from Memory” chronicles the lives of Hilary's parents, the poet Edgar Lee Masters and Ellen Coyne Masters, as well as his maternal grandparents, Tom and Mollie Coyne, who raised him until he was 14. Masters’ desire to tell the stories of his grandfather, Tom Coyne, a veteran cavalryman of the Indian Wars and an Irish immigrant, was the impetus for the book. Mollie Coyne brings the filial bond and a political sensibility to the Kansas City household in which Hilary was reared. Ellen Coyne Masters works to keep the family together and pay its bills. Edgar Lee, who attained his fame early in his writing career with “Spoon River Anthology,” struggles to write new material as his physical powers wane.
The book’s beginning draws the reader in with evocative language:
“We follow the flag-covered casket. The honor guard steps before us in cadence, as the wheels of the wagon spin the light, and the red, white, and blue colors of the flag charge the quiet morning. The undertaker and his assistant walk through the grave plots beside the drive, out of step and detached though yet a part of the event like villagers who follow the route of a parade. It is already warm. I can feel the perspiration on my mother's arm as we walk together; already, heat currents rise from the Potomac River to distort the classic lines of the Lincoln Memorial. The geometric panorama of Washington wavers like a quilt on a laundry line.”
While he patched together the histories and time frames of the book’s characters, the saga took a different approach, Masters explains in the afterword.
“Somewhere along the road… it occurred to me that I was traveling essentially the same route between New York and Kansas City over which I shuttled as a child—back and forth from grandparents to parents and then back again; year after year, summer after summer. It wasn’t a straight line but one that looped and curved back into itself, similar to the roads before the interstate highway system. Detours were frequent, and the Greyhound bus that often carried me would have to pull off onto a smaller road for a bit and then find its way back onto the main highway.”
Such meandering characterizes the stories of most of the book’s main characters, including unspoken story of the author. While Masters says he was trying to make a story out of four narratives, the result is still groundbreaking, others say. The author is "breaking up form" in the book, SMU Press editor Kathryn Lang says. "It's a wonderful non-linear approach, and it works well."
The author writes in the book’s afterword: “if I came to an obstruction, a hole in the facts or a psychological dead-end, I would simply go around, making sure the reader would understand the deviation. I could hear the bus driver say, ‘Folks the road up ahead is washed out and we’re just going down here through Coal Bluff and be back on the main road in no time.”
Masters says that while he was writing the book he realized that he had been “what some would call abandoned” by his mother, who left him with his with his grandparents when he was 1. He made another discovery from writing the book: "I learned to appreciate my mother as someone who kept things together.” The book is no love poem, he explains. "My mother almost kept me from publishing the it. She felt that I was making fun of my grandparents.”
The unconventional approach used by Masters in his tale has deeply affected other writers. One of those who lobbied for his recognition by The American Academy of Arts and Letters was William Jay Smith, former Poet Laureate of the United States.
"I consider ‘Last Stands’ to be a masterpiece," Smith says. "It's told with a great objectivity, but also with a great warmth and even passion. I think that what is extraordinary is that as he points out in the book, his childhood was very difficult, being separated from his parents. In his essays he writes about himself, but never with self-pity."
Others say the book was on the forefront of the popular creative nonfiction genre. Author Lee Gutkind, a University of Pittsburgh writing professor and publisher of the Creative Nonfiction literary journal, says “Last Stands” helped other writers to break into the nonfiction form.
"He was one of the first fiction writers to take the plunge into Creative Nonfiction," Gutkind says. "’Last Stands’ is terrific and really made an impact."
Masters continues to affect the genre, widely publishing his essays. His newest nonfiction book “Shadows on the wall” is about the relationship between Edgar Kaufman and the Mexican architect and muralist Juan O-Gorman. The University of Pittsburgh Press published book this past year. “I describe it as a book-length essay,” Masters says.