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Preaching the "Gospel of Beauty"

Lindsay's efforts to make a living by his poetry, his walking tours across the United States, his vision of the "gospel of beauty" preached to audiences throughout the country. As portrayed by his biographers, in Lindsay's letters, his leaflet "The Gospel of Beauty," and his own record of the famous 1912 walk from Illinois to New Mexico, Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty.

Vachel Lindsay's peripatetic lifestyle was driven in part by financial need: from 1914 onwards, public recitation of his poetry was Lindsay's most consistent means of income, and a necessary one after the deaths of his parents (in 1918 and 1922) and particularly after he married and had children (1925-26). That lifestyle was driven just as much, however, by Lindsay's artistic vision: the belief that the artist must preach the "gospel of beauty" to the masses and that this gospel, embraced by the people, might transform society. Among other sources, Lindsay's gospel was inspired by mystical visions that he experienced first in 1904 and which recurred throughout his life, by the social gospel of the Campbellite Christian sect in which he was raised, and by Lindsay's talents as a graphic artist as well as a writer. The gospel, and Lindsay's style of preaching it, had various manifestations throughout his career. In his first attempts to sell, or give away, his pamphlets, Lindsay's gospel represents itself at its most idealistic. At other times, as in "The Child-Heart in the Mountains" and "Celestial Flowers of Glacial Park," the gospel is simultaneously mystical and grounded in experience, in Lindsay's trips to the Rocky Mountains and especially the newly formed Glacier National Park, Montana. In "The Virginians Are Coming Again" the vision becomes apocalyptic. The following excerpts relating to "the gospel of beauty" are drawn primarily from Lindsay's own letters and journals, and biographies of the poet.

From Lindsay's letter to E.S. Ames, a coreligionist in the Campbellite sect, New York, May 18, 1904; Letters of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Chénetier, 4:

My ancestors were all men of action, statesmen, rulers of men. It is hard for me to respect my army, for it is an assembly of ornamental shadows and dreams, when I thought to have commanded men. And my sermons I must preach only to myself, to exhort myself to be true to my art and writing. . . .

My ideal for my religious life is that of a religious tramp, a wanderer from Church to Church, following the leading of "The Gleam," seeking new impressions and vivid insights into the religious life of all men. I have had many of these in the past, yet left few on record. The most I can hope for my verse is that it will some day become the record of my best impressions in the Churches. I shall not force it, I can scarcely promise. I merely hope. When you see signs of it in my writing, I ask your congratulations, though it may be a while before they are due.

Account of Lindsay's first visions, in the summer of 1904; Elizabeth Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay, 90:

Lindsay stayed on at home after the wedding [of his sister] and during the summer he began to have some curious experiences. He called them "visions." He never lost his head over these visions or tried to explain them as other than the projections of a strongly visual imagination, but it should be understood that--like William Blake--he actually saw them.

"It is plausible, I think," he wrote afterward, "that for one who had so long co-ordinated drawings and poems for drawings, his religious experiences should paint themselves before him in the air. Being taught by that admiarable practical but unimaginative master William M. Chase never to draw a thing till I saw it on the blank paper before me, it was only the terrrible power and blaze of the pictures that came that made them unusual."

The first time, which was at night, he beheld with his bodily eyes, so clearly that he could have painted them, the prophets of the Old Testament pass in gorgeous garb through his bedroom. The second time, by day, he saw the prophets march gravely before the tall elm tree in the front yard.

He believed his visions were not infallible but to be interepreted however he chose; they were a part of his artistic captial. Yet they had been sent, like all strong convictions. It was late, late at night in the awed aftermath of the first of them that he wrote his mystical poem A Prayer in the Jungles of Heaven.

Lindsay's first attempt to sell, and then give away his poems, in New York City; Rica Brenner, Poets of Our Time, 116-17:

Possibly Vachel Lindsay at last felt he should earn his own living. At all events, he now embarked on a quixotic adventure, that of selling copies of his own poems. From door to door up and down the West Side of New York he went, trying to peddle his verses for a few cents apiece. He thought of himself as an ancient troubadour making his way through the world by his songs. With a good deal of humor he describes his adventures in his diary.

"Well, I tried a sleepy big shock headed baker first. I tired to give the poem to him. He considered the thing for some time as I explained it, but finally handed it back saying he had no use for it. I thought there was a touch of class pride and the resentment of my alms and irritated independence in his manner. So the next place I said to the proprietor, 'I will sell you this for two cents.' At once I saw the thing take. My customer smiled, and said, 'Newspapers cost only one cent, with lots more reading matter than this.' But he took two cents from his till all right. I said, 'You can see me the author; that is why I charge the other cent, and I made that myself.' He said, 'It looks like it,' and laughed, and we parted, I promising to come again sometime or another."

Candy stores, Chinese laundries--"I must land a Chinaman yet"--delicatessens, drug stores, fish markets, all were entered. For several nights he repeated his performances. The result was an enriching of his experiences and a strengthening of his conviction that "the people like poetry as well as the scholars, or better," but no very great improvement in his finances.

Lindsay's War Bulletins were written and self-published in 1909 after he returned to Springfield from New York City; "War Bulletin Number One" appears below, as reprinted in Dennis Camp, ed., The Collected Prose of Vachel Lindsay, vol. 1, 85:

I have spent a great part of my few years fighting a soul battle for absolute liberty, for freedom from obligation, ease of conscience; independence from commercialism. I think I am farther from slavery than most men. But I have not complete freedom of speech. In my daily round of work I find myself taking counsel to please the stupid, the bigoted, the conservative, the impatient, the cheap. A good part of the time I can please these people, having a great deal in common with them.--but--

The things that go into the War Bulletin please me only. To the Devil with you, average reader. To Gehenna with your stupidity, your bigotry, your conservatism, your cheapness and your impatience!

In each new Bulletin the war shall go faster and further. War! War! War!

"The Gospel of Beauty" was a one-page tract carried with Lindsay, and handed out in exchange for room and board, during his tramp from Springfield to New Mexico in the summer of 1912; as printed in Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty:


Being the new "creed of a beggar" by that vain and foolish mendicant Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, printed for his personal friends in his home village--Springfield, Illinois. It is his intention to carry this gospel across the country beginning June, 1912, returning in due time.


I come to you penniless and afoot, to bring a message. I am starting a new religious idea. The idea does not say "no" to any creed that you have heard. . . . After this, let the denomination to which you now belong be called in your heart "the church of beauty" or "the church of the open sky." . . . The church of beauty has two sides: the love of beauty and the love of God.



The things most worth while are one's own hearth and neighborhood. We should make our own home and neighborhood the most democratic, the most beautiful and the holiest in the world. The children now growing up should become devout gardeners or architects or park architects or teachers of dancing in the Greek spirit or musicians or novelists or poets or story-tellers or craftsmen or wood-carvers or dramatists or actors or singers. They should find their talent and nurse it industriously. They should believe in every possible application to art-theory of the thoughts of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. They should, if led by the spirit, wander over the whole nation in search of the secret of democratic beauty with their hearts at the same time filled to overflowing with the righteousness of God. Then they should come back to their own hearth and neighborhood and gather a little circle of their own sort of workers about them and strive to make the neighborhood and home more beautiful and democratic and holy with their special art. . . . They should labor in their little circle expecting neither reward nor honors. . . . In their darkest hours they should be made strong by the vision of a completely beautiful neighborhood and the passion for a completely democratic art. Their reason for living should be that joy in beauty which no wounds can take away, and that joy in the love of God which no crucifixion can end.

On his 1912 walk Lindsay was most impressed by Kansas; Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty focuses on his experiences in that state, represented in the following two excerpts--the first a philosophic and political appreciation, the second a sensual and symbolic one:

Kansas, the Ideal American Community! Kansas, nearer than any other to the kind of a land our fathers took for granted! Kansas, practically free from cities and industrialism, the real last refuge of the constitution, since it maintains the type of agricultural civilization the constitution had in mind! Kansas, State of tremendous crops and hardy, devout, natural men! Kansas of the historic Santa Fé Trail and the classic village of Emporia and the immortal editor of Emporia! Kansas, laid out in roads a mile apart, criss-crossing to make a great checker-board, roads that go on and on past endless rich farms and big farm-houses, though there is not a village or railroad for miles! Kansas, the land of the real country gentlemen, Americans who work the soil and own the soil they work; State where the shabby tenant-dwelling scarce appears as yet! Kansas of the Chautauqua and the college-student and the devout school-teacher! The dry State, the automobile State, the insurgent State! Kansas, that is ruled by the cross-roads church, and the church type of civilization! The Newest New England! State of more promise of permanent spiritual glory than Massachusetts in her brilliant youth!

* * * *

JUNE 14, 1912. I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered Wonderland. Though I am still east of the geographical centre of the United States, in every spiritual sense I am in the West. This morning I passed the stone mile-post that marks the beginning of Kansas.

I went over the border and encountered--what do you think? Wild strawberries! Lo, where the farmer had cut the weeds between the row and the fence, the gentle fruits revealed themselves, growing in the shadow between the still-standing weeds. They shine out in a red line that stretches on and on, and a man has to resolve to stop eating several times. Just as he thinks he has conquered the desire the line gets dazzlingly red again.

The berries grow at the end of a slender stalk, clustered six in a bunch. One gathers them in bouquets, as it were, and eats off the fruit like taffy off a stick.

Regarding Lindsay's affection for Glacier National Park, and his faith in wild American places as a source of visionary inspiration; Ann Massa, Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, 179:

He had tramped with Stephen Graham in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 1921; he honeymooned there . . . . From 1923 to 1928 he lived in Spokane, Washington, primarily to be near the park, which was of particular significance to him because of the ease with which he and Graham had crossed the border into Canada and the Waterton Lakes Park in 1922. "We crossed a Canadian American line almost obliterated. Every line should be like that." The experience seemed to him an anticipation of the day when a fraternal international community could dispense with physical and emotional barriers.

Lindsay relied on national parks--particularly Glacier Park--as a personal panacea. On July 16, 1931 (he committed suicide on December 5) he was still saying "All I need is a change and a rest, a new sight of the park." His own experience and pleasure and refereshment in national parks led him to think of them as an antidote for national ills: "only the deserts and mountains of America can crack the business hardened skulls of the East," he brooded in Glacier Park in 1922. The Parks represented the Western essence of the United States as opposed to a Europeanized, disparate America: "If in America one does not have the West-going heart, the thousand little nations that are the coutnries of Europe pull one away from our great National Parks."

Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, 326-27:

We must refer to "The Virginians Are Coming Again," to be found in the volume, Every Soul Is a Circus. He inserted a long preface in this volume, recapitulating his art theories, his theories of the dancing of poetry, and the reciting of poetry. . . .

"The Virginians Are Coming Again" ranks with the best that Lindsay did, not so much in virtue of its harmonics, its artistry, as for its purposes, its vision. It was written, Lindsay noted, as a summary to The Litany of Washington Street; but it is much more than that. It prays for the downfall of the economic régime which came into power through the Civil War, and which that war of intention both in origin and prosecution put into power. It longs for Robert E. Lee to gallop again to the sea in a fury of men [sic; Masters seems, improbably, to conflate Lee and Sherman here]. It means that all of Lindsay's heart at last was south of Mason and Dixon's line, and that his attachment to Lincoln was sentimental, and a survival of the Santa Claus mythology of boyhood.

Marc Chénetier, "Lindsay's American Mythocracy," 49, 50:

Readers of Lindsay will find that the state of Virginia bears directly upon the Middle West, for he finds in the one something that can be made greater by the other. On the tabula rasa of the Midwest, Lindsay wants to build with incense and splendor, come through time and space from the magnificent days of pre-colonial and colonial America. "The Midwesterner is in line with our simple democratic traditions and gets his education from the four seasons and the book of God and the open sky," he writes. The Midwest is thereby protected against the commercial and political evils that have destroyed tradition on the East Coast. . . . On the as yet unspoiled land on which he was born, Lindsay wants to restore the grandeur of the land whence his forefathers came: "Virginia"--that is, an idea of the old South, of the agrarian South--as opposed to a merchant, then industrial, North. . . .

In 1928, with Hoover in the offing, and thus Babbit on his way back to the White House, Lindsay publishes "The Virginians Are Coming Again," a poem the importance of which, both in terms of themes and in terms of technical worth, has been consistently underrated. He deplores his not being able to have a number of his Litany essays [from The Litany of Washington Street] taken into consideration by politicians, but is sure his poems counts enough for a coincidence of dates to matter: "My new poem appears in the American Mercury on the day the Democratic Convention opens in Houston, Texas. That poem is not rhetoric. I mean every line of it."

From letter by Lindsay to Margaret Conklin, his literary agent; Letters of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Chénetier, 453:

Charleston, South Carolina

March 20, 1931

* * * *

The ideals of my life, on the Platform or off, are summarized in the "Building of Springfield" Poem. I am at the top of my strength and powers to further those ideals. My audiences increase to mobs, tyranical, ignorant mobs. Last night I gave them my best in reciting, all from the Selected Poems, that is all my principal poems but The Congo and Booth, the most forceful ideas I have added in comment, and many new and old poems. I sat down having recited two hours, my best--8:30 to 10:30 P.M. Then the chairman, by the Politest methods (not horrible bullying as in Asheville) started them mobbing me for "The Congo" before I left the hall and I recited it politely resolving to beat them yet. The Courtesy here is perfect and I have had a good time. But I am not going to die like Edwin Markham, reciting in the provinces One poem written as a boy. I wrote The Congo in 1913 and was through reciting it FOREVER, by 1920. And here they not only ignore it as a Christian Missionary message--welcome it only as a stunt--liking only the first section and enduring the rest), but I am the agonized prisoner of my 34th year, no matter if I am 51. I want to say do and be the things a real artist of 51 would do. I am simply bursting with new ideas, new plans pour into my brain every morning for songs, new creative force comes to me and I am the prisoner of a stunt with all creative force thwarted . . . .

They accept the Congo and Booth about which I am hectored beyond all human endurance, only as STUNTS and curiousities. I know they would not cross the street to help a nigger of The Salvation Army as a result of this dress-suit heckling. . . . Please read the Building of Springfield and swear by Heaven that henceforth you will build my publicity round it.

Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish 44:


Vachel, the stars are out

dusk has fallen on the Colorado road

a car crawls slowly across the plain

in the dim light the radio blares its jazz

the heartbroken salesman lights another cigarette

In another city 27 years ago

I see your shadow on the wall

you're sitting in your suspenders on the bed

the shadow hand lifts up a Lysol bottle to your head

your shade falls over on the floor

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