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Vachel Linday's Life

Joseph G. Kronick.

Lindsay, Vachel (10 Nov. 1879-5 Dec. 1931), writer, was born Nicholas Vachel Lindsay in Springfield, Illinois, the son of Vachel Thomas Lindsay, a physician, and Esther Catherine Frazee. The Lindsays were devout Campbellites, a church founded in 1830 by the immigrant Scotch-Irish clergyman Alexander Campbell, whose emphasis on individual spiritual life, education, the missionary role of American democracy, and the hope for a nondenominational Christian church had a profound impact upon Lindsay, shaping his career as poet, pamphleteer, and performer.

From 1897 to 1899 Lindsay attended a Campbellite school, Hiram College in Ohio, but he never took a degree. There he kept notebooks and diaries, a practice he had begun when he was seven and continued throughout his life. He headed each diary with "This book belongs to Christ," consecrating himself to a lifelong project of spreading what he called "the gospel of beauty" devoted to the redemption of mankind through art.

In pursuit of this goal, Lindsay attended the Chicago Art Institute from 1901 to 1903. Although he was an undistinguished student, he held to his belief that art starts "with a vision, with a beautiful idealization of the thing you see." His drawings are fanciful illustrations of his poems and gospel and are imitative of William Blake and the pre-Raphaelites, but without the skill of either.

Lindsay next attended the New York School of Art (1903-1904). He spent a great deal of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he repeatedly visited the Egyptian sculptures, which began a lifelong interest in hieroglyphics, from which he drew inspiration for his symbols and theory of beauty. He also tried to publish his poems and illustrations but had little success.

In the summer of 1904 Lindsay experienced his first visions. At night, and again the next day, he saw Old Testament prophets. Afterward, he wrote his first mystical poem, "A Prayer in the Jungles of Heaven," and drew his "Map of the Universe," a source for symbols that appear in many of his poems and which he had reproduced in a slightly different version as the frontispiece to Collected Poems (1923). The map depicts Lindsay's moral "universe," with "The Throne of Mountains" standing atop "The Jungles of Heaven." At the bottom, lying by the "River Called Hate," is the tomb containing Lucifer; slightly above "The Gulfs of Silence" is his harp, from which issues "The Flame of Lucifer's Singing," which extends to heaven. Other symbols include "The Palace of Eve," "The Soul of a Butterfly" (Beauty), and a spider (Mammon). Lindsay also had a vision of his ideal bride, whom he called Psyche or Eve or Lady Romance. His tendency to idealize women, combined with his naïveté and his father's stern warnings against sex, may have contributed to his tendency to form one-sided romantic attachments that failed to develop into anything beyond infatuation.

On 23 and 24 March 1905 Lindsay had copies of two poems printed and tried to sell them on the streets of New York. These evenings spent peddling his poetry set the pattern for much of his career as a self-fashioned troubadour or wandering poet. His wandering began in earnest when he set sail for Florida on 3 March 1906 to begin the first of his tramps. Starting from Jacksonville, he walked through Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and home to Springfield. To pay his way, he gave recitals and lectures and sold copies of his poems. Shortly after his return home in June, he accompanied his family to Europe. On the night of 4 September, as the ship neared New York, he had a vision of Christ singing in Heaven. Between 10 November and Christmas he wrote "I Heard Immanuel Singing," expressing his millennerian vision.

On 21 April 1907 Lindsay left New York and set out on foot to Springfield. In August 1908 he lectured on race at the YMCA after witnessing race riots in Springfield, and in 1909 he lectured on behalf of the Anti-Saloon League. On 19 July 1909 he published at his own expense the first of five War Bulletins, which attacked greed, urbanization, and race prejudice. The third contained "The Creed of a Beggar," in which he declared himself a believer "in Christ the Socialist." The fourth, a collection of poems called The Tramp's Excuses, was published in September, and the fifth appeared in November.

From 1909 to 1912 Lindsay remained at home writing. In 1910 he published several hundred copies of The Village Magazine, consisting largely of editorials, with some poems and newspaper clippings, which brought him his first public notice when it was reviewed by Current Literature. Hamlin Garland, then a well-known novelist, ordered a copy and invited Lindsay to Chicago to address his club, the Cliff Dwellers, which he founded for regional writers, artists, and professional men.

On 29 May 1912 Lindsay set out on his most ambitious tramp, planning to walk to Los Angeles, then to Seattle, and back to Springfield, again carrying copies of his work to trade. He abandoned his plan in New Mexico and took a train to Los Angeles, where he spent a month writing "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," a tribute to the founder of the Salvation Army. The poem, which was set to music by Charles Ives in 1914, celebrates, with a vulgar pietism, Booth's militant Christianity in hectic rhythms derived from the hymn "The Blood of the Lamb." In the first part Booth leads a procession of outcasts into heaven where, in the second part, Christ heals them, followed by a chorus of celebration. This poem brought him instant fame when Harriet Monroe published it as the lead piece in the fourth issue of Poetry in January 1913. The Review of Reviews praised it as "perhaps the most remarkable poem of a decade." In his column for Harper's, William Dean Howells called it a "fine brave poem." Monroe was loyal in her devotion to Lindsay, and she was largely responsible for his association with Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and the Chicago renaissance. She saw to it that a $100 prize was given him for "General Booth" after Ezra Pound persuaded her that the first prize be given to William Butler Yeats for "The Grey Rock." Yeats himself praised "General Booth" as a poem "stripped bare of ornament." In the fall of 1913 Mitchell Kennerley published Lindsay's first book, General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems.

Lindsay's second most famous poem, "The Congo," was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo River. On 1 March 1914 he recited the poem at the Poetry banquet in Chicago, where Yeats and Sandburg were in attendance. Lindsay's recitations were the basis of his fame. He would rock on his feet and pump his arms as he shouted and sang his poems. Lindsay dubbed these compositions "the Higher Vaudeville," poems written in "a sort of ragtime manner that deceives them [his audience] into thinking they are at a vaudeville show." He wanted to bring poetry to the masses via his mix of song and oratory. Although the "Higher Vaudeville" makes up only a small portion of an oeuvre that includes nine books of poetry, five prose works, and numerous short stories and articles, Lindsay is remembered almost entirely for these two compositions and "The Chinese Nightingale," "The Santa Fé Trail" (which includes a blaring chorus of automobile horns), "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," and "The Kallyope Yell." Perhaps Lindsay summed up his career best when he wrote, "By that very act [the Higher Vaudeville] I persuaded the tired businessman to listen at last. But lo, my tiny reputation as a writer seemed wiped out by my new reputation as an entertainer." This remark reveals Lindsay's didactic aims as well as his appeal to middle-class men and women at a time when people in every American city formed business and women's clubs and arranged luncheons for the purpose of attaining culture. For the remainder of his life Lindsay struggled with the demand for his performances, his pleasure in giving them, and his knowledge that they took time away from his work. But the lure of the enthusiastic crowds and the never-ending need for money demanded that he maintain a life on the road.

In February 1914 Lindsay met Sara Teasdale in St. Louis following a period of correspondence. Together they traveled to New York, where he met William Rose Benét, Stephen Vincent Benét, Joyce Kilmer, Floyd Dell, Witter Bynner, Louis Untermeyer, Theodore Dreiser, and Upton Sinclair. In September Macmillan published Lindsay's second book, The Congo and Other Poems. The same month Kennerley published Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, a prose account of Lindsay's tramps. In November 1914, while in Springfield, he read of Teasdale's engagement to a shoe manufacturer whom she married in December. He wrote to Harriet Moody that Teasdale was "the most intimate friend I had had for years and the best understander," and the news of her marriage left him feeling "baffled" and "rather empty and puzzled."

In February 1915 Lindsay recited before Woodrow Wilson's cabinet. He received the Levinson prize for "The Chinese Nightingale," published by Poetry in November 1915. At this time also, upon the recommendation of Macmillan, he dropped "Nicholas" from his name. In the same year Lindsay received invitations to meet Jane Addams, Henry Ford, and D. W. Griffith. The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), Lindsay's classification and judgment of films, is notable for recognizing film's potential not only as an art, but as a medium for propaganda and cultural formation; the book closes with a prediction of an American millennium ushered in by movies.

Lindsay undertook extensive tours of the United States from 1916 through 1918, the year his father died. In January 1920 he published The Golden Whales of California and Other Rhymes in the American Language, which includes several poems inspired by Alexander Campbell. Now at the height of his fame, Lindsay undertook a tour of England, reading at Oxford, where he met Robert Bridges and Robert Graves, and at Cambridge and in London. He was well received and praised by The Observer (London) as "easily the most important living American poet." However, Lindsay's reputation began a precipitous decline with the publication of his utopian prose work, The Golden Book of Springfield (1920). The book opens in 1920 with a gathering of the "Prognosticators' Club," which consists, among others, of a Campbellite minister, a Jewish boy, a black woman, and a skeptic, who offer a vision of Springfield in 2018 in prose derived from such varied sources as the Bible, Swedenborg, and Marx. Although Lindsay continued to receive praise from English critics, American critics and readers dismissed him as tedious and incomprehensible. Opinion since has not changed.

Despite his desire to quit touring, Lindsay's financial difficulties required that he continue to earn money by giving recitals. His popularity with audiences did not abate despite the bad reviews. In 1921 he received an honorary degree from Mills College in Oakland, California, and delivered the Phi Beta Kappa poem at the Harvard commencement in 1922, the year of his mother's death. In January 1923, while in Mississippi for a recital at Gulf Park Junior College for Girls, he collapsed and was forced to cancel the remainder of his tour. He stayed in Gulf Park to teach contemporary poetry until July 1924. While there he began to suffer delusions of persecution that continued until his death.

In June 1924 Lindsay went to the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was diagnosed as epileptic. In July 1924 he moved to Spokane, Washington, where he met Elizabeth Conner, a 23-year-old high school teacher. They married in 1925 and had two children. Suffering from paranoid delusions and spurred by resentment toward his audiences, Lindsay was given to sudden outbursts of rage at public functions, but his deteriorating financial situation forced him to go on tour in 1926.

A long tour, from October 1928 through March 1929, erased his debts but left him penniless. His financial burden was alleviated by a $500 prize awarded by Poetry in recognition of his life's work, but his reputation continued its decline. His family life also declined; he had delusions of persecution and unfounded suspicions of his wife's infidelity. Continuous money-raising tours were interrupted by brief visits at home. In 1930 he was made Doctor Honoris Causa by Hiram College, but his mental health continued to decline, and he threatened his wife and children with violence. On 5 December 1931 he committed suicide at home by drinking Lysol. His doctor decided that Lindsay's death should be reported as heart failure, and it was announced as such in the Springfield paper.


Drafts and proofs of published and unpublished works, along with juvenilia, scrapbooks, letters, and personal possessions, are in the Vachel Lindsay Collection, Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia. Major collections of his correspondence are in the Harriet Monroe Collection and the Harriet Moody Collection, University of Chicago; at Hiram College; and at the Vachel Lindsay Home in Springfield. The Teasdale-Lindsay correspondence is at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The best edition of his correspondence, which includes a useful chronology of his life, is Letters of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Chénetier (1979). The Collected Poems (1923; rev. ed., 1925) has been superseded by The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Dennis Camp (1984), a two-volume edition of his complete poetry and his accompanying drawings, along with a third volume of notes, Lindsay's prefaces, letters pertaining to his poetry, and a title index. Camp also edited the first of a two-volume edition of Lindsay's published prose along with drawings, The Prose of Vachel Lindsay (1988).

Important works by Lindsay not mentioned in the text are The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems (1917); The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems (1920); The Candle in the Cabin: A Weaving Together of Script and Singing (1926); Going-to-the-Stars (1926); Johnny Appleseed (1928); Every Soul Is a Circus (1929); Seleted Poems, ed. Hazelton Spencer (1931), and ed. Mark Harris (1963); and The Litany of Washington Street (1929).

The first full-length biography, Vachel Lindsay, a Poet in America (1935), written by Edgar Lee Masters at the family's request, has been superseded by Mark Harris, The City of Discontent: An Interpretative Biography of Vachel Lindsay (1952), and Eleanor Ruggles, The West-going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay (1959). Two more recent efforts to resuscitate Lindsay's literary reputation are Balz Engler, Poetry and Community (1990), and Ann Massa, Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream (1970). Massa's is the best scholarly work on Lindsay, one that attempts to revise his reputation by presenting him as an eclectic but insightful writer on art and society. It also contains a useful bibliography of primary and secondary material.

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 11:42:37 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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