Monday, April 25, 2016

Resurrecting Vachel Lindsay

Lindsay in Springfield, 1912.

Note:  Wherein I resume my crusade to restore the reputation of a great and stupidly vilified American poet. 
The vastly under-appreciated Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay is a personal favorite and I am on something of a mini-crusade to restore his reputation.
His rhythmic, performance driven style should resonate with younger folks, if they ever got a chance to hear him after the self-appointed guardians of correctness banished him from respectability when his most famous poem, The Congo was declared officially racist and stripped from text books and anthologies with the relentless efficiency of a Stalinist purge.  The poet was an un-person in the blink of an eye.
But Vachel Lindsay could win any poetry slam he entered. 
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879, the son of a successful local doctor.  The family lived in a handsome home next to the Illinois Governor’s Mansion.  Young Lindsay, a dreamy lad, was immersed in his home town where Lincoln was ever-present.  He was there when the great handsome tomb was built and dedicated becoming a pilgrimage sight for aging veterans of the War of Rebellion.  He knew Lincoln’s old haunts, from the Old State Capital to the ramshackle building across the street where Abe hung out his shingle.  He knew men and women who personally were close to the Lincoln family—and drug store braggarts who claimed that they were.

The Lindsay family home in 1930.  Across the street to the right is the Illinois Governor's mansion.

The family were devout Campbellites—members of the Disciples of Christ, an idiosyncratic, but then very liberal Protestant denomination with roots in the Midwest.  Lindsay attended Hiram College, the leading Disciples institution in Hiram, Ohio.  After graduation he decided to pursue a career as an artist and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Particularly interested in pen-and-ink illustration, he went to the New York School of Art, now The New School in 1904.  In the city the Midwestern boy was exposed to the thriving bohemia of Greenwich Village which was buzzing with new theories of art.  Inspired, Lindsay took up poetry, aiming to revive its connection to music and performance.

In 1905 he self-published a collection of poems called Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread which he began peddling on the street to support himself.  The next year, modeling himself of the roaming troubadours of the Middle Ages, Lindsay began the first of his tramps on foot, sleeping in barns and trading his poems for food.  Many an astonished farmer was entertained by Lindsay’s highly theatrical readings of his own works after dinner.  The first trip took him 600 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky. In subsequent years he undertook more such tramps, from Hiram to New York, and from Springfield to New Mexico in 1912.

Lindsay on a tramp.

In between his rambles he returned to Springfield and regaled the citizens with elaborate plans to improve and beautify their city by becoming living works of art.  

In 1908 he was back home in Springfield when the vicious and deadly 1908 Springfield Race Riot broke out, one of the first such anti-black rampages in the North and in many ways a forerunner of later riots in major cities like Chicago.  It also inspired the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) One account of the riot reported:
It took 4,000 militiamen two days to restore order. When it was over, 40 homes and 24 business were destroyed; at least six people were dead, two black men and four whites. Though there were 107 indictments issued against members of the white mob, only one man was convicted. His crime? He stole a soldier’s sword.
Lindsay, then 26 years old, was horrified by what happened in his beloved hometown.  More so when he learned that one of the most violent episodes, the murder of an 84 year old Black man married to a White woman, started when someone in the mob yelled,  “Abe Lincoln brought them to Springfield and we will run them out!”  Lindsay’s reaction was to confront the townspeople.  Using his own slender resources he rented a room at the YMCA for a series of public lectures that celebrated the Black community and promoted the local legacy of the Great Emancipator.  In a city where few had risen to their public defense, the Black community was grateful for the support.

His work caught the attention of Harriet Monroe who promoted his it along with that of two other Illinois poets, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters in Poetry Magazine.  General William Booth Enters Heaven was published in the journal in 1913 and The Congo a year later.  Suddenly, Lindsay was famous.

In 1914 recalling his evocation of Lincoln after the riots and with war engulfing Europe, Lindsay wrote one of his most admired poems, Lincoln Walks at Midnight.
Lindsay often illustrated his work with pen-and-ink drawings that combined realism with fanciful, images that predict Surrealism like this one of Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield.

As regular editions of his work went to print, Lindsay became a hugely popular performer of his own work on the Chautauqua circuit and the vaudeville stage.  He was famous for his theatrical presentations and use of his art as stage decoration and in printed material accompanying the performances.

Lindsay struggled to support himself.  He remained committed to living the life a troubadour, but took occasional odd jobs.  He lived in a Spokane, Washington hotel room through most of the 1920’s where he met and married 23 year old Elizabeth Connor in 1925 and began raising a family.  If he had trouble feeding himself, he now had the burden of more mouths—and expectations.  A Poetry Magazine life achievement award of $500 helped finance a move back to his old family home in Springfield in 1929.  

Lindsay's dramatic platform presentation is captured in this dramatic publicity photo for his last lecture tour.

Despite publishing two books that year, the Stock Market Crash wiped out his small inheritance from his parents.  Ill and desperate he launched a six month reading and lecture tour in 1931 to raise money for his family.  Most of the income was eaten up by the expense of the tourDesperate and discouraged, Lindsay committed suicide in December of that year by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Although once one of the most popular poets in the country,  Lindsay was never well regarded by the academic establishment.  Despite his writing on aesthetic theory, he left no literary followers and established no “school” of poetry, although he did encourage and mentor younger poets like Langston Hughes.  Despite his radical personal politics and strong support of Black aspirations, latter Black critics regarded his most famous poem, The Congo as naively racist.  It was actually a very early forerunner of what would come to be known as jazz poetry—an extended playful riff on rhythms and voice.  In fact it was admired by Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers.
Not that Lindsay, or any White man of his generation was untouched by the profound racism that permeated American society, but he was by any contemporary standard a progressive on race. 
The once widely anthologized poem disappeared from high school and college texts.  Within a decade of his death, Lindsay seemed destined for obscurity.

His home town has kept the torch of his memory alive.  The Lindsay home has been restored and is open as a State Historic site, although not currently open due to Gov. Rauner’s slashes to state museums and historic sites.    You can no longer ring the doorbell as you once could on most afternoons have a friendly volunteer docent give you a personal tour of the home.

Lindsey is also a gift to us history geeks.  He reveled in the stories of the plain Midwestern people from whom he sprang.  He celebrated The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, who gave so many hope.  He captured the electricity with which the famous Cross of Gold speech which won him the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1896 was received.

It is a wonderful poem!  Read it aloud and find its rich cadences and savor its passion and vivid language.  The poem is long so I have excerpted lines from Part I and VI.

Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan

In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,
There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging, gorgeous things to shout about,
And knock your old blue devils out.

I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors,
He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

There were truths eternal in the gap and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska’s cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.

It was eighteen ninety-six, and I was just sixteen
And Altgeld ruled in Springfield, Illinois,
When there came from the sunset Nebraska’s shout of joy:
In a coat like a deacon, in a black Stetson hat
He scourged the elephant plutocrats
With barbed wire from the Platte.
The scales dropped from their mighty eyes.
They saw that summer's noon
A tribe of wonders coming
To a marching tune….

And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.

Headlong, dazed and blinking in the weird green light,
The scalawags made moan,
Afraid to fight…

VI  [After Bryan’s defeat in the election]

Where is McKinley, that respectable McKinley,
The man without an angle or a tangle,
Who soothed down the city man and soothed down the farmer,
The German, the Irish, the Southerner, the Northerner,
Who climbed every greasy pole, and slipped through every crack;
Who soothed down the gambling hall, the bar-room, the church,
The devil-vote, the angel vote, the neutral vote,
The desperately wicked, and their victims on the rack,
The gold vote, the silver vote, the brass vote, the lead vote,
Every vote?...
Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna’s McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer's prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: ‘Stand pat’?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere...with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with might Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgment day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.
—Vachel Lindsay

Lindsay’s haunting evocation of Lincoln and his home town.
Lincoln Walks at Midnight
      (In Springfield, Illinois) 

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

—Vachel Lindsay

And finally, If  Lindsay ever wrote a political manifesto, it was this one from the crop of poems that got Harriet Monroe’s attention.  And it is rooted not in Marx but in the radically egalitarian Disciples of Christ faith in which he was raised.

Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket

I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

Man is a curious brute—he pets his fancies—
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, though law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.

Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.

—Vachel Lindsay




  1. Nice work. I'm a volunteer at the house and it is open by appointment; hopefully more often soon. Keep spreading the Gospel of Lindsay!

  2. I use his poem The Moon's the North Wind's Cookie in my science classes to teach phases of the moon. I was saddened when I researched Vachel and discovered he'd committed suicided.