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Lindsay was a popular American poet of the early twentieth century who celebrated small-town Midwestern populism in strongly rhythmic poetry designed to be chanted aloud. Lindsay, in fact, gained recognition for his spirited public readings, and his frequently anthologized poems ”General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (1913) and ”The Congo” (1914) are notable for their vividness and vigor.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Medical Studies Take Second to Drawing, Poetry
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, in a house designed by the architect of Abraham Lincoln’s home, and in a room said to have been one in which Lincoln himself had slept. In this milieu, Lindsay developed a deep-rooted and abiding respect for Lincoln’s love of the common people, which later directed the course of his artistic career. The politics of post-Civil War America, however, also shaped his youth. Lindsay later claimed that the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary dividing the North and the South and representing conflicting sympathies for the Union and Confederate causes, ran through the middle of his heart, through the middle of his home, and through the middle of Springfield, Illinois, his beloved native city.
Lindsay’s father, a physician who fully expected his son to assume the duties of his practice, was a humorless and strict disciplinarian. Lindsay’s mother, regarded by her neighbors variously as a social climber and an eccentric, was active in the local Campbellite church and in Springfield literary circles. She undertook her children’s education until they were old enough to attend public school, and introduced Lindsay and his two sisters to the fine arts, to classic English and Latin authors, and to a wealth of Greek, Roman, and Nordic legends. It was his mother who encouraged Lindsay in his early artistic pursuits, and to whom he turned for approval and support throughout much of his career. While Lindsay wrote poetry as early as childhood, art was his primary passion.
Skill in Poetry Surpasses Skill in Painting
In 1897 Lindsay attended Hiram College, a small liberal-arts school in Ohio, where he showed little aptitude for medical studies, and largely neglected them for personal reading and writing. Despite his parents’ advice that he persevere, he abandoned his medical education and, in 1901, enrolled at the Art Institute in Chicago, where the regimen of technical and anatomical studies made him equally unhappy. Lindsay discovered that while drawing gave him pleasure, a structured learning environment did not; he found, furthermore, that his actual artistic abilities, at least within such an environment, were minimal. Convinced that he would progress more rapidly at the New York School of Art, Lindsay enrolled there in 1903 to study painting with William Merritt Chase and his associate, Robert Henri.
When approached by Lindsay to appraise one of his illustrated manuscripts, Henri, who both respected Lindsay and applauded his determination to succeed at painting as much as he doubted the likelihood of its occurring, candidly advised Lindsay to concentrate instead on writing poems, which he found more impressive than Lindsay’s pictorial art. After following Henri’s advice, Lindsay took his poetry to the New York streets in 1905, and distributed copies of his verse among merchants and passersby for a nominal sum. A year later, Lindsay left the city for what was to be one of several tramping expeditions across the country. On these journeys, he offered a sheet of his verses extolling beauty and democratic ideals in exchange for bed and board.
While Lindsay spent the summer of 1912 on the road, Harriet Monroe, a Chicago poet who was in the process of launching the periodical Poetry, published ”General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” The poem received wide attention and much praise from readers and critics alike, some of whom had previously rejected Lindsay’s work summarily. A collection of Lindsay’s poetry, headed by ”Booth,” was published in 1913. Another collection that included The Congo,” a poem inspired both by the poet’s fascination with Africa’s spiritualism and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), was published the following year. In General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (1913) and The Congo and Other Poems (1914), Lindsay attempted to reach a more working-class audience than that addressed by other contemporary poets.
With the onset of World War I in 1914, which brought new technologies that resulted in trench warfare and massive casualties on many European battlegrounds, the Modernist period of literature was born. This period encouraged an elitist perspective on art, which looked toward poetry and literature for beauty in life rather than toward traditional institutions like the church. Lindsay’s work ran counter to Modernism, his view insisting that poetry is most effective when recited, and many of his poems were accompanied by marginal notations governing the specific volume and tone of voice to be used, among other directives. It had also occurred to Lindsay, in observing the overwhelming popularity of vaudeville, that despite his own reservations about this form of entertainment, he might use certain of its elements to better capture his audience’s attention.
Lindsay devised pieces, referred to as ”poem games,” as ritualistic enactments involving dancing and chanting that required audience participation as well as specific players. These performances of ”higher vaudeville” formed part of Lindsay’s exhausting schedule of popular (and lucrative) public readings. Although at first encouraged by the enthusiastic response of his audiences and by their eager participation in these ”poem games,” Lindsay soon wearied of incessant public demand to hear ”Booth” and ”The Congo” to the exclusion of his other work. It also exasperated Lindsay that those dramatic elements employed to entice an audience succeeded, as well, in overshadowing the idealistic visions of beauty and democratic virtue underlying his art.
After the appearance of his first three volumes, Lindsay was both acclaimed as the people’s poet and caricatured as a vagabond American minstrel. Conscious of the dangers of actually becoming this caricature, Lindsay nevertheless found it impossible to give up the lucrative entertainer’s circuit. Although he constantly had ideas for new works, his exacting schedule did not permit him to pursue most of these. While inwardly distressed over the shape his career was assuming, and while he was not a wealthy man, Lindsay did enjoy moderate success for several years.
By the early 1920s, however, his popularity began to wane as widespread, optimistic faith in America’s future was supplanted by pessimism bred of World War I, and as traditional small-town values were viewed ever more critically by urban Americans. Disparagement of Lindsay’s work became widespread, and shook the poet’s faith in himself. The eminent critic H. L. Mencken mockingly wrote of Lindsay that ”what was new in him, at the start, was an echo of the barbaric rhythms of the Jubilee songs. But very soon the thing ceased to be a marvel, and of late . . . ceased to be amusing.”
In the last years of his life, Lindsay, who had married at forty-five and now had two children, experienced crushing debts, deteriorating health, and periods of unreasoning rage and paranoia that were directed, by turns, at his family, supporters, and a world he perceived as too urbane to embrace his unfashionable philosophies. In 1931, bitter and disappointed, Lindsay poisoned himself. He announced to those attendant on his deathbed: ”They tried to get me; I got them first.”
Although Lindsay’s work is no longer widely read, most commentators find his contribution to American poetry valuable because of his colorful depiction of American ideals and idealists, and his attempt to address certain sectors of society ignored by other artists. Lindsay’s poetic legacy is valued for its vivid presentation of distinctly American characters and ideals.
Works in Literary Context
Narrative of the People
Lindsay’s benevolent spirit toward people and nature led some critics to call him a modern-day Saint Francis of Assisi. A New York Times reviewer states of the 1914 travel journal Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, ”Here is a genuine, rooted love for fields and simple folk . . . all informed by a prophet’s realization of beauty. Here is sweetness and serenity and a nice awareness to the unending comedy of life.” Reviewers also noted that the book’s presentation of nature could restore inspiration to those who were discouraged by the urban experience. V. D. Scudder writes in Survey, ”This is a book to commend to all social workers who are saddened …by city problems.” Lindsay’s focus on common people led him to write about historical Americans from modest backgrounds, such as Abraham Lincoln and Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), who went on to achieve greatness.
Throughout his career Lindsay was known for reciting his poetry with great theatricality. Referring to his performances as ”the higher vaudeville,” he supplemented his recitations with sound effects such as tambourines and whistles and sometimes appeared in blackface to recite ”The Congo.” Dennis Camp related that Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of Poetry magazine, once warned Lindsay not to ”frighten the ladies” with his loud delivery at one poetry reading, to which he replied, ”still I must roar.” Traditional verse structures made his poems easy to remember, and often his audiences chanted along with him as he performed. Lindsay was credited with helping keep the oral tradition of poetry alive.
Works in Critical Context
Lindsay’s considerable loss of reputation in American letters is a continuing theme in critical evaluations published from the 1970s onward. Publications from Lindsay’s own era consistently demonstrate that, from the time of his first trade volume, General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (1913), to the publication of his Collected Poems (1923), few if any other American poets could have presented a serious challenge to Lindsay’s stature and popularity. That reputation was not based solely on the published poetry: Lindsay performed his poetry in lecture halls across the United States and Canada, and, for a few weeks in 1920, in England as well.
General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems and The Congo and Other Poems
In 1913 Poetry magazine featured Lindsay’s poem ”General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” which helped establish his reputation as a serious literary artist. The poem was included in many anthologies and resulted in the first trade publication of Lindsay’s poetry, the book ”General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and Other Poems. The year after this book appeared came another trade volume, ”The Congo” and Other Poems. One of Lindsay’s most famous poems, the title piece has a rhythmic structure based on African American speech rhythms and jazz. Though Lindsay believed jazz was a decadent art form, he used it in his poems to faithfully relate the regional lore of the South. He recited the poem in a variety of voices ranging from a loud, deep bass to a whisper. A Springfield Republican reviewer saw the publication of The Congo as the single most interesting event in the American literary scene. ”All in all there is an intense and vivid Americanism in these poems—a racy, pungent, authentic note, which, if he fulfills the last measure of his [artistic] promise, will make Mr. Lindsay a prophet of American life,” the reviewer explained.
- Flanagan, John T., ed. Profile of Vachel Lindsay. Columbus, Ohio: Merill, 1970.
- Harris, Mark. City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay. New York:Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.
- Massa, Ann. Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1970.
- Masters, Edgar Lee. Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. New York: Scribners, 1935.
- Mencken, H. L. Vachel Lindsay: The True Voice of Middle America. Washington, D.C., 1947.
- Wolfe, Glenn Joseph. Vachel Lindsay: The Poet as Film Theorist. New York: Arno, 1973.
- Review of ”The Congo.” Springfield Republican (October 15, 1914): 5.
- Ward, John Chapman. ”Vachel Lindsay I ‘Lying Low.”’ College Literature 12 (1985): 233-244.
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