Themes and Meanings
Vachel Lindsay had the Salvation Army in mind when he wrote “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and he wanted his readers to hear its noise and activity. Lindsay was not a great technical poet; rather, he was, in the tradition of Walt Whitman, filled with passion regarding America, American heroes, American religion, democracy, and American beauty. His purpose in his poetry, as can be seen in “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” lay in finding and expressing the soul of America and giving it voice.
This poem expresses that purpose and vision. It is a mixture of history and myth, and it works to create a context for an idealized type of American identity. Much of his work was an attempt to break down the regional and group differences that worked against a sense of America and of being American. William Booth was one of Lindsay’s heroes whom he attempted to place in an American context, a context designed to create a particularly American history. Lindsay attempted similar projects, for example, with Native Americans, Johnny Appleseed, and Presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Andrew Jackson.
Lindsay had experience with the Salvation Army at first hand and did indeed have the great respect for the organization and its founder that the poem shows. Lindsay wrote that when he was “dead broke, and begging” in Atlanta, Georgia, he slept at the Salvation Army shelter there. Lindsay was, for a period of his life, a part of that lowest level of society that Booth had established the Salvation Army to reach and save from degradation. According to Lindsay, he wrote this poem while spending an entire night walking around a park in Los Angeles.