Letters of Vachel Lindsay

It was Nicholas Vachel Lindsay’s ironic fate to become early in his career a performing sensation on the American literary scene for two of his poems—“General William Booth Enters into Heaven” and “The Congo”—and to spend most of the rest of his life trying to live down his unwanted reputation as an odd kind of poetic vaudeville artist whose personal appearances were welcomed in many cities and on many high school and college campuses but whose books he could not get his audiences to read.

Through Letters of Vachel Lindsay one may trace much of his life and thought from 1903—when he wrote his high school English teacher that he had dreamed a poem and that he had decided to devote all his “sinful energies . . . to produce music, swift motion, and the sense of laughter and happiness”—to 1931, when he penned his young son a brief note about staying at a Washington, D. C., hotel where he and his young wife had spent a happy time while on their wedding trip six years earlier. A few days later the ill, distraught, and long frustrated poet and pen-and-ink artist drank most of a bottle of Lysol and died in his home in Springfield, Illinois, the city of Abraham Lincoln and the city that Lindsay loved and had dreamed of as an ideal city of the future.

Letters of Vachel Lindsay contains 199 letters chosen by Marc Chénetier from thousands written to relatives, friends, and other correspondents over a period of nearly thirty years. Ranging from brief notes to letters of thirty manuscript pages or more, they reflect many sides of Lindsay’s personality and thought. The volume does not constitute a biography but rather a supplement to a biography of the poet, since the editor’s generalized introduction gives little biographical detail, and his notes, which follow individual letters, are mostly identifications of persons and publications mentioned by the writer. The chronology preceding the letters provides a helpful outline of the chief events in Lindsay’s life, and the volume as a whole stimulates the reader’s curiosity concerning what the letters often do not reveal about many facts in Lindsay’s life. It may also lead, as Lindsay would surely have wished, to a reading or a rereading of the poet’s books which he so often complained were ignored.

Lindsay’s father, a physician in Springfield, Illinois, wished his only son to study medicine, and Vachel did so briefly at Hiram College in Ohio. He dropped his medical studies, however, and later left Hiram to return home. Interested in art, he studied first at the Art Institute in Chicago and later at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri, who saw a brighter future for him in writing than in art. After he had heard Lindsay recite from memory one of his long poems, “The Tree of Laughing Bells,” Henri urged him to pursue a writing career. Lindsay’s interest in pen-and-ink drawing continued throughout his life, and many drawings were made to illustrate or accompany certain poems or other literary works; but the art remained secondary to his writing. The few examples of his art reproduced in this volume seem to be the work of a talented illustrator, but no more.

Several of Lindsay’s early letters and even a few later ones in which he mentions his parents, particularly his mother, suggest that he suffered guilt feelings from his having failed to turn out as they had hoped. He read and wrote at home after leaving college, began to have visions (he learned years later that he was epileptic), tried unsuccessfully to sell poems and some of his drawings in New York, and in 1906 took the first of his long walking tours during which he traded poems for lodging or food and took odd jobs to pay his expenses. Another tour followed in 1908 and a third in 1912. It was while in Los Angeles during a rest from this third tour that he wrote “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” the first poem that was to bring him fame when it appeared in Poetry, the Chicago magazine begun by Harriet Monroe which was to influence greatly the development of what came to be called the New Poetry of America. Monroe became a good friend to Lindsay, and throughout the rest of his life he remained deeply grateful to her for her encouragement and publishing of a number of his other poems in the magazine; numerous letters to her are in the volume. Lindsay trusted her editorial judgment and often urged her to make whatever changes she thought were needed in poems he sent for possible publication in Poetry.

Lindsay also often confided in Monroe concerning such personal matters as his disappointment and sense of loss after the poet Sara Teasdale, to whom he had...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)