Vachel Lindsay 1879–1931
(Full name Nicholas Vachel Lindsay) American poet and essayist.
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. He is widely known for his often-anthologized poems "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" and "The Congo," which are notable for their vividness, vigor, and popularity with lecture audiences. While these poems secured recognition for Lindsay during his lifetime and typify the characteristics with which the poet's work is associated, their reception imposed limitations on his career, as audiences and critics concentrated on his exuberant showmanship and neglected his deep concern for beauty and democracy.
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois. In 1897 he attended Hiram College, a small sectarian school in Ohio, and studied medicine. Showing little aptitude for medical studies, he abandoned his medical education and in 1901, enrolled at the Art Institute in Chicago. In 1903 he left Chicago and enrolled at the New York School of Art to study painting. Encouraged to pursue his love of poetry, Lindsay took his verses to the New York streets in 1905, distributing copies of his poems among merchants and passersby for a nominal sum. He then tramped across the country, offering a sheet of his verses in exchange for bed and board. In 1912 he met Harriet Monroe, the founder of the periodical, Poetry. She published his poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," garnering favorable critical attention for Lindsay's verse.
Lindsay spent the rest of his career touring professionally as a dramatic poet, giving lively readings that employed audience participation. Although he grew tired of the exhausting schedule, he needed the income. He married in 1924, at the age of forty-five, and had two children. However, during the 1920s his popularity waned as the country turned toward more cosmopolitan interests. In the last years of his life, Lindsay experienced crushing debts, deteriorating health, and periods of irrational rage and paranoia. In 1931, Lindsay poisoned himself.
Lindsay's first major work, General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems, and another collection The Congo, and Other Poems, are characterized by their attempts to reach a less educated and less culturally sophisticated
audience than that addressed by Lindsay's contemporaries. He insisted that poetry is most effective when recited, and many of his selections were accompanied by marginal notations governing the specific volume and tone of voice to be used. It had also occurred to him, in observing the overwhelming popularity of vaudeville, that certain of its elements might be employed to capture an audience's attention. Lindsay devised verse he dubbed "poem games," that required the participation of an audience as well as specific players. The fervent rhythms of Lindsay's poetry are based on those of the Protestant camp meeting. Imbued with faith in the inherent goodness and efficacy of common people united in a democratic cause, his poems encourage the continued efforts of people to better and beautify their lives and environment. His poetic portraits of American heroes embellished history with his own imaginative additions to arouse the ambition of his readers to live up to the nation's heritage; his widely anthologized "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," for instance, departs from a staid representation or rigid documentary style to present a great leader who cannot rest peacefully because of worldwide strife and injustice. Many of his works also extol nature and a life lived close to the soil, and nearly all affirm God's immanence.
When Lindsay's poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," appeared in Poetry in 1912, it was well received by readers and critics alike. In fact, his first three collections earned him praise as the "people's poet," but critics also caricatured Lindsay as a vagabond shouting his poetry to the clouds and stars as he strode across the Midwestern plains. He enjoyed moderate success for several years, but by the early 1920s, his popularity began to wane. Disparagement of his work became widespread. Although some critics denigrate his ideals and unsophisticated style, many agree that his best efforts are found in his verses commemorating America's heroes. 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 themes and his attempt to address sectors of society ignored by other artists.
Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread 1912
General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems 1913
Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty 1914
The Congo, and Other Poems 1914
A Handy Guide for Beggars 1916
The Chinese Nightingale, and Other Poems 1917
The Golden Whales of California 1920
Collected Poems 1923
Johnny Appleseed, and Other Poems 1928
Selected Poems of Vachel Lindsay 1963
Springfield Town Is Butterfly Town, and Other Poems for Children 1969
Other Major Works
The Art of the Moving Picture (criticism) 1915
Letters of Vachel Lindsay (letters) 1979
Louis Untermeyer (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: "Vachel Lindsay," in American Poetry Since 1900, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 88-112.
[In the following essay, Untermeyer, a poet and editor, derides the jingoistic and burlesque qualities of Lindsay's verse.]
Two impulses dominate The Golden Whales of California (The Macmillan Company, 1920); two tendencies that are almost opposed in mood and treatment. Sometimes the Jerusalem theme is uppermost; sometimes the jazz orchestrations drown everything else. Frequently, in the more successful pieces, there is a ragtime blend of both. But a half-ethical, half-æsthetic indecision, an inability to choose between what most delights Lindsay and what his hearers prefer is the outstanding effect—and defect—of this collection. Lindsay, the grotesque entertainer, he of the moaning saxophone and the squawking clarinet, is continually disturbing—and being disturbed by—Lindsay the mystic, the cross-roads missionary.
Had Lindsay been let alone, he would undoubtedly have developed the romantically religious strain so pronounced in his earliest pamphlets—the strain that was amplified in General Booth Enters into Heaven and extended in that tour de force of spiritual syncopation, "The Congo." But, with the sweeping success of the latter poem, a new element began to exert a potent influence on Lindsay's subsequent work: the element of popularity which, beginning by smiling on the astonished poet, immediately made fresh demands of him. Audiences called for more drums and brassier cymbals. And Lindsay complied. The surge and gusto of "The Congo," the uncanny power of "Simon Legree," the basic dignity of "John Brown" were forgotten and only their loudest, most sensational, lowest-common-denominator qualities retained. Result: "The Daniel Jazz," "The Blacksmith's Serenade," "The Apple Blossom Snow Blues," "Davy Jones' Door-Bell," "A Doll's Arabian Nights." Undeniably light-hearted and humorous some of these are; their incongruities and release of animal spirits are contagious, particularly when the audience helps to make them a communal performance. But Lindsay is beginning to step over the delicate line that separates buoyance (and even boisterousness) from burlesque. He continues to broaden his effects, to over-emphasize his tympanic tricks; he begins to depend too much on the stuffed trumpet and a freak battery of percussion. Lindsay, at least this phase of him, is the chief exponent of a movement that might be called (if the chauvinists will permit an umlaut) an American Uberbrett'l. But, pandering to a cruder response, what (in "The Santa Fé Trail," "The Congo," "King Solomon") was dedicated to the shrine of a Higher Vaudeville, is now offered on the platform of a lower cabaret.
"His sweetheart and his mother were Christian and meek.
They washed and ironed for Darius every week.
One Thursday he met them at the door:—
Paid them as usual, but acted sore.
"He said:—'Your Daniel is a dead little pigeon.
He's a good hard worker, but he talks religion.'
And he showed them Daniel in the Lion's cage.
Daniel standing quietly, the lions in a rage….
"Thus roared the lions:—
'We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel,
We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.
It is too easy a laugh to be...
(The entire section is 1437 words.)
Clement Wood (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "Vachel Lindsay: Jazz and the Poet," in Poets of America, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1925, pp. 229-45.
[In the following essay, Wood traces the thematic and stylistic development of Lindsay's poetry.]
The Norman came upon the Anglo-Saxon in one of his frequent moods of penitential groveling, of somber abasement before a Fate breathing blackly. The Norman came with a song on his lips, a laugh in his heart:
The time has been, too; and the Gargantuan mirth of the Channel conquerors drove the bleak deities of their Teutonic cousins to worm into a serfs low lot for long low years. But the worm bored inward: and there have been periodic...
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Gorham B. Munson (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: "Vachel Lindsay, Child-Errant," in Destinations: A Canvas of American Literature Since 1900, J. H. Sears & Company, 1928, pp. 67-74.
[In the following essay, Munson deems Lindsay's poetry trivial and ineffective.]
Vachel Lindsay has a program for an American renaissance and he writes poetry. Since his poetry is the direct answer to his program, I shall begin with his scheme for transfiguring the United States.
The basis of his plan is localism. Our small cities and towns and agrarian communities are to be awakened and inspired to create their own arts and crafts. Democracy is to be beautiful and Beauty is to be democratic and the Church is...
(The entire section is 1326 words.)
Henry W. Wells (essay date 1943)
SOURCE: "Romanticism and the Frontier," in The American Way of Poetry, Russell & Russell, 1964, pp. 122-34.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1943, Wells regards Lindsay as a quintessentially American poet.]
The country has produced no one more distinctively American than Vachel Lindsay. One cannot think of him without the Middle Western background, with its amazingly dynamic and uncritical spirit of fifty years ago. He was even more unusual as a man than as a poet and more gifted in the acting or reciting of his verses than in the writing of them. In addition to being a poet, he was a painter, propagandist, mystic, eccentric saint, and Middle...
(The entire section is 3218 words.)
Babette Deutsch (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "Farewell, Romance," in Poetry In Our Time, Columbia University Press, 1956, pp. 28-54.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1952, Deutsch categorizes Lindsay as a poet in the Romantic tradition.]
A native of Springfield, Illinois, Lindsay was insistently aware of his heritage. His feeling for the town, half sentimental, half visionary, as a kind of New Jerusalem, is a permanent element in his verse. Among other peculiarly American traditions of his childhood was the fanfare of the torchlight parades at election time, and the memory of them, like that of the visits of returned missionaries, keeps breaking out in his exuberant stanzas. His work is a...
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Albert Edmund Trombly (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "The Unforgetting of Vachel Lindsay," in South-west Review, Vol. XL VII, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 294-302.
[In the following essay, Trombly provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Lindsay's work.]
During the early 1920's Vachel Lindsay was undoubtedly the most widely known and popular of contemporary American poets. Tens of thousands of people in the United States, Canada, and England had heard him recite his poems and had applauded lustily. Although he was only fifty-two when he died, he lived to see health and creative powers fail him, his popularity wane, his kind of poetry superseded by another. Now, a generation later, it may be well to reappraise...
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Hoxie Neale Fairchild (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Overtly Romantic Modernists," in Religious trends in English Poetry, Volume V: 1880-1920, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 486-536.
[In the following excerpt, Fairchild examines religious aspects of Lindsay's poetry.]
Another Chicago School reviver of the spirit—not, in this case, of the art—of Walt Whitman was the folk-minstrel and missionary of democratic "beauty," (Nicholas) Vachel Lindsay. Though between 1912 and about 1916 he was regarded in this country as one of the leading "new poets," he was an innovator only in his attempt to get poetry out of "unpoetic" subjects and to make himself the mouthpiece of the latent creativity of the American...
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John T. Flanagan (essay date 1967)
SOURCE: "Vachel Lindsay: An Appraisal," in Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubbell, edited by Clarence Gohdes, Duke University Press, 1967, pp. 273-81.
[In the following essay, Flanagan, an American educator and critic, urges a reappraisal of Lindsay's poetry.]
There can be no question that the reputation of Vachel Lindsay has declined sharply since the days when he won fame as a bardic poet and recited "The Congo" to thousands of tense listeners. When Norman Foerster published the first edition of his popular anthology American Poetry and Prose in 1925, he naturally included Lindsay and selected six poems to represent one of the freshest...
(The entire section is 3541 words.)
Ann Massa (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "The Artistic Conscience of Vachel Lindsay," in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, October, 1968, pp. 239-52.
[In the following excerpt, Massa, author of Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, explores the relationship between Lindsay's artistic awareness and his social conscience.]
Lindsay was convinced of the existence of a national malaise; and it was this conviction which diverted his artistic conscience into social channels. He was worried about amorality, conspicuous consumption, and urban eyesores. He was horrified by the perversion of electoral processes at city level, and by scandals at Federal Government level....
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John C. Ward (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Background of Lindsay's 'The Chinese Nightingale'," in Western Illinois Regional Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 70-80.
[In the following essay, Ward examines the autobiographical elements of "The Chinese Nightingale. "]
Imagine Vachel Lindsay sitting upstairs in his family home in Springfield, Illinois as sounds of the summer of 1914 floated through the open window, musing over a draft of "The Chinese Nightingale." How could he conjure up, with any accuracy, the fabulous and unknown world of China? What resources did Lindsay draw on to create the grace, delicacy, and awareness of Chinese culture we find in this poem? Critics have assumed that...
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Stanley Wertheim (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Vachel Lindsay's American Dream," in Columbia Library Columns, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, May, 1988, pp. 13-24.
[In the following essay, Wertheim discusses the social and historical context of Lindsay's major poems.]
When Vachel Lindsay ended his life by drinking a bottle of Lysol on the evening of December 4, 1931, in the same house in which he had been born, he was bankrupt, depressed, and ill. His literary reputation had entered an eclipse from which it would never fully emerge, and the lifelong vision of seeing his native city of Springfield, Illinois transformed into an American utopia was no nearer to realization than when he first began to preach the "Gospel...
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Massa, Ann. Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970, 310p.
Surveys Lindsay's Life and work. Massa includes a primary and secondary bibliography.
Masters, Edgar Lee. Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935, 392 p.
Biography that includes lengthy excerpts from Lindsay's journals and offers insights into the poet's life and career.
Ruggles, Eleanor. The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company,...
(The entire section is 378 words.)