Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born and died in his father’s house next to the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, Illinois. His father, Vachel Thomas Lindsay, was a general practitioner whose home and financial stability made possible his son’s slow progress toward a self-sustaining career as a poet. His mother, Esther Catharine Frazee Lindsay, a college mathematics teacher and instructor of painting before she married, had the spirit and endurance to continue to support their son as he ambivalently moved from college (leaving Hiram College in June of 1900 without a degree after three years), to the Art Institute in Chicago, and on to New York to try to market his skills as an artist. His father may have hoped that his son would join his practice and settle down, but both parents were trampers and travelers in their own way. They had courted each other in the art galleries of Europe in the summer of 1875 and had taken the family to Europe in the summer of 1906, immediately after Lindsay’s first American walking tour. In the spring of 1906, Lindsay had walked from Florida back north through the Okefenokee swamp to Atlanta, lecturing (on the Pre-Raphaelites), singing his poems (“The Tree of the Laughing Bells”) all the way to Grassy Springs, Kentucky, and the home of relatives. The immediate leap to Europe, the Louvre, and the tomb of Napoleon was in some ways shocking, but Lindsay was comfortable in both milieux, marking the range of his experience, the talents and interests of his parents, and the end of the era of art and design as his principal interests.
His next “tramp” (in 1912) led directly to publication. He had tried “poem-peddling” in New York in the spring of 1905 without success, but now set out to trade rhymes for bread as he walked from Illinois to California. He caught the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas and felt charged with poetic material and enthusiasm. That the trip was hard was undeniable; there was less room for self-delusion or self-indulgence than in any other episode of his life. When he “gave up” and took the train from Wagon Mound, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, he felt defeated; but here, after gloom and despair, came the inspiration for “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” Booth of the Salvation Army had died almost a month earlier, but as Lindsay walked the city at night, the poem flashed into being.
“General William Booth Enters into Heaven” was his making, and, because it was such a showpiece to read, perhaps his unmaking as well. Lindsay’s career has been divided into sections of composition and recital, with the transitional stage between the publication of General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems by Kennerley in 1913 and The Chinese Nightingale, and Other Poems by Macmillan in 1917. After this period, regardless of his own interests and enthusiasms, he was seen as a reciter of his own verse, a performer, an actor. His livelihood depended on the income generated from such recitals, and the verse he wrote later (with several notable exceptions) does not match the standard of the poetry of the 1910’s.
It is important to note that Lindsay saw his public readings as the best way to reach the largest audience of American readers of poetry. If they all wanted to hear“The Congo,” he would read it, repeatedly, even though he knew it was not representative of his best work. “I have tried to fight off all jazz,” he said. He knew that it was he (as much as his verse, or more) who charmed or conjured his audiences; he had to read his work to have it go. He termed his reciting style and material a “higher vaudeville” and knew that in reaching new audiences he would have to alienate older or more traditional ones. In his day, however, academe did not scorn him: Yale, Wellesley, Oxford, Cambridge, all invited him to read, and they sat spellbound. Robert Graves, who introduced him to the circle of Oxford dons and students with the notion of showing off an...
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