Authors: Vachel Lindsay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (LIHN-zee) was a native of Illinois, born in Springfield in a house which Abraham Lincoln had often visited. Lindsay’s parents were both of Scottish ancestry; his father had been a Kentucky doctor, and his mother came of Virginia and Maryland stock. The parents were devout members of the Christian (Campbellite) church, and Lindsay’s mother, particularly, possessed strong artistic leanings. His family background contributed naturally to the author’s interest in southern themes, including the lives of African Americans; it also helps to account for his successful interlocking of such interests as religion, poetry, and art as well as the evangelistic fervor of his verse.{$I[AN]9810000515}{$I[A]Lindsay, Vachel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lindsay, Vachel}{$I[tim]1879;Lindsay, Vachel}

After graduating from Springfield High School in 1897, young Lindsay attended Hiram College in Ohio for three years. There he came under the influence of a strong academic tradition in oratory, an influence strong enough to affect his later literary work. After abandoning the idea of entering the ministry, he studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago (1900-1903) and at the New York School of Art (1904-1905).

His early efforts in art and poetry attracted some critical approval but little financial return. Unperturbed, he found various ways of earning a livelihood. For a while he lectured for the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in New York, then for the Illinois Anti-Saloon League. He issued the Village Magazine in 1910; and he indulged in long walking tours through the South, the Southwest, and the industrial East. On these tours he traveled alone and carried no baggage, using as his only currency his poems, which he traded for bed and board. In 1913 he published General William Booth Enters into Heaven, and Other Poems, his first significant volume of poetry. It attracted little notice, but his next volume, The Congo, and Other Poems, caught the popular fancy with what was described as “an infectious blend of rhyme, religion, and ragtime.”

Lindsay fully merited Hamlin Garland’s description of him as “highly individualized.” As he grew older this individuality sometimes wandered into eccentricity, both personal and literary. For example, he often attracted startled attention by his habit of dining publicly with a number of huge dolls set up at his table. In poetry, however, his innovations were usually easier to justify. The insistent rhythms of his poems were strikingly appropriate to the subject matter, generally noisy, colorful, and exciting–stampeding buffalo, a tribal dance, or the commotion of automobiles or trains.

Lindsay became a popular reader of his own poems, and his audiences found unforgettably impressive the manner in which, throwing back his head and closing his eyes, he chanted and sometimes sang such poems as “The Congo.” In 1920 he became the first American poet to be honored with an invitation to recite his poems at Oxford University. In the shadow of his more sensational achievements, however, are conventional poems such as “The Eagle That Is Forgotten” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” which are marked by high seriousness and calm dignity.

Lindsay’s flair for publicity and his real originality served as a decided spur to poetic interest in the early twentieth century, although the quality of his work began a noticeable decline as early as 1917, with The Chinese Nightingale, and Other Poems. He was married in 1925 to Elizabeth Conner. After living for a time in her home state of Washington, he returned to Springfield. Given to periods of despondency, he committed suicide on December 5, 1931.

BibliographyChénetier, Marc, ed. Letters of Vachel Lindsay. New York: Burt Franklin, 1979. Chénetier’s fine introduction focuses on Lindsay’s vision of himself as a prophet leading the masses to an understanding of the United States and of American art. Lindsay emerges not as a character from a modern folktale but as a serious thinker and scholar. The foreword is by Lindsay’s son, Nicholas.Engler, Balz. Poetry and Community. Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenburg, 1990. Includes bibliographical references and index.Flanagan, John T., ed. Profile of Vachel Lindsay. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1970. This collection of essays deals with Lindsay’s life and work. The essays are grouped into three approaches: reactions of critics during Lindsay’s lifetime, reactions immediately after his death, and specialized critical articles written during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The book contains a chronology of the poet’s life.Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Essays in Literature, 1976. Comparative analysis of these poets and their midwestern sense of place. Includes bibliography.Harris, Mark. City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay, Being Also the Story of Springfield, Illinois, U.S.A. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Originally published in 1952, a novelistic biography of the poet well worth its insights, if somewhat romanticized.Massa, Ann. Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Attempts to take all Lindsay’s writings–poetry, prose, short stories, and articles–and describe their basic underlying philosophy. Explores Lindsay’s life and his career as a public performer in the context of American thought at the time. Contains illustrations, including drawings by Lindsay, and a brief bibliography.Masters, Edgar Lee. Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. Masters was himself a poet and a longtime friend of Lindsay, and he wrote this biography only a few years after Lindsay’s death, at the request of Lindsay’s widow. In spite of several factual errors, this is an important critical study.Weston, Mildred. Vachel Lindsay: Poet in Exile. Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1995. Poet Weston provides her insights into Lindsay and his work.Yatron, Michael. America’s Literary Revolt. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. In addition to Lindsay, includes analysis of Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, with whom he is often associated. Includes bibliographical references.
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