Vachel Lindsay, Prairie Troubador

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

I have a old friend who lives in Liberal, Kansas, a brave little outpost at a crossroads just north of the Oklahoma panhandle. Being an Albuquerque sophisticate, I like to tease Bill for living out in the boondocks. And so it was that, lying awake in the small hours last week, I remembered some lines from a poem:

Of the babies born at midnight
In the sod huts of lost hope,
With no physician there,
Except a Kansas prayer,
And the Indian raid a-howling through the air.

That is from the wonderfully titled “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” which is subtitled “The Campaign of Eighteen Ninety-Six, as Viewed at the Time by a Sixteen-Year-Old, etc.” The poet is Vachel Lindsay. I begged my committee—groveled, really—until they let me include the poem as prologue to my doctoral dissertation many years ago. I loved that poem then and still do.

I doubt that you will find Vachel Lindsay in your standard American literature anthology anymore, nor are you likely to find two other Illinois poets of his day, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a shame that all three are faded or fading, but a special shame about Lindsay, because his was a very rare voice. In the early decades of the last century he was famous or infamous, depending on one’s perch in the establishment. His friend Masters wrote a biography, Vachel Lindsay, in the thirties. A better one, in my view, is Mark Harris’s City of Discontent, written in the fifties.

He was an odd one, for sure, a singular piece of work. Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born in 1879 and died, in 1931, in the same family home. The Lindsays were a prominent family in Springfield, Illinois; they lived right next door to the governor’s mansion. Lindsay is always identified with Springfield and the Midwest. With the West, for that matter, and with populism. Having given up medical studies (his father was a successful doctor), he first studied art and then gave himself over to poetry around 1905. His first efforts resulted in “Rhymes to be Traded for Bread.” He tramped the country doing just that, earning his bread (or trying to) with his rhymes, a throwback to the medieval troubador tradition. In one jaunt, he hiked from Florida to Kentucky, in another from New York City to Hiram, Ohio. In yet a third, he slogged from Springfield to Wagon Mound, New Mexico. Between strenuous hiking and meager rations, one imagines that he often came close to starving. Poets are not well fed at the best of times.

Lindsay was as much a performer as a writer. (Today we’d call him a performance artist.) Read any of his poems and you will see that they are meant to be declaimed. Well, “declaimed” hardly covers it. Lindsay would throw himself into their performance, gesticulating wildly, shouting, keening, exulting in nonsense syllables—part revivalist, part carnie, part barking madman. “Higher Vaudeville” was his term for it. These performances made his name and fame. And in the end these performances killed him.

Say, Google the Bryan poem and read it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You’re back? Good. Isn’t it magnificent? Listen to the prancing rhythms (“In a coat like a deacon, in a black Stetson hat / He scourged the elephant plutocrats / With barbed wire from the Platte”). Listen, it’s a new world; catch the excitement:

Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubador, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,

But finally, it’s a sad, elegiac poem. Bryan lost, as we all know. Mark Hanna saw to it that McKinley (“His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes”) and “all that in-bred landlord stock” kept the upper hand. “Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream,” says Lindsay, looking back. All his life the man proudly paraded his idealism and his naiveté. That could sometimes be embarrassing, but it was never false. In a way, he was always sixteen.

Poems poured out of him torrentially. “The Chinese Nightingale” (“Spring came on forever / Spring came on forever”), “The Congo” (“Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM”), “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” (“It is portentous and a thing of state / That here at midnight, in our little town / A mourning figure walks, and will not rest”), “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (“Booth led boldly with his big bass drum”) and on and on and on.

For all his fame, Lindsay didn’t earn much from the Higher Vaudeville, but he was a creature of that fame and toured relentlessly. Financial worries haunted him—he had a wife and two children to support. Literally sick and tired, he moved his young family back to the house in Springfield. His health failing, he became deeply depressed, delusional, paranoid. On the 5th of December, 1931, he drank a bottle of drain cleaner. His last words were “They tried to get me—I got them first!”

“Yet time winds out of chaos from the star-fields of the Lord,” he says somewhere in the Bryan poem. Time caught up with Vachel Lindsay all too soon.

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