The Midwestern poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born on November 10, 1879. He is best known today—and was in his own time–for his poetry, but also wrote film criticism and essays. He was a visual artist as well.
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abe Lincoln, and the image and memory of Lincoln was important to Lindsay. One of his most famous poems is “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight,” which contrasts the melancholy figure of prairie democracy with the menacing clouds of approaching war in the Europe of 1914.
Lindsay attended Hiram College in Ohio to study medicine, but left the school after three years to study art at the Chicago Art Institute and then the New York School of Art. Lindsay was an idealist with a vengeance. He walked from Florida to Kentucky, sharing his poems and art with those he encountered. He saw himself as a prophet speaking on behalf of beauty and democracy, but encountered harsh realities on his travels. He returned to Springfield, did some lecturing, and published his first book of poetry: The Village Magazine. Buoyed by positive response to this volume, he made another voyage on foot, this time traveling through the west and carrying copies of a pamphlet he gave in lieu of payment for help along the way: Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread.
Lindsay next published his book General William Booth Enters Into Heaven and Other Poems in 1913. He followed this one year later with The Congo and Other Poems. The latter volume featured an introduction by Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and a powerhouse figure in the poetry scene of that time.
Lindsay was also a natural performer and lecturer. He developed a kind of chanting, bard-like delivery of his poetry, and became immensely popular on the lecture circuit. Some of his poems, such as “The Congo,” contain stage directions of a sort on how each particular part of the poem should be recited. Lindsay once referred to these crowd-pleasing pieces in his oeuvre as a kind of “higher vaudeville.”
In addition to his poetry, Lindsay also wrote about film. He had his own ideas about how the medium worked, and it is no exaggeration to describe him as an early film theorist. His 1915 book The Art of The Moving Picture was republished in 1970 and again in the late 1990s. Lindsay was steeped in populist values and believed that the Midwest was capable of developing a high civilization, and that the cities and towns of the region held the seeds of greatness. He wrote about his vision of the Midwest in books such as Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914), and The Golden Book of Springfield (1920).
By the early 1920s, however, Lindsay had fallen on hard times. Although he married and had two children during the decade, the loss of his mother affected him deeply, and he suffered nervous collapse in 1923 and experienced spells of severe depression in his remaining years. He died on December 5, 1931 after drinking a bottle of Lysol.
Lindsay’s reputation was diminished through the 1950s and 60s, but the later years of the century brought a resurgence of interest, in part because scholarship concerning Midwestern literature and culture has evolved and deepened in recent decades, but also because of his work on film and the plain fact that he is an interesting writer. He was written off too easily as some kind of one-dimensional troubadour.
I also find Lindsay interesting in light of our current poetry culture. Some may describe our American poetry culture as being broken up into several camps: one centered in the academy; one more at home on the streets and within urban bohemia (the world of poetry slams, for example); and one that partakes somewhat of both and attempts to spread poetry throughout other parts of society–for example, those poets teaching poetry to elementary school students or the elderly, or efforts to spread poetry through initiatives like Ted Kooser’s newspaper column poetry project.
Lindsay seems to me a figure in line with these second and third cultures. He deeply enjoyed reaching a popular audience through the colorful performance of poetry, and he also wanted to spread what he called “the gospel of beauty” to everyday people. I find him to be a figure both remote and yet very much in spirit with our own times.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Lindsay by Tom L. Page.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.