Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (November 10, 1879 – December 5, 1931) was an American poet. Being an early advocate of jazz poetry, he became known as the "Prairie Troubador."
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, where his father — Vachel Thomas Lindsay — worked as a medical doctor and had considerable financial resources. As a result, the Lindsays lived next door to the Illinois Executive Mansion, home of the Governor of Illinois. This location of his childhood home had its influence on Lindsay, and one of his poems, "The Eagle Forgotten", deals with Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, whom Lindsay admired for his courage in pardoning the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Riot — despite the strong protests of US President Grover Cleveland.
Growing up in Springfield influenced Lindsay in other ways as well, as evidenced in such poems as "On the Building of Springfield" and culminating in poems praising Springfield's most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln. In "The Ghosts of the Buffaloes", Lindsay exclaims "Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all!" In his 1914 poem "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)", Lindsay specifically places Lincoln 'in' Springfield, with the poem opening:
It is portentous, and a thing of stateThat here at midnight, in our little townA mourning figure walks, and will not rest...
Lindsay studied medicine at Hiram College in Ohio from 1897 to 1900, but dropped out before graduating. Leaving Hiram, he thought he would become an artist, and went to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1900 to 1903 and then in 1904 at the New York School of Art (now The New School). Lindsay remained interested in art for the rest of his life, drawing illustrations for some of his poetry. His art studies also probably led him to appreciate the new art form of film, on which he wrote a book in 1915: 'The Art of the Moving Picture'.
While in New York in 1905 Lindsay turned to poetry in earnest. He tried to sell his poems on the streets. Self-printing his poems, he began to barter a pamphlet entitled 'Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread', which he traded for food as a self-perceived modern version of a medieval troubadour.
From March to May, 1906, Lindsay traveled roughly 600 miles on foot from Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky, again trading his poetry for food and lodging. From April to May, 1908, Lindsay undertook another poetry-selling trek, walking from New York City to Hiram, Ohio.
From May to September 1912 he travelled — again on foot — from Illinois to New Mexico, trading his poems for food and lodging. During this last trek, Lindsay composed his most famous poem, "The Congo". On his return, Harriet Monroe published in Poetry magazine first his poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" in 1913 and then "The Congo" in 1914. At this point, Lindsay became very well-known.
"The Congo", Lindsay's best-known poem, became controversial both for its groundbreaking use of sound and for the issues of racism it raises.
"The Congo" expressed a revolutionary aesthetic of sound for sound's sake. It imitates the pounding of the drums in the rhythms and the exemplification of drumming onomatopoeia. At parts, the poem ceases to use conventional words, relying just on sound alone:
Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,Harry the uplands,Steal all the cattle,Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,Bing.Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom... (lines 21-26)
The measured mix of sounds and rhythm laid the foundations for sound poetry later in the century.
Lindsay's view of the Congo can potentially upset modern sensibilities. Many of Lindsay's contemporaries, such as W.E.B. DuBois among others, criticized "The Congo" for the stereotypes it raised.
The poem reflects the racism prevalent in the United States of America at the turn of the 20th century, a racism pervasive even among those who — at least by the standards of the time — saw themselves as opposed to racism. That said, most white contemporaries viewed Lindsay as an advocate of blacks (See John Chapman Ward: "Vachel Lindsay Is 'Lying Low'", College Literature 12 (1985): 233-45).
Lindsay considered himself (probably wrongly) the "discoverer" of Langston Hughes after Hughes — then a busboy in Washington, D.C. — gave Lindsay copies of his poems when Lindsay ate at the restaurant where Hughes worked. Additionally, Lindsay wrote the 1918 poem "The Jazz Birds", praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of white America seemed blind.
Whatever the language Lindsay uses in "The Congo", one can keep an open mind regarding a poet seen as progressive regarding race issues for his day and who, after all, idolized Lincoln. That said, it remains difficult to remain unaware of the bias — intended or not — in "The Congo". The poem from its onset presents stereotyping as it begins with the lines:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable...
Whatever justification one can give Lindsay, these lines have clear racist overtones. The reference to people as "black bucks" had pejorative connotations at the time Lindsay wrote it. At least to the white American readership of the 1910s, this term — distressing as it appears today — expressed less offense (or at least occurred more commonly) in 1914 than today. However, Lindsay did not intend the phrase as positive or even neutral. He used the words derisively so in order to seduce a white, Christian readership into a state of patronizing complacency about this African un-Christian scene, only to jolt them into re-appraisal of the scene that they had so comfortably disdained:
Then I had religion, Then I had a vision.I could not turn from their revel in derision. (lines 10-11)
This poem actually revels in the occult power of the drumming mix of sound and ceremony.
"The Congo" continues to resonate for later readers. For example, the 1989 film Dead Poets Society features recitation of "The Congo".
Lindsay's fame as a poet grew in the 1910s. Because Harriet Monroe showcased him with two other Illinois poets — Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters — his name became linked to theirs. The success of either of the other two, in turn, seemed to help the third.
Edgar Lee Masters published a biography of Lindsay in 1935 (four years after its subject's death) entitled 'Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America'.
Lindsay himself indicated in the 1915 preface to "The Congo" that no less a figure than William Butler Yeats respected his work. Yeats felt they shared a concern for capturing the sound of the primitive and of singing in poetry. In 1915, Lindsay gave a poetry reading to President Woodrow Wilson and the entire Cabinet.
Lindsay was well known throughout the nation, and especially in Illinois, because of his travels which were sometimes recorded in the front page of every newspaper.
Despite his fame, Lindsay's private life featured many disappointments, such as his unsuccessful courtship in 1914 of fellow poet Sara Teasdale, who chose a rich businessman — Ernst Filsinger — instead of him. While this itself may have caused Lindsay to become more concerned with money, his financial pressures increased even more later on.
After moving to Spokane, Washington in 1924, Lindsay met and then — on May 19, 1925 — married the 23-year-old Elizabeth Connor. The 45-year-old poet now found himself under great economic pressure as the husband of a considerably younger wife. These financial worries escalated even more when in May 1926 the Lindsays had a daughter — Susan Doniphan Lindsay — and in September 1927 a son — Nicholas Cave Lindsay.
Desperate for money to meet the growing demands of his growing family, Lindsay undertook an exhausting string of readings throughout the East and Midwest that lasted from October 1928 through March 1929. During this time Poetry magazine awarded him a lifetime achievement award of $500 (a substantial sum at the time).
On his return, in April 1929, Lindsay and his family moved to the house of his birth in Springfield, Illinois: an expensive undertaking. In that same year, and coinciding with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Lindsay published two more books of poems 'The Litany of Washington Street' and 'Every Soul A Circus'.
He gained money by doing odd jobs throughout but in general earned very little during his travels.
Crushed by financial worry, in failing health from his six-month road trip, and sunk into depression, on December 5, 1931, Lindsay committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol. In his suicide note he wrote, "They tried to get me - I got them first!"
Today, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency maintains the Vachel Lindsay Home at 603 South Fifth Street in Springfield, the site of Lindsay's birth and death. The Agency has opened the home to the public. Lindsay's grave lies in Oak Ridge Cemetery.