Poet, essayist, and novelist Vachel Lindsay was born Nicholas Vachel Lindsay in Springfield, Illinois, on November 10, 1879, to Vachel Thomas Lindsay and his wife Catherine Frazee Lindsay. Vachel Thomas Lindsay earned his living as a physician, and his wife Catherine was a Kentucky-born, European-trained landscape
and portrait artist. In one of two defining experiences of his life, Lindsay's three younger sisters, Isabel, Ester, and Eudora, died of scarlet fever in March and April 1888. Perhaps in part because of this loss, Lindsay and his family were intensely religious, claiming affiliation with both the Swedenborgians and the Church of Christ. Consequently, religion colored Lindsay's poetry and prose throughout his life. In addition to the loss he felt from the death of his sisters, Lindsay also suffered from epilepsy, which caused personal pain as well as the fear of social stigma. Lindsay, who not only wrote but performed his poetry, lived in constant, lifelong fear of suffering an epileptic seizure during his performances.
Springfield, Illinois, was the capital of the state, and Lindsay was born and raised within a few hundred yards of the governor's mansion. By 1880 Springfield was no longer a small town except when compared to Chicago, which dominated the state economically and politically. Part of Lindsay's populist mystique can be derived from his embrace and celebration of Illinois, excluding Chicago; the new localism, the city beautiful campaign, and the temperance movement were implicit criticisms of large metropolitan areas and their residents.
In his own day, Lindsay was a Populist poet. He wrote a poem for Populist Illinois Governor John Altgeld, “The Eagle That Is Forgotten”; a poem for Democratic and Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan”; and a series of poems praising the beauty and virtue of agrarian life, especially in contrast to the shame of the cities, including poems such as “The Broncho Who Would Not Be Broken from Dancing” and “Factory Windows Are Always Broken.” However, many who “accused” Lindsay of Populism cast aspersions on his poetic ability, ridiculing his talent by linking his readership and audience with the poor and uneducated without necessarily addressing his politics. Lindsay believed in the egalitarian rights of the common people and the moral superiority of agrarian culture. Embedded in his philosophy was the assumption that agrarian culture always, and correctly, chose middle-class leadership, if only after protracted debate. And it was this moral leadership Lindsay emphasized, particularly in opposition to economic aggrandizement that Lindsay referred to as the rule of Mammon.
One of Lindsay's primary themes was an attempt to broaden the definition of community in light of the millions of new immigrants sweeping into the country at the turn of the twentieth century. Lindsay argued for a broadening of the categories of race to allow for the inclusion of the new immigrants in American culture. His philosophy, as seen in his pioneering text on film criticism, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), emphasized educating the new immigrants to the vicissitudes of both American culture and Protestant morality. He always spoke and wrote of accepting the Catholic Christianity of the new immigrants, but Lindsay's understanding of Catholicism always emphasized an Americanized Catholicism with Protestant assumptions.
Lindsay's only novel, The Golden Book of Springfield, demonstrates his assumption of the necessity for the Americanization of the new immigrants as well as the normative nature of a midwestern, agrarian, Populist base. “The Higher Vaudeville” was Lindsay's rubric for his poetic theory, and the idea was to take an artifact of popular culture and turn it to a moral or ethical purpose. Lindsay's novel The Golden Book of Springfield bears a striking resemblance to Ignatius Donnelly's The Golden Bottle (1892) in terms of both structure, action, and theme, just as Lindsay's poem “The Congo” (1914) resembled Paul Dunbar's and Marion Cooks's In Dahomey (1904), and Lindsay's short story “The Golden Faced People” drew from Cal Stewart's “Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry” (1901).
Lindsay's technique, as he explained in great depth in The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), relied upon borrowing the theme, structure, or storyline from a work of popular theatre or fiction and then improving on that work. Cal Stewart (1856–1919) was a popular vaudevillian who wrote and performed at the end of the 1890s and was a friend of Mark Twain. Cal Stewart's skit and short story, “Uncle Josh in the Chinese Laundry,” is pointedly racist, depicting the stereotype of an irritable, bumbling Chinaman who spoke little or no English, had virtually no understanding of American social conventions, and as a result was disparaged, abused, and relegated to the status of an immigrant outsider.
Lindsay took the caricature of the outsider Chinaman and turned it around. He argued that if white Americans found themselves as a minority population dominated by the Chinese, then Americans would discover themselves to be just as dependent, subservient, and abused as any Chinese immigrant in the United States. The white race could be enslaved just as any other, given the right conditions. Lindsay used popular culture to address the themes of race and status in the United States, turning the borrowed material to examine those themes in a new light.
The major characters, icons, and heroes that Lindsay focused on in his poetry and prose all addressed the issues of race, status, and morality. These same heroes were almost always from the Midwest: John P. Altgeld, William Jennings Bryan, Abraham Lincoln, and Jane Addams, among others.
Altgeld embraced temperance, but prohibition was more than a simple moral issue for Lindsay. It was also a statement on race and religion that reflected the complexities of Populism specifically and American culture generally. Populism is most often seen as a Protestant political statement, and Protestants generally disapproved of the use of alcohol. However, the use of alcohol was not condemned within Catholicism. Part of Lindsay's life-long perspective, seen in Art of the Moving Picture and The Golden Book of Springfield, was to equate race, religion, and moral standing with a person's position on prohibition. In The Golden Book of Springfield, Lindsay went to great pains to demonstrate that the truly Americanized immigrant embraced prohibition.
Another of Lindsay's heroes, William Jennings Bryan, also embraced prohibition. Bryan was the Illinois native who ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 1896, supported by the Populists. He ran on the silver platform and was endorsed by Governor Altgeld. Lindsay's poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan” (1919) depicts the East/West, rich/poor, entitled/dispossessed dichotomies of the Populist movement: “And all these [‘prairie schooner children’] in their helpless days / By the dour East oppressed, / Mean paternalism / Making their mistakes for them, / Crucifying half the West, / Till the whole Atlantic coast / Seemed a giant spiders’ nest [‘the towns of Tubal Cain’] . . . .” And “Where is that boy, that heaven-born Bryan, / That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West? / Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle, / Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.” Here we see Lindsay's lament of the failed Populist movement and how Lindsay's oratorical style mimicked that of William Jennings Bryan. The social effect of Populism is thus passed from generation to generation in the person of Lindsay and his artistic style.
David W. Bates
See also: Addams, Jane (1860–1935) ; Altgeld, John P. (1847–1923) ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company ; Cooperative Commonwealth ; Donnelly, Ignatius (1831–1901) ; Film ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Prohibition (1919–1933)
Barnard, Harry. Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1938
Donnelly, Ignatius. The Golden Bottle: Or the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.
Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. Edited by Martin Scorsese. Introduction by Stanley Kauffmann. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
Lindsay, Vachel. Collected Poems. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1923.
Lindsay, Vachel. The Golden Book of Springfield. Introduction by Ron Sakolsky. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1999.
Lindsay, Vachel. “The Golden-Faced People: A Story of the Chinese Conquest of America.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races (November 1914): 36–42.
Riis, Thomas L., ed. The Music and Scripts of “In Dahomey.” Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1996.
Stewart, Cal. “Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry.” Uncle Josh's Punkin Centre Stories. Chicago: Stanton and Van Vliet Company, 1905.