Vachel Lindsay's covenant with America.
Lindsay's critique of modernity, though much influenced by the romantic tradition that included Blake, Shelley, and the German Romantics--Goethe, Schiller, and Heine--was distinctive in its emphasis on nativist and religious elements. Centered on what was called the "New Springfield," his idealistic scheme stressed civic revitalization based on what Springfield, Illinois, and other small towns might achieve if informed by a program of spiritual revival and cultural uplift. Like Ronald Reagan, who emanated from precisely the same social and religious background, Lindsay envisioned a modern-day "city on a hill," its people redeemed by faith and dedicated to the global spread of democracy. Lindsay's was perhaps the last significant literary voice to reaffirm in an unqualified manner John Adams's providential faith in America as "the opening of a grand scene and design [...] for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."
An early expression of this faith appears in the poem "Kansas," in which Lindsay recounted the idyllic weeks that he spent on the wheat harvest. These few blissful weeks on the Great Plains, where there was universal employment, great feasting and singing, healthy labor under the strong sun by day and sound sleep on beds of hay by night, served as a model for Lindsay's program of reform, for in these weeks, as he wrote in the poem, "tramps, one month, are men." Tramps become men because of their enlistment in a common effort focused on the production of the very staff of life; they become men because their labor plays a small but useful role in a civilization dedicated to human liberty, goodness, and advancement. Ill and physically exhausted, Lindsay himself left the work well before the summer ended, but he spent the rest of his life in pursuit of a similar, if more splendid, harvest: the redemption of an apostate society and its return to the purity, goodness, and faith that he recognized in the original covenant of America's founders.
"I am haunted always by a vision of a splendid America," Lindsay wrote. "I have faith that America will come to her ripeness--in a hundred or a thousand years [...]." This faith in America was Lindsay's guiding principle throughout his lifetime, and despite the recurrent confusion, naivete, and self-indulgent egotism that marred his writing, he remains an important spokesman for a conception of national identity that can be traced back to Reformed Protestantism. Like Adams, Lindsay was inspired by an unshakable belief that Divine Providence had led his people to a land of freedom and opportunity.
As for all latter-day reformers, the central problem for Lindsay was the falling away of the public at large from the foundational ideals, both political and religious, to which he still fervently clung. Every line of his writing was devoted to the urging of a return to original principles: those principles of liberty, opportunity, and righteousness that underpin American civilization. In his defense of these ideals, Lindsay believed, he was contributing to the redemption of mankind both from the repressive caste system of old Europe and from the radically individualistic society emerging in America. While the blatant injustices of the European system of hereditary aristocracy were obvious, the destructive effects of modernity were not so apparent, especially to a public mesmerized by technological innovation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American public had begun to view change as an end in itself, and in so doing had fallen prey to a dangerous form of idolatry. The fascination with what human ingenuity could accomplish had seduced public opinion away from a religious view of the world that instilled virtues of prudence and self-restraint.
The "Gospel of Beauty," as he called his version of applied Christian ethics, was Lindsay's key to the reformation of an apostate society. One of the fundamental values underlying this reform was that of humility, and for Lindsay the pathway to betterment was the "contrite heart" that would "take the death from us," as he expressed it in "Hymn to the Sun." A crucial element within all Reformed churches, the culture of simplicity that Lindsay envisioned set him squarely against the voracious materialism that was, and remains, the cultural hallmark of an expanding secular culture. Like an earlier reformer, Cotton Mather, whose advice was to "stoop as you go through [the world], and you will miss many hard bumps," Lindsay sought to restrain the excesses of pride and self-gratification which he perceived in his countrymen. The way ahead, he knew, must always be informed by a keen awareness of the past and by a steadfast faith in the wisdom of tradition.
Admittedly, Lindsay was often naive in the way he went about things, as when he plastered Springfield, Illinois, with privately printed "War Bulletins" that few cared to read, or when he traveled thousands of miles, walking and hitching rides as he attempted to trade poems for bread. Nonetheless, his optimism and innocence reflected essential virtues of American civilization. These qualities were rooted in the same unworldly faith that accompanied countless settlers on their journey west or that strengthened the resolve of exemplary leaders such as Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. Now, however, that resolve was in doubt, and Lindsay was convinced that the nation's essential covenant was under attack by the secularist forces of its own urban-industrial culture. Lindsay believed that rural and small-town America was still relatively free from this contagion, and the reform that he sought was associated with his belief that the heartland, the vast region stretching west from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific Range, embodied a more authentic America, truer to its cultural origins and founding principles, than that of the East or West Coasts. It is hardly coincidental that Lindsay's pantheon of heroes should comprise a cast of writers and public figures associated with the Midwest, West, and South, and that his roster of enemies should include Mark Hanna, the Ohio political boss who backed William McKinley against William Jennings Bryan in the presidential elections of 1896 and 1900. In place of the urban machine politics of the sort that elected McKinley, and that in subsequent years favored the American Republic with Coolidge, Taft, and Harding, he would have us admire the western populism of Lincoln, Bryan, and Theodore Roosevelt (a New Yorker but one with important biographical and ideological connections with the West). Lindsay's aesthetic tastes revealed a similar bias. Among American writers and politicians, his loyalties divide neatly along regional lines. In place of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, he would have us read Twain, Sandburg, Masters, and Johnny Appleseed. Writing to Carl Sandburg in January 1917, Lindsay asserted that "the ideal American poet would have the tang of Mark Twain, the music of Poe, the sweep and mysticism of Whitman, and the platform power of Bryan." (Elsewhere, however, he was far less sure of Whitman.)
To everyone who would listen, including the young critic and anthologist, Louis Untermeyer, Lindsay urged "the real open mind of America" as the standard of political and cultural success. This vision is expressed in one of Lindsay's finest poems, "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," composed in August 1919, almost a quarter century after the events it celebrates. The "open mind of America" suggests an expansionist economic policy that in Bryan's day centered on the idea of supplementing the gold standard with "free silver" and, thus, by vastly increasing the money supply, expanding economic opportunities for the common man. The open mind, however, implied much more than a shift in monetary policy: it urged a democratic over an elitist conception of American identity, and with this an optimistic, culturally dynamic, and socially mobile conception of the nation's future. At the same time, paradoxically it might seem, this openness implied a staunch defense of the nation's moral inheritance and an interventionist foreign policy intended to export American values.
Tied to the presidential campaign of 1896, the events of the poem evoke Lindsay's youth--he was sixteen at the time Bryan visited Springfield--and, more importantly, the democratic ethos upon which his adult identity was founded. Lindsay reads into the 1896 campaign all of his youthful dreams, not only of political change but of artistic aspiration and even of courtship (his "best girl" is a "cool young citizen" wearing "in her hair a brave prairie rose"). Following Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, delivered like a thunderous incitement to reform, young Lindsay waits expectantly through the months leading up to the election, but, as with so much in Lindsay's life, election night brings defeat, not just for the candidate he has backed but for the entire universe of values to which he is inextricably tied. Lindsay's dream of a free, chaste, more hopeful America has been defeated by eastern money and eastern politics. Still, Lindsay predicts, Bryan's memory will linger long after McKinley and Hanna are forgotten. In the very act of writing his poem, Lindsay implies that the dream of the open mind of America, sung by "Homer Bryan" and celebrated by Lindsay himself, will endure for generations to come.
Lindsay's admiration of Bryan was predicated not merely on regional politics--the desire of the heartland for greater opportunity and autonomy--but, more importantly, on the fact that Bryan represented what Lindsay regarded as the providential mission of American democracy. In this conception, American values were linked to and, to a large extent, still defined by the frontier and agrarian society of the recent past. As a spokesman for these values, Bryan was both a reformer with an idealistic view of what America might become and a social conservative, just the sort of man who would later serve as star witness for the prosecution at the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925. Like Bryan and the heartland culture in which he and Bryan grew up, Lindsay was both an idealist and a religious conservative. A connection with the past, a wariness concerning change, and a predisposition to look to one's cultural inheritance for answers are fundamental aspects of this identity. The centrality of reform within Lindsay's thinking and his burning ambition to export American values were, in essence, part of an overriding mission to defend an inherited culture against the forces of radical change. In Lindsay's mind, reform implied a turning away from change.
Indeed, Lindsay's predilection was always to look to the past. His interest in ancient civilizations was catholic and included a lifelong fascination with ancient Egypt and a strong attraction to Asia, particularly Japan. In all of his enthusiasms, however, Lindsay sought to define the present and the future in terms of enduring and universal aspects of human nature, and particularly in terms of those aspects that confirmed the values of his own civilization. The fondness for "safe, august, established ways" that he invokes in "Litany of the Heroes" reflects an almost Burkean predilection for established institutions and traditions. However revolutionary his talk of Utopia might seem, upon closer examination it can be seen to be a refinement or continuation of a familiar cultural inheritance. Like most Americans of the heartland, Lindsay was a cautious reformer with an intense regard for the past.
One culture for which Lindsay had only disdain, however, was that of contemporary urban America. The virtues of the open mind could be discovered at almost any level of heartland society, but nowhere could they be found in the urban Northeast. There Lindsay perceived the emergence of a new and destructive secular culture that he labeled "Babylon." Indeed, Lindsay was opposed to everything that the modern urban culture suggested: mechanization, advertising, commercialization, moral permissiveness, feminist emancipation, and, not least of all, jazz. Lindsay was furious when a selection of his work was published in Britain, without his prior knowledge or approval, under the tide The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems. As he stressed in his late poem, "The Jazz Age," jazz was the antithesis of everything he valued, whether that be agriculture, rural avocations such as fishing, classical-Christian culture (with special emphasis on classic British authors), or heartland writers such as Riley, Nye, or Twain. Lindsay attacked jazz in several poems, including "A Curse for the Saxophone" and "The Jazz of This Hotel," in which he pointed out that the jazz, "That seems so hot ... is [actually] so hard and cold."
In opposition to urban-industrial culture, Lindsay envisioned the re-emergence of an evangelical religious society centered in the American Midwest. Here would arise a procession of future forms of religious faith that would build their temples in the heartland, "Tremendous white Cathedral ships/ On our Middle-Western Sea." As he wrote Erich Possett, "The church universal, as conceived by such papers as The Christian Century is my church. I believe it is far more vigorous, far more influential, far more a source of life and light than these two gentlemen [H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis] will concede." Almost everything that Lindsay attempted, in fact, was related in some way to the spiritual quest that began with his Campbellite ancestors, those disciples of Christ who on the American frontier split from the more ceremonial Presbyterian church to profess a reformed faith of even greater conformity to the origins of Christ's church. It was only seemingly anomalous that Lindsay, who never strayed far from the Campbellite faith, thought himself a prophet of some future, post-Christian civilization in which the faiths of all peoples would be linked within a single universal religious network. The unification of culture that he imagined was not the substitution of some vague universalist spirituality for his ancestral tradition: it was the blossoming of American democracy and evangelical faith on a global scale.
As evidence of his own sense of mission, Lindsay resigned all worldly prospects, including that of a medical career urged by his father, and set out on a series of tramping expeditions that carried him across much of the United States. Although she and her husband grew restive about Vachel's apparent lack of ambition and continuing financial dependence, Catherine Lindsay would certainly have approved of the way in which tramping suggested Christian outreach, and she would also have admired her son's uncompromising asceticism. Lindsay himself viewed tramping as a test of his faith in human goodness--the goodness of the common man within American democracy--but, as it turned out, the results of his survey of democratic man were decidedly mixed. As would happen throughout his life, Lindsay's idealism was betrayed by actual experience. His dream of America as a moral Utopia simply could not hold up in the face of an increasingly commercialized and technocratic society. As Lindsay suggests in the poem, "The Bronco That Would Not Be Broken" (1914), the ideal of liberty to which he had devoted his life was under serious attack in the modern world--the world of centralized control that is represented in the poem by those who would constrain the energies of the bronco, even at the cost of killing it. As Lindsay understood all too well by the time he composed the poem, it is not just the material interests of society that are necessarily set against the tramp or the untamed bronco: it is also the force of a secularized culture that is inimical to tradition, particularly to those traditions of personal liberty and principled conduct that interfere with collectivist systems of production and social organization. The evocative quality of this poem results from the fact that in the untamed bronco of the prairie Lindsay discovered the perfect figure of his own emerging sense of disillusionment. The poem was Lindsay's poignant tribute to his own awkward pride and unruly provincialism, but it was also his acknowledgement of the price that he would have to pay at the hands of the tamers and killers of dreams. Like the bronco, Lindsay would die on the prairie exhausted by those who would restrain his religious idealism and bleed him for their own profit, but like the bronco Lindsay would "scorn" them and never stop dancing.
At the time he wrote "Bronco," before the outbreak of war in August 1914, the political implications of his program of reform must have seemed rather straightforward to the young Vachel Lindsay. As the world's only major power untainted by monarchy or titled aristocracy, the United States was duty-bound to spread the ideal of freedom around the world. By this, Lindsay meant not merely a democratic system of government that guaranteed basic rights and that extended opportunity to the masses, but also one that promoted the moral advancement of its people: in other words, democracy infused with the values of religious conservatism. The difficulty for Lindsay, as for all reformers of his kind, lay in the application of these high principles to the actual world. As a writer who came of age in the first decade of the twentieth century, he would face one test after another in his covenant with America. In his response to the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of fascism, the Roaring Twenties, and the early years of the Great Depression, Lindsay found his old-fashioned convictions challenged and derided from all sides. His moralistic notions of democratic mission, private virtue, and neighborly goodwill seemed quaintly inadequate, certainly inapt if not perverse, to most of his contemporaries, particularly so following the outbreak of war on a scale unknown in human history.
Lindsay was an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson, not a Campbellite but a Southern Presbyterian--close enough, and of his plan for an international governing body, but, after the horrific consequences of the European war became apparent, Lindsay was forced to reconsider his support for an interventionist foreign policy and to defend his position in the face of opposition from many of his friends. He had fervently supported Wilson's plan for world democracy under an organization like the League of Nations, and to bring this about the use of military force had seemed necessary, but once the war began, and in particular as America moved closer to entering the conflict, Lindsay admitted his uncertainty. In a poem from summer, 1917, entitled "The Bankrupt Peacemaker," Lindsay even referred to himself as the "Quitter Sublime" because of the agonizing indecision that he had endured over the previous three years.
As the war continued to grind on, Lindsay was filled with guilt because of his support for Wilson. At times, he even wished that he might enlist and be killed himself rather than have to witness the deaths of others for which he felt partially responsible. Writing to Eleanor Dougherty on April 4, 1917, he admitted: "My heart is very sad tonight about the war. I have not the heart to challenge Wilson. I voted for him and cannot regret it--yet Jane Addams' dauntless fight for peace goes home to my soul." Addams, the co-founder of Hull House, had pressured Lindsay to oppose the war openly, but, though he wavered and admitted frequent reservations, Lindsay never broke with Wilson's position. As it was, Lindsay had little hope that the first World War would be the last major conflict of his lifetime, and in an uncanny way he predicted a second, much greater struggle--a global struggle to defend the international government that would be established after the first and that, if the human race survived it, might put an end to war forever.
It was not just the war, however, that tested that Lindsay's faith in America's providential role in history. The emergence of a worldwide communist movement with its millennialist faith in revolutionary struggle that began to gain the allegiance of intellectuals in America as well as abroad forced Lindsay to reconsider his own cultural inheritance. On the surface, at least, communist ideology appeared to coincide in certain respects with the program of moral and civic reform that his evangelical beliefs entailed, and for a brief time he viewed the Russian Revolution as a step toward world liberation, a process that would
lead, as he fantastically supposed, from Socrates and the biblical Elijah through Christ, Rousseau, the leaders of the French Revolution, and Woodrow Wilson. Despite his championing of Kerensky's provisional revolutionary government in the months before the October Revolution, however, Lindsay soon recognized Marxism as the godless and materialist ideology that it was. During a visit to New York, he lectured the editors of The Masses, including Max Eastman, that they should "read Jefferson" and work within the Democratic Party, but, as he expressed it, "they were poisoned by Manhattanism and patronized us green boys from the West." Never again would Lindsay's complacent interpretation of history lead him to speak in the same breath of the prophet Elijah and Karl Marx.
Lindsay's faith in America was also tested at home, especially in the area of race relations. The August 1908 race riots in Springfield, which Lindsay witnessed firsthand, had a powerful and lasting effect on his attitudes toward blacks. In his letters, Lindsay condemned the white rioters, portraying them as recent immigrants to Springfield whose actions were unrepresentative of local society as a whole. Afterward he began to incorporate a growing concern with race into his writing and public speeches. As he acknowledged in a letter to Harriet Monroe, his best-known poem, "The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race," was, in part, the product of his reflections on the riots. In the future that Lindsay foresaw, African Americans would be assimilated within a national culture, and he intended his poem, which depicted the civilizing of African "savages" by Christian missionaries, as a blueprint for this process of assimilation. Perhaps only a young poet as pure of heart, not to say naive, as Lindsay could have failed to foresee that the actual effect of "The Congo" on his audiences would be the very opposite of his intention, since it further lodged black identity within the stereotypes of primitivism and sensuality. As one who since childhood had haunted a room at Springfield's Leland Hotel where black workers gathered, who frequented black church services to satisfy his curiosity concerning black religious practices and sermon oratory, and who cherished Springfield's reputation as the home of the Great Emancipator, Lindsay was surprised and troubled by the response of W. E. B. DuBois who, writing in The Crisis in 1916, charged him with racism.
In offering his plan for the future of the black race, Lindsay was certainly paternalistic, but there is no doubt that, in his own way, he was also well intentioned. Lindsay's open-mindedness concerning race was a longstanding fact of his character and one that distinguished him from many of his contemporaries. It was not happenstance by any means that the Congo should have formed the subject of Lindsay's most famous poem, nor that the circumstance of the death of General William Booth in 1912 provided the subject of Lindsay's other celebrated early poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven": both were intimately connected to Lindsay's devotion to that fundamental principle of American civilization that guaranteed "the pursuit of happiness" to all. The Congo had always fascinated Lindsay, just as it had his entire generation following the landmark meeting of Henry Morton Stanley with David Livingstone in 1871. The "track running through the jungle" in Lindsay's poem was in fact a verbal replication of the cover illustration of Stanley's Darkest Africa, while Livingstone's work as a medical missionary was just the sort of ambition that Lindsay's parents held up to him during his childhood. (It was, in tact, precisely the vocation that Lindsay's brother Paul and sister-in-law Olive undertook, not in Africa but in China.) Booth's missionary work on behalf of the poor was equally admired and familiar. Lindsay himself had found employment campaigning for the Anti-Saloon League in 1909, In all of his major interests, including his fascination with Egyptian hieroglyphics and his curiosity concerning Asia, there was a tight personal logic--a logic that always pointed back to his family's role within the transmission of Western civilization from Europe to America, and from America to Africa and Asia.
Lindsay was never one to relinquish anything from the past, and this was especially true of anything pertaining to his relationship to his parents. Everything in his life came together in his yearning to preserve the little family that had struggled so hard to establish itself in the promised land of Springfield, the state capital and home of the martyred Lincoln. Lindsay was heir to an ancestral legacy of suffering and dispossession but also to the glorious inheritance of which he had been made aware by his mother, and Lindsay's admission that ''every line I ever wrote, was her opinions and ideas rewritten" was hardly an overstatement. His plan of reform was not the run-of-the-mill fantasy of human perfectibility of the sort promulgated by generations of romantics, anarchists, and revolutionaries before him: it was the occasion for his stardom in a role that was a family obsession, the opportunity to fulfill at last the ancestral mission into the wilderness.
Unfortunately, as was often the case, Lindsay both underestimated the difficulties of this grandiose scheme and overestimated his own abilities. By returning classical-Christian civilization to its origins and by sharing the virtues of this reformed Western civilization with other peoples, Lindsay hoped to unify all nations within a single federation and all denominations within a single church or association of churches. The result, as he imagined it, would be the fulfillment of the millennial dream of permanent peace and universal happiness. In the poem "Incense," Lindsay described just such a future in which many new faiths would arise, all of them working in cooperation and housed in a world headquarters--a religious body analogous to the League of Nations. It should come as no surprise that the command center of this "shining, universal church" was to be located in Lindsay's home town of Springfield, Illinois, while the new and improved Ganges was, of course, the Mississippi River. As a result of their unity and conviction, these future belief systems would exert far greater influence than had the great religions of the past, and as the future religion's preeminent prophet and artist, Lindsay would be the messianic voice of the nation, and thus of the world. As the modern-day prophet of a redeeming vision of purity, order, and social harmony, Lindsay would be Alexander Campbell's successor--a rival and more, one might say, to the religious leader to whom his mother was so strongly attached.
With so much to offer, Lindsay expected that his plan of a heartland utopia would find ready acceptance by the public, yet it was this aspect of his work--not the frivolous performances that he disparagingly called the "Higher Vaudeville"--that readers largely disregarded. The reason, Lindsay believed, was that the denizens of the heartland failed to appreciate the value of their own civilization. The revolution had been betrayed from within as the young were seduced by the allure of a contemporary technological culture with its stunning invention of the automobile, the airplane, the radio, the telephone, and the moving picture. This was certainly part of the answer. How could an old-style Chautauqua performer, no matter how talented and enthusiastic, compete with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, or William S. Hart? How could the "poem games" that Lindsay dreamed up or the straight-laced prudery upon which he insisted gain a hearing in the Jazz Age? In the context of an explosion of new media, new wealth, and new personal freedom, how could Lindsay expect to obtain a hearing for his message? For an author of a highly traditionalist temper who turned forty in 1919, there was little chance of holding an audience unless that author exercised the exceptional shrewdness of a Robert Frost or possessed the philosophical depth of a Thomas Mann. Lindsay, slightly the junior of both of these men, displayed neither unusual sagacity nor philosophical acumen. What he did possess was faith in the religious teaching of his ancestors and optimism that his ancestral civilization would continue to prosper and expand. As he described it, his was the "west-going heart" filled with the conviction that America was the land of liberty, opportunity, and goodness. Yet as the gap widened between his devout traditionalism and the increasing cosmopolitanism of his contemporaries, Lindsay was simply worn down by the pressure of opposition.
Sadly, as he grew older, Lindsay's political thinking hardened into forms that were at times truly disturbing. By his early forties, Lindsay had come to see that the country was losing contact with its agrarian roots. The rural heartland was being overwhelmed by the wealth and influence of the urban northeast; the heartland people were losing faith in their heritage while new groups of Americans--newly arrived immigrants, many of them Jews--were importing what seemed an alien, anti-American culture. For a brief period, a dangerously reactionary tone entered Lindsay's writing. The anti-Semitic and jingoistic message was obvious in "I Like Nancy Boyd," in which he lauded the "patriot" Nancy Boyd, a young woman whose poem on the virtues of American housekeeping had appeared in the August 1922 issue of Vanity Fair. Praising Nancy for her love of country, Lindsay derided those "Hyphenates,/Cheap skates,/Expatriates/ Who like everything under Heaven." This egregious passage, not the only such attack in Lindsay's writing from this period, was the opposite of the "open mind" that he had earlier espoused. It was as if he needed someone to blame for the personal and professional crises that he was facing. Clearly, it was a betrayal of the catholic appreciation of other cultures and religions that distinguished his writing in the two decades before his early forties and in the decade following.
A growing isolation from his contemporaries was one factor contributing to Lindsay's collapse in 1923. At such a point, it is not surprising that he should seek consolation from an attractive young woman of literary tastes who would venerate the accomplishments of the famous author he had become, if only on the basis of works that he now repudiated. Lindsay's marriage, at age forty-five, to twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Conner was followed by an extended honeymoon in his beloved Glacier Park. It was an idyllic period of the sort that Lindsay had imagined in his earlier reflections on marriage and that he recorded in a number of poems, including those subtitled "The Forest-Ranger's Courtship." Lindsay had always visualized matrimony as taking place within a universe of spirit and beauty, and for a short time, at least, the union was filled with the intense blend of innocence and passion that Lindsay had first encountered in Milton's description of Adam and Eve before the Fall. Lindsay was incapable of accepting anything less, but with the arrival of two children and the mounting pressure of debts, the marriage declined into a ceaseless ordeal. Lindsay spent much of the seven years of his marriage separated from his wife as he struggled to earn a living from readings and brief teaching appointments, and in his isolation he grew increasingly suspicious of almost everyone around him. His suicide, the desperate and self-punishing act of a hopeless man, made sense only in that it reflected Lindsay's uncompromising nature. Lindsay had attempted to defend a grand ideal of goodness and purity in the face of pervasive cynicism, and when he became convinced that he had failed, he was driven mad.
Yet at least Lindsay tried. Most of his contemporaries followed the cynical and self-serving course of standing aside as their civilization was brought into question. To many of these, Lindsay was an embarrassment, a writer who was so outre as to defend his country and his religious tradition at a time when it was entirely unfashionable to do so. Amy Lowell once referred disparagingly to Lindsay as "a middle Westerner of the middle class." In a similarly patronizing manner, the English poet Robert Graves, who entertained Lindsay and his mother in the company of T. E. Lawrence during Lindsay's speaking engagement at Oxford, characterized Lindsay as "an extremely simply man--Middle-Western clay with a golden streak," a graceful but dismissive allusion to the famous refrain from 'The Congo," with the great river portrayed as a "golden track" running through the jungle. Graves noted that, though "everyone enjoyed the performance," it was "an exercise in elocution and mime--not a reading." Neither Lowell, a Bostonian of the upper class, nor Graves, a public school graduate and Oxford-educated classicist, took Lindsay's poetry seriously, much less his underlying vision of a society steadfast in its adherence to traditional Christian virtues. Had they cared to listen, Lindsay's celebration of heartland values, including his dedication to personal rectitude and civic reform, would have left them not only dismissive but hostile, for they were representatives of precisely the son of Eastern and European elitism that he had always detested. It was elitism of this sort that was responsible, he believed, for much of the world's poverty and war, and only a world redeemed by faith and virtue would have any chance of a better future.
It is now over a century since Lindsay first proclaimed his "vision of a splendid America," yet it is unlikely that he would judge that the spiritual reformation that he envisioned has come to pass. Had he lived, Lindsay would be only more disillusioned by the weakness of the League of Nations and subsequent bodies, the declining influence of religion in America outside the heartland and throughout much of the developed world, the growing power of a debased and venal media, and the expansion of consumerism to unprecedented levels. It would seem that nearly all that remains of Lindsay's efforts is the memory of a dedicated and impassioned writer who refused to compromise his values and who paid a terrible price for his commitment. Yet despite his frequent naivete, miscalculations of effect, and makeshift philosophy, Lindsay was a writer whose depth of concern and unshakable fidelity to his nation's founding ideals should earn him revaluation and respect.
Moreover, Vachel Lindsay should continue to be read because, in the three-quarters of a century since his death, the American political landscape has come to be occupied to a significant degree by a conservative sensibility that resembles his own. The undeniable influence of modern-day evangelical faith on American politics is something with which mainstream intellectuals have not yet begun to come to terms. Like Graves and Lowell, those who do not share Lindsay's beliefs would rather deride what they do not understand, but we do need to understand this sensibility because, as Lindsay predicted, it has come to ripeness, and it will remain a crucial factor in American society. The future that Vachel Lindsay prophesied is not going away, and it is incumbent upon us to understand how deeply engrained within American civilization is the religious conservatism of which he was an important voice.
Bibliographical Note: A comprehensive selection of Lindsay's writing is now available in the twelve-volume The Collected Works of Vachel Lindsay (Classic Books, 2007; also available on CD). The best collection of Lindsay's poetry is the three-volume The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay: Complete & With Lindsay's Drawings, edited by Dennis Camp (Peoria, Illinois: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1984). More readily available is Selected Poems of Vachel Lindsay, edited by Mark Haras (New York: MacMillan, 1963). Selections from Lindsay's prose have been published as Adventures: Rhymes & Designs, edited by Robert F. Sayre (New York: Eakins Press, 1968). Eleanor Ruggles's The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay (New York: Norton, 1959) remains the finest biography, despite efforts by Ann Massa (Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream) and Mark Harris (City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography). Also essential to understanding Lindsay is Marc Chenetier's Letters of Vachel Lindsay (New-York: Burt Franklin, 1979).
Jeffrey Folks is the author, most recently, of Damaged Lives: Southern & Caribbean Narrative from Faulkner to Naipaul (2005).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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