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Wind from the Prairie

Carl Sandburg: A Biography

by Penelope Niven
Scribner’s, 843 pp., $35.00

The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay

by Eleanor Ruggles
Norton (out of print)

The Art of the Moving Picture

by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, Introduction by Stanley Kauffmann
American Film Institute (out of print)

Roll along, Prairie Moon,
Roll along, while I croon.

Around World War I. writers from the American Middle Western states began to appear on the literary scene. In fiction, there were Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson, and also the three, known as the “Prairie Poets,” Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Looking into the new biography of Carl Sandburg, a work of exhaustive, definitive coziness in the current American mode of entranced biographical research, I was reminded of having some years ago taken from the library stacks a curiosity, a biography of Lindsay written by Edgar Lee Masters. If Carl Sandburg may be said to have managed shrewdly the transactions of his declamatory, bardic career as a national treasure born in Illinois on a corn-husk mattress, the other two rose and fell disastrously, and literally. Vachel Lindsay committed suicide and Masters died in want, having been found broke and sick in the Chelsea Hotel in New York and rescued to die in a nursing home.

The two men, Lindsay and Masters, are not quite soul mates. Their union is geographical, a territorial circumstantial linkage to a mythographic Middle West, the putative spiritual grasslands of the vast native country. Lindsay was a naive, manic evangelist, preaching the Gospel of Beauty, and carrying with him on his incredible cross-country hikes the Christian fundamentalism and Anti-Saloon teachings of his youth. Along with, of course, Illinois, the prairie, the conviction of being the voice of some real America. in situ, that must be honored, as if under threat of extinction by a flood. As a versifier, he had no more caution than a hobo hitching a ride, but somehow his voice prevailed for a time, even with some of the respected critics of the day. He appeared and appeared, willing to recite at a high school reunion as well as in London, where, according to a later biographer, Eleanor Ruggles, “he and his mother met Robert Bridges, venerable laureate and defender of the tongue [sic], and John Masefield, always Vachel’s admirer, came in from Boars Hill to pay his respects.” Feverish days, but, toward the end in Washington, DC, an audience of two hundred walked out, puzzling the performer and Edgar Lee Masters, but attributed in the Ruggles biography to a microphone failure of which the poet was unaware. A miserable moment, for as Robert Frost, a rival from the Northeast, observed, “Hell is a half-filled auditorium.”

Edgar Lee Masters, for a good part of his life a successful lawyer in Chicago, was, one would need to say, a lot smarter than Vachel Lindsay and certainly more worldly—but then everyone was more worldly than Lindsay. Masters was in religion a freethinker, set against the “hypocrisy” of the preachers, even more exasperated by the Temperance Movement, and along the way set against puritanical sexual inhibitions. He was a handsome man who, step by hesitating step, nevertheless made a rashly uncomfortable marriage to a fundamentalist, teetotaler young woman. He had children, stayed on, was unfaithful, listing in his autobiography nearly as many female loves as Goethe; finally divorced, and remarried a young woman, indeed thirty years younger than he. Lindsay was one of those too-friendly boosters with their often strange imperviousness and faltering sense of the appropriate. Masters was splenetic, the cemetery headstone his natural memorial, cranky in opinion and, although he was very productive and for a time immensely successful, there was in his life a feeling of being undervalued, and even of seeing the whole country in an enormous displacement from virtue, pioneer and otherwise.

Of Lindsay, Masters said he was “impelled to write something about the poet who was native to Illinois, as I am in reality, and who knew the same people and the same culture that I do, and who practiced the art of poetry, as I have, in the same part of America, and under the same social and political conditions.” In the end, as he reaches Lindsay’s declining audience and death, he begins to see the life as a social rather than a personal tragedy, to view the native “singer” as a victim of the East, the money-grubbing, alienated world that preferred the poems of Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson, poets Masters finds essentially “English” in tone and landscape rather than American.

There’s more to it than that from this strange man about his stranger fellow-bard:

The motley stocks and alien breeds which have taken America cannot be American until there is an America to mold them into Americans…

Lindsay might sing himself hoarse of the old courthouse America, the old horse and buggy America, the America of the Sante Fé Trail, of Johnny Appleseed…. Did the East, did these alien stocks want to be American? This is what Lindsay was up against. In this connection mention must be made of the Jews who are enormously numerous, powerful and influential. Jews are not Americans in the sense that the Jews are English or French, according to habitat….

Ezra Pound described Vachel Lindsay as a “plain man in gum overshoes with a touching belief in W.J. Bryan.” Yes, there was “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” the poem celebrating the Free Silver populist, fundamentalist, and prohibitionist in his losing campaign against McKinley Almost three hundred lines in which Bryan is seen as “the prairie avenger…smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West.” His defeat was the “victory of Plymouth Rock and all those inbred landlord stocks” (perhaps it was) and also, in a wild extension, somehow the defeat of the “blue bells of the Rockies and the blue bonnets of old Texas.”

Lindsay’s life was one of intense, sentimental aggressiveness; and yet there is something unprotected about him. His unanchored enthusiasm has the dismaying aspect of being genuine and unforced, a sort of hysterical innocence, or so it seems. The cheerful, round-faced, fair-haired country boy was in fact town bred, born in Springfield, Illinois. Fate put his birthplace next to the house in which Lincoln had lived and this had the effect of igniting the boy like a firecracker—the nearness to the great, solemn son of the prairie, like himself, the hallowed walker of the streets of Springfield. Lincoln in Illinois had quite a contrary effect on Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote a long, scathing biography of the fallen president, composed with the racing eloquence of contempt for the man and for the “tyrannous plutocracy” that followed the Civil War.

Both Lindsay and Masters came from professional families. Masters’s father was a self-made lawyer, a conscientious man of some influence in Illinois and given, at least in part, to liberal causes and worthy cases. The Lindsay family was an odder combination of beliefs and habits. The father, as a young man in impecunious circumstances, worked his way through an Ohio medical school, set up practice in Illinois, and, after the death of his first wife, somehow saved enough for further study in Vienna. On the boat going to Europe, he met his future wife, a teacher of art and other subjects in Kentucky. Throughout their lives, with or without their children, the couple traveled quite a lot, going several times to Europe and even as far as Japan and China, but there were less cosmopolitan strains in the mother. She passed on to her son the ornamental, provincial “art-loving” claim of certain small-town American wives, and also a good measure of the missionary qualities he displayed. Mrs. Lindsay was the organizer of church spectacles, liked to officiate in group meetings, attend conferences, and so on.

Her family was attached to the Campbellite Church, also known as The Disciples of Christ, or just as The Christian Church. The church had been founded by Alexander Campbell and his son Thomas, originally Presbyterians and then, coming to believe in baptism by immersion, uniting their flock with the Baptists, before finally breaking away—in one of those organizational disputes so peculiar to the Protestant denominations—to found their own Campbellite sect. From these roots Vachel Lindsay got his fundamentalism and prohibitionism, the Gospel of Beauty, and a flair for expounding preacher-style. He was sent to the Art Institute in Chicago and later, in New York in 1905, studied with William Merrett Chase and Robert Henri, but did not make notable progress as a painter or as a cartoonist.

All the time Lindsay had been writing verses in his hymn-tune rhythms, reciting at the YMCA, and turning himself into a peddler. With his verses and drawings, the plain, open-faced, clean young man wandered the streets of New York, knocking on the doors of fish markets, Chinese laundries, bakeries, stopping people to listen to his wares, canvassing, as it were, Hell’s Kitchen. A curious, impervious nuisance, bringing to mind the intrepid appeals of the Jehovah’s Witness bell-ringers. And then he began his years of quite literally tramping across the country, pamphlets and verses for sale, doing missionary work for the Gospel of Beauty. He carried with him a character reference from the YMCA.

It was in California that Lindsay learned of the death of General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. And thus he came to write one of his first bizarre incantations, an unaccountable success for which the mind glancing back on our literary history is, well, dumbstruck.

GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS INTO HEAVEN.

(To be sung to the tune of “The Blood of the Lamb” with indicated instrument)

The work opens with bass drum beats and:

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled bravely and they said: “He’s come.”
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The thing flows on apace and concludes:

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

This submission appeared in an early issue of Poetry and Harriet Monroe in the annual prize-giving of 1913 awarded it $100. A prize for $250 went to William Butler Yeats, the latter having been pushed for by Ezra Pound. Sometime later, when Yeats was in Chicago, Miss Monroe invited Lindsay to a dinner at which the various important writers on hand were invited. That evening Vachel Lindsay recited the whole of “The Congo,” and was apparently “well-received” in spite of its being over two hundred fiercely resounding lines. This most extraordinary embarrassment in our cultural history achieved a personally orated dissemination scarcely to be credited. Anywhere and everywhere he went with it—the Chamber of Commerce, high schools, ladies’ clubs, the Lincoln Day Banquet in Springfield, the Players Club in New York, where Masters tells that its noise greatly irritated certain members.

The Congo” is the supreme folly of Lindsay’s foolhardy career. There is a sad, no doubt unconscious, complacency in its concussive hilarity, the compositional shove coming from

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