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 …

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Letters

Mastering Masters November 21, 1991