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
an allusion in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death of Ray Eldred. Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.
The work is subtitled “A Study of the Negro Race,” and part one lies under the heading “Their Basic Savagery.” The imagery, if such it can be called, is black-face American minstrel, except for a strophe about Leopold of Belgium in hell with his hands cut off.
With a “deep rolling bass,” the prairie evangelist sets out on his crusade:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable…
Beat an empty barrel with the han- dle of a broom…
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM….
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song….
Boom, kill the Arabs,
Boom, kill the white men,
Hoo, Hoo, Hoo….
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
The second section has the title, “Their Irrepressible High Spirits.” Here, on the Congo River, we run into a round of crap-shooting, whoops and yells, witch-men dressed to kill, “cake-walk princes” in tall silk hats, coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair, and more Boom, Boom, Boom. In the third section. “The Hope of Their Religion,” the Apostles appear in coats of mail and, to the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices,” ordain that “Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle.” The forests, the beasts and the “savages” fade away, whispering, in a pianissimo, the dying strains of “Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” The “bucks” are thus converted, all now down-home Campbellites.
What the far-flung audiences made of this infernal indiscretion is hard to imagine. There is always a market for “carrying on” in public, as we can confirm today. No doubt there was more condescension in the air than the reports would suggest. A performance was organized in 1920 at Oxford University by Robert Graves and can be read as an elaborate prank on the pretensions of the dons rather than as a tribute to the prairie poet—indeed the sweating reiterations of the amateur elocutionist might recall Tom Thumb at Queen Victoria’s court.
In any case, scholars can excavate in the old magazines many alarming commendations of this native genius, fresh voice, America’s Homer, and so on. Harriet Monroe, a promoter of poetry and of the Middle West in tandem, wrote the introduction to the book publication of The Congo and other Poems. The praise is short but unfortunately ranging in reference like a kangaroo leaping over rich and spacious plains. Whistler and Whitman are called forth before a landing by Miss Monroe on the “old Greek precedent of the half-chanted lyric.” The “Greek precedent” is one of those critical jokes like “The Jane Austen of the Upper West Side,” but the claim of The Prairie Poets, and subsequent idolators, to the example of Whitman is an unending irritation.
“The Santa-Fé Trail” is another noisy work, the theme seeming to be that the sound of the automobile, Crack, Crack, Crack, is trying without success to overwhelm the song “sweet, sweet, sweet” of a local Southwest bird known as Rachel-Jane. Then there is a salute to the firemen, “Clang, Clang, Clang,” and an evocation of Jesus in “I Heard Immanuel Singing.”
He was ruddy like a shepherd.
His bold young face how fair.
Apollo of the silver bow
Had not such flowing hair.
Tramping and reciting, forever in manic locomotion with notebook in hand to scribble whatever came into his head, head to be laid down at night on a YMCA pillow, left little time for romantic life. Actually Lindsay comes across as more than a little girl-shy in spite of crushes here and there, one falling on the poet Sara Teasdale. But she married a rich shoe-manufacturer and for a time was set up grandly in New York, until she too was mowed down by the drastic scythe of taste and died divorced, no longer rich, reclusive and embittered. At last Lindsay married a young woman from Spokane, a high-school teacher of English and Latin. She was twenty-three and he was forty-six. They had two daughters and were always in financial distress, since his income came largely from recitations and a good portion went to agents and expenses. On the road, the listeners forever calling for “Congo” and “General Booth,” Lindsay was to experience the pathos of repetition: exhaustion and insolvency.
Along the way, uphill and downhill, Lindsay wrote a most interesting book, fortunately in prose: The Art of the Moving Picture, first issued in 1915, revised in 1922, and later reprinted with an excellent appreciation of its worth in the introduction by Stanley Kauffmann. After the rant and carelessness of the verses, Lindsay concentrated his mind on the movies. Here it is, he must have decided as he rested his vocal chords in the darkness of the old cinemas—American, popular, infinite in variety, flung out to the folk with a prodigality very similar to his own production methods. He tries to organize what the films can do, sort out the types, explain the power of directors like D. W. Griffith.
For instance, “The Action Picture”:
In the action picture there is no adequate means for the development of full-grown personal passion. The Action Pictures are falsely advertised as having heart-interest, or abounding in tragedy, but though the actors glower and wrestle and even if they are the most skillful lambasters in the profession, the audience gossips and chews gum.
There are the Intimate Photoplay, the Splendor Pictures, which divide into Crowd Splendor, Patriotic Splendor, Religious Splendor, and so on. Concerning the intimate photoplay, he writes:
Though the intimate and friendly photoplay may be carried out of doors to a row of loafers in front of the country store, or the gossiping streets of the village, it takes its origin and theory from the snugness of the interior. The restless reader replies that he has seen photoplays that showed ballrooms that were grandiose, not the least cozy. These are to be classed as out-of-door scenery so far as theory goes, and are discussed under the head of Splendor Pictures. The intimate Motion Picture…is gossip in extremis.
The movies and their vagrant images for him, the lonely traveling man, had the seductive power of the saloon for others of his kind. He was seduced into a contemplation and wish for coherence absent from his verse-making. Thus he finds “noble views of the sea,” common to early camera effects, allied to “the sea of humanity spectacles”:
the whirling of dancers in ballrooms, handkerchief-waving masses of people on balconies, the hat-waving political ratification meetings, ragged, glowering strikers, and gossiping, dickering people in the market-place. Only Griffith and his disciples can do these as well as almost any manager can reproduce the ocean. Yet the sea of humanity is dramatically blood-brother to the Pacific, the Atlantic, or Mediterranean…. So, in The Birth of the Nation, the Klu Klux Klan dashes down the road as powerfully as Niagara pours over the cliff.
A film version of Ibsen’s Ghosts came to town and Lindsay reports that it was not Ibsen and should have been advertised under the title “The Iniquities of the Fathers, An American Drama of Eugenics, in a Palatial Setting.” The style of these reflections, offhand and colloquial, is usefully attuned to the subject and to his casual, but transfixed, attentions. Returning from a showing of Larry Trimble’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic, he will record that the girl at the piano played “Under the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” throughout. Among the virtues of the films will be their usefulness, nonalcoholic, to the working classes who, in the heat of summer, “under the wind of an electric fan, can witness everything from a burial at Westminster to the birthday parade of the ruler of the land of Swat.”
Los Angeles is the Boston, the Florence of this great flowering, and the stars are national monuments. He pens a tribute to Mary Pickford, “doll divine,” which will proceed to rhyme with “valentine.” And Blanche Sweet: “Stately are her wiles / filling oafs with wisdom, / Saving souls with smiles.” The Art of the Moving Picture is the prairie singer’s finest; most lasting tribute to the American West, to Hollywood.
He was fifty-two years old when he committed suicide. It is not easy to be certain what was going on in his mind, but there seem to have been frightening mood swings, ups and downs, suspicions followed by remorse, in every way a sad collapse. Doctors were called in but before a decision could be made for treatment, Lindsay drank Lysol, saying, “I got them before they got me—they can just try to explain this if they can.”
Edgar Lee Masters was asked by Lindsay’s wife to write a biography and given access to the papers—a very large fund of jottings, since Vachel Lindsay showed a self-preoccupation quite precocious, if that is the way to look at his keeping a daily diary almost from the time he first learned to write. Masters’s work is rich in thorny attitudes, and that gives it a certain crossgrained interest, especially when compared to the ruthless coverage of the pertinent and impertinent, the sense of being on a long trip with the subject in the family car, that defines the research of Lindsay’s other biographer, Eleanor Ruggles, as it does so many other conventional and academic biographies.
Lindsay’s limitations are, if not stressed, at least acknowledged, when Masters writes:
Lindsay dwelt forever in cuckoo cloudland…. He never grew up. The curled darling became a man of great emotional strength; but the memory of himself as the apple of his mother’s eye, as the child wonder of grammar school…. Jesus, with him, after all, was a sort of Santa Claus grown up and made suitable for adult wonder and devotion.
On the other hand we are asked to view the fantastical footnote, Lindsay, in conspiratorial terms:
Not being Eastern American he made only a slight impact upon it; and after the first excitement about his poetry subsided he was treated with supercilious indifference, and the field he had broken and harrowed and sowed was taken and reaped by pro-English artists…. They preferred the Arthurian legends to Johnny Appleseed and Andrew Jackson
The accent of grievance, neatly correspondent to Masters’s cast of mind, is not to the point in the matter of Vachel Lindsay, and in any case the shape of an individual career is mixed with so many contingencies it cannot easily support a translation to the general. But all that is nothing beside the fact that if poor Lindsay had some sort of talents, they were not for poetry. He did not write poetry, he wrote jingles and hymns and scenarios for his public appearances. The true melancholy of the life lies in the broad encouragement of his naiveté, the span of his performances which would inevitably weary. His books were published, he was “famous,” and yet somehow he remained a door-to-door peddler.
An academic study of Edgar Lee Masters* has chapter titles that run: “Masters, Goethe, and the Greeks; “The Natural Child of Walt Whitman”; “Shelley and Masters.” That’s the way things go, these wondrous, inflationary assignations coming about from the list of Masters’s readings. The peculiar deformities of the scholars’ trade, at least of those with a provincial aspect to their orderings, are indeed the disabilities of the lover, freshly enthralled. And as the multiculturalists assume their posts in the academy, we may see more loving resurrections from the dust, rising to drape their togas in the Pantheon. Masters himself can speak, as a throw-away, of Vachel Lindsay’s “very Platonic sense of shadows” and find him “more Greek than German.”
Edgar Lee Masters was born in 1869 and his major work, Spoon River Anthology, did not appear until 1915, although a few of the portraits had been published earlier under a pseudonym. He entered his father’s profession of law and practiced in Chicago for almost thirty years. He was unhappily married and wrote in his autobiography: “Somehow little by little I got the feeling that my wife in spite of her almost meek compliance was enervating me and cutting off my hair and putting out my eyes.” A bitter divorce quite naturally finally came about and Masters moved to New York with his very young bride and settled into the Chelsea Hotel, his wife going back and forth to teach in Pennsylvania.
In many ways a companionable man, friend of Mencken, Dreiser, and others who liked their cigars and schnapps, member of the Players Club, somehow Masters seemed to drift into reclusion. We may notice that although he was in partnership for almost eight years with Clarence Darrow in Chicago, the well-known lawyer does not appear in the autobiography. Masters’s son, by the first wife, in a memoir attributes this gap to the scandal of the divorce and the appearance on the scene of her replacement, some thirty years younger. Perhaps, he suggests, Darrow took at best a neutral attitude and the estrangement followed. Also the son tells of his difficulties in getting through to his father at the Chelsea and when they did meet, Ellen Masters, now his stepmother, did not seem to be on hand. On hand, however, was another young woman, Alice Davis, who lived in the hotel and helped with manuscripts and whatever else she helped with.
In 1944 The New York Times printed a story telling that Masters had been taken to Bellevue Hospital suffering from pneumonia and malnutrition. The Authors League and the American Academy came to his rescue, the wife packed him off to a Pennsylvania nursing home, near to where she was teaching, and there he died at the age of eighty-one. Not a happy roundup, even if there is a hint of self-willed recoil and collapse when one remembers the great industry Masters showed throughout his life in the production of works in many forms, verse, plays, novels, biography, and autobiography.
Spoon River Anthology (1915)—a book could scarcely be more of a success. Said to have sold more copies than any previous work of American poetry, it was translated in all the European languages as well as into Arabic, Korean, and Chinese; also transformed for the stage and used as the libretto for an opera, performed at La Scala. The book is an “anthology” of the gravestones around Spoon River, an area near to Lewistown, Illinois, where Masters grew up. The dead come forth to speak the epitaphs of their lives, each one a short free-verse recollection, a sort of conte, very often remembering injuries or spoken with a surly ruefulness. The unquiet graves, some 214 of them, “all, all, are sleeping on the hill,” were thought to be somewhat cynical and degrading to the quality of life lived in the Illinois villages of Masters’s youth and from which he drew his ruminating characters.
The first one is “Hod Putt,” who died by hanging for a robbery in his days of poverty after a life of toil. Seeing an opportunity for the last word, he notes with satisfaction that he lies next to a crook who prospered from clever uses of the possibilities of bankruptcy. “Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways, / Sleep peacefully side by side.” The verses today strike one not as acerb so much as generally soulful, “filled with longing” poems; good, simple people seeking transcendence. “Of what use is it / To rid one’s self of the world, / When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?”
The public appeal of the work must have been in the framing: first the lachrymal country churchyard with the darkening granite of the tombstones lying in random placement as in village life; then the brief, anecdotal summations, many of them reading like those civil court cases that scrape the skins of the litigants into eternity. To this must be added the candid moral framing of the little stories, the accent on the scorned, the unlucky, the eccentric from whom the smothering “hypocrisy” of the village would exact its punishments.
The “valiant” departed one, “Jefferson Howard,” is “Foe of the church with its charnel darkness, / Friend of the human touch of the tavern” and hounded by the “dominating forces”—Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, bankers. In Spoon River fate deals out repetitive cards. like the equalizing aspect of death itself. The aesthetic default of the work, pressing upon the mind as one name after another approaches its declaration, is that it could go on forever, the flat proseness of the language contributing, as the rocks in the sod are turned over again and again. There was indeed a second collection of Spoon River tales, a replication and consequent deflation of the original invention. (Another monologueportrait was published during these years, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”)
A biography, Lincoln: The Man, appeared in 1931. Hara-Kiri, blood on the floor, Masters’s as well as Lincoln’s an insult to the prairie, to Illinois, and perhaps to Carl Sandburg, or so Vachel Lindsay thought. Sandburg’s Lincoln book, Volume I, The Prairie Years, had been out for six years and if its success embittered Masters, the emotion had its source in the picture of Lincoln rather than in the author’s success in the market.
Masters’s character is a puzzle and it is hard to understand why this attractive and intelligent man, successful as a lawyer and a writer, should be such a sorehead. He is the village iconoclast, atheist, free-lover, and more than a bit paranoid in the matter of local and national forces. He has ideas as some have freckles, and the book on Lincoln puts many of them on display with a good deal of eloquence, however alienating. The notion of the book is that the Civil War should not have been fought and that the aftermath, the domination of plutocrats, merchants, bankers, and the later imperial adventurism, was a disastrous drift. “Hebraic-Puritanism” is Masters’s phrase for the moral insufficiency of the country. By this he does not appear to indicate anti-Semitism; instead he felt a corrosive resentment of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and its power to shape the ethical climate of the nation. After the Civil War,
as if in sublime malice, the choking weeds of Hebraic-Puritanism were sown; and thus the evils of empire and ancient privileges began to thrive, scarcely before the new wheat was started. Ages may be required for creative vision to stand externally in this field and its epos….
The overwhelming offense of the biography was its picture of the character of Lincoln, who is seen as a creature of swamp-bred shrewdness, a sort of wary, calculating Snopes, retaining in the midst of certain superficial refinements the qualities of his father, Thomas Lincoln, who out of shiftlessness had sunk into the fetid habits of the “poor white” class. Masters stresses the fact that Nancy Hanks, Lincoln’s mother, was illegitimate, and in the enveloping mist of parental uncertainty had discovered or imagined her supposed father to be a wellbred Virginia planter. Lincoln claimed the presence of his more promising qualities to have come from the absent grandfather. “Lincoln was profoundly ashamed of the poverty of his youth, and of the sordid surroundings in which he grew up.” Thus his life was ruled by the determination to rise above his beginnings, “unlike the more honest Andrew Jackson and Walt Whitman.”
The distinction and beauty of Lincoln’s prose and of his platform style must be conceded—and also reduced. For Masters this accomplishment and talent are suffused and diseased with the poison of the Bible: “Lincoln, whose only literacy was out of the Bible, and who developed an oratory from it, inspired by its artifice of emotional reiteration, and equipped with its sacred curses and its dreadful prophecies, its appeal to moralities where there was no thought, no real integrity…” The Gettysburg Address is unfavorably compared to Pericles’ funeral oration and subjected to a textual analysis on the matter of truth: “It was not true that our fathers in 1776 had brought forth a new nation; for in that year our fathers brought forth thirteen new nations, each of which was a sovereign state.” Lincoln as a statesman and a thinker is accused of the “Hebraic-Puritan principal of assuming to act as one’s brother’s keeper, when the real motive was to become one’s brother’s jailer.”
Out of indignation and obsession, Masters dug his own grave and sadly inscribed his own tombstone with the acid of the Spoon River meters. The resentment of the Civil War soldier, “Knowlt Hoheimer,” killed in battle and lying up on the hill might be his epitaph:
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, “Pro Patria.”
What do they mean, anyway?
Carl Sandburg lived to be eighty-nine years old and he spent those years going here and yon, a hardy tumbleweed of a populist, blown by the wind across the plains. More than forty books to his credit and what for some would have been a burdensome accretion of honors, each one to be accepted and attended like the duties on the Court Calendar. Of course he was sustained by the old pioneer energy and as an early pop-art king his act, writing free-verse poems, collecting and performing The American Songbag, was inexhaustible. The seven volumes on the life of Lincoln, “a folk biography” some critic was happy to describe it, spread over more than ten years but of course he was on the hoof a good deal of that time.
These reflections come about from the strenuous busyness of Penelope Niven’s new biography of Sandburg: over seven hundred pages, followed by another hundred of notes. The effort is a sort of rival to Sandburg’s Lincoln: Prairie Years, Chicago Years, National Hero Years. Professor Niven says in her preface that her previous scholarship was of the sort to exclude the claims of this bygone figure, fallen from eminence, but “a decade after his death, I went to his Carolina mountain home” and then it appears that she fell into the corn crib, so to speak. That is, the vast Sandburg papers in libraries, in possession of the family, lying about in cartons. After this great haystack, the fodder of the book, was pulled apart, she began the Carl Sandburg Oral History Project of more than 150 interviews.
Having gone through the heap, settled into the poet and each member of the family, reliving their nights and days with an intrusive intimacy, the biographer will want to put each scrap down. The index cards or data sheets come to have a claim of their own and the affirmation, the yes, yes, of Sandburg’s scurry through life is her own affirming journey. The book is tedious and sentimental and long, long, four score and ten years long. She likes participial descriptions such as “hearty and vigorous,” or “erect and vigorous”—and who can doubt that’s exactly what the wily old campaigner was, even though the biographer had never encountered him in life. The scholar of the papers, of the life of, knows, like some celestial Xerox machine, details that consciousness erases overnight.
One of the amusements of this biography is that it is a kind of informal history of the radio and television shows of the period, not unlike listening to the “golden oldies.” Sandburg hit them all: the George Jessel Show, the Milton Berle Show, the Dave Garroway Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Bell Telephone Hour. Ed Murrow comes in more than once, and with Norman Corwin, the prince of radio Americana, Sandburg had a “fruitful” relationship. At the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles he was introduced by Edgar Bergen (sold out, standing ovation); the publication of the Second American Songbag had an introduction by Bing Crosby. Penelope Niven again and again calls Sandburg the “eternal hobo,” but as his fame grows he is usually on his way to the studio or to the auditorium.
For a number of years, or for a good part of them, the prairie poet was in Hollywood under contract. Two producers from MGM sought his services for an “epic film about the USA,” an undertaking not designed to be a mere motion picture, but a “great, ringing message to the people.” Sandburg was to write a novel, following in shape a scenario written by Sidney Franklin. The novel would be published and then made into a film. For this he was given $100,000, and the project was a “challenge Sandburg could not resist.” The end of it all, after story conferences, residence in the film colony, after years and years, was that the novel appeared under the name of Remembrance Rock, 1,067 pages of the American Dream, never made into a film, a critical failure, but in no way a money loss for the author. The second Hollywood adventure was a year and a half of work with George Stevens on The Greatest Story Ever Told. “HE was not only a pioneer, but an adventurer and an explorer, in his own words a Seeker,” the biographer writes, her words ever echoing those of her subject.
Sandburg made a bold identification between his own career and the history of the great country itself. Roosevelt wanted him to run for Congress we are told. He collected Harvard and Yale honorary degrees, among many others, Pulitzer Prizes for history and poetry, invitations to address a session of Congress—a lot of this adulation arising from his assuming the mantle of Lincoln as a friend of the Family of Man, and so on. He missed out on a few things such as the Nobel Prize and felt a certain annoyance when President Kennedy, whom he had supported, invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the Inaugural rather than himself.
Oscar Wilde called the prairies “blotting paper” and if they are so looked at, Carl Sandburg can be said to have sucked up all the nutrients in the soil. His beginning voice in Chicago Poems (1916), celebrating the “City of the Big Shoulders,” and lamenting the lot of the dispossessed, would sustain him, it seems, into the Depression period, and the years of the New Deal. As a child of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg was part of the Social-Democratic movement in the Middle Western states and that marked the rhythm of his life: the little man, the striker, the dreamer, the immigrant toiler, friend of all mankind. His particular politics were New Deal and the Democratic party. On and on he goes, each of his affirmations self-affirming.
The People, Yes is 179 pages long, with 107 sections—a statistical plenitude as typical of the prairie poets as of the wheat acreage of the region. In his notes, Sandburg writes of the work as coming out of “Piers Plowman, seven hundred years ago, a far better handbook and manual of democracy than either Dante or Donne,”—a statement of such historical incongruity it raises questions of familiarity with the last two and maybe also the first of the antecedents named. No matter, the sprawl of the work is a “modern epic” and an “odyssey deep into the American Experience,” in the reading by the biographer. In some ways her spacious accommodations arouse sympathy since an attempt to analyze Sandburg’s lines flowing down the pages would be profitless. His people, yes or no, are actually just indentured servants and they did his work, sunup to sundown. The poet’s acres and the house in the Carolinas are “open to the public as a National Park and National Historic Site.” And that’s it.
Spending time with the metered, or unmetered, minstrels of the Middle West is to invite a special melancholy, one not only aesthetic, although that defect predominates since they come into history as poets, not as preachers, philosophers, politicians, or entertainers. Birth or youth in Illinois marked them, a tattoo appropriate enough as experience, the turf of the imagination. Still they were not ordinary citizens, state proud, but ones making a claim for what were, for the most part, hasty, repetitive, and formless verses, unlike, for instance, the inspirations of Hart Crane of Ohio.
Elitism, which is merely the existence of exceptional talents, will here be scorned as a threat to the demotic voices of the prairie. Of course they too, by publication, must make their entrance into the long tradition, an inescapable transition in the arts, like the onset of puberty. As outlandishly successful as these poets were, this happy circumstance was, as usual, not sufficient, because of the wish for a higher validation that haunts the dreams of the popular in the manner of a concealed felony.
We note that the three have a proprietary feeling about the country, a longing to transform its restless genetic material into a folk, to fashion the inchoate strains into a hardy stock with the name “American” on it, like a packet of sunflower seeds. A futile parochialism for a nation that has ever been, to expropriate a phrase from Kafka, “a cage seeking a bird.”
September 26, 1991