Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lincoln and Lindsay: Springfield's Favorite Sons

On June 24, I was honored to be the speaker at a tea given by and for the ladies of Mt. Pulaski, Illinois and the surrounding area. I was asked to relate Vachel Lindsay to Abraham Lincoln in some way and to recite some of Vachel's poetry concerning Lincoln.

It was a delightful afternoon and I was feted with lunch and a fashion show in which the lovely young maidens of the area modeled vintage fashions from the 19th and 20th centuries.

As I enjoyed my chicken salad on a croissant and the company of the gracious and intelligent ladies with whom I was seated, I couldn't help thinking that Vachel himself must have enjoyed many similar occassions on the lecture circuit.

Here follows the presentation I gave that day, especially prepared for the occasion.

Lincoln and Lindsay: Springfield’s Favorite Sons

To The Young Men of Illinois

Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God’s tenderness
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream
Born where the ghosts of the buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave
Above that breast of earth and prairie fire
Fire that freed the slave

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about Springfield’s two favorite sons, the prairie lawyer and the prairie poet.

Vachel Lindsay’s career as a poet found direction just at the time that Abraham Lincoln’s legacy had achieved iconic status. We might peg that date around the time of Lincoln’s centenary, 1909, when his image first appeared on the penny.

A year before, in 1908, an event took place in Lincoln’s hometown that shocked the world for its irony and infamy and set the direction for Lindsay’s work for the rest of his life. In the heat of August that year in the very hometown of the Great Emancipator, a race riot was sparked at the news of a purported rape of a white woman by a black man. It later turned out to be a false accusation, but when it was discovered that the suspect had been spirited out of town by the authorities in the automobile of a local restaurateur, a mob gathered around his downtown eatery and destroyed the place and his automobile. The mob continued rampaging throughout the city for two days, lynching two men, burning down entire neighborhoods and driving the black population out of town on foot or into the protection of the state militia.

Lindsay, who was 28 years old at the time, was home in Springfield that summer and witnessed the violence and was devastated by it. He thereafter made his life’s mission the salvation of Springfield’s soul.

In response to this terrible event, Lindsay gave a series of lectures on tolerance, celebrating ethnic diversity and discussing the unique contributions of the many peoples who made up Springfield’s population. These lectures were given at the local YWCA over a series of several weeks but its not recorded how well attended they were. Springfield’s great shame was a taboo subject until just a few years ago.

Convinced that alcohol was a major contributing factor to the riot and many other lingering social ills, Lindsay also began working as a lecturer for the Anti-Saloon League, preaching temperance all about the countryside in these parts.

It was also at this time that he shifted his creative focus from drawing and painting to poetry. As an art student, he had been in the habit of writing verses to accompany his artwork. His art instructors in New York and Chicago advised him that his verses were of superior quality to his drawings. He took the hint and set about the remarkable work of becoming a poet.

He began self-publishing his work, using any money he came by to print broadsides and pamphlets which he handed out freely when they failed to sell. He eventually made a name for himself walking across America as a tramp, trading these pamphlets for a meal and a night’s stay, “trading rhymes for bread” he called it. To the dismay of many of his family and friends, he maintained that becoming a tramp was the highest calling to which he could aspire.

Lindsay’s poetry follows the oral tradition, using meter and rhyme to allow easy memorization. It is meant to be performed rather than simply read. When he had achieved some renown and was sought for his performances, Lindsay thought that by reviving the oral tradition with his platform programs, his “higher vaudeville” as he termed it, he could inspire his audiences across America to dream and that this very dreaming would revive the towns and villages where he appeared.

One of the most wondrous aspects of his work is his extensive iconography. He developed an inner language in his poetry he called his “hieroglyphics”. The idea was to embody an entire subject into one word or image. [Here I gave the examples of the rose and the lotus from "The Wedding of the Rose and the Lotus," explaining that the rose stands for the entire Western hemisphere and Western culture while the lotus stands for the East.] Another example of this is his use of the word “Hawthorn” by which he meant the prairie style of Louis Sullivan's and Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture.

"Is it for naught that where the tired eye sees only a place for trade, a teeming square
Doors of high portent open unto me, carved with great eagles and with hawthorns rare?"

Almost every single word in such a verse could be developed into an entire treatise. This was his way of rewarding the careful reader or listener, the true student of his work, since the only way of teasing the intended meaning out such images is to patiently familiarize oneself with his entire body of work and biography. One might also include the hundreds of letters he wrote to literary friends explaining the poetry.

Two of his most important hieroglyphics might be said to be “Springfield” and “Lincoln”.

“The word Springfield written in letters of Utopian Gold, is going into every paper and book I write till I die,” he wrote to Edgar Lee Masters, “It will be the mystic city of America.”

Lindsay dreamed of a Springfield worthy of Lincoln’s legacy, but he also intended his wider audiences to think of their own towns when he spoke of Springfield, and so “Springfield” becomes a hieroglyphic for “Anytown, USA”. In his “Gospel of Beauty,” Lindsay declared that,

“The things most worth while are one’s own hearth and neighborhood. We should make our own home and neighborhood the most democratic, the most beautiful and the holiest in the world.”

Just as Lincoln had become an American icon in Lindsay’s day, his name became a useful hieroglyphic in Lindsay’s poetry. Lincoln stands for Freedom and Equality of course, but also for that uniquely American idea of greatness springing out of nowhere, its natural self-organization rising out of liberty and democracy. Lindsay develops this Lincoln hieroglyphic in a poem about Springfield:

“Some city on the breast of Illinois
No wiser and no better at the start
By faith shall rise redeemed, by faith shall rise
Bearing the Western Glory in her heart…" [reciting to the end of "On the Building of Springfield"]

Also concerning Lincoln’s rise from humble beginnings are these touching lines about his mother, Nancy Hanks:

“Not always are lions born of lions,
Roosevelt sprang from a palace of lace;
On the other hand is the dizzy truth:
Not always is beauty born of beauty,
Some treasures wait in a hidden place.
All over the world were thousands of belles,
In far-off eighteen hundred and nine,
Girls of fifteen, girls of twenty,
Their mamas dressed them up a-plenty –
Each garter was bright, each stocking fine,
But for all their innocent devices,
Their cheeks of fruit and their eyes of wine,
And each voluptuous design,
And all soft glories that we trace
In Europe’s palaces of lace,
A girl who slept in dust and sorrow,
Nancy Hanks, in a lost log cabin,
Nancy Hanks had the loveliest face.”

Lindsay grew up in an old Greek-revival style house in Springfield that had been built by the same people who built the Lincoln home only a few blocks away. Before the Lindsay family owned it, it had been the home of Lincoln’s in-laws, C.M. Smith and Mary Todd’s sister, Ann. Lindsay grew up in that home well aware that Lincoln had been a frequent visitor there and had attended his last major reception there before his departure from Springfield for Washington and the great trial of the Civil War. As a child Lindsay spent many happy hours playing around the Lincoln home at a time when Union veterans made regular pilgrimages there.

During World War I, Lindsay wrote one of his most famous poems in what we now call the Vachel Lindsay Home, an anti-war poem invoking the memory of Lincoln, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” which I’ll close with here.

Before I do, Let me just say that Lindsay’s description of Lincoln’s physical appearance in the poem is very similar to that provided by Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, William Herndon, who happens to be a distant cousin of mine and another favorite son of Springfield. In the last chapter of his famous “Life of Lincoln”, Herndon described Lincoln’s curious gate as cautious and flat-footed. A stranger might misapprehend his “undulatory” manner of walking as the step of an untrustworthy man, but it was actually the step of a man of disproportionate build whose features require a specialized mobility, according to Herndon. Hence, in Herndon’s words, Lincoln “stalks” to the market.

Lindsay doesn’t call his poem Abraham Lincoln Stalks at Midnight, but he does stalk until the dawn-stars burn away.

Herndon writes of Lincoln, “On a winter’s morning, he might be seen stalking toward the market-house, basket on arm, his old gray shawl wrapped around his neck…”

Stalking to the market in a shawl is the common image of Lincoln Lindsay may very well have lifted from the pages of Herndon’s biography but if so, it is a found object used to great effect.

“Abraham Lincoln walks at Midnight (in Springfield, Illinois)”

Monday, May 07, 2007

Lindsay educator retires

The Vachel Lindsay Association proudly congratulates former Board member Deborah Huffman on the occasion of her retirement as a school teacher at Lanphier High School after more than 30 years of teaching.

Please join us at the Vachel Lindsay Home on Saturday, May 12 at 2:00 (ish) for a party in Deb's honor. Her students will be reading Lindsay poetry and refreshments will be served.

As head of the English Department at Lanphier, Deb has made Vachel Lindsay a vital component of her curriculum. Year after year we have been pleased to see and hear her students recite at the Vachel Lindsay Home. The website these students have developed over the years is one of the best Lindsay resources available online.

In 2003, Deb was named Horace Mann's Springfield's School District Educator of the Year.

From the State Journal-Register:

Carol Votsmier, director of communications for Springfield schools, said judges for the [Educator of the Year] award noted Huffman's ability to inspire students.

"The judges were impressed by the way she was able to motivate high school students, the way that she brings her love of literature into the classroom, and just the overall way she can calmly teach high school students a subject that is sometimes not their favorite," Votsmier said.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

April is National Poetry Month

The Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site will host a series of events in April in honor of National Poetry Month. The events are all free and open to the public. A new display of Lindsay's artwork will grace the home throughout the month. The Vachel Lindsay Home is at 603 S. Fifth Street, Springfield, Illinois.

April 14 - Bonnie Bollman, Poets in the Parlor - 2:30 p.m.

Hillsboro poet Bonnie Bollman will share work from her latest book, "My Tote Bag of Rhymes," in the Lindsay parlor. Ms Bollman is active in the Academy of Lifelong Learning. She also hosts a monthly writers' group and is a hospital and nursing home volunteer.

April 21 - Springfield Yourspace Outdoor Art Mural Campaign - 1 p.m.

This special event will be the premier display of Vachel Lindsay's early 20th century town improvement series of illustrations from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Come and learn about the VLA's exciting idea to feature Springfield's favorite poet in our cityscape. Catherine O'Connor will give a tour of the home paying special note to the Lindsay art reproductions which will be a feature in the house throughout the month of April. Catherine in Manager of Local Government Services, Preservation Services Division of hte Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

April 28 - Vachel Lindsay's Gospel of Beauty - 2 p.m.

I will present a program at the Lindsay home on Lindsay's social philosophy as enunciated in a sequence of three poems known collectively as "The Gospel of Beauty." One of Lindsay's stock platform programs, it was presented to audiences on myriad cross-country tours. The three poems, "The Proud Farmer," "The Illinois Village," and "On the Building of Springfield,"express Lindsay's hope for a democratic utopia born in the small, agrairian towns dotting the American landscape.

In Lindsay's own words, the Gospel of Beauty program consists of poems "threaded together with a discussion of Democracy and Art; it is intended for art schools and departments."

In his self-published Letter on My Four Programmes for Committees in Correspondence, Lindsay advised his prospective hosts to have the audience learn his poems by heart in advance, or at least be familiar with them.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Engler on Lindsay

Here's a paper on Lindsay by Balz Enger I found while doing research on my upcoming presentation at the Lindsay Home (April 28, 2:00 p.m.) I was looking for Lindsay's comments on his "Gospel of Beauty" as found in his self-published Letter on My Four Programmes for Committees in Correspondence. Engler's papers describes what I was looking for.


"The first programme, on the Gospel of Beauty, consists of poems 'threaded together with a discussion of Democracy and Art; it is intended for art schools and departments.'" Also,

"He insists that his audiences should learn his poems by heart beforehand, or at least be familiar with them."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Saturday, March 03, 2007

"Vachel Lindsay, the Man"

The Vachel Lindsay Association and the Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site will present the latest in the "Poets in the Parlor" series, "Vachel Lindsay, the Man," at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 10 at the Lindsay Home, 603 South Fifth Street, Springfield, Illinois.

The program will be presented by Marge Deffenbaugh, retired English teacher and Lindsay Home volunteer. Although she has written some poetry, Deffenbaugh's major focus has been on directing, performing and writing plays. The March 10 presentation will offer keen insights into Lindsay and his work.

The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served following the program. Tours of the historic home will be offered both before and after the performance.

The Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site, administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is the birthplace and longtime residence of poet, author and artist Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, 1879 - 1931. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. for free public tours.

Friday, March 02, 2007

New acquisition of Lindsayana

Found among stacks of old Life magazines purchased from rummage sales in Spokane, Washington, a collection of Lindsayana recently has been acquired by the Vachel Lindsay Association.

The collection is that of the Lindsays' neighbors during their later Spokane years, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Warburton Guilbert. Judging from the letters to the Guilberts by Vachel and Elizabeth included in the collection, they were great friends.

Here is a complete catalogue of the collection:


1. Village Magazine, Fourth Imprint with original envelope. Spine is separating but otherwise excellent condition. The separation of the spine appears to be due to age of adhesive rather than wear, as there are no signs of wear. The envelope is in fair condition with tears at the corners and yellowing around the edges. There are no marks or annotations.
2. Map of the Universe, Second Imprint with original envelope. Signed and numbered #1952. Excellent condition with no yellowing of the paper. The envelope is in good condition with some small tears and a fold line.
3. Litany of Washington Street, pamphlet, signed and numbered #1 of 55. Good condition with some yellowing and a faint, hair-sized mark on the cover. Some wear at the bottom edges of the front and back cover.
4. Litany of Thomas Jefferson’s Violin, pamphlet, signed and numbered #1 of 55. Inscribed to Marion Guilbert. Good condition with some yellowing and slight damage around the edges. The upper staple is off-center and a fold line was created on the cover due to opening against the staple.
5. The Virginians are Coming Again, broadside, signed and numbered #311. Good condition with some wear and damage on the edges. Accompanies August 13, 1929 letter from Elizabeth Lindsay to Mrs. Guilbert.


1. Palms, March, 1928 edition. Inscribed to Mr. & Mrs. Guilbert, annotated and signed by Vachel Lindsay. Good condition.
2. Forum, January, 1928 edition. Dog-eared with damage on the cover, but otherwise fair condition. Brief Lindsay annotation on cover points reader to page 21, where is found the Elizabeth Conner Lindsay poem, “From the Northwest”. Also found inserted at page 21, a clipping of a Vachel Lindsay’s April 25, 1928 “Hometown Topics” column from the Spokane Chronicle titled, “Dancers and Singers for Spokane”.
3. The London Mercury, July, 1927 edition. Cover annotated and signed by Vachel Lindsay, inscribed to Mrs. Guilbert. Dog-eared cover front and back, otherwise good condition.
4. The Christian, September 22, 1927 edition. Cover annotated and signed by Vachel Lindsay, inscribed to Mrs. Guilbert. Good condition with slight fold lines.
5. The Dearborn Independent, September 17, 1927 edition. Annotated and signed by Vachel Lindsay, inscribed to Mrs. Guilbert. Good condition with slight fold line.
6. McCall’s, December, 1927 edition. Cover annotated and signed by Vachel Lindsay, inscribed to Mr. & Mrs. Guilbert. Fair condition with damage on the upper binding.


1. September 24, 1927, from Elizabeth Lindsay to Mrs. Guilbert, with envelope, thanking her and Mr. Guilbert for entertaining Vachel one evening.
2. December 17, 1928, from Vachel Lindsay to Mr. & Mrs. Guilbert, on Drake Hotel stationery, no envelope.
3. December 31, 1928, from E.L. to The Guilberts, with envelope, thank-you note for Christmas gifts.
4. January 6, 1929, from E.L. to Mrs. Guilbert, no envelope, thank-you note for Christmas gifts.
5. April 26, 1929, from E.L. to Mrs. Guilbert, with envelope, advising of the Lindsay’s arrival in Springfield.
6. June 10, 1929, from E.L. to Mrs. Guilbert, with envelope and accompanying advertisement for The Litany of Washington Street and a clipping from the May 29, 1929 issue of The Christian Science Monitor with an article on the Lindsays’ return to Illinois from Spokane.
7. August 13, 1929, From E.L. to Mrs. Guilbert on Lindsay stationery, with envelope and accompanying broadside, The Virginians are Coming Again (see Lindsayana item #5 above), mentions reception given in the Lindsays’ honor by Carl and Julia Vrooman.
8. October 10, 1929, from E.L. to Mrs. Guilbert on Lindsay stationery, with envelope, discussing the Lindsays’ welcome back to Springfield and Vachel’s upcoming speaking tours.


1. 3x5 print of Vachel wearing hat and suitcoat, outdoors, facing camera, holding paper. Stamped “Frank W. Guilbert, Spokane Washington” on back.
2. 4x6 print of Vachel, Elizabeth and baby Susan outdoors in residential setting. Vachel is wearing same outfit and suitcoat as in the other pictures, hat in hand.
3. 4x6 print of Vachel wearing hat and suitcoat, outdoors, facing camera, hands in coat pockets, slightly out of focus.
4. 4x6 print of Vachel, same pose as photograph #3, off-center in frame.
5. 4x6 print of Vachel wearing suitcoat, in a greenhouse, surrounded by zinnias, hat in hand.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A west-going heart

Erin Hicks, an artist who blogs here, stopped over in Springfield several weeks ago to take in the Lincoln sites and she discovered Vachel. She blogs about her visit here. She made the watercolor paintings above during her travels.

Check out more of her work at her blog. She really has a lot of talent.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Some snippets

Would that I might link some poetry for you all.

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Vachel Lindsay's Women"

Springfield - The Vachel Lindsay Association and the Vachel Lindsay Home State Hitoric Site will present the next in the monthly 2007 "Poets in the Parlor" series, "Vachel Lindsay's Women," at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, February 10th at the Lindsay Home, 603 South Fifth Street.

Maurine Magliocco, Ph.D., who taught English and Journalism for 37 years at Western Illinois University, will be the presenter.

The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served following the 30-45 minute program.

Tours of the historic home will be offered both before and after the performance. The video "Look Into Your Heart: The Challenge of Vachel Lindsay" may be viewed throughout the day and will also be available for purchase.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Immortal butterflies

Lew Jaffe, a collector of bookplates and a blogger, recently posted this image of an original pen and ink illustration by Vachel Lindsay.

According to Mr. Jaffe, Lindsay's obit (didn't say which newspaper) reported that the Rev. Clark Walter Cummings officiated at Lindsay's funeral. The sketch is dated 1931, the year Lindsay died.

Along either edge of the page Lindsay wrote the words, "Fine books are immortal butterflies that sweep the skies."

No indication is given as to what book this drawing was made in, but it probably wasn't a Lindsay title.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Poetry reading tonight

In the spirit of Lindsay's tramps across America, the Vachel Lindsay Association is proud to host an evening with internationally renowned poet Simon Pettet tonight at 7:00 in the Art Gallery at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. The public is invited to attend.

Mr. Pettet, an English-born poet, is a long time resident of New York’s Lower East Side. His new book of poems is called More Winnowed Fragments. Robert Creeley says of Pettet: “He sounds those same simplicities of profound music Blake also knew. He moves with a deft and practiced quiet. He speaks the truth. One critic describes the book as “Magical, revivifying, masterful — how many adjectives can dance on the tip of a pin?”

Joining Mr. Pettet this evening is Eero Ruuttila. Mr. Ruuttila manages Nesenkeag Farm and is the organizer of the annual Farm Day Poetry Reading series held on the banks of the Merrimack River where Thoreau camped, outside of Litchfield, New Hampshire. In addition to reading poems and stories from his travel and farm journals, Ruuttila travels with a simply framed photography show.

photo courtesy of www.jonbidwell.com

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Major blog features Lindsay at poetry slam

Daily Kos, considered by many to be one of the most influential blogs on the Internet, was the scene of a virtual poetry slam hosted by blogger Darrell J. Gahm on Saturday, December 23, 2006. Gahm kicked off the event with "The Congo," "What the Moon Saw," and "The Doll on the Topmost Bough," all by Vachel Lindsay.

Knowing the essence of Lindsay's work, Gahm made an audio version of his own recitation of "The Congo" available at the blog.

Gahm referred to Lindsay as "relatively obscure". He appears to have come to him (or was reminded of him) by the new biography of King Leopold, "King Leopold's Ghost," that takes its title from "The Congo".

Looking back on the many blog entries mentioning Lindsay in 2006, the blogoshere may well breathe new life into interest not just in Vachel's poetry, but in all poetry.