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)”