Biography in Brief
By Dr. Dennis Camp
author and editor of The Poetry of Vachel Lindsay
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born November 10, 1879, in the family home at 603 South 5th Street, Springfield, Illinois. His father, Vachel Thomas Lindsay, was a doctor; his mother, Esther Catharine Frazee Lindsay, was a civic and religious leader. He was sickly at birth and his parents feared for his life; indeed, three young sisters born after Nicholas Vachel succumbed to scarlet fever while still infants.
After a rather ordinary grade school career, Vachel, as he was called in later years, entered Springfield High School in 1892. Here he met teacher Susan Wilcox, and she became a guiding light for the rest of his life. His high school academic career, contrary to some accounts, was quite successful; and he was the champion walker on his high school track team, even participating in the state track meet in Champaign during his senior year. In keeping with his era, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and thus matriculated into the premedical program at Hiram College (Hiram, Ohio) in fall, 1897. After three years, during which time he excelled in literature and philosophy and failed in premedical and language courses, he convinced his parents that college was interfering with his education, and he was allowed to enroll in art courses at the Chicago Art Institute (1901-1903).
Weary of Chicago, Vachel moved on to William Chase’s New York School of Art, where the primary instructor, Robert Henri, suggested to his student that he was more a poet than a painter. Following Henri’s advice, Vachel began taking his poetry seriously and even attempted to sell poems to individuals on New York City street corners. Then, in 1906, he joined a friend and sailed to Florida on a tramp steamer. The friend took a train back to New York; Vachel tramped from Florida to a cousin’s home just south of Louisville, Kentucky, attempting to trade a poem-booklet, “The Tree of Laughing Bells,” for a meal and a night’s lodging. After a family trip to visit European art galleries, Vachel returned to New York to lecture on art and poetry in various YMCAs. Then, in 1908, he left New York on foot, tramping across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Hiram, Ohio, where he joined his younger sister Joy for a train ride back to Springfield. Both of these early tramps are recounted in A Handy Guide for Beggars (1916).
Vachel and Joy arrived in Springfield just prior to an August race riot (1908), a riot that stunned the world, as it happened just months before Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday and directly in Lincoln’s backyard, so to speak. In the aftermath of the riot, Vachel gave a series of ten lectures on race at the local YMCA, hoping to persuade his fellow citizens to make their city a model of beauty, order, and understanding. Then, in 1909, he collected his poems written to date, several stimulated by the horror of the race riot, and self-published his first poetry volume, The Tramp’s Excuse and Other Poems.
The next two to three years, Vachel delivered temperance lectures in and around Springfield, and continued to develop his ideas on civic beauty and civic tolerance, finally self-publishing the core of these ideas in a broadside entitled “The Gospel of Beauty. “ With this broadside and a new collection of poems, Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912), Vachel left Springfield on foot, heading west, first stopping at the family summer camp in Colorado and then continuing to Wagon Mound, New Mexico, where he lost his courage, wired his father for money, and bought a train ticket to a cousin’s home in Los Angeles, California. Here he authored one of his more famous poems, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” He then tried to set out by foot again, but soon fled back to his cousin’s home when he learned he had not regained any lost courage. He departed by train for Oakland, where he wrote “The Wedding of the Rose and the Lotus,” in recognition of the importance of the Panama Canal. Now, for all intents and purposes, Vachel’s tramping days were finished. He returned by train to Springfield, and there published his first trade volume, General William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems (1913). Other trade volumes followed: The Congo and Other Poems (1914) and The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems (1917). In between the latter two, he published the first American study of film as an art form, The Art of the Moving Picture(1915).
Following a whirlwind romance of Sara Teasdale, who rejected him in favor of a shoe manufacturer, Vachel’s life fell into a continuing pattern. He traveled the country by train, giving poetry performances (he did much more than simply read a work) for diverse audiences, such as women’s groups, church groups, and college students. In 1920, he delivered one of these performances at his Springfield High School alma mater, at the request of Susan Wilcox. He was at the very height of his career, having just returned from a highly successful tour of England, having published two more poetry trade volumes (The Golden Whales of California and Other Rhymes in the American Language and The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems), and having published his utopian vision for his beloved city: The Golden Book of Springfield. For the record, Vachel was the first American poet invited to speak at Oxford.
On February 1, 1922, however, Vachel lost his most important inspiration girl, his mother; and soon afterwards, his health began to fail. He collapsed in Gulfport, Mississippi, the following January, and under-went two sinus surgeries. Seeking time for rest and recovery, he accepted a teaching position at Gulf Park College, Gulfport, where one of his old Hiram College friends was president. The position would seem to have been ideal: teaching one poetry class to a group of young female students four days a week. After a year, though, Vachel’s restlessness returned, and he accepted a position that was essentially poet-in-residence in Spokane, Washington. Here, in 1925, he met Elizabeth Conner, who was 23 years his junior but who was enamored with his work and reputation. Within two weeks they were married; and the next two years saw birth of a daughter, Susan Doniphan, and a son, Nicholas Cave. Meanwhile, several additional trade volumes were published, but few of the poems appealed to audiences like “The Congo,” “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,””The Kallyope Yell,” and other, earlier works.
In 1929, Vachel and his family returned to the old Springfield homestead, the house where the poet was born, the house that had once belonged to Abraham Lincoln’s sister-in-law, the house where Vachel knew his hero, the Great Emancipator, had visited on numerous occasions. But the homecoming soon turned, like the American economy, from triumph to tragedy. In the end, the only way Vachel could support his family was to clamber back on trains and give poetry performances around the country: this when the only place he wanted to be was in Springfield with his wife and children. By late 1931, again struggling with his health, both mentally and physically, he was rapidly becoming a disheartened man. Finally, in desperation, on the night of December 5, 1931, he drank a bottle of lye, dying horribly, dying in the bedroom just above the bedroom in which he had been born. He is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, with his hero Abraham Lincoln; on his tombstone we read his name and a single word: Poet.