Vachel Lindsay’s peripatetic lifestyle was driven in part by financial need: from 1914
and a necessary one after the deaths of his parents (in 1918 and 1922) and particularly
might transform society. Among other sources, Lindsay’s gospel was inspired by mystical
social gospel of the Campbellite Christian sect in which he was raised, and by Lindsay’s
sell, or give away, his pamphlets, Lindsay’s gospel represents itself at its most
idealistic. At other times, as in "The Child-Heart in the Mountains" and
"Celestial Flowers of Glacial Park," the gospel is simultaneously mystical and
of the poet.
From Lindsay’s letter to E.S. Ames, a coreligionist in the Campbellite
My ancestors were all men of action, statesmen, rulers of men. It is hard for me to
true to my art and writing. . . .
Church, following the leading of "The Gleam," seeking new impressions and vivid
left few on record. The most I can hope for my verse is that it will some day become the
promise. I merely hope. When you see signs of it in my writing, I ask your
congratulations, though it may be a while before they are due.
Account of Lindsay’s first visions, in the summer of 1904; Elizabeth
Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay, 90:
Lindsay stayed on at home after the wedding [of his sister] and during the summer he
began to have some curious experiences. He called them "visions." He never lost
his head over these visions or tried to explain them as other than the projections of a
strongly visual imagination, but it should be understood that–like William Blake–he
actually saw them.
"It is plausible, I think," he wrote afterward, "that for one who had so
long co-ordinated drawings and poems for drawings, his religious experiences should paint
themselves before him in the air. Being taught by that admiarable practical but
unimaginative master William M. Chase never to draw a thing till I saw it on the blank
made them unusual."
his bedroom. The second time, by day, he saw the prophets march gravely before the tall
elm tree in the front yard.
He believed his visions were not infallible but to be interepreted however he chose;
they were a part of his artistic captial. Yet they had been sent, like all strong
convictions. It was late, late at night in the awed aftermath of the first of them that he
Lindsay’s first attempt to sell, and then give away his poems, in New
York City; Rica Brenner, Poets of Our Time, 116-17:
Possibly Vachel Lindsay at last felt he should earn his own living. At all events, he
now embarked on a quixotic adventure, that of selling copies of his own poems. From door
few cents apiece. He thought of himself as an ancient troubadour making his way through
"Well, I tried a sleepy big shock headed baker first. I tired to give the poem to
of my alms and irritated independence in his manner. So the next place I said to the
customer smiled, and said, ‘Newspapers cost only one cent, with lots more reading matter
than this.’ But he took two cents from his till all right. I said, ‘You can see me the
like it,’ and laughed, and we parted, I promising to come again sometime or another."
Candy stores, Chinese laundries–"I must land a Chinaman yet"–delicatessens,
performances. The result was an enriching of his experiences and a strengthening of his
conviction that "the people like poetry as well as the scholars, or better," but
no very great improvement in his finances.
Lindsay’s War Bulletins were written and self-published in 1909
after he returned to Springfield from New York City; "War Bulletin Number One"
vol. 1, 85:
I have spent a great part of my few years fighting a soul battle for absolute liberty,
having a great deal in common with them.–but–
cheapness and your impatience!
In each new Bulletin the war shall go faster and further. War! War! War!
"The Gospel of Beauty" was a one-page tract carried with
Lindsay, and handed out in exchange for room and board, during his tramp from Springfield
Gospel of Beauty:
THE GOSPEL OF BEAUTY
Being the new "creed of a beggar" by that vain and foolish mendicant Nicholas
Illinois. It is his intention to carry this gospel across the country beginning June,
1912, returning in due time.
I come to you penniless and afoot, to bring a message. I am starting a
new religious idea. The idea does not say "no" to any creed that you have heard.
. . . After this, let the denomination to which you now belong be called in your heart
"the church of beauty" or "the church of the open sky." . . . The
THE NEW LOCALISM
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
or story-tellers or craftsmen or wood-carvers or dramatists or actors or singers. They
Gettysburg Address. They should, if led by the spirit, wander over the whole nation in
overflowing with the righteousness of God. Then they should come back to their own hearth
strive to make the neighborhood and home more beautiful and democratic and holy with their
honors. . . . In their darkest hours they should be made strong by the vision of a
completely beautiful neighborhood and the passion for a completely democratic art. Their
reason for living should be that joy in beauty which no wounds can take away, and that joy
in the love of God which no crucifixion can end.
On his 1912 walk Lindsay was most impressed by Kansas; Adventures
While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty focuses on his experiences in that state,
represented in the following two excerpts–the first a philosophic and political
appreciation, the second a sensual and symbolic one:
land our fathers took for granted! Kansas, practically free from cities and industrialism,
civilization the constitution had in mind! Kansas, State of tremendous crops and hardy,
devout, natural men! Kansas of the historic Santa F? Trail and the classic village of
Emporia and the immortal editor of Emporia! Kansas, laid out in roads a mile apart,
criss-crossing to make a great checker-board, roads that go on and on past endless rich
work; State where the shabby tenant-dwelling scarce appears as yet! Kansas of the
Chautauqua and the college-student and the devout school-teacher! The dry State, the
automobile State, the insurgent State! Kansas, that is ruled by the cross-roads church,
and the church type of civilization! The Newest New England! State of more promise of
permanent spiritual glory than Massachusetts in her brilliant youth!
* * * *
JUNE 14, 1912. I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered
every spiritual sense I am in the West. This morning I passed the stone mile-post that
the farmer had cut the weeds between the row and the fence, the gentle fruits revealed
themselves, growing in the shadow between the still-standing weeds. They shine out in a
red line that stretches on and on, and a man has to resolve to stop eating several times.
Just as he thinks he has conquered the desire the line gets dazzlingly red again.
The berries grow at the end of a slender stalk, clustered six in a bunch. One gathers
them in bouquets, as it were, and eats off the fruit like taffy off a stick.
Regarding Lindsay’s affection for Glacier National Park, and his faith
in wild American places as a source of visionary inspiration; Ann Massa, Vachel
Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream, 179:
He had tramped with Stephen Graham in Glacier National Park, Montana, in 1921; he
honeymooned there . . . . From 1923 to 1928 he lived in Spokane, Washington, primarily to
which he and Graham had crossed the border into Canada and the Waterton Lakes Park in
1922. "We crossed a Canadian American line almost obliterated. Every line should be
like that." The experience seemed to him an anticipation of the day when a fraternal
Lindsay relied on national parks–particularly Glacier Park–as a personal panacea. On
refereshment in national parks led him to think of them as an antidote for national ills:
the East," he brooded in Glacier Park in 1922. The Parks represented the Western
essence of the United States as opposed to a Europeanized, disparate America: "If in
America one does not have the West-going heart, the thousand little nations that are the
coutnries of Europe pull one away from our great National Parks."
Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America, 326-27:
We must refer to "The Virginians Are Coming Again," to be found in the
volume, Every Soul Is a Circus. He inserted a long preface in this volume,
recapitulating his art theories, his theories of the dancing of poetry, and the reciting
of poetry. . . .
"The Virginians Are Coming Again" ranks with the best that Lindsay did, not
written, Lindsay noted, as a summary to The Litany of Washington Street; but it
is much more than that. It prays for the downfall of the economic r?gime which came into
prosecution put into power. It longs for Robert E. Lee to gallop again to the sea in a
fury of men [sic; Masters seems, improbably, to conflate Lee and Sherman here]. It means
that all of Lindsay’s heart at last was south of Mason and Dixon’s line, and that his
Marc Ch?netier, "Lindsay’s American Mythocracy," 49, 50:
rasa of the Midwest, Lindsay wants to build with incense and splendor, come through
on the East Coast. . . . On the as yet unspoiled land on which he was born, Lindsay wants
to restore the grandeur of the land whence his forefathers came:
Lindsay publishes "The Virginians Are Coming Again," a poem the importance of
which, both in terms of themes and in terms of technical worth, has been consistently
underrated. He deplores his not being able to have a number of his Litany essays
[from The Litany of Washington Street] taken into consideration by politicians,
but is sure his poems counts enough for a coincidence of dates to matter: "My new
From letter by Lindsay to Margaret Conklin, his literary agent; Letters
of Vachel Lindsay, ed. Marc Ch?netier, 453:
Charleston, South Carolina
March 20, 1931
* * * *
The ideals of my life, on the Platform or off, are summarized in the "Building of
Springfield" Poem. I am at the top of my strength and powers to further those ideals.
My audiences increase to mobs, tyranical, ignorant mobs. Last night I gave them my best in
reciting, all from the Selected Poems, that is all my principal poems but The Congo and
down having recited two hours, my best–8:30 to 10:30 P.M. Then the chairman, by
the Politest methods (not horrible bullying as in Asheville) started them mobbing
me for "The Congo" before I left the hall and I recited it politely resolving to
beat them yet. The Courtesy here is perfect and I have had a good time. But I am not going
to die like Edwin Markham, reciting in the provinces One poem written as a boy. I
wrote The Congo in 1913 and was through reciting it FOREVER, by 1920. And here they not
only ignore it as a Christian Missionary message–welcome it only as a stunt–liking only
the first section and enduring the rest), but I am the agonized prisoner of my 34th
year, no matter if I am 51. I want to say do and be the things a real artist of 51
would do. I am simply bursting with new ideas, new plans pour into my brain
every morning for songs, new creative force comes to me and I am the prisoner of a stunt
with all creative force thwarted . . . .
They accept the Congo and Booth about which I am hectored beyond all human endurance,
only as STUNTS and curiousities. I know they would not cross the street to help a nigger
the Building of Springfield and swear by Heaven that henceforth you will build my
publicity round it.
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish 44:
Vachel, the stars are out
a car crawls slowly across the plain
the heartbroken salesman lights another cigarette
In another city 27 years ago
I see your shadow on the wall
you’re sitting in your suspenders on the bed
the shadow hand lifts up a Lysol bottle to your head
your shade falls over on the floor