(Nicholas) Vachel Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois,
November 10, 1879. From the window where Lindsay did most of his
writing, he saw many Governors come and go, including the
martyred John P. Altgeld, whom he celebrated in "The Eagle that
is Forgotten," one of his finest poems. He graduated from
Springfield High School, attended Hiram College (1897-1900),
studied at the Art Institute at Chicago (1900-3) and at the New
York School of Art (1904). After two years of lecturing and
settlement work, he took the first of his long tramps, walking
through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, preaching "the gospel
of beauty," and formulating his plans to make others share his
creative enthusiasms. He lectured almost continually and traded
on his energy, so much so that he wore himself out before he was
fiftythree. Exhausted because he lacked the strength to fulfill
his vision,he died December 4, 1931.
Like a true revivalist, he attempted to wake in people a response to beauty; a modern Tommy Tucker, he sang, recited, and chanted for his supper, distributing a pamphlet entitled "Rhymes to be Traded for Bread." But the audiences he was endeavoring to reach did not hear him, even though his collection General Booth Enters Into Heaven (1913) struck many a loud and racy note. Lindsay broadened his effects, and the following year published The Congo and Other Poems (1914), an infectious blend of Lindsay's three R's: Rhyme, Religion, and Ragtime. In the title-poem and in the three companion chants Lindsay struck his most powerful and most popular vein. He gave people that primitive joy in syncopated sound which is the foundation of rhythm and the base of song. It excited audiences and stimulated students. The Chinese Nightingale (1917) begins with one of the most whimsical pieces Lindsay has ever de-vised. If the subsequent The Golden Whales of California (1920) is less distinctive, it is because the author has written too much and too speedily to be self-critical. It is his peculiar appraisal of loveliness, the rollicking high spirits joined to a stubborn evangelism, that makes Lindsay so reprcsentative a product of his environment.
Collected Poems (1923) is a complete exhibit of Lindsay's best and worst. That Lindsay lost whatever faculty of self-criticism he may ever have possessed is evidenced by page after page of flat crudities; entire poems proceed with nothing more creative than mere physical energy whipping up a trivial idea. Going-to-the-Sun (1924), Going-to-the-Stars (1925), and The Candle in the Cabin (1926), following each other in too rapid succession, betray Lindsay's loquacity. These volumes are distinguished chiefly by the .whimsical drawings which the oet has scattered among the feeble verses, but the high spirit is unflagging.
Much of Lindsay will die; he will not live as either a prophet or a politician. But the vitality which impels the best of his galloping meters will persist. His innocent wildness of imagination, outlasting his naive programs, will charm even those to whom his brassy declamations (religious at the core) are no longer a novelty. There can be no question about his originality or permanence.
Lindsay also embodied his experiences and meditations on the road in two prose volumes, A flandy Guide for Beggars (1916) and Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914), as well as an enthusiastic study of the "silent drama," The Art of the Moving Picture (1915). A curious document, half rhapsody, half visionary novel, entitled The Golden Book of Springfield, appeared in 1920. A biography, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935), was written by his friend and fellow-poet, Edgar Lee Masters.