Editor’s (admin’s) note: Facebook shared the above post, from 2017, this morning as one of its “Memories.” It shows an inscription by Vachel Lindsay on the inside title page of a book he apparently donated to SCI. I used a copy to illustrate an article I wrote in 1999 for The Sleepy Weasel. I included the MLA-style in-text citations because I was teaching freshman English at the time and I wanted to set a good example. I don’t think they’ll get in the way too much!

Citizen, Traveler, Singer: Vachel Lindsay and Springfield College

Peter Ellertsen

There’s an oral tradition that Vachel Lindsay had some connection with Springfield College in Illinois. That’s appropriate: Lindsay was an oral poet, in the sense he was a poet of the spoken word, and the tradition came down to me through the spoken word. Not long after I joined the SCI faculty, I asked the late Sr. Mary Loyola Power about it. As the college archivist and an emeritus English professor, she warmed to the topic.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “He was at Ursula Hall.”

But we were just chatting, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask for details. That’s all I learned at the time, and we never got back to Lindsay before her death in 1999. I thought about that conversation several times during fall semester, as SCI joined the state Historic Preservation Agency and Illinois Times, among others, in sponsoring a symposium on “The Road to Utopia: Vachel Lindsay, Utopia, and the Spirit of Community.” How much I’d give to be able to follow up on our conversation now.

Born in Springfield Nov. 10, 1879, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay considered himself a citizen of Springfield throughout his life. Yet he spent most of his working life on the road, first as a wanderer and then as a lecturer. He took American poetry where it had never gone before — in adapting its rhythms to those of common American speech in the “jazz age” of the 1910s and 20s. He called his technique the “Higher Vaudeville,” and he sought to be popular, a poet of the common people, and to appeal to the popular taste. Although his bookings had begun to lag before his death in December 1931, he succeeded in that goal. On the lecture circuit, he mesmerized audiences from coast to coast. But he discounted the importance of his most striking innovations. He came to think of “Higher Vaudeville” as hack work, and he considered himself essentially a failed civic reformer. Partly because of his high aspirations for Springfield, which he saw as a potential mecca for the arts, people here long regarded him as a sort of an oddball — until he got famous, at least. Then, about 1914, Lindsay’s career took off. He was lionized in the literary centers of Chicago (at the time an important venue for poetry) and New York, and in 1920 he toured England and became the first American poet — ever — to read at Oxford University.

And when he came home, now that he was famous, Springfield was enthralled. “Mr. Lindsay did not give an account of his trip in his talk following the luncheon yesterday, nor make any comments on the English people or life in England,” wrote Nellie Browne Duff of The Illinois State Journal, who covered a reception given in his honor at the old Leland Hotel. “Instead, he receited a number of his poems in his own inimitable manner” (Frances Hamilton Scrapbook, Vol. I). Inimitable is not too strong a word for it. “A Vachel Lindsay poem is a thing of beauty, of life, of swinging rhythm, of power, grandeur, pathos, vision and music,” enthused Duff of The Journal. “But to hear Vachel Lindsay recite one of his poems is a revelation. Throwing back his head, and closing his eyes, he becomes, as a paper in England stated, the instrument through which the music is played. And under the spell of his mobile expression and voice, now booming sonorously and now soft as a whisper, a canvas imbued with the life of his poetry is painted before his listener’s eyes. His audience yesterday sat entranced with his presentation.”

One of the poems Lindsay recited at the Leland was “The Ghosts of Dead Buffaloes” (Collected Poems 78-81). It is vintage Lindsay — a dream poem, a dream in which the “Gods of the Indians” came to life, “swept to the west” and into the sky in vast herds, then “burned to dim meteors, lost in the deep.” When the buffalo sweep past, with “bodies like bronze, and terrible eyes,” the poem thunders as if with hoofbeats. When the buffalo are gone, it almost whispers:

And now the wind in the chimney sang,
The wind in the chimney,
The wind in the chimney,
The wind in the chimney,
Seemed to say: —
“Dream, boy, dream,
If you anywise can.
To dream is the work
Of beast or man.
Life is the west-going dream-storms’ breath,
Life is a dream, the sigh of the skies,
The breath of the stars that nod on their pillows
With their golden hair mussed over their eyes.”

No wonder Lindsay’s audience at the Leland was entranced. The poem is a tour de force. And Lindsay by all accounts was a master showman.

An enigma: Even at the height of his success, Lindsay’s book sales never brought in enough to make him a comfortable living. Like other American artists with a genius for appealing to popular taste, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Hank Williams Sr., Lindsay was virtually forced onto a exhausting round of public appearances in order to make ends meet. Audiences loved him. “Lindsay was carried away by his own poetry and carried his audience with him,” wrote a typical reviewer, who attended a reading in Syracuse, N.Y. “He is a poet of the modern school, and sang of science, machinery, skyscrapers, prairies, villages and bronchos” (“Poet Vachel Lindsay”). At his best, Lindsay sounds like a jazz-age Whitman or a macadam-highway Kerouac. I think he anticipates Allen Ginsberg and the performance poets who did so much to rescue 20th-century American poetry from the tweed-jacketed snobs of literary modernism.

Lindsay delighted in performing at schools — students are notoriously a tough audience, and the challenge appealed to the showman in him. “Either you have them all or you have none,” he once told a friend. “There is no half-way. When they are all with you, a hall of young people makes the most inspiring audience a poet can have” (Melcher 118). At any rate, whenever Lindsay read at Ursula Hall, we can be sure his audience was entranced.

Last year when I was editing a book of Lindsay’s prose writing, a collection of his travel pieces called Tramping Across America, I pestered SCI’s head librarian Susan Full repeatedly for arcane bits of information. So when she discovered a thick file folder of clippings and other Lindsay materials in one of Becker Library’s more obscure corners, she thought I’d be interested in seeing it. I was. It includes newspaper clippings — some of which I hadn’t seen in other collections — mounted on colored paper and lovingly maintained for the College’s original vertical file, and a 1932 memorial edition of The Elementary English Review published after Lindsay’s death by the National Council of Teachers of English. During the weeks leading up to the symposium in November, I looked through our achives and Ursuline Academy’s for written evidence to confirm Sister Loyola’s oral-tradition mention of an appearance at Ursula Hall. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but what I did find told a story.

A cursory search of old scrapbooks and other archival material at SCI and Ursuline Academy for the 1930 and 1931 school years turned up no documentary confirmation in the way of newspaper clippings, programs or tickets, although the city’s most famous poet at the time, Lindsay did not go unnoticed at SCI (founded in 1929 as Springfield Junior College). Lillian Scalzo, art teacher at the new college, exhibited a painting of Lindsay reading a poem about dragons and got a a picture in The Register’s rotograveure section with the caption “Dragons-Dragons.” But the brittle clippings and faded programs of concerts, recitals, plays, lectures and discussion groups were abundant testimony that Ursuline and SCI were vibrant centers of instruction and a lively venue for performances not just in poetry but in all the arts. The 1931 Carillon, SCI’s first yearbook, records a busy round of teas, card parties and plays sponsored by the young women in the College’s charter class (11). A Little Theatre group put on four plays including The Devil in the Cheese, billed as an evening of “amusing scenes and stirring events” centering on a foiled kidnaping at a Greek monastery (30-31). A glee club was organized, and a book club met every week to discuss “English, French and American humorists, poets, essayists and novelists of all periods, along with “timely topics from the current periodicals” (32-33). I came away from my research with a vivid sense of what a strong heritage we have at SCI in music, theater, literature and the arts in general.

In Ursuline’s archives is a handwritten note dated June 17, 1930, apparently in Lindsay’s wife Elizabeth Conner Lindsay’s handwriting: “Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay thank the Ursuline Nuns and Senior Class of Ursuline Academy for their kind invitation to the graduation last week, and regret exceedingly that they were not able to be present. They send their good wishes to the Academy, now and always.” By 1930 Lindsay was ill, as his biographers make clear, and he wasn’t getting around much (see Ruggles 403-32). So the Lindsay family’s regrets ring true.

My best guess: Lindsay probably did a reading at Ursula Hall, but before SCI was established. By the 1929-30 school year, he was spending most of his time on the road and his health was failing. By then, too, his Springfield appearances drew enthusiastic coverage in The Journal and The Register alike. I doubt a reading at the city’s new college would have gone without mention. In earlier years, however, he might well have tried his luck at inspiring “a hall of young people” at Ursuline Academy. That the Ursuline sisters would recall 75 years later that oh yes, Lindsay was at Ursula Hall suggests strongly that he inspired them all in his own inimitible manner.

In SCI’s archives is a book that Lindsay apparently presented to the new junior college’s library. In his characteristic rounded scrawl, he inscribed the flyleaf of Every Soul is a Circus, a then-recent collection of his later poems: “Good Wishes to all my fellow-citizens and fellow-travellers and fellow-singers at the Springfield Junior College.” Then he drew a butterfly and a stylized daisy on the opposite page. That’s all we have. We don’t know if he presented it to the College when he read at Ursula Hall, or if he simply donated a book to the library. All we have is the material record — the inscribed copy of the poetry book. Exactly how it got to the SCI archives is not known. It’s an enigma. But that’s appropriate, too. Lindsay himself is an enigma.

Works Cited

“Dragons-Dragons.” Undated rotograveure clipping from The Illinois State Register. SCI Archives.

Duff, Nellie Browne. “Poet Honored by Lunch Club.” Illinois State Journal 2 Dec. 1920. Frances Hamilton Scrapbook, Vol. 1.

Frances Hamilton Scrapbook, 2 Vols. ms. Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield.

Lindsay, Vachel. Complete Poems. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

__________. Every Soul is a Circus. New York: Macmillan, 1929.

__________. Tramping Across America. Springfield: Rosehill Press, 1999.

Melcher, Frederic G. “Vachel Lindsay in the Schools.” Elementary English Review 9.5 (May 1932): 117-19.

“Poet Vachel Lindsay Thrills Big Audience With His Enthusiasm.” Undated clipping in Frances Hamilton Scrapbook, Vol, 1.

Ruggles, Eleanor. The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: Norton, 1959.

Springfield College in Illinois. The 1931 Carillon, Published by the Charter Class of Springfield Junior College. SCI Archives. Becker Library.

__________. Vachel Lindsay Vertical File. SCI Archives. Becker Library.

Ursuline Academy. Scrapbook, 1923-1931.

The Sleepy Weasel, Vol. 5, 1999-2000

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