May 13, 2010

Vachel Lindsay, Artist and Poet, Walking in New York

Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), the peripatetic poet from Springfield, Illinois, came to New York City in 1905 to study art with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, but his famed teachers, especially Henri, quickly assessed the young man of twenty-five more talented in poetry than in drawing. Lindsay found himself so torn between his poetry writing and art that he often had trouble focusing. That opinion, at any rate, belongs to biographer Edgar Lee Masters who also observed that his fellow Illinois poet "had no faculty for the practical things." Lindsay spent much of his time after school walking through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as through "the quaint and curious neighborhoods of the city, which had not yielded at that time to the innovation of the modern apartment building and the skyscraper." (Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America by Edgar Lee Masters. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York, 1935) As it turns out, walking serves a purpose.

Vachel Lindsay studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York. This image is from a later period. [Hoboes sitting and sleeping outside Art Institute of Chicago]. Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer. 1921. DN-0073421A, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum. Library of Congress.
While strolling New York neighborhoods and the corridors of the Met, Lindsay looked both outward and inward, struggling to find his identity. He was not yet the poet of high school English textbooks, famous for works such as "General William Booth Enters Heaven," "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, " and "The Congo." He was not yet the popular speaker on the lecture circuit, known for his curious poetic signing. If his art teachers weren't exactly encouraging his artwork, he found he could command enthusiastic pupils himself while teaching art history classes at the Y.M.C.A. He proposed the idea of such a class, and after a few weeks, he persuaded the organization to pay him $10 a week for his efforts. The compensation did not go far, and Lindsay, as with thousands of other younger people who migrate to the city, couldn't ask his parents too often for supplementary support. The Illinois couple worried their son would find a way to drag out his artistic journey.

[Manhattan entrance to Brooklyn Bridge, New York] 1905?. LC-D4-33873 DLC (b&w glass neg.) Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Library of Congress.
To make his name and get his work in circulation, Lindsay mailed his poems to New York actors and preachers, though it's not clear what he exactly expected in return. He then took directly to the streets to peddle his poems to unsuspecting shopkeepers. Quoting Lindsay's diaries from the New York days, Masters recounts a few of these adventures. One night in March 1905, Lindsay stuck twelve copies of his illustrated poem "We Who Are Playing Tonight" in his overcoat and set out to visit each store along the west side of Tenth Avenue near 50th St. He met with a few takers, but often with disappointment or derisive rejection. He wrote in his diary, "The whole town, the candy shops turned me down. They deal out sweets for the flesh, not the spirit. I must land a candy man yet." (quoted in Masters, p. 125). After walking down Tenth Avenue to 42nd St., he tried his luck walking north on 9th Avenue and then on Broadway. It was getting close to midnight. A few more customers materialized, including a young man working at a drugstore near Broadway and 53rd St. He told Lindsay, "This is a hell of a time of night to bring around those things." Yet, he gave Lindsay two cents, the asking price, for a poem.

Encouraged by the lack of a wholesale rejection, the poet set out two nights later for the east side of Manhattan. Walking south along 3rd Avenue from 57th Street, he brought with him copies of another illustrated poem, "The Cup of Paint." He liked the excursion much better.  He found an enormous difference between the two sides of Manhattan, with 3rd Avenue seeming like "a continuous street picnic, and family reunion festival." Trying to account for the differences, Lindsay becomes part pop psychologist and part urban planner.He tells his diary,
"Another difference between 3d and 10th, 10th is very wide and cheerless, three times as wide as 3d, and tenth has low narrow sorrowful stores, and a more drunken and less prosperous Saturday night. And 10th Ave. the only happy people are the children. 3rd Ave everyone is happy. 3d Ave is cozier, too, for the elevated sort of roofs it over, and the trains go by with a rumbling and comfortable drum music." (Masters, p. 129)
Continuing on his walk, Lindsay handed a few of the remaining poems away to passersby. In the biography, Masters surmises Lindsay was well aware that peddling his poems would come to nothing. In this peculiar exhibitionist display, he seemed to be centered more on his vanity than on his art. Still, from these walks around midtown, Masters observes, Lindsay picked up on an important quality that would come to define his future work - the rhythms of the city. He writes, “Soon after these nights it occurred to him that certain songs should be written in America in brass band style, harsh, popular, marching songs, of crashing iron, of men in a hurry, or roars in the street, of the rivers of money."



The poem-peddling excursions in midtown would soon transition into epic treks. Beset with visions of the Old Testament and dreams of an ideal civic order centered on the villages of the American heartland, Lindsay left New York on Mach 3, 1906 aboard a boat headed to Florida. From Jacksonville he walked all the way to Kentucky, traveling through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. By the time he reached Asheville, he was penniless and traded his shirt for lodging. Two years later, after traveling to Europe with his family, he set off on another tramp, this time walking from New York to Ohio. He basically winged it, stopping on occasion to earn money from lectures, but mostly he depended on the generosity of strangers. After settling back home in Springfield, he took off on a third and final pedestrian trip in 1912, an ambitious cross-country walk to California.

Lindsay only made it to New Mexico by foot, but by then, newspapers had started following him. He took a train to Los Angeles, and while there he wrote the poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," his response to reading about the passing of the leader of the Salvation Army on August 12, 1912. The poem, noted for its musicality and what Masters calls “the brass band style,” first appeared in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine in January 1913. Lindsay won a prize of one hundred dollars for the poem, and it would bring him fame.



Images above from the Library of Congress, with complete citations in captions.

Read Part II of this series - Scenes from a Walk Through Hell's Kitchen, retracing Vachel Lindsay's walk down Tenth Avenue in contemporary New York.

2 comments:

Tinky said...

You're definitely preaching the gospel of beauty here...........

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. I'm writing a novel about Lindsay & set a scene just like this. So I know exactly what you're talking about & I thought you described it wonderfully.