Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), American "folk" poet, is best known for his poems about Johnny Appleseed and for "The Congo, " which uses syncopated jazz rhythms.
Vachel Lindsay was born in Springfield, Ill. He studied at Hiram College in Ohio, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the New York School of Art. He lived as a modern-day troubadour, selling poems and drawings as he traveled. His Swedenborgian religious background was strengthened by his personal rediscovery of the 18th-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Many of Lindsay's poems echo the work of the English poet William Blake, in diction and theme, particularly the poems about children, poor people, and the immanence of divinity. Lindsay's literary "litany of heroes" included American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.
Lindsay's poetry exuded patriotic and democratic exuberance and optimism. He was hailed by many contemporary poets, particularly Edgar Lee Masters and Amy Lowell, and contemporary critics saw him as an exemplar of the "New Poetry."
Lindsay's first major book was General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1913). The book The Congo appeared in 1914 and The Chinese Nightingale in 1917. Lindsay's all-inclusiveness might have surprised even Emerson and Whitman—concerned as both were with writing the poem that expressed all of multitudinous America. During his brief career Lindsay managed to hymn such national heroes, real and mythological, as Abraham Lincoln, General William Booth, John L. Sullivan, Johnny Appleseed, John P. Altgeld, Theodore Roosevelt, and Pocahontas.
With lilting freshness the poem "Kalamazoo" manages to find beauty and romance in the awkward commonplaces of American life, and in its conclusion identifies a lovestruck midwestern girl with the legendary Helen of Troy: "Who burned this city of Kalamazoo—/Love-town Troy-town Kalamazoo?" Although Lindsay often resorted to flat statement in his poems about God's immanence, parts of "Johnny Appleseed" are among his best work. However, the rhythms of "General Booth" and "The Congo" (the latter is ridiculous as the serious "study" of the Negro Lindsay meant it to be) tend to become tire-some, and even the best of Lindsay's work tends toward doggerel. But his celebrations of America and its people remain unsurpassed in their genre (for example, "The Golden Whales of California, " "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, " and "The Eagle That Is Forgotten").
Lindsay's collected poems appeared in 1938 (rev. ed. 1952). His letters are also important (edited by A. J. Armstrong, 1940), and the autobiographical Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914) and A Handy Guide for Beggars (1916) give further insight into the man.
Though Lindsay's work was in vogue for a while during his lifetime, he was an odd man, subject to fits of melancholy. After a prolonged period of insanity, he committed suicide in New York. His works have been largely ignored by recent critics.
Further Reading on Vachel Lindsay
A book devoted completely to Lindsay is Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America (1935). Other discussions of Lindsay are in Mark Harris, City of Discontent (1952); Eleanor Ruggles, The West-going Heart (1959); and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
South, Eudora Lindsay, From the Lindsay scrapbook: Cousin Vachel, Lafayette, Ind.: J.A. Blair, 1978.