WHEN WE HEAR the name Vachel Lindsay, most of us will probably think of poems that we read in a junior-high-school English class -- "The Congo" and "General William Booth Enters Heaven." As I recall, my eighth-grade teacher used Lindsay's poems as examples of onomatopoeia, and they were frequently the text for that high-school literary competition known as "poetry interpretation" because they were ripe material for dramatic reading. Perhaps because of these associations, it is hard to think of Lindsay as a serious poet.
Now a Frenchman, Professor Marc Chenetier of the Sorbonne, has compiled an edition of 199 of the poet's letters -- coinciding with the centennial of his birth -- in an attempt to show that our image of Lindsay as an "evangelist in rhyme" is an inaccurate one; to show, Chenetier says, "the importance of Vachel Lindsay's theoretical and practical breakthrough, one that was on the direct line from Symbolism to modern art, one that may well be the missing link between artists of the late 19th century and such moderns as Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey, between Imagism and today's research on the relations of illustrations to poetic texts, between the logocentric rule of 19th-century civilization and the media theories of Marshall McLuhan. . . ." It was the French, after all, who discovered Poe and Faulkner.
But Chenetier's claim for Lindsay as "the missing link" is a grandiose one -- the very important link that Ezra Pound was, for example, is not "missing" -- and it would take more exhaustive study of Lindsay's poetry and prose and of the literary world of the early 20th century to determine the relative merits of such a claim. These letters do, however, reveal Lindsay as a much more interesting and prophetic poetic theorist than one might have imagined.
The son of a doctor from Springfield, Illinois -- home also of Abraham Lincoln, who remained an important symbol for the poet all his life -- Lindsay started out to become an artist, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and the New York School of Art, but soon devoted most of his energies to poetry. He continued to illustrate his books of poems, and beyond that to develop an interest in the pictorial into a theory of art that was truly Modernist. Lindsay recognized that the coming of photographs, advertising and film meant a world in which the visual dominated the modern mind, and, a student of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he sought in his poetry to provide an American hieroglyphics based on common images. Writing to his friend E. S. Ames as early as 1909, he says, "You do well to assume with my ideas of History and Religion that it all came in through the eye first, and any distortion came later. My eye is orthodox, sir." And in a notebook, Lindsay wrote, "My eyes are Imperial." He was, in fact, one of our earliest, if not the earliest movie critic, the first to recognize the power of the movies, in his 1915 prose work The Art of the Moving Picture, to become a new psychic language that would make "one nation of all the tribes and tongues under this government. . . ."
Yet Lindsay was a divided man. He was a poet and poetic theorist -- the creator of "Poem-Games" that seem to be ancestors of the present-day "poetry of performance" of such as John Cage -- who wrote to the poet Louis Untermeyer that he was happiest with "that stillest room in my inner house that is always cold as the stars . . . a kind of north star room in my soul." At the same time, his evangelistic religious upbringing and strong political convictions led him to believe that he had a mission to carry his message of an American hieroglyphics to the American people in order to revivify the national consciousness and thereby insure the progress of democracy: "Till every citizen of the United States writes poetry happily, openly and without shame . . . ." To do this, Lindsay spent a large part of his poetic life traveling about the country reciting his poems to whomever might listen. In the end, though, he came to be thought of as merely an entertainer and he became increasingly bitter that his serious works were not treated seriously, that his message was not reaching those he wanted to reach: "My audiences demand just two pieces that I utterly abhor: Booth and the Congo. They will pay to hear them any time -- and then the sooner I leave town the better as far as the bulk of thew audience is concerned. And they will not buy one book, unless urged!" Having long held within himself the possibility of madness -- he had seen visions in the streets of New York City as early as 1904 -- Lindsay became increasingly fanatical and paranoid, and on December 5, 1931, he committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of Lysol.
Those to whom these letters are addressed include Untermeyer, Harriet Monroe, Hamlin Garland, Sinclair Lewis -- a wide circle of literary acquaintances -- yet they are not letters to be read for their literacy merit. There are two reasons to read the letters of a writer, for the writing itself, as in the letters of Flannery O'Connor or D. H. Lawrence, for example, or for the theoretical and factual information they provide about the writer's life and work; or for both reasons. Letters of Vachel Lindsay , with its somewhat florid prose style typical of its author's class and age, falls into the second category. Scholars of 20th-century American literature will find it a valuable source.