Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
“Corn-fed pious howler”
Springfield's house poet Vachel Lindsay
February 13, 1981
Liking, or at least admiring, the work of hometown poet and patriot Vachel Lindsay is nearly a civic duty in Springfield. I never have, although one would have to be even more callous than I am to not respond to the poignancy of his struggles on behalf of verse.
I wrote at length for the Reader about Mark Harris's fictionalized biography of Lindsay here; one or two lines seem to have sneaked into this version, but it otherwise is a fresh piece.
“Ai Qing said that his favorite American poets, whom he had read in French, were Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Langston Hughes.” Would Ai Qing, Chinese poet of some reputation, visiting New York recently, lie to The New Yorker? His Lindsay is our Lindsay, Springfield’s Lindsay, the man James Dickey called “foolish, half-ta1ented, half-cracked Lindsay,” our Midwestern troubador, our movie that remains to be made.
In the U.S., of course, Lindsay’s ghost tramps the anthologies. He is merely one more stick used to beat the love of poetry out of high-schoolers. The publisher of his newly collected letters allows that Lindsay is regarded (he was too polite to say “dismissed”) as a “secondary poet.” Lindsay lives on abroad, though, in the heads of readers like Mr. Ai who, like Lindsay, love an imagined America. His critical biography was written by an Englishwoman, his letters edited by a Frenchman, his memory tended by Chinese gardeners. He is less read by Americans who have the disadvantage of being able to test Lindsay’s vision against reality. This has allowed some Lindsay partisans to recall Matthew’s lines about the fate of prophets in their own countries. Which may make him interesting, but, I must reply, it doesn’t make him good.
The poet was born in Springfield in 1879 and died here in 1931. He is buried here, and the town has honored him by naming a school after him, along with a bridge and a subdivision, and putting up a sign pointing the way to his grave. People in Springfield don’t know his poetry any better than any other Americans but they know he was famous once and, more impressive, he knew writers like Sinclair Lewis and Carl Sandburg who were even more famous than he was.
I grew up in Springfield and was schooled here. Like most people my age and younger, I did both without Lindsay’s name or work leaving any impression on my otherwise very impressionable sensibility. It was later that I became fascinated upon learning that not only had some damn fool written serious verse with Springfield as its inspiration, or even that another damn fool had actually printed it, but that a veritable legion of other damn fools had actually paid money to read it.
Beyond that, I wanted to know about Lindsay because I wanted to know about myself, and thought that maybe, if I retraced the ways the town had shaped the boy, I could see some outline of myself. I read some books, looking for clues. But in neither his work nor his life was I able to find any kinship closer than our common post office address. He is a fellow townsman, yet utterly strange.
How, for example, are we to take the message of the sign that now stands outside his house at 603 S. Fifth St.? The one that announces the house as the home of the “author of children’s fantasies and animal poems, designer of symbolic censers, trees, flowers and butterflies.” Picture-postcard poems, products of what Dickey calls Lindsay’s “self-enchanted, canny, bulldozing and somehow devilish innocence,” his “high-minded foolishness.” To someone of my age, that sign recalls Haight-Ashbury, another house in which canny innocence proved insufficient against the raging world. There was a lot of the hippie in Lindsay, and not his best part, so I cringed when, in his foreword to his father’s letters, Nicholas Cave Lindsay said of him, “He did his thing.”
As noted, I have read Lindsay and listened to him recite his own works on some remarkable recordings made in 1931 in New York. At those sessions, Lindsay forced himself to do one more time the poem he told friends he “abhorred” as early as 1922 thanks to audiences who demanded it until he worried about being “‘Congoed’ into permanent fury.” Critics such as Ann Massie and Marc Chenetier (the latter the man who edited the Letters) keep reassuring us that there is something serious, something organized keeping those butterflies aloft, that, contrary to appearances, Lindsay was not merely “a jingleman and corn-fed pious -howler” (as Chenetier memorably puts it). But pretensions to profundity are not enough to correct the first, harsh judgment formed after wading for the first time through a work like “Flower Fed Buffaloes”: Vachel Lindsay was a wimp.
I mean, I was a sensitive boy. I used to write poems. I grew out of it. I thought everybody did.
Reading Lindsay is like sharing the company of a bright but spoiled child; one doesn’t read him so much as one humors him. But I could forgive him his censers and his butterflies if he weren’t so happily ignorant. Ignorance in a doctor’s son—in someone who could so easily correct it, in other words—is a moral failure. It was Lindsay’s single conventional vice. If his poems soar it’s because they aren’t tied down to anything real. Lindsay never knew anything about the things he wrote about. He only felt, and mistook his “indiscriminate responsiveness” (Dickey again) for knowledge.
The result is that this poet who prided himself on his ability to see into the soul of things was the most superficial of poets. He was a singer of surfaces. He was right about a lot of important things, in spite of that, like film and the new electronic communications. Chenetier quotes him saying, “We are sweeping into new times, in which the eye is invading the province of the ear and in which pictures are crowding all literature to the wall.” And again: “Edison is the new Gutenberg.” He wrote that in 1915. But what prodigious panning one has to do to collect these nuggets. “Please,” I say when reading him. “Please make sense.”
We don’t hope much any more for redemption, least of all through Art, which is another reason why Lindsay, the busy improver, seems a bore today. But if Lindsay no longer interests us as an artist he remains a fascination as a man. That’s why I read his Letters. They were published in 1979, 199 letters chosen from all of the thousands he wrote. Taken as a whole they may or may not reveal Lindsay’s unified vision of the world, as the editor hopes. They do, as he also says, “poignantly illustrate the despair borne of incomprehension that gradually pervaded a man of trust and hope and reduces a face to a mere mask.”
The young Lindsay was blasting Springfield for its Babbitry before there was such a word. But even here, in the city in which he pinned so much of his hopes, he was ignorant. About his Golden Book of Springfield (his Koran, he called it), he wrote in 1913 to a California poet named Sterling: “Pity Springfield. Do not pity me. The poor little town is in for it . . . . Now I will see what the angels can do—each with a censer in its hand. Springfield shall be whipped by these angels and sent to Sunday School like a naughty child. That is—I hope so.” Lindsay was forever reforming Springfield; Springfield never minded. Like Dickey says, the guy had gall.
Five years later, to Katherine Lee Bates about the same book: “You do not know how utterly helpless I feel when I am treated like a baby politically . . . . I have lived in a state capital and heard the radical lobby talk over their deals for years. I have seen them, in victory and defeat. I know ten times as much practical politics as the average college president . . . I by no means mean that I am infallible in these political matters. I only mean I have been passionately interested in them . . . ” His friends were interested too, Single Taxers, mostly. Nobody listened to them either. Lindsay was passionately interested in the East too, but he always had trouble keeping China and Japan straight in his mind.
In 1920 Lindsay resigned from the Springfield Rotary Club, saying that its pro-business biases were offensive. The question his letter of resignation provokes in me is, how could he have joined it in the first place? What weird hopes did he hold for it? Lindsay was always taking things at face value, believing words that no one else believed, always paying debts he didn’t owe. He spoke in 1913 of being “ruthless with Springfield.” How? What weight did he think his outrage carried? He was all velocity and no mass, a harmless ray that penetrated the Rotarian hides of his home town without puncturing it.
His ignorance could be embarassing, as Dr. Walter Daniel showed in his 1979 article in the NAACP journal The Crisis titled, “Vachel Lindsay, W. E. B. DuBois and The Crisis.” He had been sickened by the race riots in Springfield in 1908. He fancied himself a friend of the black man; indeed, his most popular single work was “The Congo.” Black leaders denounced the poem, which. confused him so much he petulantly asked that they read it again. DuBois, writing in The Crisis in 1916, said, “Mr. Vachel Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: the beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts.” He was naive and condescending, as when he explained one of his poems (in a letter not in the Letters) by saying that he’d tried “to leave out stupidity in the plot as no longer essential in attempting work tropical and strictly Afro-American.”
This obtuseness on race reveals itself in the letters. In 1919 Lindsay invited a friend to “take up Negro church-going in earnest” with him, and to meet a Mr. Gibbs of Springfield, “the soot-black lawyer” whom Lindsay had “simply multiplied...by a thousand and made the Congo.” “A Negro,” he went on, “is more luxurious than Assurbanipal and more fun than a goat. He is also the only living creature who understands religion.”
There is more, but this is enough to prove DuBois right. In the end, he knew as little about himself as any of his other subjects. There was more Springfield in Lindsay than Lindsay knew. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture