Resisting the Influence
Vachel Lindsay pays the price of not selling out
November 5, 1987
I was no fan of Vachel Lindsay’s verse, but his struggle to make money while making art reveal him to be something of a hero.
They're making a movie about Vachel Lindsay, 1 hear. The poet's son, Nicholas Cave Lindsay, was filmed as he performed some of his father's poems at the First Christian Church last week. Lindsay's poems were meant for the stage rather than the study, and are not much read today, but his persona—troubador, self-conscious rhymer, and reformer—has proven more durable. He deserves to be remembered, if not venerated, because he tried to do something even harder than writing first-class verse. He tried to live as a free man in America.
"The standards of our society are hugely determined by money and by expediency," the junior Lindsay told the Journal-Register's Doug Pokorski. That was a lesson his father learned at some cost. It was Lindsay's fate to try to live on a poet's earnings while paying bankers' prices. In the fifteen years after his graduation from high school, he managed only what biographer Mark Harris described as an "eccentric unsuccess." First in Chicago and then in New York, he helped pay his way through art school by working at "gruesome odd jobs of the sort reserved for young men who have never been visionary enough to study double-entry" bookkeeping." Later when he embarked on his celebrated tramps, he traded poems for bread, and did field work.
It is true that these practical difficulties informed Lindsay's later work. Harris surmises plausibly that "the trick of preserving himself within the framework of a senseless economic discipline must have enforced his sense of identity with those outcasts" who came to populate such poems as "General William Booth Enters into Heaven." But penury is a costly way to make such connections.
In Lindsay's early years he paid in ill health; later, it was grueling, dispiriting tours as a performer of verse. Recent Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky made clear that his resistance to Soviet political oppression had given him no special strength as a poet. The hardships attendant to oppression, Brodsky explained, can stifle a poet, possibly kill him, at best will misdirect his talent. I wish to draw no fatuous parallel, between Lindsay's situation and Brodsky's but poverty is its own kind of oppression, and exacts much the same toll on the creative personality.
By 1923 Lindsay was already yearning for release from the demands which the need for money were making on his increasingly fragile spirit, vowing hopelessly, "I must learn to live on a penny a day." No man can, especially a man who (as Lindsay did upon his final return to Springfield in 1929) has taxes to pay on his house and a wife and two kids to support. Edgar Lee Masters, in a much-quoted passage, once speculated that a modest income—$150 a month would do—might have enabled Lindsay to leave the platform for his desk. But Illinois, which "had given purses to the widows of dead governors, and governors, at that, who had betrayed the State and civilization," gives its poets nothing until they are dead.
Lindsay lived when living was mostly cheaper, yet he never enjoyed real economic independence. During those fifteen years it took him to find his vocation, he was dependent on money from his doctor father. It is wise to remember that his tramp through the west in 1912 ended when Lindsay, confronted by the desert, cabled home for money for train fare, which took him to an uncle's house in L.A. and the composition of his first real work.
The indulgent family is the unsung hero of our literature. It is dismaying to learn from the biographies of modern writers how many brave words were subsidized by the spouse with money, the unexpected inheritance, the host with the extra room and no need to charge for it.
Even so, charity has probably had a less pernicious effect on the literature than captivity. What the family executor dispensed back then, the foundation and the university dispenses today. Lindsay had paid his bills for a time as a teacher at a tiny college in Mississippi; his tenure there was both brief and confining.
In his new book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby laments the fact that the baby boom has not produced a generation of social critics who engage the public issues of the day, who speak freely and in a language which a concerned readership can understand about justice and wealth and art. Where, Jacoby asks, are the new Lewis Mumfords, the Jane Jacobs, the Dwight MacDonalds, the I. F. Stones? His answer: On the campuses, where they beaver away as careerists in the academic corporations.
The effect of the flight to the campuses are plain enough. Jacoby notes that the professionalization of dispute dampens the dissident temperament. Much the same happens to the artistic temperament. We may say about poets what reviewer Mark Crispin Miller says about Jacoby's vanished intelligentsia, that they "ought to serve the people, by lucidly and articulately resisting the influence of government and big business, forces that always seek public assent or acquiescence." Instead they secure their own careers.
The cause is money. Jacoby points out that our last splendid generation of thinkers thrived when it was still possible to make a living as a freelance writer in the U.S. The cost of rents and taxes and a disastrous decline in the real rates paid for articles and books (a decline which mirrors the relative decline in the reading public) have combined to push our artists and intellectuals above ground.
As recently as the 1950s, for instance, it was a rite of passage for the bright and disaffected to go to New York City, to sit and talk and bum drinks and work for a penny a word. But that Bohemia has all but disappeared; an entire generation of creative young people has been driven from the streets of New York by its appalling rents, an exodus which has such dire implications for that city's future as an intellectual and artistic capital that it is the subject of official inquiry. More than a few successful artists, painters and sculptors who continue to live and sell in New York now even commute to rented studio space in Chicago, where the artists are still a half-step ahead of the property redevelopers in the search for low-cost warehouse space.
Government is no more appreciative of the value of independence than it was in Lindsay's day. In a nation dedicated to the spirit of independence and individual sovereignty, the government works devotedly to make both impossible. One especially egregious example is the requirement in the new tax law that writers capitalize their expenses, as manufacturers do. Nor could there have been a more fitting punctuation to Nick Lindsay's comments than the story which appeared immediately above them in that day's Journal-Register. Social Security tax paid by wage workers and salaried people will rise slightly as a result, 7.51 percent. However, the Social Security tax paid by the self-employed—a category which includes itinerant poets—will rise to 13 percent next year. More galling, that tax must be paid only on income up to $45,000. That means that much of the money made by real estate developers, lawyers, and others such as, yes, senior university faculty who honor money and expediency as standards is not taxed at all, while every penny grubbed by all but a few unattached thinkers and artists gets squeezed.
A country which treats its creative people the way it treats its plumbers will get people with the minds and souls of plumbers, hardly the people fit for the task when we so desperately need ideas and vision. Edgar Lee Masters said that Lindsay had enriched the state as much as any industrialist, even if the latter didn't have an arithmetic with which to count it up. We have no Lindsay now, which confirms that at least one thing hasn't changed since the 1930s. You still get what you pay for. ●