Lindsay was born in 1879 in a house where Abraham Lincoln's sister-in-law had once lived. President Lincoln had visited there several times—a fact which later contributed to the poet's sense of national pride. Lindsay's father was a Scottish country doctor who had worked in Kentucky; his mother's family was from Maryland and Virginia. Both of his parents were religious fundamentalists, members of the Disciples of Christ church. They wanted Lindsay to become a doctor, and he studied the sciences for three years at Hiram College in Ohio. There he was also trained in oratory, a skill for which he would later become known throughout the United States and England. Finally Lindsay gave up his medical studies, which he had struggled with continually, and decided to become an illustrator. In 1900 he began to study art, first in Chicago and later in New York City. His instructors in Chicago judged his figure drawings inadequate, however, and New York brought no greater artistic success. Lindsay did manage to sell two poems to Critic magazine during this time, and he proudly hand-made his first book of poetry, Where Is Aladdin's Lamp, in 1904.
Lindsay tried in vain to sell his artwork and poetry to New York publishers in 1905. Lack of money forced him temporarily into menial work, which he gratefully left when an opportunity arose to teach at a branch of the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). In 1906, according to Dennis Camp, writing in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Lindsay set himself a new task: hiking through the country and "sharing the lives of and bringing hope to the common people in the depths" through his poetry and art. He would support himself by trading poems and pamphlets for food and shelter. With his friend Edward Broderick, Lindsay sailed from New York to Florida, and from there Lindsay alone hiked to his aunt Eudora Lindsay South's home in Grass Springs, Kentucky. Of this journey Lindsay wrote in a letter collected in Marc Chenetier's Letters of Vachel Lindsay: "I had had very little response anywhere and very little understanding. No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation. Many people try to gloss this over now and make out it was a merry little spring excursion and I didn't really mean it. They are dead wrong. It was a life and death struggle, nothing less. I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times. . . . [My parents] were certainly at this time intensely hostile to everything I did, said, wrote, thought, or drew. Things were in a state where it was infinitely easier to beg from door to door than to go home, or even die by the ditch on the highway." "I will never forget the easy, dreaming Kentucky and the droning bees in the blue grass, and the walks with Cousin Eudora and Aunt Eudora, and the queer feeling of being the family disgrace somewhat straightened out when I stood up to read 'The Tree of Laughing Bells' to the school," Lindsay concluded. "As far as I know, I read it in my beggar's raiment. I am sure I felt that way, and it was the kind hearts around me in that particular spot that made me want to live."
Returning home to Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Lindsay brought his self-assigned campaign for beauty, democracy, and civilization down to the local level. He took pride in the racial diversity of the United States and encouraged the peaceful coexistence of its various ethnic groups. The year he returned home he witnessed a race riot in Springfield in which several black residents were killed. Deeply troubled, he planned a series of lectures on ethnic groups, later delivered at the Y.M.C.A. and published as These Ten Lectures by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay for Men Only Will Be Given Wednesdays at Eight in the Evening, Beginning October 14 in the Y.M.C.A. Building. Each lecture looked at the cultural heritage of a local ethnic group and compared its past with its contemporary role in Springfield. His lecture on black Americans discussed their origins, their art forms, and their "native genius" or folk wisdom. In the next few years Lindsay also published several pamphlets and, in 1910, the well-received poetry volume The Village Magazine. He made another cross-country journey on foot in 1912, tramping west to Colorado and New Mexico with his collection Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread.
In 1913 Poetry magazine featured Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," which helped establish his reputation as a serious literary artist. The poem was included in many anthologies and resulted in the first trade publication of Lindsay's poetry, the book "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and Other Poems, a collection which Louis Untermeyer called a "curious blend of athletic exuberance, community pride and evangelism" in his book The New Era in American Poetry. This exuberance, pushed too far, tends to detract from some of poems in this collection, according to Untermeyer. He maintained, "His voice gets beyond his control; in his haste to deliver his message, he has no time to choose sharp and living words; he takes what comes first to hand—good, bad, indifferent—and hurries on. . . . His aim is commendable but his volleys are erratic. In his anxiety to bang the bell, he sometimes shoots not only the target but the background to pieces." William Dean Howells, writing in Harper's, was more impressed with these poems that rang like songs. "The songs begin their music with the cymbal clash and bass-drum boom of the fine brave poem, 'General William Booth Enters into Heaven,'" Howells wrote. "That [poem] makes the heart leap; and the little volume abounds in meters and rhymes that thrill and gladden one. Here is no shredding of prose, but much of oaten stop and pastoral song, such as rises amid the hum of the Kansas harvest fields and fills the empyrean from the expanses of the whole Great West. There is also song of solemn things everywhere, civic things, social things, and all of it, so far as we know, good."
The year after this book appeared came another trade volume, "The Congo" and Other Poems. One of Lindsay's most famous poems, the title piece has a rhythmic structure based on African-American speech rhythms and jazz. Though Lindsay believed jazz was a decadent art form, he used it in his poems to faithfully relate the regional lore of the South. He recited the poem in a variety of voices ranging from a loud, deep bass to a whisper. A Springfield Republican reviewer saw the publication of "The Congo" and Other Poems as the single most interesting event in the American literary scene. "All in all there is an intense and vivid Americanism in these poems—a racy, pungent, authentic note, which, if he fulfills the last measure of his [artistic] promise, will make Mr. Lindsay a prophet of American life," the reviewer explained.
Another Lindsay effort to incorporate the rhythms and folklore of a different culture was the 1926 book Candle in the Cabin: A Weaving Together of Script and Singing. Inspired by Lindsay's 1925 camping trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, the collection shows the influence of Native American life. The author's interest in this aspect of the American land was more than casual or professional. According to family lore, Lindsay's grandmother Martha Cave Lindsay was a Native American. Some readers found Candle in the Cabin a comparative disappointment. Explained a New York Times reviewer: "The poet, who is undoubtedly more intimately acquainted with Indian motifs than he can expect more than a few of his readers to be, has not explained the principles of the music to which he relates his lines and forms, and one is, unfortunately, left somewhat befogged. Simplicity thrice simplified appears to be the fundamental characteristic."
Lindsay's benevolent spirit toward people and nature led some critics to call him a modern-day Saint Francis of Assisi. A New York Times reviewer said of the 1914 travel journal Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, "Here is a genuine, rooted love for fields and simple folk, for God and little birds, all informed by a prophet's realization of beauty. Here is sweetness and serenity and a nice awareness to the unending comedy of life." Reviewers also noted that the book's presentation of nature could restore inspiration to those who were discouraged by the urban experience. V. D. Scudder wrote in Survey, "This is a book to commend to all social workers who are saddened . . . by city problems." Though some might expect the books to be pastoral or idyllic, the Nation reviewer suggested that Lindsay's depiction of the American landscape is not selective in that way. He noted: "The book has a sociological interest, and if it procures many readers the author will have served his purpose less by his preaching than by the report he gives of social and cultural deficiencies in the rural west. But its main appeal is as a narrative."
Small-town and rural America found more voice in Lindsay's poetry than the cosmopolitan establishment. Francis Hackett wrote of A Handy Guide for Beggars, Especially Those of the Poetic Fraternity, published in 1916, that Lindsay was obviously biased to value the experience of Americans who were the least steeped in bookish occupations and most involved in financial risk, such as homesteaders and small business owners. This bias was to be excused for the sake of the poet's exuberance, Hackett maintained. "Lindsay makes New Jersey no less poetic than Georgia. Democracy is not with him a phrase. . . . Of course Lindsay is too simple about books. He is not fair to the men who do not live among sense impressions. He is not fair to the men who give their lives to truth, the doctors, the men of letters, the lawyers, the men who strive for balance, the men who will not gamble their lives like the harvesters. He has crude gestures, this emerging poet of Illinois. . . . But not seldom is he at the heart of conviction and ecstasy and splendor." J. B. Rittenhouse, commenting in Bookman on Lindsay's 1917 collection, "The Chinese Nightingale" and Other Poems, shared this view: "Whatever Vachel Lindsay does, one feels the sincerity and the strong native impulse back of it. He is a vitalising force in modern poetry, having at once the social vision and the knowledge that it cannot be realized apart from beauty. Technically he has widened the outposts of poetry, and we may look to him to annex a still wider demesne."
Like Walt Whitman, a poet who traveled widely and chronicled as much as he could of the American experience, Lindsay felt poetry could speak of every kind of experience, including war. "The Chinese Nightingale" and Other Poems, for example, reflected Lindsay's changing responses to America's involvement in World War I. A letter cited by Ruggles amplified the mixed feelings with which Lindsay registered for the draft in 1917: "My heart is very sad tonight about the war. I have not the heart to challenge [President Woodrow] Wilson. I voted for him and cannot regret it—yet Jane Addams' dauntless fight for peace goes home to my soul. . . . It is so easy to get killed for a cause; but it is a bigger thing to think of killing other people. I would a hundred times rather get killed than kill anybody. I feel as guilty as if I had done it all tonight—or had a hand in it." The poems in "The Chinese Nightingale" and Other Poems begin with this pacifist emphasis, yet by the end Lindsay expresses support for those who will go to war to defend their rights.
The Golden Whales of California, a 1920 collection, is a notable example of the aural quality of Lindsay's work. Clement Wood wrote in the New York Call: "'The Golden Whales' is a book thoroughly jolly and thoroughly fit for chanting in typical Vachelese. His idiom, as well as his whimsical exaggeration, roars on every page." Though poet Amy Lowell and E. B. Reed felt that Lindsay began to parody himself in this volume, others felt he had reached a new level of excellence in his craft. O. W. Firkins related in Review: "In this writer there have always been two elements: the poet, and what I shall unceremoniously, but not disrespectfully, call the urchin. . . . The poet and the urchin lived apart; they could not find each other. They have found each other, in my judgment, in the 'Golden Whales,' and their meeting is the signal for Mr. Lindsay's emergence into the upper air of song."
Another form of performance, the growing art of film, intrigued Lindsay as a critic. In 1915 he presented what he believed should be the guidelines for the use of film in The Art of the Moving Picture. The first section of the book is a kind of field guide for identifying different types of film forms. Lindsay classified them as pictures of action, pictures of intimacy, and pictures of splendor. In the second half of the book he observed that since film reaches segments of society relatively untouched by other forms of art or literature, the future of that population may depend largely on what direction filmmakers take with their art. His was the first book to study film as an art form, and it won for Lindsay the respect of film theorists and filmmakers such as Victor Freeburg and D. W. Griffiths. Freeburg used the book as a text in his course on filmmaking at Columbia University.
To make the most of the film genre's possibilities, Lindsay warned against the addition of sound, afraid that verbal elements would dominate the visual images. He thought the conventions of written literature—plot, linear development, and character—also might encroach on the artistic impact of the visual image if the "movies" became "talkies." He felt it would be unfortunate if visual images served only as supplements to the language; Lindsay believed that filmmakers should work as much as possible with the nonverbal capabilities of their medium so that any verbal components would serve the visual image. A New Republic reviewer recommended the book without reservation to all serious students of film as an art form, writing that The Art of the Moving Picture "reveals vividly where the limitations and the opportunities of the moving picture lie. There is nothing fanciful about it. There is nothing chimerical. It states and argues its position, and opens up the hope for beauty in a form of expression that has been enormously misunderstood."
During the last decade of Lindsay's life his popularity waned. Works such as Going-to-the-Sun and Going-to-the-Stars, published in the early-and mid-1920s, found less appreciation than his patriotic verses. When the novelty of his patriotic performances had faded, fewer patrons attended his readings, which were his primary source of income. By the end of the 1920s, the character of the nation and the tastes of its people had changed so much that Lindsay's oratorical style, rooted in the folklore of the country's various regions, belonged to a past era. Lindsay had not neglected to develop as an artist or to respond to changes in the literary climate. He had produced many experimental works that included cinematic technique, mystic symbolism, and other media, particularly dance and graphic art. Critics of the 1960s and 1970s recognized these efforts and reappraised Lindsay as a remarkably versatile writer. Critics of his day found his experimental poetry of the latter volumes interesting, but the earlier impression of Lindsay as an inexhaustible, thundering orator prevented many from appreciating those more subtle works.
Lindsay's personal life deteriorated in his later years also. In 1922, his mother, who had been an important inspiration to him, died. In 1923 he had to cancel a tour after suffering a mental and physical collapse, and his health declined from "an inherited disease" (assumed to be epilepsy or diabetes) that was mysterious to him. Sinus surgery performed that same year resulted in increased moodiness and irritability. He married in 1925, and at first marriage brought him great happiness. His difficulty in earning a living, however, weighed more heavily with a wife and, eventually, two children to support. His creativity also waned, which frustrated Lindsay greatly, since his self-esteem and will to live had been for so long so closely tied to it. He felt that audiences had remembered his oratorical style without being much affected by the substance of his works. Reviewers' claims that he was parodying himself stung him. A letter collected by Ruggles expresses Lindsay's lament: "I will not be a slave to my yesterdays. I will not. I was born a creator, not a parrot." In 1931, in poverty and depression, Lindsay drank a bottle of lye and died, according to a biography by Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America; the death was officially attributed to coronary thrombosis.
Until he is rehabilitated by another generation of poets and poetry enthusiasts, Vachel Lindsay will remain known for the two most notable aspects of his creative work: his commitment to poetry as a performance art at a time when poetry was becoming more and more an artifact of the printed page; and his celebration of the village in a century when most of American culture turned more and more toward the teeming urban centers. Throughout his career Lindsay was known for reciting his poetry with great theatricality. Referring to his performances as "the higher vaudeville," he supplemented his recitations with sound effects such as tambourines and whistles and sometimes appeared in blackface to recite "The Congo." In fact, in an article in the New Republic, Randolph S. Bourne urged his readers, "You must hear Mr. Lindsay recite his own 'Congo,' his body tense and swaying, his hands keeping time like an orchestral leader to his own rhythms, his tone changing color in response to noise and savage imagery of the lines, the riotous picture of the negro mindset against the weird background of the primitive Congo, the 'futurist' phrases crashing through the scene like a glorious yell—you must hear this yourself, and learn what an arresting, exciting person this new indigenous Illinois poet is." Dennis Camp related that Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of Poetry magazine, once warned Lindsay not to "frighten the ladies" with his loud delivery at one poetry reading, to which he replied, "still I must roar."
Traditional verse structures made his poems easy to remember, like songs that would stick in the minds of his audience. "His reading is almost singing; it is certainly acting," commented Carl Van Doren in Many Minds. "The rhythms of the camp-meeting, of the cake-walk, of the stump-speech, of the chantey, of the soldiers' march, of patriotic songs, of childish games, throb through him and are from him communicated to the most difficult audience. His singsong is as contagious as that of any revivalist who ever exhorted." For this reason, Lindsay's audiences often chanted along with him as he performed. Lindsay was credited with helping keep the oral tradition of poetry alive. Yet, his success as a performer was also a curse. Dennis Camp explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Audiences were carried away with his voice and gestures, praising him lavishly and paying him handsomely. But he soon learned, to his dismay, that people totally missed or only tolerated his moral intentions and 'rhetoric.'"
The other cursed aspect of Lindsay's poetry as performance was that it depended on Lindsay for its success. With Lindsay's passing, so the performance would pass. Albert Edmund Trombly alluded to this fact in his Vachel Lindsay, Adventurer. "His present reputation, which rests so much on his forensic powers, will not stand," wrote Trombly. "To his own generation he is primarily the interpreter of his poems. . . . This will not be true of another generation. The poet will be appraised from the printed page, and never can black and white make of the Congo what his voice and gesture have made of it." Still, Trombly added, "While I believe that his delivery has obscured the beauty of much of his poetry, I am far from thinking that his poems will fall. I believe that they will have a meaning for our children, a different and perhaps a better one." And, in the opinion of Van Doren, Lindsay's poetry can stand without the man to perform, for its qualities come through even in black and white. "The potency of Mr. Lindsay's verse . . . shows how far he goes beyond mere noise and rhythm. He has pungent phrases, clinging cadences, dramatic energy, comic thrust, lyric seriousness, tragic intensity."
The second defining characteristic of Lindsay the poet was his celebration of the village. Other authors of his time—notably Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson—were heaping scorn on the village. Yet, "far from revolting against the village," Granville Hicks pointed out in Saturday Review, "Lindsay held it up as his ideal; he wanted to improve the villages, of course, but he saw them as centers of a new and higher culture." In fact, as Louis Untermeyer concluded in The New Era in American Poetry, "I doubt if there is any man in America who has laboured longer and more earnestly than Lindsay to encourage the half-hearted beauty that hides and fears to declare itself in our dull and complacent villages and townships." Continued the critic, "His gay, intrepid spirit, his racy little prose pamphlets, his tramping journeys . . . these, in themselves, compose a gospel of beauty more persuasive and potent than a hundred sermons."
Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry, a journal that gave much of Vachel Lindsay's early work its first audience, looked back on Lindsay's career in her Poets and Their Art and likened the poet to another figure from literature. She commented, "Lindsay is a modern knight-errant, the Don Quixote of our so-called unbelieving, unromantic age. To say this is not scorn but praise, for Don Quixote's figure looms heroically tall in perspective, and his quests, however immediately futile, become triumphant in the final account." For Amy Lowell, writing in the New York Times Book Review, Lindsay's "greatness lies in his being so firmly one of a group, his weakness is just in the fact that when we expect him to rise above the group-consciousness by the strength of individual genius he so often falls heavily back upon it." Van Doren found that Lindsay did stand above the crowd. He wrote, "Something in [Vachel Lindsay] which was better than his conscious aims has taught him, however much he might borrow from the circuit-rider, the crusader, the booster, that true eloquence comes from the individual, not from the mass; that true poetry is actually lived, not merely shared or argued."