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Lindsay, Vachel (1879-1931) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Lindsay, Vachel (1879-1931)

Historical Note:

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, described as a "Citizen of Springfield, Guest of Spokane" was born November 10, 1879, the son of Dr. Vachel Thomas and Esther Catherine Frazee Lindsay.  He had two sisters, one younger, Joy, and one older, Olive, who married Paul Wakefield, a medical missionary to China. The family made their home in Springfield, Illinois, where his father was a doctor. The family lived next door to the Illinois Executive Mansion. His childhood home influenced Lindsay and his poetry greatly. The ghosts of Springfield, like its most famous resident, Lincoln, haunted his poems.

The younger Vachel enrolled in Hiram College in Ohio in 1898 to pursue a medical profession, like his father, but soon gave up that path. In 1900 he began studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. He took further studies under Robert Henri at the Chase School (later the New York School of Art, then Parsons The New School of Design) in 1905. It was while in New York that Lindsay directed his energies to poetry. It was also here that he began his troubadour-like lifestyle, trading poems for food.

It was in 1906 that this lifestyle emerged in fullness. In two separate springtime foot journeys, of over six hundred miles each, in 1906 and 1908 Lindsay traveled and traded his artistic wares for food and lodging. At the end of a summertime trek from Illinois to New Mexico in 1912, Lindsay saw his poetry published with the assistance of Harriet Monroe.

As a result of Monroe’s work Lindsay began to gain recognition. Along with this recognition came criticism, particularly by W. E. B. DuBois for the racial stereotypes found in “The Congo,” published in 1914. Interestingly, Lindsay is considered the one to have brought Langston Hughes wider attention.

Just as Lindsay was linked to Springfield, he was also linked professionally to two other Illinois poets, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters. Masters would later publish the vagabond poet’s biography. Lindsay is immortalized along with 33 other prominent Illinois literati in the Illinois State Library building’s frieze.

Despite his professional fame, Lindsay's private life was less successful. His courtship of fellow poet Sara Teasdale ended poorly. In 1924 he moved to Spokane, Washington, where the next year he married Elizabeth Connor, a woman half his age. The marriage placed financial strains upon Lindsay, even more as two children were added to their union. To support his growing family Lindsay embarked upon a six month tour throughout the East and Midwest. In the midst of the tour Lindsay received an achievement award from Poetry magazine. After this tour Lindsay moved his family back Springfield, Illinois.

The crash of the stock markets brought further financial worries for Lindsay, who did any number of odd jobs to provide for his family. In 1929 Lindsay had two books of poems published, The Litany of Washington Street and Every Soul A Circus. Not buoyed by any great financial successes, Lindsay fell into a depression exacerbated by diabetes and seizures and committed suicide in Springfield, December 5, 1931.

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