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"I Ventured to Say I Was a Virginian": Vachel Lindsay and the South William R. Irwin Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), the American poet from Springfield, Illinois, who gave us "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and "The Congo," has always been a difficult character to figure out. He first rose to prominence following the publication of "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine in 1913. Prior to his suicide in 1931 he had attained national celebrity by packing lecture halls across the country for bombastic readings of "The Congo," "General William Booth," "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," and others. In the twenties he acquired the title "the jazz poet" because of the jazzlike patterns of his rhythmic, repetitious poems. Lindsay is credited with reintroducing sound into American poetry and with popularizing the medium. Indeed, his bizarre stage antics—he dressed in costumes, beat drums, flapped his arms, and made animal sounds— captivated his audiences. Often described as a vaudeville show in itself, a Vachel Lindsay poetry lecture was popular entertainment in the 1920s.1 Apart from poetic vaudeville, however, there was another and arguably more significant side to Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay was a thinker and reformer who was grossly misunderstood by his audiences. He protested in 1921 that "for seventeen years I wrote as quiet as one would wish to see and it is only in the last three years I have written a half a dozen loud ones, which whatever their appeal, certainly do not represent the bulk of my work."2 Often unbeknownst to his audiences , the man behind the stage persona carried a burning social conscience and a message for social amelioration. Trying to combat America's modern cultural malaise of excessive materialism, impersonal cities, and lack of appreciation for the arts and creative expression, Lindsay molded his art and spirituality into his own populist reform program. He sought to unite the whole country by taking art and poetry to the people and reinvigorating American history and its heroes. Ironically, and tragically, for this Lincoln-loving poet of the Middle West, social reform and historical memory hinged upon an identification with the South. The South was at once a subject of loathing and veneration for Vachel Lindsay. This paradox, born of Lindsay's imaginative longings for the South and his real expe- 68Southern Cultures riences in it, ultimately reveals the limitations of Lindsay's reform program and the unbearable burdens of his own existence. Consider the following quotations from Lindsay about the South: I am the South that came west, a different thing from the North that came West, an utterly different mood. I have what may be called an entirely romantic feeling in regard to the Virginia tradition. I believe body and soul in the Virginia tradition. . . . While I consider Southerners as deserving of HeII as any rascals that ever breathed, they are my own people, and I understand them infinitely better than any other bunch on the face of the earth. Mason and Dixon's line actually runs through Springfield and through my heart.3 These words are from Vachel Lindsay's intimate journals, essays, and letters , all of which reveal his intellectual and emotional world, his aspirations, and his distress with modern American society. Suspended between two limiting worlds—staid, mannered American Victorianism and abstract, interdependent, modernism—Lindsay looked backward and forward. He found comfort and meaning in the idea of the South. The South offered him the imaginative history , the artistic traditions, and the localized community spirit that became the foundation of his program to renew the nation's purpose, nurture America's beauty-sense, and honor the creative individual. While other poets disowned America's artistic tradition, expatriated themselves, or drifted into bohemian enclaves, Vachel Lindsay became a propagandist for the South as he worked to rehabilitate American culture. For Lindsay, the idea of the South proved so inspiring that he considered himself a southerner. But how can this be? Despite his professed identification with the South, Lindsay was ambivalent, even hostile, toward the South. Born in Springfield, Illinois , in 1879, he remained forever fond of the town and always considered it...


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