Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born on November 10, 1879, in Springfield, Illinois. His family lived next door to the Illinois Executive Mansion, home of the Illinois governor. Lindsay’s poetry was deeply influenced by growing up in Springfield and by its political and historical figures, particularly Abraham Lincoln. Lindsay, son of a wealthy doctor, originally enrolled at Hiram College in 1898 to study medicine. Against his parents’ wishes, he dropped out after three years to become an illustrator. He transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900, then moved on to the Chase School in New York, where he began to write poems. In New York, Lindsay worked various odd jobs, lacking the financial support of his parents. He began to exchange his art for food and shelter. This endeavor led him to undergo three multi-hundred-mile treks across the U.S. on foot, in 1906, 1908, and 1912. He traded pamphlets and performances of poems for food, shelter, and transportation. Lindsay soon grew famous for his depictions of patriotism and rural American life, which he expressed through “singing poetry”: dramatic, rhythmic renditions of his most popular poems. He envisioned poetry as an oral tradition, a means of bringing a Midwestern community together, and said he hoped to be seen as a “bard, ballad singer, troubadour.”
Lindsay was perhaps less known for any specific collection of poems and more for his oft-requested recitations of his poems “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” “The Santa Fe Trail,” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” After meeting Harriet Monroe in 1912, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” was published in Poetry magazine. After this, three significant collections of Lindsay’s work followed: “The Chinese Nightingale” and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1917); “The Congo” and Other Poems (Macmillan, 1914); and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” and Other Poems (M. Kennerly, 1913). Following this exposure, Lindsay became a well-known figure. He drew criticism for his racist and dehumanizing representations of Black people in some of his work and, particularly, for “The Congo” (Macmillan, 1914), a poem that Lindsay often performed in blackface.
While best known for his poetry, Lindsay wrote works in other genres, notably the utopian novel The Golden Book of Springfield (Macmillan, 1920), and a book of film criticism, The Art of the Moving Picture (Macmillan, 1915). In addition, he illustrated and self-published many works of nonfiction, broadsides, and pamphlets, notably 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 (1908), Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread (1912), and the illustrated, three-part poetry collection Where is Aladdin’s Lamp (1904).
Fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters hailed Lindsay as “the precious jeweler of verse […] who believed, who loved, who felt, whose character and moral fervor were his style, that style in truth which cannot be learned, but is bestowed at birth by the good fairy.” He notes that the defining factor of Lindsay’s work “was his love of America […] his dreams about America,” arguing that “the land he sang can be lost, because in so many fundamental, even phenomenal senses, it never existed. But the song he sang, and by which he created a land and a State, belongs at least to the history of literature.”
While Lindsay achieved his goal of reviving an oral poetic tradition in the United States, his popularity waned in later years. One book, The Golden Whales of California (Macmillan, 1920), was received by many critics as a weak imitation of his earlier work.
In the 1920s, Lindsay suffered from a series of mysterious health issues. He moved to Spokane in 1924, where he married Elizabeth Connor and had two children. Lindsay came under serious financial strain and went on a final tour of the Midwest to support his family. While on tour, Lindsay received an achievement award from Poetry magazine. Following this, he moved his family back to Springfield, where he was set back even further financially by the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression. While Lindsay continued to support his family through odd jobs and by publishing new books of poems, he succumbed to depression, exacerbated by other serious health concerns, and committed suicide on December 5, 1931. He died in his hometown of Springfield.