Because of his identity as a performance artist and his use of American Midwest themes, Lindsay became known in the 1910s as the "Prairie Troubador." For the final twenty years of his life, Lindsay was one of the best-known poets in America. His reputation was high enough to enable him to befriend, encourage, and mentor other poets, such as Langston Hughes and Sara Teasdale. However, his poetry lacked elements that encouraged the attention of academic scholarship, and after his death he became an obscure figure.
Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois, where his father — Vachel Thomas Lindsay — worked as a medical doctor and had considerable financial resources. As a result, the Lindsays lived next door to the Illinois Executive Mansion, home of the Governor of Illinois. This location of his childhood home had its influence on Lindsay, and one of his poems, "The Eagle Forgotten", eulogizes Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, whom Lindsay admired for his courage in pardoning the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Affair — despite the strong protests of US President Grover Cleveland.
Growing up in Springfield influenced Lindsay in other ways as well, as evidenced in such poems as "On the Building of Springfield" and culminating in poems praising Springfield's most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln. In "Lincoln", Lindsay exclaims "Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all!" In his 1914 poem "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)", Lindsay specifically places Lincoln 'in' Springfield, with the poem opening:
- It is portentous, and a thing of state
- That here at midnight, in our little town
- A mourning figure walks, and will not rest...
Lindsay studied medicine at Hiram College in Ohio from 1897 to 1900, but he did not want to be a doctor. His parents pressured him toward medicine. One day Vachel wrote home to his parents saying that he wasn't meant to be a doctor and that his true living should be that of a painter. His parents wrote back saying that doctors can draw pictures in their free time. Leaving Hiram, he thought he would become an artist, and went to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1900 to 1903. In 1904 he left to attend the New York School of Art (now The New School) to study pen and ink. Lindsay remained interested in art for the rest of his life, drawing illustrations for some of his poetry. His art studies also probably led him to appreciate the new art form of silent film, on which he wrote a book in 1915: The Art of the Moving Picture, generally considered the first book of film criticism, according to critic Stanley Kauffmann, discussing Lindsay in For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.
Beginnings as a poet
While in New York in 1905 Lindsay turned to poetry in earnest. He tried to sell his poems on the streets. Self-printing his poems, he began to barter a pamphlet entitled "Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread", which he traded for food as a self-perceived modern version of a medieval troubadour.
From March to May, 1906, Lindsay traveled roughly 600 miles on foot from Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky, again trading his poetry for food and lodging. From April to May, 1908, Lindsay undertook another poetry-selling trek, walking from New York City to Hiram, Ohio.
From May to September 1912 he traveled — again on foot — from Illinois to New Mexico, trading his poems for food and lodging. During this last trek, Lindsay composed his most famous poem, "The Congo". On his return, Harriet Monroe published in Poetry magazine first his poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" in 1913 and then "The Congo" in 1914. At this point, Lindsay became very well known.
Poetry as performance
Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Unlike Lindsay’s more purely intellectual contemporaries, the poet declaimed his works from the stage, complete with the extravagant gestures of a carnival barker and old time preacher, from the beginning declaring himself to be a product of what he termed ‘Higher Vaudeville’: “I think that my first poetic impulse is for music; second a definite conception with the ring of the universe…” (Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters 1935, page 62) This is evidenced by the 1931 recording he made just before his suicide, his still-radical performances of ‘The Mysterious Cat’, ‘The Flower-Fed Buffaloes’ and parts of ‘The Congo’ exhibiting a fiery and furious, zany, at times incoherent delivery that appears to have owed more to jazz than poetry, though the highly religious Lindsay was always reluctant to align himself thus. Nevertheless, part of the success and great fame that Lindsay achieved — albeit briefly — was due to the singular manner in which he presented his poetry "fundamentally as a performance, as an aural and temporal experience...meant...to be chanted, whispered, belted out, sung, amplified by gesticulation and movement, and punctuated by shouts and whoops."  His best-known poem, "The Congo," exemplified his revolutionary aesthetic of sound for sound's sake. It imitates the pounding of the drums in the rhythms and in onomotopeic nonsense words. At parts, the poem ceases to use conventional words when representing the chants of Congo's indigenous people, relying just on sound alone.
Attitudes towards raceMost contemporaries acknowledged Lindsay's intention to be an advocate for African-Americans. This intention was particularly evident in the 1918 poem "The Jazz Birds", praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of white America seemed blind. Additionally, W.E.B. Du Bois hailed Lindsay's story "The Golden-Faced People" for its insights into racism. Lindsay saw himself as anti-racist not only in his own writing but in his encouragement of a writer; he credited himself with discovering Langston Hughes, who, while working as a busboy at a Washington, D.C. restaurant where Lindsay ate, gave Lindsay copies of his poems.
However, many contemporaries and later critics have contended over whether a couple of Lindsay's poems should be seen as homages to African and African-American music, as perpetuation of the "savage African" stereotype, or as both. DuBois, before reading and praising "the Golden-Faced People," wrote in a review of Lindsay's "Booker T. Washington Trilogy" that "Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: The beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts. From this poverty of material he tries now and then to make a contribution to Negro literature." DuBois also criticized "The Congo," which has been the most persistent focus of the criticisms of racial stereotyping in Lindsay's work.
Subtitled "A Study of the Negro Race" and beginning with a section titled "Their Basic Savagery", "The Congo" reflects the tensions within a relatively isolated and pastoral society suddenly confronted by the industrialized world. The poem was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo River; this event had drawn worldwide criticism, as had the colonial exploitation of the Congo under the government of Leopold II of Belgium. Lindsay defended the poem; in a letter to Joel Spingarn, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the NAACP, Lindsay wrote that "My 'Congo' and 'Booker T. Washington Trilogy' have both been denounced by the Colored people for reasons that I cannot fathom....The third section of 'The Congo' is certainly as hopeful as any human being dare to be in regard to any race." Spingarn responded by acknowledging Lindsay's good intentions, but saying that Lindsay sometimes glamorized differences between people of African descent and people of other races, while many African-Americans wished to emphasize the "feelings and desires" that they held in common with others.
Similarly, critics in academia often portray Lindsay as a well-meaning but misguided primitivist in his representations of Africans and African Americans. One such critic, Rachel DuPlessis, argues that the poem, while perhaps meant to be "hopeful," actually "others" Africans as an inherently violent race. In the poem and in Lindsays's defenses of it, DuPlessis hears Lindsay warning white readers not to be "hoo-doo'd" or seduced by violent African "mumbo jumbo." This warning seems to suggest that white civilization has been "infected" by African violence; Lindsay thus, in effect, "blames blacks for white violence directed against them." Conversely, Susan Gubar notes approvingly that "the poem contains lines blaming black violence on white imperialism." While acknowledging that the poem seems to have given its author and audiences an excuse to indulge in "'romantic racism' or 'slumming in slang,'" she also observes that Lindsay was "much more liberal than many of his poetic contemporaries," and that he seems to have intended a statement against the kind of racist violence perpetrated under Leopold in the Congo.
Lindsay's fame as a poet grew in the 1910s. Because Harriet Monroe showcased him with two other Illinois poets — Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters — his name became linked to theirs. The success of either of the other two, in turn, seemed to help the third.
Edgar Lee Masters published a biography of Lindsay in 1935 (four years after its subject's death) entitled 'Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America'.
Lindsay himself indicated in the 1915 preface to "The Congo" that no less a figure than William Butler Yeats respected his work. Yeats felt they shared a concern for capturing the sound of the primitive and of singing in poetry. In 1915, Lindsay gave a poetry reading to President Woodrow Wilson and the entire Cabinet.
Lindsay was well known throughout the nation, and especially in Illinois, because of his travels which were sometimes recorded on the front page of every newspaper.
Marriage, children and financial troubles
Despite his fame, Lindsay's private life featured many disappointments, such as his unsuccessful courtship in 1914 of fellow poet Sara Teasdale; she married a rich businessman, Ernst Filsinger. While this itself may have caused Lindsay to become more concerned with money, his financial pressures increased even more later on.
In 1924 he moved to Spokane, Washington, where he lived in room 1129 of the Davenport Hotel until 1929. On May 19, 1925, he married the 23-year-old Elizabeth Connor. The 45-year-old poet at this point found himself under great economic pressure, due at least in part to the new need to support his considerably younger wife. These financial worries escalated even more when in May 1926 the Lindsays had a daughter, Susan Doniphan Lindsay, and in September 1927 a son, Nicholas Cave Lindsay.
Desperate for money to meet the growing demands of his growing family, Lindsay undertook an exhausting string of readings throughout the East and Midwest that lasted from October 1928 through March 1929. During this time, Poetry magazine awarded him a lifetime achievement award of $500 (a substantial sum at the time).
After this tour, in April 1929, Lindsay and his family moved to the house of his birth in Springfield, Illinois: an expensive undertaking. In that same year, and coinciding with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, Lindsay published two more books of poems: The Litany of Washington Street and Every Soul A Circus.
He gained money by doing odd jobs throughout, but in general earned very little during his travels.
Crushed by financial worry and in failing health from his six-month road trip, Lindsay sank into depression, and on December 5, 1931, committed suicide by drinking a bottle of lye. His last words were, "They tried to get me — I got them first!"
Today, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency helps to maintain the Vachel Lindsay House at 603 South Fifth Street in Springfield, the site of Lindsay's birth and death. The agency has donated the home to the state which then closed it to restore the home at a cost of $1.5 million. The site is now again open to the public giving full, guided tours for those who choose to ring the bell. The hours are Tues-Sat: 12-4:00pm. Lindsay's grave lies in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College holds a collection of his papers.
- "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"
- "An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie"
- "A Rhyme About an Electrical Advertising Sign"
- "A Sense of Humor"
- "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan"
- "The Dandelion"
- "Drying Their Wings"
- "Factory Windows are Always Broken"
- "The Flower-Fed Buffaloes"
- "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven"-the American Classical Composer Charles Ives would write music to this poem (with a couple of additional text alterations) shortly after its publication
- "In Praise of Johnny Appleseed"
- "The Kallyope Yell" — see calliope for references
- "The Leaden-Eyed"
- "Love and Law"
- "The North Star Whispers to the Blacksmith's Son"
- "On the Garden Wall"
- "The Prairie Battlements"
- The Golden Book of Springfield
- "Prologue to "Rhymes to be Traded for Bread" "
- "The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race"
- "The Eagle That is Forgotten"
- "The Firemen's Ball"
- "The Rose of Midnight"
- "This Section is a Christmas Tree"
- "To Gloriana"
- "What Semiramis Said"
- "What the Ghost of the Gambler Said"
- "Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket"
- "Written for a Musician"