Vachel Lindsay, Artist and Poet, Walking in New York
|[Manhattan entrance to Brooklyn Bridge, New York] 1905?. LC-D4-33873 DLC (b&w glass neg.) Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Library of Congress.|
Encouraged by the lack of a wholesale rejection, the poet set out two nights later for the east side of Manhattan. Walking south along 3rd Avenue from 57th Street, he brought with him copies of another illustrated poem, "The Cup of Paint." He liked the excursion much better. He found an enormous difference between the two sides of Manhattan, with 3rd Avenue seeming like "a continuous street picnic, and family reunion festival." Trying to account for the differences, Lindsay becomes part pop psychologist and part urban planner.He tells his diary,
"Another difference between 3d and 10th, 10th is very wide and cheerless, three times as wide as 3d, and tenth has low narrow sorrowful stores, and a more drunken and less prosperous Saturday night. And 10th Ave. the only happy people are the children. 3rd Ave everyone is happy. 3d Ave is cozier, too, for the elevated sort of roofs it over, and the trains go by with a rumbling and comfortable drum music." (Masters, p. 129)Continuing on his walk, Lindsay handed a few of the remaining poems away to passersby. In the biography, Masters surmises Lindsay was well aware that peddling his poems would come to nothing. In this peculiar exhibitionist display, he seemed to be centered more on his vanity than on his art. Still, from these walks around midtown, Masters observes, Lindsay picked up on an important quality that would come to define his future work - the rhythms of the city. He writes, “Soon after these nights it occurred to him that certain songs should be written in America in brass band style, harsh, popular, marching songs, of crashing iron, of men in a hurry, or roars in the street, of the rivers of money."
The poem-peddling excursions in midtown would soon transition into epic treks. Beset with visions of the Old Testament and dreams of an ideal civic order centered on the villages of the American heartland, Lindsay left New York on Mach 3, 1906 aboard a boat headed to Florida. From Jacksonville he walked all the way to Kentucky, traveling through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. By the time he reached Asheville, he was penniless and traded his shirt for lodging. Two years later, after traveling to Europe with his family, he set off on another tramp, this time walking from New York to Ohio. He basically winged it, stopping on occasion to earn money from lectures, but mostly he depended on the generosity of strangers. After settling back home in Springfield, he took off on a third and final pedestrian trip in 1912, an ambitious cross-country walk to California.
Lindsay only made it to New Mexico by foot, but by then, newspapers had started following him. He took a train to Los Angeles, and while there he wrote the poem, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," his response to reading about the passing of the leader of the Salvation Army on August 12, 1912. The poem, noted for its musicality and what Masters calls “the brass band style,” first appeared in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine in January 1913. Lindsay won a prize of one hundred dollars for the poem, and it would bring him fame.
Images above from the Library of Congress, with complete citations in captions.
Read Part II of this series - Scenes from a Walk Through Hell's Kitchen, retracing Vachel Lindsay's walk down Tenth Avenue in contemporary New York.