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In Print: Vachel Lindsay's downstate utopia

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Ron Sakolsky first heard about Vachel Lindsay in 1972, when he bought a minicomic about the early-20th-century poet from an artist in Springfield, where Lindsay was born and died. "It was his own take on Lindsay's life--it was quite romantic and in keeping with the counterculture of the 1970s," says Sakolsky, a Brooklyn-born musicologist who had just moved downstate to teach at progressive Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois at Springfield).

Intrigued, Sakolsky started reading up on the man and his work. Lindsay was a best-selling poet known for his efforts to promote verse as a popular art form, and he often incorporated jazz rhythms into his readings (which later influenced the beats). As a young man he traveled around the country, reciting his work in exchange for room and board, and he soon found a regular publisher in the Chicago-based Poetry magazine. His feelings about the racism, materialism, and emptiness of American society became evident in poems like "Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket," about his support for Eugene Debs in the 1908 presidential election, and 1914's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," in which the president grieves for a world on the brink of war. Despite his fame, Lindsay always came back to his hometown. "Springfield was like the love of his life," says Sakolsky, noting that Lindsay, a fan of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, was disgusted by the complacency and widespread corruption he saw in the conservative capital city. "He had a love-hate relationship with it his whole life, but Springfield never really took him as seriously as he wanted to be taken."

As part of his research Sakolsky visited Lindsay's house. "It wasn't like the usual kind of tourist site," he says. "You knocked on the door and the caretaker [a friend of Lindsay's named Elizabeth Graham] would check you out and ask why you were there. If you said you were interested in period furniture from the early 20th century, she'd say it was closed. But if you said you were interested in Vachel Lindsay, she'd spend the afternoon with you. She would make you tea and read you his letters to her, and her letters to him."

Around the same time Sakolsky found Lindsay's little-known 1920 novel, The Golden Book of Springfield, at the university library. The fanciful tome is set in the "mystical year" of 2018 and draws on the progressive ideas of thinkers ranging from Emanuel Swedenborg and Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, to Henry George and Karl Marx. It takes place in a Springfield struggling to rid itself of drugs, corruption, and prejudice. But the town also boasts a perpetual world's fair, suffrage for women (many of whom wear their hair in "Harriet Beecher Stowe curls"), a plethora of parks, plenty of artists, and an entrance exam for new citizens. "The native-born, no matter how stupid or cranky, cannot be banished," wrote Lindsay.

Sakolsky says that unlike other utopian novels, Lindsay's deals directly with race; his heroine is a multiracial descendant of Chief Black Hawk and Daniel Boone, and the city's skyscrapers are designed by men of African-American and Tibetan descent (although African-Americans still live in a separate part of town). Sakolsky claims that Lindsay wrote the book in response to the Springfield race riot of 1908, in which two African-Americans were killed and 40 homes burned. He was also upset about a 1907 Indiana eugenics law that called for forced sterilization of "confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles" confined in state institutions.

Not that anyone in Springfield--or anywhere else--read the book that Lindsay considered his life's work. "People were not only not critiquing it, which he would have welcomed in a way, but they were ignoring it," says Sakolsky. "In his own region he was hoping it would generate a lot of discussion and debate and imaginative thinking. It was really frustrating to him.

"He was a nut to a lot of people. They thought his criticism of materialism and all that were the ravings of a madman. They knew at some point that he was nationally prominent, but they didn't know what to make of him in moments when he was honored and taken seriously." Lindsay never wrote another novel, and he was destitute when he committed suicide in 1931 by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

A few years ago Sakolsky began toying with the idea of republishing The Golden Book, which had long been out of print. "I've always been interested in the fact that there was someone in town here who was not only a well-known poet of his day but had written a utopian visionary novel with Springfield as its centerpiece," he says. He tried to interest the local Vachel Lindsay Association in the project, but they passed, saying they'd never heard of the book. "They try to tone down any of the more adventurous sides of Lindsay and focus on whatever is most conventional," he says. Instead Sakolsky convinced Chicago's Charles H. Kerr & Company to put out the book. It was published last year with an introduction by Sakolsky and an illustration by Bill Crook, the Springfield artist who'd made the minicomic.

Sakolsky admits The Golden Book isn't exactly a page-turner but says that's not the point. "The reason we published it was not because he was a great novelist, but because of the ideas in it and the flights of imagination that are so important to understanding Lindsay and his work, as well as the idea of sparking the imagination, which is a big part of utopian thinking."

Sakolsky will lecture on The Golden Book of Springfield Saturday, November 18, at 2 PM in the Chicago Authors Room of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (312-747-4600). At 7 PM the same day he'll discuss Lindsay's socialist poems at the New World Resource Center, 2600 W. Fullerton (773-486-1823). Both events are free.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Illinois Historical Library.

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