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Reading: The Writer's Life

Mark Harris thought he was writing a book about Vachel Lindsay. Turns out he was writing about Mark Harris.

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Springfield is not usually thought of as a fount of the literary arts, but by some lights the denizens of that dreary capital are, as Dr. Johnson remarked about his college, a nest of singing birds. Springfield was home to the memoirist J. Edward Day, who grew up to become perhaps the only U.S. postmaster general to be reviewed in Saturday Review. It was home too to that master of prose, Abraham Lincoln; the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (who lived there as a boy two blocks from the statehouse); and Benjamin Thomas, whose 1952 biography of Lincoln is good enough that other scholars have been stealing from it ever since.

Several writers, in short, flatter Springfield. But only one loved it: Vachel Lindsay. The poet James Dickey called "foolish, half-talented, half-cracked Lindsay" was born in Springfield in 1879, part of a generation of populist poets who enjoyed a vogue for a decade or so beginning just before World War I--a sort of literary Grange movement supported by Harriet Monroe's new magazine Poetry, published in Chicago.

Lindsay poured his vision for the American future into his 1920 Golden Book of Springfield, in which he imagined traditional midwestern small-town values revived as an antidote to political corruption, economic exploitation, and artistic exhaustion. As someone who lived in Springfield for 40 years, I can attest to how extravagant his hopes were. Outside Springfield his plans were ignored, and to the extent they were entertained at all inside Springfield, his "Gospel of Beauty" merely enlivened the agendas of the garden clubs and reading circles and all the other settings in which the frivolous pursue the irrelevant in a town where energy exceeds opportunity and the need for amusement breeds a cultural promiscuity.

Lindsay vagabonded across America, first on foot and then by train, a modern troubadour, "a salesman with a sample bag" who came eventually to hate the sound of his own best words. He drank Lysol and died on the stairs of his Springfield house in 1931. He was 52. Lindsay was buried in Springfield, in the same cemetery as Lincoln, after a funeral that his friend and colleague Edgar Lee Masters wrote was "as distinguished as sorrow could make it, and the desire to erase past neglect could contrive."

Lindsay is denigrated these days in the United States as a secondary poet, but his ghost tramps the anthologies. I grew up in Springfield and remember reading "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" in school--his former school--but I don't remember anyone telling me that its author had lived only blocks away. Later I was surprised to learn that someone had written serious verse with Springfield as its inspiration, and even more surprised to learn that people had actually read it. Lindsay (I learned) was the son of a man whose virtues as a doctor made him relatively unsuccessful as a businessman of medicine. The boy idolized his father and Lincoln, who had lived but four blocks away and used to visit the previous owner of the Lindsay house. His education, however, came at the hands of women. His mother was of an artistic temperament and had a profound influence on her son. In Springfield's public schools he was tutored by similarly strong-minded women.

Lindsay may have been a townsman of mine, but he hardly seemed one of us. The sign that stood for years outside his house- turned-museum pronounced it to be the home of "the author of children's fantasies and animal poems, designer of symbolic censers, trees, flowers, and butterflies." Reading a Lindsay poem such as "The Fairy From the Apple-Seed" is like spending time with a bright but sheltered child:

apple-seed I planted in a silly shallow place

In a bowl of wrought silver, with Sangamon earth within it,

baby tree that came, without an apple on it,

A tree that grew a tiny height, but thickened on apace,

With bossy glossy arms, and leaves of trembling lace

Sympathetic critics assure us that there's more than hot air keeping all that lace afloat, but James Dickey came closer to the truth when he wrote of Lindsay's "self-enchanted, canny, bulldozing, and somehow devilish innocence." Lindsay never preached revolution. He preached conversion. He devoted a life of ceaseless vagabondage to exhorting the Babbitts of this world to accept the redemptive power of Art. There was always something of the child who still believed in Santa Claus about Lindsay. Unfortunately, what is charming in a child is pathetic in a man.

Lindsay's willful childishness would have been understood in the 1960s. In many ways Lindsay was a hippie ahead of his time: Haight-Ashbury was another place where canny innocence proved insufficient against a raging world. Still, it's a comparison that probably insults Lindsay's underlying seriousness. I cringed not long ago when, in his foreword to his father's published letters, Nicholas Cave Lindsay attempted to give the poet's life a contemporary relevance by saying: "He did his thing."

I could forgive Lindsay his censers and his butterflies if he weren't so happy in his ignorance. It was Lindsay's sole conventional vice. If his poems soar, it is because they're not tied down to anything real. Lindsay fancied himself a friend of the black man. After all, his single most popular work was "The Congo." (When black leaders denounced "The Congo" upon its publication it so confused him that he petulantly asked that they read it again.) And had he not invited a white friend in 1919 to "take up Negro church-going in earnest" with him? Had he not praised the Negro as "more luxurious than Assurbanipal and more fun than a goat [and] the only living creature who understands religion"?

Lindsay seemed never to know, only to feel, with what Dickey called "indiscriminate responsiveness." He was passionately interested in the East but had trouble keeping China and Japan straight in his mind. This is what people expected of artists then, and I suppose today. But when an artist settles for it he dooms himself. This man who prided himself on seeing into the souls of things was the most superficial of poets.

Masters wrote that Lindsay never knew the truth about anything because he scarcely knew the facts about anything. In the end, he knew as little about himself as about any other subject. Frenchman Marc Chenetier, who edited his letters, wrote that they "poignantly illustrate the despair borne of incomprehension that gradually pervaded a man of trust and hope."

Most of the really good books about Springfield have in fact been about Lincoln. In one of them, Here I Have Lived (1935), Paul Angle pointed out, "That there is a certain relationship between a man's environment and what he ultimately becomes is obvious."

The obvious is forever attractive to the young, and Mark Harris was a young man when he undertook to write much the same kind of book in 1946 about another of Springfield's famous sons, the poet Vachel Lindsay. A quarter century later, in his autobiography Best Father Ever Invented, Harris explained why he didn't essay another conventional Lindsay biography: that had been done in 1935, by Lindsay's friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters, who used the opportunity to excoriate Springfield as a philistine place. Instead Harris decided to write Lindsay's life as a novel. The poet would be the hero, and "other "real' characters would appear under their own names while between one "real' moment and the next I would provide fictional connections." (Harris later earned a solid if eccentric reputation with such works as Bang the Drum Slowly and Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck, a book that has been called a very autobiographical biography.)

In 1946 Harris was living in the capital, where he worked as a reporter for the old International News Service. Lindsay had been dead 15 years by then, but he was still alive in the minds and hearts of everyone in Springfield who had known him. That year Harris began to assemble notes on the life of Lindsay, whom he'd known until then only as the author of a few poems he'd read in high school. By the summer of 1949 he felt ready to write a book that, he later claimed, would tell people what the life of a poet is really like. He finished it ten months later.

He took the title, City of Discontent, from the opening lines of Lindsay's poem "Springfield Magical." City was published by Bobbs-Merrill Company in March of 1952. Harris remembered it "falling silently upon the public, like snow upon the forest." It is true that the book caused no great stir nationally, but it did elicit generally complimentary reviews--enough, one would think, to satisfy even the ravenous ego of a young writer. The Christian Science Monitor reviewed it, as did the Nation and the Saturday Review and the dailies in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Reviewers found it "an amazingly good piece of interpretive writing," "a lively, swift-moving sympathetic story of a man who deserves to be remembered," a book that "convey[s] with almost startling immediacy the complex individuality and the conjectured experience of Vachel Lindsay."

The book languished, along with its subject, until Second Chance Press, an east-coast house specializing in reprints, gave it a 1990 edition. This year it has been rereissued in paperback by the University of Illinois Press, which made it the 20th in its series Prairie State Books. The new edition has a foreword by Laurence Goldstein, professor of English at the University of Michigan, and a "new" preface by Harris cobbled together from an intro to an earlier edition of City; the introduction to Lindsay's Selected Poems, which Harris edited; and Harris's own autobiography.

Goldstein writes that for Lindsay Springfield was "the spiritual home/land that no writer escapes." Harris's subtitle to the original City of Discontent (abandoned in the new edition) revealed his editorial purpose, and also previewed the book's propulsive style: "An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay, being also the story of Springfield, Illinois USA, and the love of the poet for that city, that state, and that nation."

Goldstein points out how much Harris's style--he wrote entirely in the present tense--owed to Hemingway and Dos Passos. The result at its best is what Goldstein calls "a novelist's limpid chronicle," a biography only in that the stories he makes up have real people's names attached to them.

The poet's sister, Olive Lindsay Wakefield, had tried to talk Harris out of doing the book and, failing that, tried to dissuade his publisher from printing it. She was right when she said that Harris was too "unformed" to tackle her brother's life. Harris himself later admitted that his portrait was naive. "I went about interviewing everyone who had been associated with him," he recalled in Best Father Ever Invented. "These interviews were brief and superficial, as if I was preparing an article for the Port Chester Daily Item. I thought that people told me what they knew. I was without suspicions of opportunism or complexities, of complicated currents or connections of love, hate, guilt. I thought all minds were as simple as I thought mine was, that for every act there was a reason, one act, one reason, and the reason, moreover, was the first that came to mind, for I was in a hurry."

Indeed, of the people who deceived Harris (most, to be fair, without meaning to), the busiest deceiver was Harris himself. "It was my life, not his, that I was writing," Harris admitted later. "When I saw the trick I had managed to play on myself, I marveled at my gift of prophecy."

Harris writes in the "new" preface: "In City of Discontent I am disguised as a Midwestern Protestant poet. I was born November 10, 1879, in Springfield, Illinois. Papa wants me to be a doctor, but I have no interest in scientific subjects. . . . I go to Chicago and New York. . . . I return to Springfield, mingling there with the radical elements--Socialists, labor organizers, and Single Taxers. I want to change the world beginning with Springfield. I am oppressed by the paradox of Springfield, which exploits and celebrates the memory of Abraham Lincoln while, in fact, despising his principles. . . . I am peculiar, odd. I take long overland walking trips . . . I am thirty-three years old when I compose the poem that will alter my life."

Harris's charade worked well, until he came to the end of City of Discontent: "How could I possibly account for the suicide of a man who had achieved everything I wanted?" Harris asked in his 1976 autobiography. "In the few pages I assign to his death my rhetoric becomes shrill in proportion to my bewilderment. I plunge into stream-of-consciousness as a means of hinting at several causes while assuming responsibility for none: homelessness, domestic difficulty, weariness, ill health, artistic impotence, and unpaid bills."

Lindsay has always found fans abroad, readers like the Chinese poet Ai Qing who share Lindsay's love of an imagined America. Lindsay's critical biography was written by an Englishwoman, his letters were edited by a Frenchman. That Harris is Jewish makes him no less alien from Lindsay's Springfield. Harris notes many undercurrents: Masters's explicitly anti-Semitic reading of Lindsay's downfall, which Masters blamed on his younger colleague having been hounded to death by the "mercantile morality" of banks and publishing houses. And in Lindsay's suicide Harris found--to the extent that a man driven to suicide may be said to have been murdered--a further American example (to someone who was Jewish and an artist and thus doubly damned) of the horror that had just finished playing out in Europe.

Lindsay thought his enemies hated Art and Beauty; Harris had the advantage of a modern education, courtesy of the national socialists, and knew that it was the men and women who, by believing in Art and Beauty, come to hate Power who are thought dangerous. It wasn't quite as easy to be an innocent when Harris was writing.

Goldstein notes quite astutely that Masters's intent in writing his Lindsay biography was polemical, an attempt to justify a generation of poets of which he and Lindsay had been the leaders. By pleading Lindsay's case as a cruelly neglected master, Masters pled his own; by then he was an embittered lawyer in Chicago, his best work far behind him.

Goldstein confirms that Harris was telling his own story--and to some extent that of every young writer--as much as Lindsay's in City of Discontent. Lindsay's heroes were all rebels after their fashion--William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army and excoriator of greed; John Peter Altgeld, Illinois' forgotten eagle, a governor whose principled stand in pardoning the Haymarket bombers cost him a second term; William Jennings Bryan, the populist crusader; John Brown, the abolitionist; and of course Lincoln. In the conformist years following World War II Lindsay must have seemed to embody the spirit of romantic rebellion--"a scourge of the narrow-minded and philistine spirit of the age," as Goldstein calls him.

Harris's self-conscious mode of story telling caused no end of confusion among readers. City of Discontent was in fact an early foray into the jungles of the "factionalized" docudrama, a genre that seeks truth but gives low priority to accuracy. Inevitably he got some things wrong. Harris portrayed one of Lindsay's friends and teachers, a Susan Wilcox, as a "rather fearful and suppressed schoolteacher," which most people who knew her would agree was at least half wrong. ("Fearsome" would have been a more accurate word, but then Harris never had her for English.) A former friend of Lindsay's warned the local papers when Harris's book came out that the typical reader "has no way of distinguishing reality from fancy" in Lindsay's life. Well, it was the point of Harris's book that in Lindsay's life there often was little difference between the two, and that Springfield itself often mistook one for the other when it came to Lindsay.

Some of the women bridled that Harris had come to the same conclusion about them that Lindsay himself had come to by the 20s, when he wrote Masters from Spokane about "the fat, rich, illiterate, climacteric women of Springfield . . . not one of [whom] willingly opened a book in her life."

Genteel Springfieldians rallied round the town. One woman penned a lengthy dissent, claiming the book was inaccurate, though she remarked with consummate sarcasm that she was "not enough of a literary craftsman to know whether such distortion is necessary for dramatic effect." An amateur historian and club woman typed out a memo that she delivered to the head librarian at the local library. It was not intended for publication, the author explained, but was "intended to be helpful . . . in the preparation of any review."

Springfield didn't like being made to look like a nest of complacent, corrupt provincials who knew neither themselves nor art and who had squandered the town's richest legacy--the example of Lincoln. Lindsay had called Springfield names too, of course, but that was different. He was their people, and besides everybody knew no one took him seriously, while Harris was written about in the Christian Science Monitor.

The poet had embarrassed the city when he killed himself, and important parts of the town were still sore on the subject of Lindsay 20 years after it had buried him. When Harris poked around the wound, the town jerked away defensively with little yelps of pain. Thirty years after City of Discontent some of the locals Harris had interviewed still refused to talk to scholars about the poet, having sworn off writers on Lindsay the way they might have sworn off gin after a hangover.

Springfield paid Lindsay little attention when he was alive, but the town has honored him generously since his death. (In Springfield, flattery is the imitation form of sincerity.) A grade school has been named after him, as has a bridge and a street. Lindsay is also an Official Illinois Poet: his name is included among those carved into the frieze of the new state library four blocks from his house. The state maintains the poet's home as a museum/shrine, and a dozen Springfieldians have formed a Vachel Lindsay Repertory Group; dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of Lindsay by public performance of his works, the group is available for conventions.

Harris's is a poetically true portrait in spite of its inaccuracies, but he does distort the man. He depicts him as a pastoral type; but however small Springfield may look to a New Yorker it is still a city, and Lindsay was not a man of the soil. In Harris's account Lindsay's values look archaic, even whimsical; but Lindsay thought he was a modernist, and with more cause than Harris gives him credit for. Lindsay saw that the true American arts were the skyscraper, the flicks, and the flying machines; he saw that Los Angeles was to be the New Athens of America. Lindsay wrote the first book of film theory in America, which is still used, and he warmed up the film reviewer's chair at the Nation, later occupied by James Agee.

Goldstein notes that this posed problems for Harris: it's hard to portray your hero as the victim of 1920s popular culture when he shared its values--indeed, had a hand in shaping them.

Given its acknowledged failures, then, is City of Discontent still worth reading? Harris's own judgment of the work is perhaps too harsh; in a 1963 preface he complained that it showed a "shrill innocence very like the muttering of senility." Others have been more generous. In 1970 British scholar Ann Massa called the book "the most satisfactory work on Lindsay," though she allowed that only a specialized knowledge of Lindsay's life would enable one to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Dennis Camp, a Lindsay scholar at Springfield's Sangamon State University and editor of the poet's collected works, read City very early in his own Lindsay studies, some 20 years ago. "From my perspective it is one of the best things ever written about Lindsay, both in terms of style and in the way Harris got the spirit of Lindsay the man," Camp has said. "But the most important thing to remember about Harris's book is that it's a novel."

Springfield was not everyplace, and Lindsay was not everyman, but there is enough of each in each--and enough truth in Harris's account of them--that we can learn from them. If one cannot claim to know all about Lindsay and Springfield after reading only City of Discontent, neither can one claim to know about them without it.

City is also an ineluctably midwestern story movingly told. Harris describes the moment when Lindsay, then a student at the Art Institute, first sold a drawing and realized that Art and Money might have something to do with each other. Later he had to sell his drawings and his poems to live, and to do that he had to sell himself as a celebrity. The result was, to my mind, as close to tragedy as mortals come--a man doomed by his own nature and the purity of his own ideals.

City of Discontent by Mark Harris, University of Illinois Press, $14.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Vachel Lindsay Association.

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