While in Springfield, Illinois, doing research at the Lincoln Library, I took a break to visit the Vachel Lindsay Home. I had never encountered Lindsay’s poetry and knew nothing of his life, but I figured a poet with a state historic site honoring his legacy seemed a good excuse to interrupt a morning in the archives. I was not disappointed.
As it turned out, the rainy summer morning kept other visitors away, so I had a delightful personal tour of the house. The Victorian-era home is not architecturally distinctive (unlike its neighbor a few blocks away, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Dana-Thomas House). Its fame relies on commemorating an artist and poet of renown.
When I walked up the steep steps to the front porch looming over Springfield’s Fifth Street, all I knew of him was what I had read on the Vachel Lindsay Association website, that his early fame came in part from his poetic salute to the late General William Booth of Salvation Army fame, that he had taken to the road to poetically document early-twentieth-century America, and that he eventually returned to his hometown of Springfield where he died in the same house where he was born and raised, right next door to the Illinois governor’s mansion.
The house tour filled in many more details of his parents’ lives, how he became closer to his older sister Olive following the traumatic loss of their three younger siblings in a six-week period of a scarlet fever epidemic, and how his poetic proclivities blossomed once he abandoned plans to follow his father into the medical profession and left Hiram College for art school, following his mother’s passion as an artist.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of my tour was to learn that poet Langston Hughes had come to Springfield and stayed with Vachel’s sister Olive in their family home. Apparently Vachel Lindsay had befriended Hughes in New York and assured him that Olive would be happy to host him during his stay in Springfield. What little I know of Langston Hughes’ biography places him entirely in New York as the poetic voice of the Harlem Renaissance. I never imagined him on the Illinois prairie.
That prairie reared a different sort of poetic voice, most famously the wry wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Springfield is a Lincoln-haunted town, and nearly every square foot of the old downtown has a Lincoln association of some sort or another. But more than Lincoln has happened there. Vachel Lindsay, once a much-celebrated American poet, also haunts these neighborhoods. And the still-celebrated poet Langston Hughes, undoubtedly one of the most significant literary voices that America has produced, also hallows Springfield’s past, if only for the briefest moment. Three great voices of the American past make Springfield a worthwhile literary destination in the American cultural landscape.