“Springfield awake, Springfield aflame!”
A century on, Vachel Lindsay’s Golden Book is more prescription than prediction
In 1920, the Macmillan Company of New York City published The Golden Book of Springfield written by Springfield resident Vachel Lindsay. Like everything Lindsay did, the novel was a passion project, an elaborate combination of mystical fantasy and social comment written gradually over the course of several years, always while sitting alone in Washington Park. The book, completed in 1918, audaciously depicts Springfield as Lindsay imagined it 100 years in the future, in what he termed the “mystic year” of 2018. Now that Springfield has reached the time of Lindsay’s imagining – coinciding with Illinois’ bicentennial – the Vachel Lindsay Association and the city are preparing several events commemorating, celebrating andVachel Lindsay’s “The Tree of the Laughing Bells” will be on display at the Springfield Art
Association in the summer.
At the time of The Golden Book of Springfield‘s publication, Lindsay was a celebrity, one of the most well-known poets in the country. Famous for his explosive, theatrical live performances of poems like “The Congo,” Lindsay was known as a wild man of literature, flailing his arms and foaming at the mouth during readings of poems that were written to be heard, not read. In many ways, Lindsay’s flamboyance can make him seem in retrospect like more of a proto-rock ’n’ roller (as well as a precursor to the Beat poets and performance artists of the last half of the 20th century) than the cliché image of a deskbound, academic, literary type. Lindsay was also passionately committed to social justice, writing and distributing pamphlets and walking across the country multiple times to spread his views on issues such as racial equality, proto-feminism (“America…should have one patriotism, one caste rule, one religion, the religion of honoring woman as a comrade citizen”) and socialism. Ironically, over the years his work has frequently been criticized and dismissed as insensitive, sexist and even racist.
The Golden Book’s storyline, such as it is, begins in 1918, with a fictional Vachel Lindsay stand-in joining a small group of Springfieldians calling themselves “The Prognosticators Club” in gathering around a table, séance-style, and projecting themselves forward to “mystic year” 2018. They are visited by the literal Golden Book of Springfield, a quasi-psychedelic entity whose dramatic entrance is described thusly: “a book of air, gleaming with spiritual gold, comes flying in through the walls as though they were but shadows. It is a book open as it soars, and every fluttering page is richly bordered and illuminated. It has wings of black, and above them wings of azure. Long feathers radiate from the whirring, soaring pennons.” Once successfully projected into 2018, Lindsay wanders the streets, hanging out at the corner of Fifth and Monroe, “loafing” around in coffee shops and befriending the future residents of his hometown, forging a special connection with the book’s heroine, socialite-warrior-goddess Avanel Boone, a direct descendent of Daniel Boone, eventually witnessing a climactic aerial battle for the soul of his hometown. The frequent refrain of “Springfield awake, Springfield aflame!” is used throughout the book as a sort of fist-pumping affirmation of Lindsay’s utopian hopes for the city he loved.
“The Golden Book represents his entire life boiled down into one book,” said Springfield-based poet and Lindsay scholar Ian Winterbauer, who often hosts tours of the Vachel Lindsay House at 603 S. Fifth St., where Lindsay grew up and lived as an adult, now a museum and historic landmark. The Golden Book was published two years later than Lindsay had wanted and received poor reviews from American critics. Like many innovative U.S. artists throughout the years, Lindsay was better appreciated during his lifetime by European audiences and reviewers than in his own country. “He was a people’s poet,” said Winterbauer. “People at parties liked him a lot, but other poets tended not to. Lindsay’s work may have started in classrooms – he attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – but his audience ended up being the people on the streets.”
Some dated word choices and other historical considerations can make Lindsay a difficult read for some contemporary audiences, but far from being racist or sexist, Lindsay’s work in The Golden Book tends to venerate its black and female characters to the point of near-idealization. “I think most people now who might try to read this book will see the word ‘negress’ and immediately tune out,” said Winterbauer. “It’s important to remember that this was 1918 and the term ‘African-American’ did not exist. Second of all, the ‘negress’ character is a strong, independent hero. Every female character in The Golden Book is strong and independent and a heroic figure.”
Lindsay’s enlightened (for 1918) attitude toward minorities was informed by growing up in what was then a largely black area of Springfield. In fact, he and his father, a doctor, witnessed the beginning of the race riot of 1908 from their window facing Fifth Street. “More than 40 businesses were burned downtown because they were run by nonwhite people,” said Winterbauer. “The crowd then stormed through the Governor’s Mansion lawn [directly across from the Lindsay’s home] to head to where Boone’s Saloon is now, where they lynched and slit a man’s throat in front of his family because he was black and his wife was white.” The victim, an elderly cobbler named William Donnegan, had made shoes for Abraham Lincoln during the future president’s time in Springfield. After witnessing the riot, Dr. Lindsay – who had been raised by his own father’s slaves and had already been providing affordable housing to black tenants in the building behind the Lindsays’ residence – began treating nonwhite patients secretly, during the night and for no charge, from the porch of his home, at considerable risk to his career and reputation.
Also shaken by witnessing the riot, Vachel Lindsay later wrote and spoke extensively about the need for racial equality in America, and during his cross country “tramps,” he regularly debated fellow citizens on the subject, particularly in the South. One of Lindsay’s crowning achievements, according to Winterbauer, was the time he stayed on a Florida plantation, the owner of which was an old and sick former slave owner, whom he debated for hours on the subject of race. “The guy could have shot Vachel in the head and dumped him in the swamp and nobody would have ever heard from him again,” Winterbauer pointed out, “but Vachel challenged that guy and by the time he left, the guy admitted that maybe black people do have souls but they’re just smaller than a white person’s.” Lindsay chalked this up as a victory because he had gotten an inveterate racist to change from seeing black people as objects to seeing them as human – if still inferior – beings. Baby steps.
Much of Lindsay’s audience in Springfield consisted of rich people at fancy parties who would not have tolerated what Vachel was trying to say had they understood it, according to Winterbauer. “He was a novelty to a lot of people, kind of like The Elephant Man was in Victorian England, but Vachel legitimately did have things to say – and that is what led to his depression, ultimately: people weren’t listening.” Lindsay lampooned right-wing types in The Golden Book in the form of a character named John Fletcher who is described as believing that “politics is business and business is politics and the only worthwhile citizens are those that ‘get the money,’” a sentiment which might not seem unfamiliar to inhabitants of Springfield in 2018. Indeed, many of the slogans that appear throughout Lindsay’s work are arguably as applicable today as they were 100 years ago, including “A crude administration is damned already,” “A bad designer is to that extent a bad citizen,” and “Without an eager public all teaching is in vain.”
Of course, not all of Lindsay’s specific predictions about his home city in The Golden Book of Springfield came to pass. For instance, while there has been no “World’s Fair of the University of Springfield,” the Springfield Art Association does still operate out of Edwards Place. Elsewhere, Lindsay inaccurately predicts a clean-shaven trend for the men of 2018 but his pronouncement that in 2018 “everywhere south of Mason and Dixon’s line they say that Grant surrendered to Lee. It is in every Southern schoolbook,” has a certain ring of truth to it, at least in spirit. The mayor of Springfield in The Golden Book’s version of 2018 is a Boss Tweed-style caricature named “Slick Slack Kopensky,” bearing little resemblance to our Mr. Langfelder.
Segregation and racism are presumed to have remained at 1918 levels in “New Springfield,” which is thankfully not the case, but Springfield’s women of the “mystic year” are in the workforce and described as voting in larger numbers than men. At the same time, Lindsay’s pronouncement that “having a private fortune is proclaimed in every political speech to be against the Constitution” seems fairly far-fetched in the billionaire-drenched political landscape of actual 2018, as does the prediction that in 2018 “saloons are as extinct as the trilobite.”
Perhaps most striking, Lindsay’s description of “an extraordinary, world-conquering device, some amorphous, dubious toy, akin to the ancient phonograph” can’t help but conjure up a dim foretelling of the smartphone. And his attendant concerns (“Will the millennial future be a tin and wire world, an electrical experiment station and no more?”) seem worth bearing in mind.
Lindsay’s most important idea, according to Winterbauer, was that of “the new localism” – an early version of the currently popular idea of thinking globally and acting locally. “If you know how to make your community better, go out and apply it – if the entire world is focusing on its communities, producing its own food, ensuring that there aren’t race riots in the street, then the world will be better,” said Winterbauer. “I think Vachel would want people now to ask themselves, what am I doing to make the world a better place and who am I actually doing it for?”
Vachel Lindsay themed events planned for 2018
• “Vachel’s Golden Age” exhibit will be hosted by the Pharmacy featuring work inspired by Lindsay, June 8 and 9, 6-9 p.m. each night at the Pharmacy and Vachel Lindsay House. Free admission.
• A collaborative exhibition about Vachel Lindsay at the Springfield Art Association will run Sept. 7-28. Partners are the SAA, ALPLM and the Vachel Lindsay Association, Springfield Poets and Writers, UIS Archives and the Sangamon Valley Collection. Highlights will include original Lindsay photographs, artwork and poetry, as well as a portrait of Lindsay done shortly before his death in 1931.
• The second annual Amaranth Apple Festival – named after the mystical fruit central to The Golden Book – has been announced for July 13 through July 15 and will be an official Bicentennial event.
• The Vachel Lindsay House’s monthly Poets in the Parlor series will feature an open mic prior to each featured reader throughout this year, in the spirit of The Golden Book of Springfield, which features the voices of a wide variety of Springfield citizens.
• On Wednesday, March 28, a town hall meeting will be held at the Vachel Lindsay House to examine Springfield and the surrounding community’s literary roots in addition to exploring the potential of our literary future. Authors Jackie Jackson and Shawna Mayer will discuss a few key figures from the past as well as present their ideas of where the literary community is now. Following their presentation, the discussion will be opened to the audience.
• The New Golden Book of Springfield will be published in the fall of 2018. The book will contain essay and art winners, photos of bicentennial visitors and events, and essays from Springfield leaders about what Springfield 2118 will be like.
For information about various town hall meetings being planned throughout 2018 by the Illinois Bicentennial Coordinating Committee of Springfield, visit www.il200springfield.org/town-hall-series.html
Scott Faingold can be reached at