The Golden Book of Springfield
Cochran, David, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
The Golden Book of Springfield. By Vachel Lindsay. Introduction by Ron Sakolsky. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Press, 1999. Cxvii + 329 pp., illustra- tions. Paper, $22.00)
In the wake of the success of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887), Americans were inundated with literary utopias from points of view as diverse as the American people themselves. Novels describing socialist, populist, business, Christian, feminist and an array of other utopias spoke to a people making the uneasy transition from a rural, small-producer capitalist economy to an urban, big business, consumer economy. Such works reflected the social and personal tensions of this period of transformation, but also an underlying optimism regarding Americans' ability to adapt to the challenges at hand and fashion a more humane future. Such optimism, which fueled the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, had largely spent itself by the end of World War I, and in the wake of the mass destruction and social chaos arising from the war and the Russian revolution, the cycle of utopian literature largely came to an end.
Vachel Lindsay's The Golden Book of Springfield (1921) stands as one of the final works in this wave of utopian writings. Recently reissued, with a lengthy introduction by Ron Sakolsky, it is an odd and idiosyncratic book, reflecting the eccentricities of its author. One of the most significant American poets of the early twentieth century, Lindsay wrote free verse that captured the American vernacular as reflected not only in the daily spoken language, but also the rhythms of the era's popular culture, notably jazz and motion pictures. Moreover, Lindsay was fascinated with many of the intellectual strains of his time, including, at various times, socialism, feminism, Christian mysticism, and prohibition. In the best tradition of Whitmanesque democratic poetry, Lindsay contradicted himself because he contained multitudes. Thus he captures the heteroglossia of a time when the left wing of Progressivism merged with the socialist, social gospel, and feminist movements, and the residual influence of nineteenth-century political movements - from Lincoln's republicanism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism to populism and Henry George's single-tax plan - still carried meaning in American political discourse.
In a fine introduction, Sakolsky places Lindsay in this dynamic context and shows how the poet drew on a wide range of influences to fashion an eclectic radicalism. As Sakolsky comments, "Lindsay was not an ideological purist. Instead he attempted to creatively cobble together a variety of strains of thought ... In one sense Lindsay's intellectual approach can be seen as lacking in rigor, but in a more favorable light it can be seen as the thinking of a person more interested in facilitating unity than in sectarian bickering." (p. xix) Running through Lindsay's utopian thought are not only the intellectual currents mentioned above, but also anarchism, Confucianism, slave culture, and the influence of such people as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, John Ruskin, Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Jacob Coxey and Woodrow Wilson. …