Originally published in 1952, this poignant, romantic biography of the poet Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) is well worth a second chance. From early on, Lindsay was a wanderer, tramping hundreds of miles along country roads, visiting small towns, never holding a job, writing poems of uplift and defiance, and giving them, or his drawings, away on the streets, selling them for food or declaiming them on the lecture circuit. Always poor and, in later life, plagued by illness, Lindsay died at fifty-two, leaving a legacy of virile, jazzy poems that, although out of style with academics, continue to bring pleasure to readers.
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About the Author
Mark Harris is the author of many works of fiction, drama and nonfiction. He taught writing at Arizona State University in Tempe.
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City of Discontent
By Mark Harris
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1980 Mark Harris
All rights reserved.
Springfield Illinois. 1879. Twenty thousand persons. Abraham Lincoln is fourteen years dead.
Burr Davis runs an inn on the road from the east, and because he knows a good thing when he sees it he offers something special: a dollar a night for bed and breakfast, and for another dollar a head he carries folks by carriage from his inn to the house Lincoln owned and lived in at Eighth and Jackson. Already he realizes that overland traffic is giving way to the railroads: soon he will conduct excursions from the depot, and afterward he will abandon his inn altogether and concentrate on hauling people for a look at the place where Lincoln lived. He will make a good living.
There is something about the city: people are beginning to sense it, beginning to feel the outpushing of its contours, feeling as a girl-child fourteen feels new growth and change, suddenly conscious of herself, realizing all at once that she is an object of attention.
Clem Reddy is toothless and dry, and he can remember, or claims to remember, when he came as a boy to a prairie village where wild weeds grew as high as the cabins, and in time so many folks came up from Tennessee and Kentucky and across from Virginia and Indiana that he cannot, as once he could, call all people by their given names.
Burr Davis tells the professor down from Chicago that the best person to see is Clem Reddy. "Now relax and think," the professor says, and the men at the square crowd around, and Clem sits back in the November sun and runs his tongue across his smooth gums and tries to think.
"Well, now you ask," he says, "in the beginning there was a man, but as far as his name goes I can't rightly say," and after many sessions with Clem, after a long time, the professor pieces it together: in the beginning there was a man, and his name was Hunter Kelly, and as far as is known he came up from Carolina and cleared ground for himself. He was an Irish Catholic, and he was reading St. Augustine's City of God and he thought he would build such a city in the Illinois country.
"Twasn't no Catholic," Clem says a little heatedly. "He was a Swedenborg the way I heard it."
"Is it possible you forget?" The professor knows how the accumulation of myth and the decline of memory tend to distort fact.
"No," says Clem, "it ain't possible."
"Did you know Lincoln?"
Ole Hibben steps forward. "I knowed him," he says. (Ole is a preacher. There were twenty-three preachers in Springfield when Lincoln ran for President, and twenty of them preached against Lincoln, and Ole is one of the twenty. He is a big-shouldered man, and the professor, confronting Ole, speaks with an earnest caution: yesterday, on the square, there was a stranger on horseback, traveling from Peoria to St. Louis, and he stopped to rest his horse. "There was an atheist in Peoria ..." the stranger began, and Ole had brought his right arm up from where it was at rest in his belt, and he slapped the stranger a whipcrack slap on the side of the face, and the stranger toppled backward as much from surprise as from hurt, and from the ground he finished: "They run him out." "Good thing," said Ole.) "He lacked religion," says Ole Hibben of Abe Lincoln.
Yet there are some who declare that with their own eyes they saw Lincoln upon his knees in church, and the professor fears that the only certainty likely to emerge from the pursuit of facts is the fact of there being no certainty. He asks Ole Hibben his name, his age, and how long he has been a resident of Springfield.
And the professor will take a suitcase full of notes back with him to Chicago and try to make a straight story of the jumble of things that Clem Reddy and Ole Hibben and the men and women of Springfield tell him:
There was a man called Hunter Kelly (some say "Elisha Kelly") and he was either a Swedenborgian disciple of Johnny Appleseed or an Irish Catholic; there was Sangamon Phalanx and it set itself up as the agency of Utopia in forty-five with a membership of fifty (or in fifty with a membership of forty-five), and Peter Cartwright came in twenty-four or twenty-eight or thereabouts, and he could preach forty-eight hours and never sit down. "A joyous battlefield against the devil and rival sects." He ran against Lincoln for Congress in forty-six, and he lost.
Dates. A city's history, for the professor, is dates, the establishment of pivots. 1837, the capital is moved from Vandalia to Springfield. He hangs history conveniently on hooks.
Dr. Lindsay sniffs distastefully. He does not like the smell of tobacco that swirls about the girl. Her brothers and her father chew tobacco all day long, and the doctor knows it and submits to the inevitability of it and leads the girl upstairs to the room where birth is about to take place.
"Scorpio," she says.
"What is Scorpio?" His voice is deep and gruff, but it is gentle.
"Scorpios is different."
"Yes?" he says, but he does not believe in the signs any more than he believes, as her brothers and her father do, that the juice of tobacco is both healer and precaution. He believes in signs, but they are signs of a different sort, not superstition. (Bob Ingersoll, the Peoria agnostic, would call it superstition.) The doctor calls it faith, faith in the Campbellite God, the stern faith of a stern church. There is a fullness of joy, a fullness of glory and a fullness of blessedness of which no living man however enlightened ever formed or entertained one adequate conception, says Alexander Campbell, and this is strength for the doctor each time he reads it or hears it spoken. "Wash your hands," he tells the girl. He pours steaming water from a large pan into a smaller one.
"It's hot," she says.
"That's right. Go ahead, wash them," and she does, and he rubs his black beard and watches her. She feels that she is being punished, and she does not know why, and she washes her hands, reluctantly, half-knowing it is a good and necessary thing to do, and he half-thinks it is really not necessary, but it is the new way of doing things and he is scientist as well as religionist. At the worst there is no harm in it. He explores his beard again and orders the girl to enter the room and tend the mother. "When the time comes I'll be downstairs," he says.
"I'll come a-running," says she. She seats herself in a chair beside the mother. She takes an assortment of charms from her apron pocket and arranges them in her lap. In her hand she clutches a metal disk upon which raised letters appear. The disk was given to her by a feed salesman who explained its twofold purpose: it would bring good fortune and it would help her to remember the name of the feed company.
Dr. Lindsay has done all that he can do. Downstairs he places a kettle of water on the hot stove. He will have tea. He seats himself at the kitchen table and waits for the water to heat. He is nervous. He is not so nervous as when his first child came, but he is nervous nevertheless: more babies die than live, and almost as many mothers die as live. He paces. He walks into the parlor, and here, in the air, there is the passing suggestion of the odor of tobacco introduced into the house by the girl, and he wishes he had, just for now, just this once, a square of tobacco into which he might clamp his teeth. It would relieve the tension.
He returns to the kitchen, and he prepares strong tea. It tastes weak. Scorpio, she had said. Scorpios is different, and he smiles, and then the smile disappears, and, like the coming and the going of a silver line of lightning, his mind grasps a truth: it is not the question of the health of the mother-wife that worries him (she is Rush County Indiana people, and they are a hardy people) nor the question of the survival of the child. It is larger, a question of conflict and confusion in terms of the child-to-be, a question of the sign of Scorpio and the strong hold of an old-time religion, and these ranged in turn against a fast-changing world (who knows how many atheists there are in Peoria, and Peoria just up the line?), and then the line of lightning is gone, and the girl is calling from the stairway.
In the Illinois country wild turkey run (in ten years they will be extinct) and the tame deer lope free (in a year they will be dead) and the corn grows wild (in fifteen years there will not be a stalk of corn that does not belong to someone) and the secret of life is survival, protection and survival, and the wild turkey hen keeps her young beneath her wing, and the tame wild deer keeps its half-developed fawn a long time in its protective shadow.
Mama is Rush County Indiana and Papa is Gallatin County Kentucky, and both are bred strong in a pioneer tradition, and, even so, time hurls its spears and wounds them. In full flower they re-create themselves, and for each new life created they pay in strength and gain in wisdom. But they are no longer pioneers. They have found their frontier.
Mama and Papa (the new son will call them Mama and Papa all his life) are as far west as they will ever be. They retrench and plant themselves solid. They will not return to the older East, but they will not remove to the newer West. They have come to stay and suffer time's wounds, and the wounds are many:
There are six children. The first is Olive, black-haired, dark-eyed and plump, and now there is Nicholas Vachel under the sign of Scorpio, and Mama explains that the a in Vachel is broad like the first a in Abraham, whether the Biblical Abraham or the Springfield Abraham is not known (she is devoted to both) and Vachel will insist that the name rhymes with Rachel, not with satchel. He will have more imagination than Mama, which is saying a good deal, for she has a wild polite imagination.
After Vachel there is tragedy, Isabel, Esther, Endora (called Dodo), diphtheria, scarlet fever, milk poison, swift, swift, swift, the plunging spears. The babies are the first to lie in the Lindsay plot in Oak Ridge. They sleep a few steps from the knoll where Lincoln lies in a tomb that is simple at first but improved with time until it is oversized, gaudy and tasteless.
There is a sixth child, a girl, and she is optimistically named Joy, and she lives, and the three living children are held close in protective embrace, for Mama and Papa have felt three times the keen pain of loss, and those who live they nourish and guard and guide and hope to build strong.
Summer day. Dry day. He moves down the street and crosses over and no one can see that beneath his shirt is a box of matches. They are sulphurous and good to smell. The smell has always tempted him. Dust rises on the dry street. He kicks the dust as he goes, and a man shouts at him — "Say boy don't rile the dust like that" — and the boy runs a little, but even for a small boy it is hot, too hot to run, and he slows to a walk again and resumes his kicking of the dust. He imagines that he is Papa's team beating down a dusty road on an urgent call.
At road-end is a stile, and he climbs it and straddles the topmost timber and turns to see how far he has come. He has come a frightening distance and he thinks he hears Mama's call, a little shrill, somehow a little more anxious than usual, and he listens, but it is not she. He stands atop the stile. He is a famous discoverer discovering Egypt (Mama has introduced him to the wonders of Rawlinson's History of Egypt) and the haystacks in the field are pyramids. He descends the stile.
Two farmers in the field stand talking, their faces partly hidden by the shadow of their wide-brim straw hats. They are talking of the heat and how the hay is dry, and they wonder to each other how the almanac could be so wrong about the rain. They see Vachel cross the field.
"Seems like we get more closer to the sun every year," one farmer says. He smiles as much of a smile as he can allow himself. It has been a summer of much heat. It was a winter of much snow and a spring of much rain, and they thought it would be a good summer. Every year they think it will be a good summer. And then the earth moves close to the sun and the melted snows and the spring rains seem to have been but pleasant dreams, and now the ground is thirsting to the roots of the trees. They have sprinkled it as generously as they dare with well water. But people and animals must have water before crops, and by August the animals lick dry muzzles with dry tongues, and by the end of August the farmer himself drinks sparingly. "Then if it's a good crop the prices is down." They cannot understand it, and they stand looking at the brown-green field as they have stood every afternoon this week, and at the dry blue sky. "Well if it burns then I go into the mine for the winter," the farmer says, and at the moment the cool mine with dripping walls, the cool mine that is always damp, looks good to him. "Then when you're down you remember how you was standing out here like this in the heat."
Vachel reaches the end of the long row of haystacks. His heart pounds hard, and he kneels and reaches inside his shirt for the matches, and he takes one and carefully closes the box and puts the box back inside his shirt. He twists until his hand can conveniently reach his shoe, and he rubs the green tip of the match against his sole, but it does not light. He has seen Papa light matches a hundred times with a quick motion along the bottom of his shoe or on his pants or simply with a fingernail. It is not so easy as it looks. The match snaps in two and he takes another from the box and replaces the box inside his shirt, but still the match will not ignite, and he takes the box again and sets it beside him, and a third time and a fourth time the matches refuse to fire, and the boy is patient. He has great patience.
Then it happens. For no good reason it happens. He rubs the match against the sole of his shoe, and it flares, and he is startled, and the match flies from his hand and ignites the others in the box, and before he knows what has happened the skirt of the stack is burning, and brown smoke rises and two men advance across the field toward him. "Get away get away," the farmer shouts, but Vachel cannot move, and now they are upon him and one farmer pushes him backward and the other stamps upon the burning hay. Then they tear down the stack with a pitchfork and spread the hay and study it, and then they build the stack again, and then one farmer takes Vachel by the hand and leads him home and shows Mama and Papa the blackened matches in the blackened box. Papa reads the label on the box through the char and says thank you to the farmer and offers him money, but the farmer will not take any money. He departs.
They talk about him. They often talk about him, and they think he is not listening, but he is. He listens very carefully to every word, even though his eyes are on History of Egypt.
Mama is gentle. Papa is firm. It is Mama he runs to when things go wrong. Papa is frequently busy in his study or out on calls or catching up on his sleep. It is Mama who first put the picture books into his hands. Papa approves of books, but he says a boy must start learning to be a man; Papa says it is a hard world and a boy must first of all know how to be a man. (Papa sees Vachel a doctor someday. He dreams of the day when he will say well Vachel you're ready now you take the rounds north of Capitol and I'll take them south. He sees the young doctor riding away in his own carriage, the medicines scattered in tight-capped bottles on the floor, two dollars for white folks and free to colored folks and medicine for everyone lest people think the young doctor does not know his business.)
It is Mama who kept him in golden curls, and Papa who finally won out one Christmas when Grandpa Lindsay came and felt of Vachel's head because the old man's eyes were strangely blind and he could only see (they said) with his hands, and with his hands he saw that Vachel wore curls, and he stormed about demanding that a boy be made to look like a boy, and Mama said no, but Papa said yes, and Grandpa Lindsay roared yes yes off with them off with them, and off they came, and Papa won a small victory then.
Now Papa says, "It's time he was acting and doing like a man," and his voice is like firm thunder.
"He's just a baby." Her voice is low and soft.
"No baby. No baby at all. If he's big enough to get a fire started on Jeff Hatten's place he's big enough to take the consequences. I don't like it any more than you. But I got to do it."
"Wait awhile. We'll talk about it some more. Act in haste ..."
"No waiting." He knows that if he waits he will not do what he must do.
Excerpted from City of Discontent by Mark Harris. Copyright © 1980 Mark Harris. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsBook I — CHILD,
Book II — LOVER,
Book III — PATRIOT,
Book IV — JOHNNY APPLESEED,
Book V — THE HAPPY ENDING,