Friday, December 23, 2005

George Bailey or George Babbitt?

I grew up thinking of this man, my great-grandfather Latham T. Souther, in terms of George Bailey from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. It's clear that my hero, Vachel Lindsay, would have thought him more in the mold of Old Man Potter.

Now, an intriguing theory has popped up in my mind. Could it be that Sinclair Lewis' character, George Babbitt, was inspired by Souther? It's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Souther was family friend of Lindsay's parents and sisters and of Vachel Lindsay himself, but Lindsay described Souther to such literary friends as Harriet Monroe and Edgar Lee Masters in very much the same terms as Lewis described Babbitt.

In Babbitt, Lewis describes his title character looking for something to read. Here's the passage:

He ambled up to Verona’s room, sat on her maidenly blue and white bed, humming and grunting in a solid-citizen manner as he examined her books: Conrad’s “Rescue,” a volume strangely named “Figures of Earth,” poetry (quite irregular poetry, Babbitt thought) by Vachel Lindsay, and essays by H. L. Mencken—highly improper essays, making fun of the church and all the decencies. He liked none of the books. In them he felt a spirit of rebellion against niceness and solid-citizenship. These authors—and he supposed they were famous ones, too—did not seem to care about telling a good story which would enable a fellow to forget his troubles.

It was just such a wild theory that made me think the evil trust officer described in Masters' biography of Lindsay was in fact my great-grandfather, which I later found out was right on the mark.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

2018: The Millennial Year

March 1, 2018, Oak Ridge Cemetary...
There is a deep darkness, and time passing by without end, and shade. There is the fear of the moles that will not leave me alone, who make nests of alien dust, beneath my ribs. And my bones crumble through the century, like last years autumn leaves. Then there is, alternating with drouth, bitter frost. And roots wrap my heart and brain. And there is sleep.

Then a galloping and gay shrieking, away on the road, to the east of Oak Ridge! And though I am six feet beneath the ground the eyes of the soul are given me. I see the wonderful young horsewoman out on that Great Northwest Road and the ancient clay between me and that cavalcade turns to air and to light. And I am asking myself as the Girl Leader goes by like a meteor: "Am I coming up again through the earth as weed or flame or man? If I rise from this grave, I am coming but to praise her, if I may."

Vachel Lindsay describes his return to Springfield one hundred years in the future in his utopian novel, The Golden Book of Springfield.

It's not too early to prepare for the Millennial Year, when Lindsay and the winged book are due to appear!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Elijah Iles House

The Elijah Iles House is Springfield's oldest surviving structure. It was built some time around 1830, when Springfield was still just a cluster of log cabins.

It was situated at the southeast corner of Sixth and Cook Streets until 1910, when it was to be demolished to make room for the First Christian Church. My great-grandparents, Latham and Lyna Souther, saved the house from destruction by purchasing it and moving it to 1825 S. Fifth Street, where they made it their home for the next forty years.

Fast forward to the present. The house has been saved once again by a new generation of historic preservationists, The Elijah Iles House Foundation. The house has been moved back to a spot only one block away from its original location where it is now a new museum dedicated to Springfield history.

The house is pictured here circa 1917, a couple of years before Vachel Lindsay was remembered to have visited Lyna Souther here.

For more information about the Iles House, be sure to visit Will Howarth's blogspot.

Here are more images of the Iles House and the Southers.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Woodstock and Walled Towns

"Nantucket" by Frank Swift Chase

While researching Vachel Lindsay's relationship with my great-grandmother, Lyna Chase Souther, and his interest in sharing his utopian vision of Springfield with her and her friends, I received a query from another Souther descendant about Lyna's kid brother, Frank Swift Chase.

She asked me what I knew about Frank Swift Chase's involvement in the Woodstock artists colony. Not much, I replied. She filled me in.

Frank Swift Chase was a leading figure in the Woodstock Artists Association, one of a handful of its founders in 1920. He was among the conservative faction in an organization that included both modernist and traditionalist painters. His paintings fetch a good price and examples of them can be found at many websites. He later founded an artists' colony of his own in Nantucket.

This raises the question for my Lindsay research, would he and Lyna have discussed Woodstock when he was talking about transforming Springfield? Was there a knowledge between them of the tradition of John Ruskin in the Woodstock colony, and its predecessor, Byrdcliffe art colony?

I've posted an art gallery of Frank Swift Chase images here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Municipal Flag of Springfield

In 1916, Vachel Lindsay met with members of the Springfield Art Association and together they organized a contest for the design of the official municipal flag for Springfield. The SAA flag committee included former Illinois governor Richard Yates, reknowned Springfield architect George Helmle as well as my great-grandmother, Lyna Chase Souther.

Lindsay put up $100.00 as prize money for the winning design, shown here.

The flag's design became an integral component of New Springfield's geography in Lindsay's The Golden Book of Springfield, as this exerpt attests:

"...the path of white around the red star of Springfield is the map of our five-pointed system of double walls and within them a star-plan system of avenues."

Lindsay describes the vast scale of the outer walls with gates at each of the five star-points located at Mason City, Warrenburg, Pana, Palmyra and Virginia, Illinois. The walls, according to Lindsay's narrative, were

"...built so long ago by Ralph Adams Cram!"
The flag still flies proudly over Springfield. Lindsay said of the flag,

"Those that can unite under the flag of Springfield with joy can someday unite the world over, under the flag of mankind."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Vachel Lindsay and Walled Towns

On December 1, 2005, I presented a paper at the annual historical symposium of the Illinois State Historical Society about a book (right) I found full of critical annotations penned by Vachel Lindsay ca 1920.

This one subject combines my family history with the life and work of Vachel Lindsay and the history of Springfield. It ties together The Vachel Lindsay Home State Historic Site and the Elijah Iles House in ways historians hadn't previously considered.

Below is my introduction to the transcription I made of Lindsay's annotations. I'll post the transcription itself elsewhere.

Sometime between February, 1920 and October, 1921, the poet Vachel Lindsay annotated a copy of Walled Towns by Ralph Adams Cram and inscribed it to Lyna Chase Souther, a socialite of Lindsay's hometown, Springfield, Illinois.

Cram was an important Gothic revival architect and a disciple of John Ruskin, the pre-eminent Victorian art critic who was also an important influence on Lindsay. Walled Towns, first published in 1919, proposes intentional communities surrounded by metaphorical walls keeping in local talent and keeping out the modernism and commercialism of the industrial age. Cram’s protest to the contrary notwithstanding, Walled Towns falls into the utopian genre.

Lindsay found much to agree with in Walled Towns, which appeared just at the time he was hammering out his own utopian novel, The Golden Book of Springfield. Areas of disagreement with Cram, however, provoked lively responses by the poet penned in the margins of the book in his lovely Spencerian hand. Lindsay's commentary provides insights into his thinking during this time and sheds light on some of the more obscure aspects of his Golden Book. Although Lindsay never mentioned The Golden Book in his Walled Towns annotations, the connection is obvious.

Lindsay intended his Golden Book to transform Springfield.

"You haven’t the least notion of the heart’s blood I am putting into The Golden Book," he wrote to Harriet Monroe, "I would certainly die for the book, if it would do the work I want it to do."

"This book seems to me to be the one thing that justifies my life," he wrote later.

Considering the many important changes that were occurring in Springfield and America while Lindsay was writing The Golden Book, anything must have seemed possible to him at the time. Springfield’s elite had recently commissioned a survey by the Russell Sage Foundation that prompted many social reforms and structural improvements for the city. With the "war to end all wars" just concluded, America embraced Prohibition and women’s suffrage. The country was poised to enter the Jazz Age with its Lost Generation while Lindsay desperately worked to steer things in the opposite direction. It is one of those tragic ironies that the Prohibition amendment which Lindsay himself had helped bring about - and hoped would redirect American culture - ultimately fostered the lawlessness and dissolution that characterized the Roaring Twenties.

Lindsay drew upon many sources for The Golden Book, not the least of which was his already prodigious body of poetry and the rich metaphorical language he developed in that work. John Ruskin, Edward Bellamy and Ralph Adams Cram were already important influences in his thinking and writing. Lindsay's great ambition in The Golden Book was to orchestrate these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. However, without the benefit of a thorough understanding of his literary parentage and his own particular metaphorical language, The Golden Book of Springfield can come across as hopeless nonsense. Lindsay’s writing often demands a fair degree of effort and indulgence from its readers, but The Golden Book of Springfield can strain even the patience of his most ardent devotees.

Lindsay's gift of his hand-annotated copy of Walled Towns to Lyna Souther - with the request that she share the book among her friends in the Springfield Art Association - apparently was intended to enlighten and influence the prominent people and community leaders of Springfield. The "debate," as Lindsay dubbed it, between Cram and himself might help him lay the groundwork for acceptance of his Golden Book in the Springfield community and attest to his earnestness in transforming the town.

Lyna Chase Souther, a talented landscape painter herself, and the sister of Woodstock founder, Frank Swift Chase, was an obvious ally to enlist in this cause. Lindsay had recently collaborated with Souther and the Art Association in the creation of Springfield’s municipal flag. The flag became a prominent component of The Golden Book and fit well with Lindsay's and Cram's shared penchant for civic heraldry and pageantry.

If Lindsay saw Lyna Souther as part of the solution in Springfield, he must have seen her husband, Latham Souther, as part of the problem. It is apparent from his letters that he saw Latham, a banker who happened to be the trust officer of his father’s estate, as the very embodiment of the main street businessman he had waged war against and felt oppressed by throughout his career. Souther was described in one of the congratulatory volumes of local biography and history as one of Springfield's "representative men." As such, he appears to have represented the side of Springfield that resisted Lindsay's ideas the most. It is not very likely that Latham would have reacted any differently to The Golden Book than would have George Babbitt himself.

Although utopias such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000 - 1887 had been a very popular literary form in the past – the science fiction of their day - and had inspired much discussion, the critics and the public at large failed even to acknowledge The Golden Book of Springfield when it appeared in 1920. As a vehicle for rallying Springfield and America to his vision, it was a tragic failure for Lindsay.

The copy of Walled Towns inscribed to Lyna Souther, the annotations of which are transcribed here, now resides in the Sangamon Valley Collection in Springfield, a gift of her daughter, Betty McMinn.

Included with the book in the collection are two loose letters, one from Lyna's friend, Charles Ridgely, returning the book to her in 1923 along with a 1921 letter from Ralph Adams Cram to Ridgely saying he would like to see Lindsay's annotations.

Cram never saw this annotated copy, but mentioned in his letter that he had heard from his friend Stephen Graham that Lindsay had distributed twenty or thirty copies of the book. Cram referred to Lyna's copy of Walled Towns as "the annotated copy" in his letter, but Lindsay apparently handed out many such annotated copies to friends and neighbors over the years. Lindsay later referred to these as "illuminated" copies.

Read the transcripition here.

Welcome to New Springfield

My name is Larry Stevens. I'm more than a life-long resident of Springfield, Illinois. My families were among the first Euroamerican settlers here in Sangamon county and have lived here ever since 1818.

My ancestors and relatives were the friends and neighbors of Abraham Lincoln. As you may be able to tell, I'm a bit chauvenistic about it.

The name of this blog, "New Springfield", is taken from Vachel Lindsay's utopian novel, The Golden Book of Springfield, which depicts our town one hundred years in the future, 2018.