Manuscript of Vachel Lindsay's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" - With Early Letter

c. 1917

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Manuscript of Vachel Lindsay's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" - With Early Letter
Typed Manuscript Signed
4 pages | SMC 1111

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      Background

      “The most striking fact of our time, of a psychological kind,” a journalist noted in 1908, “is the growth of Lincoln’s fame since the earth closed over his remains.” Every generation, it would seem, views Lincoln, somehow, as a symbol of its time. To the young Vachel Lindsay, facing the horror of World War I, Lincoln was a ghostly apparition, sleeplessly pacing the streets of Springfield, Illinois, and carrying on “his shawl-wrapped shoulders” all the bitterness, folly, pain in the world.

      …That here at midnight, in our little town
      A mourning figure walks, and will not rest…

      He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

      A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
      A famous high top-hat, and plain worn shawl
      Make him the quaint, great figure that men love,
      The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

      He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
      He is among us: - as in times before!
      And we who toss or lie awake for long
      Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door


      What Lindsay, who grew up in Lincoln’s Springfield hometown, knew well, was that Lincoln, from his earliest days to the last haunted photo, was seen as veritably dripping misery as he walked. “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character”, a colleague declared, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” It was this capacity to endure suffering, and yet prevail, that so captivated Lindsay, and that captivates, almost a century and half later, still.

      The letter accompanying this manuscript concerns the Springfield flag. The flag was designed in a contest conceived by Lindsay, and adjudged by the Springfield Art Association, which his letter addresses.
       
      Let the Art Club debate it and vote on it, but please do not ask me to consult, debate or vote. Please imagine me dead, and you Art Club people my sole heirs without a will….I am indeed grateful to the Club for accepting the general suggestion of a flag, and consenting to put it through, and if anything I appear to have said, done written or hinted, indicates that I want to have a hand in the matter I pray you allow me to take it back. Please get a flag for Springfield. Please leave me out of it. Please do it as the Art Club pleases, from start to finish.
       
      Springfield got its flag, which made its debut in November 1917; and Lindsay, even if left alone by the Art Club, only got more famous. But renown, after the stock market crash of 1929, plunged him into terrible poverty, fame or no; and he committed suicide in 1931, in Springfield, at his home on South Fifth Street.


      Typed Manuscript Signed, being his poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)”, 3 pages, quarto, no place or date. With two autograph corrections.
       
      Accompanied by an Autograph Letter Signed (in full: “Nicholas Vachel Lindsay”), 1 page, quarto, on his personal letterhead, 603 South Fifth Street, Springfield, Illinois, no date (c. 1917).  Apparently to the Art Club of Springfield, Illinois.
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      all pages and transcript

      Page 1/4

      Page 1 transcript
      ABRAHAM LINCOLN WALKS AT MIDNIGHT
      (In Springfield, Illinois)

      It is portentous, and a thing of state 
      That here at midnight, in our little town 
      A mourning figure walks, and will not rest, 
      Near the old court-house, pacing up and down. 

      Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards 
      He lingers where his children used to play, 
      Or through the market, on the well-worn stones 
      He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away. 

      A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black, 
      A famous high top-hat, and plain worn shawl 
      Make him the quaint, great figure that men love, 
      The prairie-lawyer, master of us all. 

      Page 2/4

      Page 2 transcript
      He cannot sleep upon his hillside now. 
      He is among us: - as in times before! 
      And we who toss or lie awake for long 
      Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door. 

      His head is bowed, he thinks on men and kings, 
      Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep? 
      Too many peasants fight, they know not why, 
      Too many homesteads in black terror weep. 

      The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart. 
      He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main. 
      He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now 
      The bitterness, the folly and the pain. 

      He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn 
      Shall come;--the shining hope of Europe free: 
      The League of sober folk, the Workers' Earth, 
      Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea. 

      Page 3/4

      Page 3 transcript
      It breaks his heart that kings must murder still, 
      That all his hours of travail here for men 
      Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace 
      That he may sleep upon his hill again?

      VACHEL LINDSAY.

      Page 4/4

      Page 4 transcript
      NICHOLAS VACHEL LINDSAY
      603 SOUTH FIFTH STREET
      SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS
       
      You [sic] I will be entirely peased [sic] and satisfied. If you are uncertain about any method, let the Art Club debate it and vote on it, but please do not ask me to consult, debate or vote. Please imagine me dead, and you Art Club people my sole heirs without a will. There are twenty good ways to get a flag for Springfield. Fw'd [sic] the one to the taste of the Club. There is enough energy, management and judgement in that splendid organization, with such women as Mrs. Huntington in it, to put through this project.

      Let me say again that I am indeed grateful to the club for accepting the general suggestion of a flag, and consenting to put it through, and if anything I appear to have said, done written [sic] or hinted, indicates that I want to have a hand in the matter I pray you allow me to take it back. 

                 Please get a flag for Springfield.
                 Please leave me out of it. 
                 Please do it as the Art Club pleases, from start to finish.

      I hope this is plain. I wish you well. Be sure I am grateful to you in advance for the winters [sic] work you have all undertaken. You may read any portion of this letter to the club that will be of help to you.

      Very sincerely,

      NICHOLAS VACHEL LINDSAY.