Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 13


Croquet on the garden terrace, Biltmore Estate, May 1906

Vachel Lindsay departed from the House of the Magic Loom and crossed Mount Toxaway en route to Asheville. In his diary, he recorded:

If I cannot beat the system I can die protesting, I can give things away and keep ragged. Count that day wasted in which you are not giving away the work of your hands.

In A Handy Guide for Beggars, Vachel Lindsay recalled that same morning in early May 1906:

All through the country there had been that night what is called a black frost. By the roadside it was deep and white as the wool on a sheep. But it left things blighted and black, and destroyed the chances of the fruit-bearing trees. All the way to Mount Toxaway I met scattered mourners of the ill-timed visitation.

After he arrived in Asheville, Lindsay visited the Biltmore Estate, where his studies in architecture and gardening came into play. As was his style, he described the spring verdure of Biltmore as being
“like the Dutch Gardens, like Lord Bacon’s garden, like the Italian terraces.”

Vachel remembered one Asheville encounter as “A Not Very Tragic Relapse into the Toils of the World, and of Finance.” I don’t know the identity of the potential benefactor, (perhaps it was Asheville YMCA General Secretary Mr. O.B. Van Horn) but Vachel’s account of the meeting is hilarious:

Having been properly treated as a bunco man by systematic piety in a certain city further south, I had double-barrelled special recommendations sent to a lofty benevolence in Asheville, from a religious leader of New York, the before-mentioned Charles F. Powlison.
*

It was with confidence that I bade good-by to the chicken-merchant who drove me into the city. I entered the office of the blackcoated, semi-clerical gentleman who had received the Powlison indorsements. My stick pounded his floor. The heels of my brogans made the place resound. But he gave all official privileges. He received me with the fine manly handclasp, the glitter of teeth, the pat on the back. He insisted I use the shower bath, writing room, reading table. Then I suggested a conference among a dozen of his devouter workers on the relation of the sense of Beauty to their present notion of Christianity or, if he preferred, a talk on some aspect of art to a larger group.


Biltmore Farm Village, 1906

He took me into his office. He shut the door. He was haughty. He made me haughty. I give the conversation as it struck me. He probably said some smart things I do not recall. But I remember all the smart things I said.

He denounced labor agitators in plain words. I agreed. I belonged to the brotherhood of those who loaf and invite their souls.

He spoke of anarchy. I maintained that I loved the law.

He very clearly, and at length, assaulted Single Tax. I knew nothing then of Single Tax, and thanked him for light.

He denounced Socialism. Knowing little about Socialism at that time, I denounced it also, having just been converted to individualism by a man in Highlands.

The religious leader spoke of his long experience with bunco men. I insisted I wanted not a cent from him, I was there to do him good.

I had letters of introduction to two men in the city; one of them, an active worker in the organization, had already been in to identify me. A third man was coming to climb Mount Mitchell with me.


Edith Vanderbilt on the French Broad ferry, 1906

He doubted that I was a bona fide worker in his organization. Then came my only long speech. We will omit the speech. But he began to see light. He took a fresh grip on his argument.

He said: "There is a man here in Asheville I see snooping around with a tin box and a butterfly net. They call him the state something-ologist. He goes around and — and — hunts bugs. But do you want to know what I think of a crank like that?" I wanted to know. He told me.

"But," I objected, "I am not a scientist. I am an art student."

He expressed an interest in art. He gave a pious and proper view of the nude in art. It took some time. It was the sort of chilly, cautious talk that could not possibly bring a blush to the cheek of ignorance. I assured him his decorous concessions were unnecessary. I was not expounding the nude.

There was an artist here, and Asheville needed no further instruction of the kind, he maintained. The gentleman had won some blue ribbons in Europe. He painted a big picture (dimensions were given) and sold it for thousands (price was given).

"He is holding the next one, two feet longer each way, for double the money."

I told him if he felt there was enough art in Asheville, we might do something to popularize the poets.

In reply he talked about literary cranks. He spoke of how Thoreau, with his long hair and ugly looks, frightened strangers who suddenly met him in the woods. I thanked him for light on Thoreau. . . . But he had to admit that my hair was short.


Biltmore Village, 1906

He suspected I was neither artist nor literary man. I assured him my friends were often of the same opinion.

"But," he said bitterly, "do you know sir, by the tone of letters I received from Mr. Powlison I expected to assemble the wealth and fashion of Asheville to hear you. I expected to see you first in your private car, wearing a dress-suit."

I answered sternly, "Art, my friend, does not travel in a Pullman."

He threw off all restraint. "Old shoes," he said, " old shoes." He pointed at them.

"I have walked two hundred miles among the moonshiners. They wear brogans like these." But his manner plainly said that his organization did not need cranks climbing over the mountains to tell them things.

"Your New York letter did not say you were walking. It said you ' would arrive.'"

He began to point again. "Frayed trousers! And the lining of your coat in rags!"

"I took the lining of the coat for necessary patches."

"A blue bandanna round your neck!"

"To protect me from sunburn."

He rose and hit the table. "And no collar!"

"Oh yes, I have a collar." I drew it from my hip pocket. It had had a two hundred mile ride, and needed a bath.

"I should like to have it laundered, but I haven't the money."

"Get the money."

"No," I said, "but I will get a collar."

- - -

*Charles F. Powlison was, at that time, with the Young Men’s Christian Association, and eventually went on to become General Secretary of the National Child Welfare Association. Powlison’s name popped up in a New York Times story, published just two months prior to Vachel Lindsay’s Asheville visit. Apparently, an incident amidst a crowd lined up for a Mark Twain lecture at the West Side YMCA ended with charges of police brutality. There’s a great line in the story:

Mark Twain was introduced as a man "well worth being clubbed to hear."


Mark Twain, ca. 1906

What the heck, here’s the whole thing:

The New York Times, March 5, 1906
POLICE HUSTLE CROWD AWAITING MARK TWAIN
Bungle at the Majestic Theatre Angers Y. M. C. A. Men.
WOULDN'T OPEN THE DOORS
Mr. Clemens Gives Some Advice About the Treatment of Corporations and Talks About Gentlemen.

Members of he West Side Branch of the Young Men's Christian Association found that entering the Majestic Theatre yesterday afternoon to hear an address by Mark Twain had a close resemblance to a football match. No one was injured, but for a few minutes the police were hustling the crowd backward and forward by sheer force, a mounted man was sent to push his way through the thickest of the press and the jam was perilous.

The doors of the theatre should have been opened at 3 o'clock, and about three hundred persons were there at that time. It was an orderly crowd of young men with a sprinkling of elderly ones, but Capt. Daly of the West Forty-seventy Street Station would not allow them to be admitted until he has summoned the reserves. It took twenty minutes for these to arrive and every moment the crush grew greater. Still there was no disorder and the police as they formed into line had to face nothing more dangerous than a little good-humored chaff.

The crowd was ranged in a rough column facing the main doors of the lobby. The Young Men's Christian Association authorities came out several times and asked the Captain to allow the doors to be opened.

"If you do it, I'll take away my men and there'll be a lot of people hurt or killed," he replied. "I know how to handle crowds."

Then he proceeded to handle the crowds. He tried to swing the long solid line up against the southwestern side of Columbus Circle and force them in by the side entrance of the lobby, instead of the one they faced. First he sent a mounted man right through the column. The patrolmen followed and in a moment the orderly gathering was hustled and thrust in all directions.

Capt. Daly's next maneuver was to open the side door. The crowd surged up, but he had them pushed back, and closed the door again. The crowd was utterly bewildered. Then the Young Men's Christian Association authorities opened one-half of the door on their own responsibility. Through this narrow passage the crowd squeezed. The plate glass in the half that was closed was shattered to atoms, and the men surged forward. A few coats were torn, but in spite of the way in which they had been handled everybody kept his temper. If there had been any disorderly element present nothing could have avoided serious accidents. In the end all but 500 gained admission.

Hold Police Responsible.

At the opening of the meeting, the Rev. Dr. Charles P. Fagnani, the Chairman, said: "The management desires to disclaim all responsibility for what has happened. [Cheers.] The matter was taken out of their hands by the police. [Hisses.] You have been accustomed long enough to being brutally treated by the police, and I do not see why you should mind it. [A voice: "You're right."] Some day you will take matters into your own hands and will decide that the police shall be the servants of the citizens."

At the end of the meeting, Charles F. Powlison, Secretary of the West Side Branch, stated he had been asked to submit a resolution condemning the action of the police, but it had been decided it was better not to do so.

Mark Twain was introduced as a man "well worth being clubbed to hear." He was greeted with a storm of applause that lasted over a minute.

"I thank you for this signal recognition of merit," he said. "I have been listening to what has been said about citizenship. You complain of the police. You created the police. You are responsible for the police. They must reflect you, their masters. Consider that before you blame them.

"Citizenship is of the first importance in a land where a body of citizens can change the whole atmosphere of politics, as has been done in Philadelphia. There is less graft there than there used to be. I was going to move to Philadelphia, but it is no place for enterprise now.

"Dr. Russell spoke of organization. I was an organization myself once for twelve hours, and accomplished things I could never have done otherwise. When they say 'Step lively,' remember it is not an insult from a conductor to you personally, but from the President of the road to you, an embodiment of American citizenship. When the insult is flung at your old mother and father, it shows the meanness of the omnipotent President, who could stop it if he would.

Mark Twain Got the Stateroom.

"I was an organization once. I was traveling from Chicago with my publisher and stenographer - I always travel with a bodyguard - and engaged a stateroom on a certain train. For above all its other conveniences, the stateroom gives the privilege of smoking. When we arrived at the station the conductor told us he was sorry the car with our stateroom was left off. I said: 'You are under contract to furnish a stateroom on this train. I am in no hurry. I can stay here a week at the road's expense. It'll have to pay my expenses and a little over.'

"Then the conductor called a grandee, and, after some argument, he went and bundled some meek people out of the stateroom, told them something not strictly true, and gave it to me. About 11 o'clock the conductor looked in on me, and was very kind and winning. He told me he knew my father-in-law - it was much more respectable to know my father-in-law than me in those days. Then he developed his game. He was very sorry the car was only going to Harrisburg. They had telegraphed to Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and couldn't get another car. He threw himself on my mercy. But to him I only replied:

“Then you had better buy the car.'

"I had forgotten all about this, when some time after Mr. Thomson of the Pennsylvania heard I was going to Chicago again and wired:

" 'I am sending my private car. Clemens cannot ride on an ordinary car. He costs too much.' "

Definition of a Gentleman.

Mark Twain went on to speak of the man who left $10,000 to disseminate his definition of a gentleman. He denied that he had ever defined one, but said if he did he would include the mercifulness, fidelity, and justice the Scripture read at the meeting spoke of. He produced a letter from William Dean Howells, and said:

"He writes he is just 69, but I have known him longer than that. 'I was born to be afraid of dying, not of getting old,' he says. Well, I'm the other way. It's terrible getting old. You gradually lose things, and become troublesome. People try to make you think you are not. But I know I'm troublesome.

"Then he says no part of life is so enjoyable as the eighth decade. That's true. I've just turned into it, and I enjoy it very much. 'If old men were not so ridiculous,' why didn't he speak for himself? 'But,' he goes on, 'they are ridiculous, and they are ugly.' I never saw a letter with so many errors in it. Ugly! I was never ugly in my life! Forty years ago I was not so good-looking. A looking glass then lasted me three months. Now I can wear it out in two days.

" 'You've been up in Hartford burying poor old Patrick. I suppose he was old, too,' says Howells. No, he was not old. Patrick came to us thirty-six years ago - a brisk, lithe young Irishman. He was as beautiful in his graces as he was in his spirit, and he was as honest a man as ever lived. For twenty-five years he was our coachman, and if I were going to describe a gentleman in detail I would describe Patrick.

"At my own request I was his pall bearer with our old gardener. He drove me and my bride so long ago. As the little children came along he drove them, too. He was all the world to them, and for all in my house he had the same feelings of honor, honesty, and affection.

"He was 60 years old, ten years younger than I. Howells suggests he was old. He was not so old. He had the same gracious and winning ways to the end. Patrick was a gentleman, and to him I would apply the lines:

So may I be courteous to men, faithful to friends, True to my God, a fragrance to the path I trod.

When inquiries were made last night at the West Side Branch as to whether a complaint of the action of the police would be made by the association to Commissioner Bingham, it was said to be improbably that any official action would be taken.

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