Sandburg (Sandberg), Carl (August)

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Sandburg (Sandberg), Carl (August)

Sandburg (Sandberg), Carl (August) , plain-spoken American author, folksinger, and guitarist; b. Galesburg, III, Jan. 6, 1878; d. Flat Rock, N.C., July 22, 1967. Sandburg was more folklorist than folkie, an award- winning poet and biographer who also carried an acoustic guitar on the lecture circuit and sang traditional material, helping to spread folk music to generations of college students and to transform it into a contemporary form.

Sandburg’s parents, August and Clara Anderson Sandberg, were Swedish immigrants. His father was a blacksmith’s helper. In grade school he and two of his siblings altered the spelling of their name to Americanize it. (He also called himself Charles from the age of eight, not returning to his real first name until 1910.) Though a good student he was forced to leave school at 14 to help support his large family. For the next five years he held various menial jobs, most often driving a milk wagon. During this period he learned to play the banjo and to sing minstrel songs. He left home in June 1897 to find work in Kans. harvesting wheat among other odd jobs, but he also became a tramp, living in hobo jungles and riding the rails, learning songs like “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” along the way. He returned to Galesburg in October and went back to driving a milk wagon, later becoming a painter’s apprentice.

When the U.S. declared war on Spain in April 1898, Sandburg enlisted in the army and was stationed in Cuba and Puerto Rico, returning to the U.S. after the war ended in August. His veteran status entitled him to free tuition at Lombard Coll. in Galesburg, and he enrolled in October, though he also had to work at a firehouse to help support himself and his family. He left without a degree in 1902 (though he would be awarded an honorary one in 1923). Late in the year the magazine The Thistle was the first to published one of his poems, “The Falling Leaves.” In Reckless Ecstasy, a book of poetry and essays, was locally published.

From 1902 through 1909, Sandburg worked primarily as a traveling salesman of stereoscopic photographs while struggling to establish himself as a writer and lecturer. In the fall of 1907 he became a district organizer for the Wise. Social-Democratic Party, a post he held through the spring of 1909. He married Anna Maria Elizabeth (“Lilian,” or, as he called her, “Paula”) Steichen (1883–1977), sister of the noted photographer Edward Steichen (whose biography he would write), on June 15, 1908. They had three daughters, Margaret, Janet, and Mary Ellen (called Helga, who also became a writer). In June 1909 he moved to Milwaukee and embarked upon a career in journalism, working for various newspapers in the city. In the spring of 1910 he campaigned for Emil Seidel, the Social-Democratic candidate for mayor, and was rewarded with the job of private secretary to the mayor when Seidel won. He held the post until November, resigning to return to newspaper work.

Sandburg moved to Chicago in mid-1912, working initially for the Chicago Evening World, then, in 1913, for The Day Book. In March 1914, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse published nine of his poems, and in November, one of them, “Chicago,” won the Levinson Prize. This launched his career as a poet. His first major book of poetry, Chicago Poems, followed.

After The Day Book ceased publication in July 1917, Sandburg moved to the Chicago Daily News, reporting and writing editorials. In the fall of 1918 he joined the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a news syndicate, initially serving as Stockholm correspondent during the closing days of World War I. He returned to the Chicago Daily News in June 1919. Cornhuskers, his second book of poetry, shared the Poetry Society of America Prize in 1919. (He would share the prize again for his third book of poetry, Smoke and Steel, in 1921.) In December 1919 he returned to the lecture circuit, reading his poems and singing folk songs while playing guitar. This became a regular occupation, and for the next half century he spent a considerable part of his time on the road performing, which enabled him to collect more folk songs.

In 1920, Sandburg became the Daily News film critic, a post he held for seven years. (For his last five years at the paper he was a columnist; he resigned in 1932.) Rootabaga Stories was the first of a series of children’s books. Pictorial Review’s 1925 serialization of excerpts from his biography Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years brought him financial security for the first time, and the book itself became a best- seller, with 48, 000 two-volume, $10 sets purchased within a year. Unconventional in approach, it was considered more a work of literature than of history.

Sandburg’s recitals led to a contract with Victor Records in 1925, and his recording of “The Boll Weevil” on March 3, 1926, was among the earliest commercial record releases of folk music. His musical interest was also expressed in The American Songbag, an anthology of 280 songs that was the first folk songbook intended for a general audience.

Sandburg spent most of the 1930s working on the second part of his Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which eventually appeared as a four-volume set and won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1940. From 1941 to 1943 he wrote a weekly news column for the Chicago Times Syndicate, later collected in Home Front Memo. During World War II he was active in a variety of ways, including writing and narrating radio programs and films in support of the war effort. Remembrance Rock, his only novel (initially commissioned by the MGM movie studio, though never made into a film), was a critical failure but a popular success. Complete Poems won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1951 and was followed by Always the Young Strangers, a memoir of his youth, which was published on his 75th birthday.

On Feb. 12, 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Sandburg addressed a Joint Session of Congress, the first private citizen to do so since 1874. He won the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Documentary or Spoken Word Recording for his album A Lincoln Portrait and was nominated in the same category in 1962 for Carl Sandburg Reading His Poetry. The World of Carl Sandburg, a theatrical revue drawn from his work and including songs from The American Songbag, ran on Broadway in 1960. He was a consultant on the Biblical film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

Sandburg’s writings reflected an expansive populism frequently compared to that of Walt Whitman, crystallized in his belief in the People. This infused his biographical work and his poetry and was also reflected in his efforts to collect and proliferate American folk songs. Though he was not known primarily as a musician, many of his poems were set to music, notably by Earl Robinson, Jacques Wolfe, Richard Donovan, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. The songs he collected, performed, and published in The American Songbag—among them “The Foggy, Foggy Dew,” “The Buffalo Skinners,” “I Ride an Old Paint,” “The John B. Sails,” and “Frankie and Johnny”—helped to extend the popularity of folk music to a larger audience. For example, “Wanderin’,” a Minn, folk song discovered by Sandburg, became a Top Ten hit for Sammy Kaye and His Orch. in 1950.

As a poet-performer who celebrated the common man in a vernacular style, Sandburg, influenced by Whitman, in turn influenced Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, who made a point of visiting him a few years before his death.


In Reckless Ecstasy (Galesburg, 111., 1904); Incidentals (Galesburg, 111., 1907); The Plaint of a Rose (Galesburg, III, 1908); You and Your Job (Chicago, 1908); Chicago Poems (N.Y., 1916); Cornhuskers (N.Y., 1918); The Chicago Race Riots: July, 1919 (NX., 1919); Smoke and Steel (N.Y., 1920); Rootabaga Stories (N.Y., 1922); Slabs of the Sunburnt West (N.Y., 1922); Rootabaga Pigeons (N.Y., 1923); Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (N.Y., 1926); R. West, ed., Selected Poems (N.Y., 1926); The American Songbag (N.Y., 1927); Good Morning, America (N.Y., 1928); Abe Lincoln Grows Up (N.Y., 1928); Steichen the Photographer (N.Y., 1929); Potato Face (N.Y., 1930); Early Moon (N.Y., 1930); with P. Angle, Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (N.Y., 1932); The People, Yes (N.Y., 1936); Abraham Lincoln—The War Years (N.Y., 1939); Storm over the Land (N.Y., 1942); Home Front Memo (N.Y., 1943); with F. Meserve, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln (N.Y., 1944); RemembranceRock (N.Y., 1948); Lincoln Collector: The Story of the Oliver R. Barrett Lincoln Collection (N.Y., 1949); Complete Poems (N.Y., 1950, rev., exp., 1970); New American Songbag (N.Y., 1950); Always the Young Strangers (N.Y., 1953); Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (one-volume edition; N.Y., 1954); Prairie-Town Boy (N.Y., 1955); The S. Range (N.Y., 1957); Harvest Poems, 1910–60 (N.Y., 1960); Wind Song (N.Y., 1960); Honey and Salt (NX., 1963); The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was in It (N.Y., 1967); H. Mitgang, ed., The Letters of C. S.(N.Y., 1968); The S. Treasury (N.Y., 1970); M. Sandburg (his daughter), ed., Breathing Tokens (N.Y., 1978); Rainbows Are Made (N.Y., 1982); Ever the Winds of Chance (Urbana, 111., 1983); D. and D. Fetherling, ed., C. S. at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era, 1920–27 (Metuchen, N. J., 1985); G. Hendrick, ed., Fables, Foibles, and Foobles (Urbana, I11., 1988), G. and W. Hendrick, ed., Billy Sunday and Other Poems (N.Y., 1993); G. Hendrick and W. Hendrick, eds., Selected Poems (N.Y., 1996).


K. Detzer, C. S.: A Study in Personality and Background (N.Y., 1941); N. Corwin, The World of C.S.(N.Y., 1961); H. Golden, C. S. (Cleveland, 1961); H. Sandburg (his daughter), Sweet Music (N.Y, 1963); R. Crowder, C.S.(N.Y, 1964); H. Durnell, The America of C. S.(Washington, D.C., 1965); J. Haas, C. S.: A Pictorial Biography (N.Y., 1967); M. Van Doren, C. S.(Washington, D.C., 1969); N. Callahan, C. S., Lincoln of Our Literature (NX., 1970); W. Rogers, C. S., Yes (N.Y., 1970); G. Allen, C. S. (Minneapolis, 1972); H. Sandburg, A Great and Glorious Romance: The Story of C. S. and Lilian Stachen (N.Y., 1978); W. Sutton, C. S. Remembered (Metuchen, N. J., 1979); J. Hacker, C. S.(N.Y., 1984); G. d’Alessio, Old Troubadour—C. S. with His Guitar Friends (N.Y., 1987); N. Callahan, C. S.: His Life and Works (University Park, Pa., 1987); H. Sandburg, “…Where Love Begins” (N.Y., 1989); P. Niven, C. S.: A Biography (N.Y., 1991).

—William Ruhlmann