Carl Sandburg 1918
At the time of his death in 1967, Carl Sandburg was a popular icon, portrayed in Time and Newsweek magazines as a troubadour of the common man. When his poetry was first published, however, both his style and choice of subject matter were highly controversial. He was criticized for his use of free verse, as well as for incorporating the language of everyday speech into his poems. His subjects, drawn from the rich panorama of American life, were considered vulgar and inappropriate for poetry. His admirers, on the other hand, praised these same qualities, comparing him to Walt Whitman, an earlier poet who aroused similar artistic controversy when his first volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was published in 1855.
“Cool Tombs” appeared in Carl Sandburg’s second collection of poetry, Cornhuskers, published in 1918. His first book, called Chicago Poems, had focused on city life and the people who worked there. This second volume portrayed different aspects of midwestern America: the land, the people, their values, and their dreams. This poem is part of a section called “Haunts,” an appropriate designation, for the lines have the lyrical, haunting quality of a requiem.
Like many of Sandburg’s poems, “Cool Tombs” combines details of history with events in the lives of the common man. The poem describes the equalizing role of death, where both the famous and infamous, the powerful and the ordinary individual, come to rest “in the cool tombs.” In the absence of an eternal system of reward and punishment, Sandburg requests that the reader examine the value of existence and reflect on the qualities that make life meaningful.
Carl Sandburg was born January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois. His father, an immigrant who could read the Bible in Swedish but was unable to sign his name in English, worked as a blacksmith for the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad. Growing up in Galesburg, Sandburg was very much aware of the importance of the Civil War, which had ended just thirteen years before he was born. His first history lessons came from the lives of the adults around him. Many of the men in town had fought in the war, and Sandburg was fascinated by their conversations that vividly recreated the recent past for him.
Although Sandburg liked geography, history, and reading, he left school in 1891 after eighth grade in order to help support his family. During the depression of 1894, the family’s economic struggles increased when his father’s hours were cut back from ten to four a day. By 1897, the economy had recovered and Sandburg headed out West, supporting himself by working odd jobs in many different towns. During his travels, he became fascinated with the songs and folktales of the people he encountered. Both the stories and the rhythms of midwestern American song and speech would become a key influence on his subsequent prose and poetry.
Upon hearing the news that the battleship Maine had been sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, Sandburg returned to Galesburg and enlisted in the army. His troop was sent to Washington D.C., where he first saw Ford’s Theater, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. They then traveled on to Cuba. After his company returned to the United States in September of 1898, he was offered a trial at West Point. Unfortunately, he was unable to pass some exams since he had never gone to high school. However, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College in Galesburg. One professor, Philip Green Wright, recognized Sandburg’s talent and encouraged his early attempts at writing. During his college years, Sandburg was active in sports, drama, and college publications, but he left school in the spring of 1902, shortly before he was due to graduate. Again, he took to the road, this time as a hobo, actually spending ten days in a Pittsburgh jail.
Sandburg joined the Socialist-Democratic Party. In 1908, he was working in Milwaukee as a party organizer, campaigning for their candidate, Eugene V. Debs. That same year, he met and married Lillian Steichen. In 1914, Harriet Monroe published some of Sandburg’s early poetry, which garnered the Levinson Prize. His first book of poetry, Chicago Poems, was published in 1916, and a number of other volumes followed. Sandburg spent the next several years producing children’s books, collections of folk songs, biography, and fiction, as well as poetry. He was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: one for prose in 1940 for Abraham Lincoln: The War Years and one for poetry in 1950 for his Collected Poems. Sandburg continued actively working as a writer, singer, entertainer, and social commentator until his death at the age of 89.
When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the
tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the
assassin … in the dust, in the cool tombs.
And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and
Wall street, cash and collateral turned ashes
… in the dust, in the cool tombs.
Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a
red haw in November or a pawpaw in May,
did she wonder? does she remember, … in
the dust, in the cool tombs?
Take any streetful of people buying clothes and
groceries, cheering a hero or throwing
confetti and blowing tin horns … tell me if
the lovers are losers … tell me if any get
more than the lovers … in the dust … in the
The free-verse lines of this poem are organized using prose techniques, rather than the conventional line breaks of a more standard poetic stanza. Thus, the individual sections of the lines are referred to as phrases.
Using a device Sandburg frequently employed, the opening phrase combines the language of everyday life with persons, ideas, or words that are usually presented in a loftier, more formal, or more idealistic way. The purpose, as in this line, is to shock the reader to attention. For Carl Sandburg and many northerners, Abraham Lincoln was considered one of the nation’s best presidents, a true hero who preserved the country while righting an injustice by freeing the slaves. In addition, Sandburg was well aware of the dignity and importance most Americans attach to funerals, particularly those of beloved figures. One of his earliest memories was of his entire town turning out for a silent ceremonial parade to mark the death of another Civil War leader, Ulysses Grant. Thus, the words “shoveled into the tomb,” spoken in connection with Lincoln, seem inappropriate; the word is more frequently associated with getting rid of the trash than with burying heroes.
This introduces one of the poem’s major themes: after death, there is nothingness. The body is, in fact, an empty shell. The person no longer remains. Sandburg is totally detached about death. The shell may be shoveled into the earth and be recycled to dust without sentiment or ceremony.
The next phrase introduces two concerns Lincoln faced before death. The copperheads were northern Democrats who opposed Lincoln and the war. Some supported slavery or believed that the federal government had no right to dictate what the states should do. Many, however, opposed the monetary policies Lincoln used to finance the war. In 1862, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, creating greenbacks or paper money. The copperheads were bitterly opposed to this, believing that coins should be the only form of money. Their name was derived from the habit many had of identifying themselves by wearing a copper penny around their necks.
The assassin was a Shakespearean actor, John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. He shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865, just five days after the Southern Army surrendered. According to the poem, after his death Lincoln no longer cared about his enemies.
The refrain follows. It reminds us that human worries have no place “… in the dust, in the cool tombs.” The first part of the refrain carries connotations of the Biblical injunction from chapter three of Genesis, in which God reminds man that since he has been cast out of Eden, death is his destiny: “Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.” Sandburg uses this to emphasize the idea of the body fading away and rejoining the earth. He does not, however, describe a spirit that carries on; death provides eternal peace. This sense of peace and calm is enhanced by the final phrase of the refrain. The use of the word “cool,” rather than “cold,” contributes to an impression of the tomb as a soothing, restful spot. No earthly burdens remain to disturb the peace of the grave.
Sandburg’s free verse uses various types of internal rhyme to help the lines achieve a sense of flow and rhythm. This becomes more pronounced in each line. Here, “to” and “tomb” reinforce each other. The assonance, or use of similar vowel sounds, of “got” from “forgot” is repeated in “cop” of “copperhead.” Even the words “cool tombs” themselves demonstrate assonance. In addition, Sandburg utilizes parallel structure in the refrain to help provide rhythm.
In this line, Sandburg follows the pattern of organization that he established in the first line. A historical figure is named, the conflicts he faced are presented, and the refrain follows. Notice that each subsequent line builds slightly, adding increased details and using more parallel items. Thus, instead of the two conflicts Lincoln faced, four are presented for Ulysses S. Grant, another Civil War hero and president, the historical personage in line two.
Grant’s presidency was marred by corruption and scandal. The conflicts Sandburg mentions destroyed the credibility of Grant’s administration, sending the country into a serious depression. The western railroads were being built at this time, and stockholders in the companies created a phony business in order to cheat the government out of millions of dollars. The “con men and Wall Street” refer to those financiers who deceived Grant. “Cash and collateral turned ashes” is a metaphor that refers to unsecured loans made to railroad companies. Because these loans had no collateral or backing, several banks failed. All of the money these banks were supposed to keep for their customers disappeared, just as effectively as if it had been turned to ashes in a bonfire. In his personal life, Grant was forced to declare bankruptcy because he invested in a corrupt bank. In spite of this, however, Grant’s problems ceased in death, just as Lincoln’s had.
Once again Sandburg uses several poetic techniques to give the line rhythm. Grant’s problems are presented in two parallel phrases. Several forms of rhyme contribute to the even flow of Sandburg’s words. He uses alliteration in “con,” “cash,” and “collateral.” “Cash” and “ash” provide internal rhyme. The refrain sums up both subject and sentence, providing a smooth lyrical conclusion to the line.
The third line shows some variations in the pattern. Although Sandburg introduces a historical person, he does not speak directly of any conflicts Pocahontas faced. Instead, he describes her body, using several similes from nature. She is as “lovely as a poplar,” a species of tree that flourishes in the northern hemisphere. They are tall, graceful trees; even slight breezes make them appear to shimmer—almost to dance in the wind. “Haw” and “pawpaw” refer both to types of trees and the fruits they bear. The haw is the fruit of the hawthorn; it is often called red haw, because its leaves turn scarlet in autumn. The fruit resembles a small apple. Pawpaw, a tree that grows in the southern and central United States, is a member of the custard apple family.
Pocahontas, described by these North-American plants, becomes a representative of the country—of the land itself. Sandburg follows these similes with a parallel set of questions. Notice that they are unspecific and incomplete. The reader must speculate about the wonder or memories of Pocahontas. Does she remember her youth, before she left this country to die in England? Does the land
- Carl Sandburg recites “Cool Tombs,” along with other poems in Carl Sandburg Reads, a two-cassette set released by Caedmon-Harper in 1992.
- Additional songs and stories are included in More Carl Sandburg Reads, released by Caedmon-Harper in 1993.
- Poems by Carl Sandburg are included in the video America in Portrait, which was released by Monterey Video in 1989.
remember its youth, when forests stretched from coast to coast?
Once again, parallelism and internal rhyme create the rhythm. Alliteration appears in “poplar” and “pawpaw.” Sandburg rhymes “haw” and “paw,” “November” and “remember.”
The final line turns to the ordinary individual. The first phrase describes everyday activities, the second joyous celebrations. Sandburg does not connect these people with tragedy as he did with Lincoln and Grant. Instead, he portrays them enjoying daily life.
In the next phrase, Sandburg asks two questions as he did in line three. While the questions are not answered directly in the poem, a comparison between any set of lovers and the historical figures of the previous lines makes it clear that the lovers have proved much more fortunate. For all of their fame, Lincoln and Grant represent loss on both a public and personal level. This suggests an answer to the second question: No one gets more than the lovers. It is love that provides humans with joy and consolation before they rejoin “the dust … in the cool tombs.”
The fourth line is the longest line. Sandburg continues to use parallel structures and internal rhyme. “Clothes,” “cheer,” and “confetti,” as well as “lovers” and “losers,” are alliterative. “Clothes” and “groceries” repeat the same vowel sound, an example of assonance. “Throwing” and “blowing” are complete rhymes, while “cheering” and “hero” involve half-rhyme. As fits a line dealing with “any streetful of people,” Sandburg uses the idiom of everyday life. The opening word, “take,” is used in its informal or idiomatic meaning. The last phrase before the refrain, “tell me if any get more than the lovers,” is a type of slang.
Sandburg’s view of death in “Cool Tombs” is harsh and unequivocal. He does not present it as an entrance into a new life; there are no religious overtones to this poem. Instead, death is the end. It brings stillness, nothingness. Obviously this lends a sense of irony to the poem; all of the struggles of life prove to be futile in the face of this conclusion. However, the irony is blended with an acknowledgment that, in death, man has finally achieved his ultimate goal. He has acquired peace. At last, he has conquered all enemies and countered any fears that plagued him. Troubles are forgotten, betrayals erased. The ultimate peace is the silence of death.
Death is also presented as the great equalizer. The fame or wealth that one achieves during this life no longer matters. Those who watch parades for heroes and throw ticker tape to honor them are no less or more important than the heroes themselves. Death remains unimpressed by wealth, power, or even virtue. This is why Sandburg can speak so casually, almost unfeelingly, of his hero Lincoln being shoveled into the tomb. (Sandburg reinforces this theme in another of the poems in Cornhuskers, “Southern Pacific,” in which he declares that in death both Huntington, the railroad owner, and Blithery, the railroad worker, now sleep the same, six feet under.)
Value of Life
Since death is the end, an essential issue in “Cool Tombs” centers on the value an individual places on life. Sandburg questions what is truly worthwhile in our daily existence. “Cool Tombs” stresses that personal experiences and simple activities provide more satisfaction and reward than the public or political ventures of the prominent and powerful. This becomes clear when the lines focusing on Lincoln and Grant are compared with the lines describing Pocahontas and the common man.
Topics for Further Study
- Carl Sandburg believed that poetry should express the feelings and concerns of ordinary individuals in the language they use daily. Choose a song that you believe accurately and poetically expresses your emotions. Explain the song’s message, what kind of poetic techniques or language it uses, and why it is representative of many people’s concerns.
- Carl Sandburg preferred to write in free verse, because he felt best able to convey meaning when not confined by a rhyme or meter pattern. Choose an ordinary object or place, such as a bridge, a favorite picture, a room in your house, or a park. Write a prose description of it, making sure you include specific and concrete details that will give your reader a clear picture. Next choose a meter and rhyme scheme, such as rhyming every other line and making each line ten syllables long. Describe the same object, this time using your poetic pattern. What difficulties did you encounter turning prose into poetry?
- In “Cool Tombs,” all differences are settled by death. Imagine an afterlife where two historic or political antagonists meet. Write a dialogue recording what they might say to each other after death.
- Sandburg was a strong supporter of workers and unions. When labor groups first organized, violence frequently accompanied labor disputes. What are some of the problems faced by labor unions today?
It is important to remember that the Civil War was the most influential event in the lives of the people Sandburg knew when he was growing up in Galesburg. Many of the adults he admired had fought in the war. Therefore, the war and its heroes became representatives of honor and integrity. Lincoln and, to a lesser extent, Grant were foremost among these heroes: Lincoln is credited with freeing the slaves; Grant led the North to victory. Yet, in the poem, Sandburg ignores these achievements. Instead, he chooses conflict and murder for Lincoln, scandal and disgrace for Grant. The opponents Sandburg describes for both men are those who chose violence, greed, or dishonor as a way of life. While seeking wealth, power, or fame for themselves, their false values created havoc for the nation.
Both tone and atmosphere change when Sandburg turns to Pocahontas. She is described as youthful, lovely, and sweet. Her body is mentioned, not her achievements or personal characteristics. She represents the richness and beauty of nature—of America as it was when the Europeans first arrived. In many ways, she seems to represent the land itself, glowing and alive. Then Sandburg poses two questions. Did she wonder? Does she remember? The questions are deliberately unspecific. In choosing to support the English, to marry John Rolfe and venture with him to England, she selected separation from the land. Did she wonder about the wisdom of the choices that she made? Did she speculate about the value of the world she had forsaken? Was her sacrifice worthwhile or did it cost too much?
In contrast, the ordinary people in line four seem more fulfilled than their more famous counterparts. They buy clothes and groceries, enjoy meals, and feel warmth. These simple activities provide a counterbalance to Grant, who threw away his money to men with false promises and allowed his entire administration to be tainted by those who honored money above all else.
Thus, in “Cool Tombs,” ordinary human activity provides more satisfaction than the actions of heroes. After all, only through the individual can leaders achieve their successes. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation announced that the slaves were free, but the individual soldiers fought to make the words a reality. Sandburg believed in the importance of the common man. The first theme of the poem emphasizes that we are all equal in death. Sandburg wishes to remind us that in terms of kindness and virtue, as well as evil and vice, both rich and poor are equals in life itself. He sees the ordinary individual as truly heroic. Sandburg portrays the nobility of lives that are seldom honored; he speaks loudly for those who are seldom given a voice.
Sandburg’s final theme, dealing with the importance of love, is introduced with the questions in line four. Although the line begins with descriptions of ordinary people enjoying ordinary activities, Sandburg then asks the reader to make a decision. Are the lovers of the world losers? Of all the individuals in the poem, who is happiest? It is certainly not Grant or Lincoln. When a comparison is made, the answer becomes clear. No one has more satisfaction than the lovers. Love, rather than fame, power, or money provides the solace we need. “Cool Tombs” celebrates the love that elevates our ordinary lives to the extraordinary.
“Cool Tombs” is divided into four lines, or sections. These lines are punctuated using conventional prose techniques, rather than the line breaks of a formal stanza. Each is composed of a long, free-verse sentence, which means that the poem has no specific rhyme scheme or rhythm. This is one reason why some critics have stated that Sandburg does not really write poetry.
Sandburg preferred writing free verse. In fact, he was very critical about the constraints of formal poetry. In his “Notes for a Preface” to Collected Poems, Sandburg compared searching for the exact rhyme and correct number of syllables with the type of skill needed to complete a crossword puzzle. He believed that poetry in which form is more important that the subject is simply an unpleasant and unnecessary exercise in word play. “Rhythm alone is a tether, and not a very long one. But rhymes are iron fetters.”
Every line in “Cool Tombs” presents a separate vignette, or simple story. This is another technique Sandburg favors; he develops pictures taken from history or events in the lives of ordinary individuals. Each separate picture in these series helps to reinforce the overall themes of his poetry. Here each line makes a separate comment on the meaning of death and life.
The four lines are organized using parallel structure and repetition. The first two follow the same pattern. Both open with the name of a historical figure; next, they mention prominent concerns facing this person; and, finally, each line concludes with the refrain “in the dust … in the cool tombs.” The third line, introducing Pocahontas, shifts slightly from actual historical events. Although Pocahontas is real, the line describes her appearance and then speculates about her feelings; it does not mention any actual events that occurred. The poetic line also becomes longer, breaking the pattern slightly. The last line, featuring the lives of ordinary individuals, is the longest and most varied of all. Sandburg uses the refrain, however, at the end of each line to clearly relate each vignette to his theme.
Although Sandburg is often accused of being unpoetic because of his rejection of common verse forms, he frequently uses internal rhymes and rhythms to make his poetic lines flow smoothly. Examples of assonance and alliteration appear in every line. Notice the use of consecutively stressed words and syllables in the questions in line three, “did she wonder? does she remember?” In addition, parallel structure also helps to create poetic rhythm.
This rhythm employs the cadence of midwestern songs and speech. In her introduction to Sandburg’s 1926 collection, Selected Poems, British critic and reviewer Rebecca West described the musicality of his style. “Much of his poetry is based on the technique of the banjo.” She went on to say that his rhythms can best be heard when the lines are spoken with a midwestern accent.
A final technique Sandburg employs is the use of vernacular or the idiom of everyday speech. “Tell me if any get more than the lovers” is a typical example. Many critics feel such slang phrases have no place in poetry.
It is impossible to understand Sandburg without some knowledge of the political and historical events that helped shape his perspective. Like Walt Whitman, Sandburg was an intensely American writer, and both his prose and poetry reflect the American experience. The titles of his collections of poetry reflect his interests: Chicago Poems, Cornhuskers, Smoke and Steel, Good Morning America, The People Yes. The American people were both his subject and his inspiration.
Sandburg grew up in the period of economic and social turmoil that resulted from the growth of industry during the nineteenth century. During that time, the northern United States, in particular, saw an enormous shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy. Working conditions in the factories were harsh, and laborers grew dissatisfied. After the end of the Civil War, the trade union movement began to grow. In 1869, the Knights of Labor was formed, and soon they were joined by several other labor organizations.
Government corruption accompanied by ruthless business practices led to a serious depression in 1875, providing increased incentives for workers to unite. Strikes became a common method of protest. Unfortunately, a violent response to labor unrest became even more widespread. Police, called in to support management positions, were ruthless in their effort to break strikes.
One of the most violent labor demonstrations occurred in 1886. Many workers had gathered in Haymarket Square in Chicago to support the striking workers at McCormak Reaper. When the police arrived, a bomb was thrown, killing eleven officers. Although there was no firm evidence demonstrating who threw the bomb, the police arrested eight anarchists. These men were quickly tried and four were promptly executed. Conservative Republicans—such as Sandburg’s father— applauded the government’s response. However, the incident also produced a counter wave of antigovernment, antibusiness feeling among workers and progressives.
During the 1880s and 1890s, the progressive forces began to gain a following throughout the Midwest. They formed a third political party, the Populists, also known as the People’s Party. It was loosely made up of farmer’s associations (agrarians), labor unions, single taxers, greenbackers, and progressive reformers. Its philosophy expressed a desire to unite disparate classes and races in order to fight a common enemy, big business and big government. Interest in the party grew even stronger after the depression in 1893.
By 1894, one in five persons was unemployed. Many populists firmly believed that the government didn’t care about their plight, but only about major corporations and trusts. Jacob Coxey, a wealthy businessman from Ohio and a populist, organized a protest march in Washington, D.C. Leading his supporters from mid-Ohio to the capital, he arrived with five hundred men, women, and children. Coxey was arrested and the police attacked his supporters. Although his protest did not meet with success, seventeen other groups followed his lead. Government and business leaders again reacted with violence and massive firings.
In 1896, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. Many factions of the Populist Party became absorbed into the Democratic Party at that time. John Peter Altgeld, the governor of
Compare & Contrast
- 1918: World War I ends when Germany and the Central Powers surrender to the Allied Powers on November 11, thus terminating the conflict idealistically called “The War to End All Wars.”
1939: World War II begins when Germany invades Poland on September 1.
1964: The United States openly engages in military action in Vietnam to prevent Southeast Asia from turning communist. The conflict lasts until 1975.
1991: George Bush launches Operation Desert Storm to force Saddam Hussein and Iraq out of Kuwait.
1999: NATO forces engage in a bombing campaign of Serbia and parts of Kosovo after Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic rejects diplomatic solutions to an ownership dispute over the Kosovo region and steps up a program of “ethnic cleansing,” which entails genocide and forced relocation of ethnic Albanian Kosovars.
- 1918: A worldwide influenza epidemic kills almost 22 million people, approximately one percent of the world’s population.
1929: Alexander Flemming makes the first clinical use of penicillin, definitely proving that it inhibits bacterial growth. By the 1940s, penicillin, antibiotics, and sulfa drugs will begin to eradicate infectious diseases.
1981: The Center for Disease Control reports five cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and begins tracking the disease.
1996: AIDS is the leading cause of death among young people. In addition, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences warns that certain viruses have mutated so that they now may be resistant to penicillin and other drugs.
- 1918: The Bolsheviks execute the former czar of Russia and his entire family.
1977: Boris Yeltsin, the Communist Party boss of Yekaterinburg, orders the destruction of the house where the former royal family was executed in order to prevent supporters of the Romanovs from viewing it as a shrine.
1998: Eighty years after their execution, the remains of the last czar and his family are buried. Hundreds of members of the former aristocracy return to Russia to honor them. Russian President Boris Yeltsin also attends.
Illinois who aroused much public anger when he pardoned the remaining Haymarket anarchists, helped sway the platform to a populist stance. The Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryant from Nebraska who represented the Western farmers. Reformers rallied behind the Democrats, but the Republican corporations fought back. Mark Hanna, the businessman who ran the Republican campaign of William McKinley, raised more than $3.5 million from the banks, railroads, and trusts. Having only $300,000 at his disposal, Bryant was unable to compete; McKinley became the twenty-fifth president of the United States. (McKinley was assassinated shortly after his second term in office had begun.)
When the depression ended in 1897, business boomed. Slums grew and working conditions became even more inhumane. A multitude of activist reform movements gathered together under the progressive label, seeking justice for women, workers, children, and minorities. The Socialist Party also gained a large following, particularly in the cities. Many authors supported the idea of protest through their literature: Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens all wrote graphic and brutal accounts of the plight of the lower classes.
Between 1900 and 1915, progressive reform gradually came to both state and federal governments. During his presidency, from 1901 to 1908, Theodore Roosevelt brought labor and management together for discussions for the first time. He refused to provide federal troops to support business, and he challenged the railroads, meat packers, tobacco, and oil industries under the conditions of the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was designed to limit corporate power. Roosevelt proved to be popular with reformers. Although several corporations opposed his policies, today he is frequently credited with saving big business in America by forcing it to act more responsibly.
William Howard Taft, who followed Roosevelt, was a weak leader who antagonized both reform and business groups. He served only one term and was succeeded by Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat. During Wilson’s term, the United States entered World War I. The cycle of economic growth followed by depression continued with the stock market crash of 1929. The devastating consequences of the crash eventually resulted in the liberal reform policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Influenced by his childhood poverty and his sympathy for the working man, Sandburg became an ardent supporter of reform parties in the United States. His writing, both prose and poetry, reflects this political stance.
Throughout his career, Carl Sandburg received widely varying critical reviews. His admirers praised the rough, vulgar power of his first collection, Chicago Poems, describing it as original, alive, and a true statement of the American people. Reviewers who preferred more conventional rhyme and rhythms attacked his lack of poetic style. Cornhuskers, Sandburg’s second volume of poetry (which contains “Cool Tombs”), received more positive reviews. It is still considered by both his advocates and detractors as containing some of the most effective and evocative of his poems.
In Carl Sandburg, Lincoln of Our Literature: A Biography, North Callahan expressed his admiration for this volume, calling the poems more restrained in both style and subject. He felt that Sandburg abandoned the “harsh cacophony” of his city poems for a more pastoral tone. He praised the volume for showing “more lyrical quality, better imagery, and more contrast.” He particularly lauded the mystic quality of “Cool Tombs.” In his Carl Sandburg, Gay Wilson Allen hailed the irony of “Cool Tombs,” finding it beautiful but “devastating.” Daniel G. Hoffman, in an article for the Explicator, provides a line-by-line analysis of the poem, explaining that it “celebrates love as the greatest joy in life.”
A major concern of many reviewers was Sandburg’s partisan political and social context. In her assessment of Cornhuskers in the New York Times Book Review, poet Amy Lowell warned Sandburg that he had to choose whether he wished to be a poet or a propagandist. Sandburg, however, did not believe such a choice was possible. In his “Notes for a Preface” to his Collected Poems, he wrote that “a writer’s silence on living issues can in itself constitute a propaganda of conduct leading toward the deterioration or death of freedom.” In his opinion, the poet’s duty is not to avoid political or social issues, but instead to fight for the rights of the common man.
Throughout his life, Sandburg was a popular figure, widely admired by the ordinary individuals he praised in his poetry. However, his literary reputation was frequently under critical attack. After his death, that reputation has been undermined even further. In the introduction to Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide, Dale Salwak summed up several reasons for this. First, Sandburg had always been out of the academic mainstream, having little in common with figures such as Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot. He was considered to be too blunt, having few “interesting ambiguities.” In other words, he was much too easy to understand. Second, although Sandburg was called the poet of the people, he was frequently too optimistic, particularly in his later poetry, for many modern critics. His views were not considered radical enough. Finally, his popularity was often held against him. Accusations charged that he wrote for “the lowest common denominator.”
David Donnell, who teaches at the University of Toronto, has published seven books of poetry. His work is included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and his volume Settlement received Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award. In the following essay, Donnell provides a glowing assessment of Sandburg’s “Cool Tombs.”
What Do I Read Next?
- Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, first published in 1855 at the author’s expense, is one of the most influential works of American poetry. Sandburg has often been called heir to Whitman’s free-verse style, use of vernacular, and love for the common man. Many reprinted editions of Leaves of Grass are available, including a 1969 facsimile edition of the 1860 text.
- Sandburg’s autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, published in 1953, focuses on his formative years in the Midwest. It provides a compelling view of the region and the period, revealing the influences that shaped his life and poetry.
- Upton Sinclair, like Sandburg, was concerned with the lives of workers and immigrants. The Jungle, first published in 1905, presents a graphic and disturbing account of the slaughterhouses in Chicago. Sinclair’s descriptions led to such public outrage that Congress was forced to pass laws regulating the handling of meat, food, and drugs.
- Top Drawer: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties by Mary Cable, published in 1984, presents the glitter and ostentation of the wealthiest Americans. It provides an interesting contrast to the lives of the workers described in works by Sandburg and Upton Sinclair.
- Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years is a 1926 biography by Carl Sandburg that follows Lincoln from his youth through the period prior to his presidency. It provides a touching, insightful portrait, recreating history with a lyric grace.
- The People Yes (1936) is an interesting collection of folk wisdom and sayings gathered by Sandburg during his travels. In it, he hopes to present the true voice of the American people.
Carl Sandburg is certainly one of the most distinctive, and distinctively American, poets of the twentieth century. He began his writing career around the turn of the century, some time before the death of Vachel Lindsay, and received significant publication—Chicago Poems (1916)—before the careers of Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost began to soar and attract attention. We don’t know if poetry was really Sandburg’s first love as a young man or not. He was a labor organizer, a newspaperman, a poet, a biographer, and, of course, he somehow found time to write that delightful book of stories for children, Rutabaga Tales. Sandburg seems to have been able to bring a great deal of energy and fresh insight to everything he did, and he also brought a great deal of American sensibility and love for the American people and their various traditions.
It’s difficult to think of the 1920s in the United States without thinking of Sandburg, and of poems such as “Cool Tombs” or “Chicago,” or of stories about his concerts where he would appear with a banjo and read poems, sing ballads (sometimes the ballads were labor ballads), and tell stories. He wrote a four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, who was one of his great passions, and a separate biography of Lincoln’s wife. He was an organizer for the Social Democratic Party for a period of time and campaigned with Eugene Debs, who was a socialist candidate for the presidency.
Sometimes with a career as colorful as Carl Sandburg’s, a change of mood takes place. The critics or the reviewers suddenly started putting his writing in the background. By the 1930s, Wallace Stevens certainly seemed to have become a more graceful poet with a wider and more colorful vocabulary, and Robert Frost had honed his uniquely personal and dazzlingly clear individual philosophical voice. But this shouldn’t prevent students from realizing how important Sandburg was to the overall development of American poetry, or, for that matter, just how plain good some of his early
“[‘Cool Tombs’] is an absolutely lovely poem, written with a burst of natural enthusiasm and spontaneity that takes the reader like a summer storm.”
poems are—how much they moved people and how well they read today.
“Cool Tombs” is one of Carl Sandburg’s most famous poems. Although this work is not about Chicago, it certainly belongs to the “Chicago Poems” period of his early writing. He has obviously been thinking about the turbulence of American capitalism, which is something he did quite a lot. He has been thinking about money, and about how much things—commodities—cost and how hard we work to make enough money to pay for them. And he was probably thinking a bit about age and death. When “Cool Tombs” was published, Sandburg was forty years old.
The poem begins with Abraham Lincoln simply because Sandburg did so much work on Lincoln. “When Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin … in the dust, in the cool tombs.” Sandburg may have just paid a visit to a cemetery in Chicago or somewhere else in America, he may have just lost a close friend or finished reading an obituary in one of the Chicago papers of the day. It’s interesting to note how, after reading the title, the subject “Cool Tombs” almost immediately becomes the central protagonist of the poem, despite all of the famous people that get mentioned.
Abraham Lincoln was the most talked about man of his day. He wasn’t simply the President of the United States of America; more than that, he was the guardian of the Constitution, and of northern desire for a unified America, and a unified America without slavery. So during his lifetime, Lincoln was in every newspaper of the day.
But according to Sandburg’s lovely poem (which is really more about our lives and time, or about Time and Being, perhaps, as the philosophers might put it), when Lincoln is “shoveled into the tombs,” he forgets all of his earthly problems and negative attitudes. Sandburg’s attitude at this point is almost Eastern or Christian. There is a giving up—the body simply relinquishes its drive to argue with the inexorable nature of time. Lincoln could, after all, have died of natural causes, and he might still appear in this starring role at the beginning of a famous poem. Sandburg doesn’t dwell on the word “assassin”; he doesn’t even mention the name “Booth” let alone the Latin motto that Booth called out after shooting Lincoln in the Ford Theater. He isn’t interested in details.
In a sense, Sandburg himself is in charge of the shovel in this poem. It’s rather interesting to look at just how neatly, and how naturally and spontaneously, Sandburg shovels Abraham Lincoln, the “copperheads,” and the “assassin” into the “tombs.” There is actually a whole period of American history here, ending with Lincoln, and a new period, starting off with increased northern prosperity and a lot of new money in places such as New York and Chicago. Sandburg has steeped himself in this history, writing a four-volume biography of the dead president, for example. And here, in the opening sentence of this great—rather classical in many ways, but also quite personal and quite unique—poem, Sandburg shovels the whole fiasco of Lincoln’s tragic death into “the cool tombs.”
The opening sentence of “Cool Tombs” is very simple. Sandburg was extremely good at doing that—taking the reader by surprise with a sentence so simple that a working person might almost, but not quite, use it himself in a conversation on a bus in Los Angeles or in a subway in crowded New York City. But being a master poet (on the basis of his best work), Sandburg picks just the right sentence, and then he uses it to his devastatingly successful advantage. In this poem, his genius lies in his having quite successfully put a temporal opening word, “When,” together with the name of the most famous U.S. President of the previous century, the idea of a shovel, the suggestion of men shovelling, the idea of forgetting, “copperheads” and the “assassin,” and also, of course, “dust,” the idea of “tombs,” and the notion that tombs are “cool.”
So Sandburg has given us a whole vignette, even more, in just one fairly simple but very classical line. Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost might find it very difficult to do anything like this and make it work even half as successfully.
In the next line, Sandburg immediately makes reference to Ulysses Grant. Sandburg is the American poet who—among other jobs with newspapers and magazines—had worked as an organizer for the Social Democratic Party and campaigned for Eugene Debs as a presidential candidate. So when Carl Sandburg tells us about Ulysses Grant, we don’t question why he chooses Grant, who is, after all, also a president and from the same period as Lincoln. Instead, we listen almost as hypnotically as if we were listening to a compelling national ballad in the form of a poem.
“Cool Tombs” is one of Sandburg’s simplest and most accomplished poems. Everything in this poem seems to be perfectly chosen and everything moves perfectly, with a calm deliberation that is—despite the calm—always full of feeling. In the second line, Sandburg tells us, “And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes … in the dust, in the cool tombs.” The poem continues its inexorable logic and becomes more compelling and also more complete by including “con men,” “Wall Street,” and that simple beguiling word “collateral,” along with “copperheads” and the “assassin” Booth from the first line.
The Civil War, because of his long and studious reading of Lincoln’s life, and Chicago, where he spent so much of his time, both seem to be very much on Sandburg’s mind. In “Cool Tombs,” Sandburg not only manages to write an absolutely gorgeous poem but, at the same time, drawing quite naturally on his emotions of the moment, he seems to bury a great deal of his concern and dismay with the Civil War period, and he does so in a very classical, stoic, and graceful way. But of course this poem, which begins as something of a Lincoln poem, and which reaches out to encompass the Civil War period and the poet’s apparent sense that the era saw a lot of extremely different men—such as “Abraham Lincoln,” “con men,” carpetbaggers, and men from “Wall Street”—is a poem in which Sandburg wants to touch on death, time, and the great mystery. And he wants to make a completely American event out of this piece of writing.
“Pocahontas’ body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May …” is a truly lovely way of beginning the next part of his poem. It is really very unexpected; Wallace Stevens probably wouldn’t do it, or if he had thought of doing it, Stevens might have been less direct. Of course that’s where part of the unexpectedness comes from—the extraordinary directness with which Sandburg begins the first of these two irregular final lines. When Sandburg brings “Pocahontas’ body” into the poem, he immediately opens up our entire concept of the America he seemed, previously, to be talking about. Pocahontas was the famous Native-American princess of the early seventeenth century who was romantically linked with Captain John Smith, a British explorer who came to America very early in the colonial period. Pocahontas intervened with her father, chief Powhatan, to save Smith’s life.
Pocahontas, beautiful, young, is in obvious contrast with Abraham Lincoln, bearded like a prophet, or with Ulysses Grant. Pocahontas is not only beautiful and young (and, of course, there is a suggestion of sexuality here, and certainly no suggestion of “con men” or “Wall Street”), she is also indigenous. “[L]ovely as a poplar,” she has an American authenticity that perhaps Sandburg finds lacking in some of the developments he had been reading about in the newspapers of the day.
With unbelievable speed, Sandburg moves the big telescope that he seems to have set up to look at American life in “Cool Tombs.” He has barely introduced Pocahontas and told us that her body is as “lovely as a popular”; almost immediately, he compounds this already distinct image with “sweet as a red haw in November.” A “red haw” is simply Sandburg’s colloquial expression for an American red hawthorn tree. This is wonderful writing. It’s wonderfully direct, but, also, it never fails to be unexpectedly imaginative. “[S]weet as a red haw in November,” Sandburg says, and then, the master writer totally in control of what he’s putting together, he just adds a bit more, and goes on in the same line to say “or a pawpaw in May, …”
Of course he’s not finished yet. This is an absolutely lovely poem, written with a burst of natural enthusiasm and spontaneity that takes the reader like a summer storm. A “pawpaw,” in May or otherwise, is a colloquialism, possibly from Chicago in the war years, for those big, luscious, pale-green papaya fruit. But having put that colorful image out in front of the reader, Sandburg has one thought to add within the same sentence. He continues,” … did she wonder? does she remember? … in the dust, in the cool tombs?” This is nothing short of dazzling. Now Sandburg has developed his concept of time as something that happens to everybody. It is a universal, a classic universal, just as this is a very classical poem, despite Sandburg’s easy, natural way of expressing himself in one brilliant colorful image after another. Time is a dazzling and perhaps slightly amorphous stream of brilliant moments; Sandburg sees our experience of time as an experience where, during our lives and at the end, we forget, or lose all “thought,” or “wonder,” or “remember.” Abraham Lincoln does these things; he forgets the “copperheads” and the “assassin.” And Pocahontas, possibly the lover of Captain John Smith as far back as 1616 or 1617, was doing these things before the great Abraham Lincoln or George Washington were even young men.
But the great poet needs one more line to bring this remarkable poem into full balance—to bring our minds, so to speak, back into the immediacy of the twentieth century. Sandburg brings us back to the present after this lesson in American history in as simple and spontaneous a way as he started this poem. “Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries,” he writes, “cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns …” Immediately, we seem to be back in Chicago, the great windy city, walking along a street or “throwing confetti and blowing tin horns” ourselves. Life is everything, Sandburg says at the end of this poem, and this is a bit of subtle philosophical populist upbeat at the end. We shouldn’t spoil our lives while we have them, we should live fully; we should learn something from history, we should be calm. “… [T]ell me if the lovers are losers … tell me if any get more than the lovers … in the dust … in the cool tombs.” Sandburg he has taken us from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses Grant, and from Pocahontas to Chicago, to people blowing tin horns and to “the lovers.” “Cool Tombs” is a profoundly twentieth-century American poem about time, and it’s also an extremely brilliant poem about time, history, memory, and life. Life itself is the final subject of this poem. “Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns …” That’s such a perfect and distinct ending for this great poem.
Source: David Donnell, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Kristina Zarlengo, who received her doctorate in English from Columbia University in 1997, taught literature and writing for five years at Columbia University. A scholar of modern American literature, her articles have appeared in academic journals and various periodicals. In the following essay, Zarlengo points out how Sandburg trumpeted democracy, even when discussing death in his poem “Cool Tombs.”
During the early decades of the twentieth century, poets writing in English took new liberties. Rather than organizing the sound of their poems around rhyme schemes, many of them ignored rhyme, preferring to find, for the end of their lines, the perfect word for their topic rather than a word selected for its rhyme. Many of them also rejected traditional poetic metrical forms—they did not constrain their sentiments to a fixed number of beats per line; in Ezra Pound’s phrasing, revolutionary poets threw away the metronome, preferring the musical phrase. Not everyone writing verse in those years agreed it was a good idea to abandon formal conventions—a practice that came to be known as free verse. American poet Robert Frost famously declared that writing in free verse was like playing tennis without a net. For many others, however, free verse was the appropriate form for a new century that seemed to unfold in the midst of fewer conventions of all kinds. In a new century in which science, rather than God, could explain the stars, where the human constructs of the industrial age—from the wristwatch to the factory to the metropolis—seemed as important in their way as mountains, oceans and seasons, a free verse that paid closer attention to speech rhythms and vivid description of the world’s prolific novelties than to traditions of any stripe seemed pertinent and proper.
“Cool Tombs” is typical Carl Sandburg poetry: a brief, free-verse composition. Dedicated to his chosen home, Chicago, which he described as a reporter before he wrote poetic tributes to what he called “City of the Big Shoulders,” Sandburg was very much a man of the modern city. He was a man familiar with industry and with many pockets of urban life, having worked as a potter’s assistant, a firehouse call man, a mail-order businessman, a milkman, a handbill distributor, a hobo, and a socialist organizer, among other occupations. But Sandburg chose free verse, and stuck with it after other practitioners of the form had abandoned it, not because of its novelty, but because of what he saw as its antiquity:
We have heard much in our time about free verse being modern, as though it is a new-found style for men to use in speaking and writing, rising out of the machine age, skyscrapers, high speed and jazz. Now, if free verse is a form of writing poetry without rhyme, without regular meters, without established or formal rules governing it, we can easily go back to the earliest styles of poetry known to the human family— and the style is strictly free verse. Before men invented the alphabet, so that poems could be put down in writing, they spoke their poems. When one man spoke to another in a certain beat and rhythm, if it happened that his words conveyed certain impressions and moods to his listeners, he was delivering poetry to his listeners, he was delivering poetry to them, whether he knew it or they knew it, and whether he or they had a name for an art which the poet was practicing on himself and on them.
It is perhaps this conviction that poetry is primal and natural, happening unself-consciously whenever words manage to convey some impression or mood, and happening chiefly with the spoken rather than the printed word, that kept Sandburg so committed to free verse. He was often labeled artless for his casual form. In a review of his Collected Poems, William Carlos Williams wrote, “Sandburg may not have known what he was doing, it may never have entered his mind that there was anything significant to do with the structure of the verse itself.”
In the tradition of nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman—who also adhered to free verse—Sandburg does, however, consistently sing a sweet and charmed song of the common man, capturing the depths of everyday experience in a way that earned him a large and devoted following, and had even Williams conditioning his disapproval: “But the best of [Sandburg] was touched with fire.”
We better understand the casual fire of Sandburg’s death poem “Cool Tombs” by comparing it to another poem that digs in its thematic turf. A portion of the strictly metered, rhyming “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard,” by eighteenth century poet Thomas Gray, reads:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Echoing this message, “Cool Tombs” also insists that no matter the grand fears and immortal stature of the powerful, they will be annulled “in the dust, in the cool tombs.” But Sandburg forms this message not with neatly ordered syllables and sounds, whose words are sometimes forced to change to fit metric structure (e’er, rather than ever; th’ rather than the), but in a language similar to American speech. Sandburg’s poem is immediately accessible and comprehensible on a first read, even to those unfamiliar with poetic conventions. That “Cool Tombs” was composed in free verse does not mean, however, that the poem is free of any structure. Rather, its structure is generated by the subject, on the spot. Consider the poem’s refrain: ellipses that suggest a pause, followed by “in the
“Sandburg … consistently sing[s] a sweet and charmed song of the common man, capturing the depths of everyday experience in a way that earned him a large and devoted following ….”
dust, in the cool tombs.” That these words complete each line hammers home the notion that all will end in dust and tombs. Each of the four stanzalike sections takes on a wholly new topic, but each ends in the same place—as indeed all human life will end in death. Further, each section of “Cool Tombs” reads like a complete thought, a notion that finishes with the idea of someone’s death.
The first section, on Lincoln, establishes a pattern not only of word, but of insight. When Lincoln was buried, we are told, he had no more care for his political opponents (the copperheads) and no worry even about his ultimate threat: the assassin John Wilkes Booth. He has forgotten them; they are erased by the tombs. Moving on to another, parallel life (that of another president), Sandburg assures us of thematic pattern—the grand, powerful Grant also lost all care in the tomb. Of Pocahontas’s memory or thought beyond life, Sandburg poses questions—yet they are questions already implicitly answered. The reader has learned, as Thomas Gray previously asserted, that “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
The fourth section of “Cool Tombs” shifts the theme of the poem. That those with worldly power are as powerless over death as the lowly, the humiliated, and the common, is ironic. Nothing we can accomplish, no memory or thought—we learn from Gray and Sandburg alike—will secure us against death. Yet Sandburg adds another irony to this. In section four, we are delivered a vision of people on the street. These are common people with everyday worries such as buying groceries and clothes. They are so ordinary that they celebrate heroes (rather than become heroes themselves) with cheap tin horns and confetti. Yet it seems that among these people are lovers—perhaps couples in love, perhaps those lovers of heroes. Thus, when we are asked, twice, “if the lovers are losers … If any get more than the lovers,” we want to answer, “no, all will go to dust.” If we respond so in this context, we also place loving on the same plane as governing America—we are flattening the hierarchy of power seen as social class, or fame, and admitting a power generated by one’s capacity to feel. To the irony that death humbles the powerful, Sandburg adds the irony that death ennobles anyone with a capacity to feel deeply. Death deals its hand democratically.
In delivering this message, Sandburg evokes historical figures who we remember, though they themselves can remember no longer from within their tombs. But in the final section, we are brought to the present; the poem seems to demand of us a commitment to fullness of life and feeling, since we, too, will end in the tombs. Morbid as this poem most obviously is, its message remains cheering. It is a reminder that we are alive and that merely by feeling that life, we are accomplishing the most that we will have, when finally all tallies are evened in the dust.
It is unsurprising that Sandburg launches “Cool Tombs” with a reference to Lincoln, about whom he wrote a vast and detailed biography, and of whom he said, in a 1959 address to the United States Congress, “He stands for decency, honest dealing, plain talk, and funny stories.” But the power Lincoln commanded, as hailed by Sandburg, was not his command of armies or his capacity to conduct war. “Perhaps we may say that the well-assured and most enduring memorial to Lincoln is invisibly there, to day, tomorrow and for a long time yet to come. It is there in the hearts of the lovers of liberty, men and women who understand that wherever there is freedom there have been those who fought, toiled and sacrificed for it.” Concerned with poetry that freely tells a history of the now, Sandburg worked in the name of heartfelt freedoms and common loves.
Source: Kristina Zarlengo, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Allen, Gay Wilson, Carl Sandburg, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
Callahan, North, Carl Sandburg, Lincoln of Our Literature: A Biography, New York: New York University Press, 1970.
Hoffman, Daniel G., “Sandburg’s ‘Cool Tombs,’” Explicator, Vol. 9, May 1951.
Lowell, Amy, “Poetry and Propaganda,” New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1920, p. 7.
Salwak, Dale, Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.
Sandburg, Carl, “Notes for a Preface,” Collected Poems, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950, pp. xxiii-xxxi.
Sandburg, Carl, Selected Poems, edited and with an introduction by George and Willene Hendrick, New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1966.
Steichen, Edward, Sandburg, New York: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc., 1966.
West, Rebecca, preface to Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1926, pp. 15-28.
Williams, William Carlos, “Carl Sandburg’s Complete Poems,”Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1951.
Blum, Louis, et. al., The National Experience: A History of the United States, 6th ed., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
The section of this book that covers the period from the Gilded Age to the 1930s is very informative. It presents factual detail in a clear, readable format. Since Sandburg’s writing has strong political and social overtones, this is a source that helps to place his subjects into perspective.
Crowder, Richard H., Carl Sandburg, New York: Twayne, 1964.
This biography includes a good critical evaluation of Sandburg’s writing, covering both his strengths and weaknesses.
Durnell, Hazel, The America of Carl Sandburg, Washington D.C.: University Press of Washington D.C., 1965.
Durnell discusses Sandburg’s immigrant heritage, evaluating both the influences of his personal background and of the period on his writing. She praises him for his social conscious and for his role as the voice of the people.
Untermeyer, Louis, The New Era in American Poetry, New York: Henry Holt, 1919.
Untermeyer was an early admirer of Sandburg’s poetry who praised his writing throughout Sandburg’s career. This book provides an interesting historical perspective.
Yatron, Michael, America’s Literary Revolt, Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1959.
This volume provides a clear, concise historical background for Sandburg’s work, discussing the influence of the Populist movement on his philosophy.