Sandburg, Carl (1878-1967)

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Sandburg, Carl (1878-1967)

A maverick son of Swedish immigrant parents, Carl Sandburg became one of America's best loved poets, as well as one of its most significant. However, he was also a journalist, storyteller, balladeer, and noted biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and his literary works and journalistic writings became ingrained in popular American culture from World War I, through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, to the tumultuous times of World War II and its aftermath.

Part newspaperman, part poet, Sandburg reflected the lives of ordinary people caught up in these events, articulating his concerns through his writings in a career that spanned half a century. He wrote during a time of great industrial and social change. Across America, cities proliferated and grew, while rural populations were displaced from the land and European immigrants flooded the cities. Sandburg wrote in a broad, earthy style, and with honesty and perception, about the burgeoning urban life. Adopting a bold, free verse style reminiscent of Walt Whitman, Sandburg spoke, not in poetically lyrical language, but in the slang and speech patterns of working people, the language of factory and sidewalk. Roger Mitchell, in A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry explains that "Sandburg wrote in the language of the people he described and in the belief that their lives mattered." Unlike many of his contemporaries, he looked only to America for his inspiration and celebrated the lives of its ordinary citizens.

Born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1878, the son of hardworking Swedish immigrants, Carl Sandburg grew up on the prairies of Illinois, left school at 13, and, in the wake of a depression, joined the homeless and unemployed in a journey across America. He worked as a laborer and lived as a hobo, sleeping in boxcars and riding the rods of the transcontinental railway for seven years. In 1898 he returned to Galesburg and became a housepainter, but soon after enlisted in the Sixth Illinois Infantry during the Spanish American War. It was during his eight months' service in Cuba and Puerto Rico that Sandburg wrote in his journal of the hypocrisy and injustice of war and its effects on the ordinary soldiers, dying of heat, malaria, and dysentery without firing a shot in battle. After the war he again returned to Galesburg and attended Lombard College, but left without a degree. He pursued journalistic work and become a staunch member of the Socialist Party, through which he met his future wife, Lillian (Paula) Steichen, sister of the great photographer, Edward Steichen. Paula, a university graduate, encouraged Sandburg in his writing, especially his poetry.

In 1916 Sandburg had his first real taste of success as a poet with the publication of his first publicly acclaimed volume, Chicago Poems (1916), of which the title poem, "Chicago," attracted popular attention. In the poem, he describes the city as "stormy, husky, brawling … a crooked brutal place. …" He pictured the people of the city with a harsh reality: prostitutes, gangsters, exploited factory workers and their families starving on low wages. Sandburg's Chicago, however, for all its coarseness and cruelty, was "alive… strong… cunning. …" The poet received negative reviews from critics, but encouraging mail from ordinary Americans proved that his works had their support. This situation prevailed more than once during his long and prolific career, but he had more success with Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920). He was a great storyteller, and his Rootabaga Stories (1922) were written for children. When he felt his old wanderlust during this period, he began touring the country as a lecturer and folk singer, accompanying himself on his guitar, and collected folk songs and tales that he published as American Songbag (1927). Returning to poetry in "The People Yes" (1936), he expressed his belief in America's people at a time when they needed a champion. His hope for the future lay in the common people. In her biography of Sandburg, Penelope Niven suggests that, in the process, he became "the passionate champion of people who did not have the power to speak for themselves."

The historical writings of Carl Sandburg were the most important twentieth-century factor in Abraham Lincoln's continuing popularity. In 1940 Sandburg received the Pulitzer Prize for his four-volume biography, Lincoln: The War Years, published in 1939. For once Sandburg's critics were silenced by the immediate success of the massive work, in which he defines Lincoln as an ordinary person—no idealist, but a beleaguered man struggling to make the right decisions under pressure. Sandburg examines the inside of the government during a time of crisis in American history, and Sandburg reveals his faith in Lincoln as a representative of the American spirit of democracy. Together with his earlier two-volume biography, Lincoln: the Prairie Years, (1926), the word-count outstripped that of the collected works of William Shakespeare.

Sandburg's total commitment to World War II led to his greatest undertaking, the novel Remembrance Rock, which spans American experience from Plymouth Rock to World War II and beyond. The book was a labor of love for its author, but was never acclaimed as a literary success. He was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete Poems published in 1951, and in 1953 he wrote an autobiography, Always the Young Strangers. Penelope Niven explains Sandburg's life as "an odyssey into the American experience. He helped the American people discover their national identity through songs, poems and that mythical national hero, Abraham Lincoln. "

Together with Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg stands as one of the greatest and best loved poets of the twentieth century. He died on July 22, 1967 and his ashes were buried at his birthplace in Galesburg, beneath a granite boulder called Remembrance Rock.

—Joan Gajadhar

Further Reading:

Mitchell, Roger. "Modernism Comes to American Poetry: 1908-1920." in A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York, Scribner and Sons, 1991.

Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems. New York, Henry Holt, 1916, 1944.