The Poets Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)


About the Poet

Acclaimed America's people's poet, Carl August Sandburg spoke directly and compellingly of the worker, a vigorous, enduring composite character who embodied Sandburg's free-verse portraits of democracy's inhabitants. Some audiences were bowled over by Sandburg's engagingly slangy phrasing and shadowy figures; the poet's massive correspondence linked him to the personalities of his day, including socialist Lincoln Steffens, actor Gary Cooper, President Lyndon Johnson, and editor Harry Golden, Sandburg's traveling buddy. Others, like Robert Frost, were repulsed by Sandburg's folksy affectation. Frost once described his contemporary as "the most artificial and studied ruffian the world has had." The description was not without merit.

Sandburg was born of Swedish ancestry in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. He was the son of a semiliterate laborer, rail blacksmith August Johnson, and Clara Anderson. His family chose the name Sandburg to separate them from a confusing neighborhood of Johnsons. Sandburg later boasted of the bold X that served his immigrant father as an honorable signature.

A restless vagabond, Sandburg ended formal schooling and his job as morning milk deliverer at age 13 to take other hands-on jobs, including bootblack, newsboy, hod carrier, kitchen drudge, potter's and painter's assistant, iceman, and porter at Galesburg's Union Hotel barbershop. For four months in 1897, he traveled the railroads and washed dishes at various hotels. After a brief residency at West Point in 1899, Private Charlie Sandburg fought for eight months in Puerto Rico with the Sixth Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers during the Spanish-American War. With the encouragement of an army comrade, he attended Lombard College for four years but quit before receiving a degree.

Sandburg was fortunate in gaining the support of Philip Green Wright, an English professor who printed Sandburg's first poetry collection, In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), on a basement press. In Milwaukee in 1907, while organizing the Wisconsin Social Democrat Party, Sandburg met Lillian "Paula" Steichen, his mate of nearly sixty years and mother of their daughters, Janet, Margaret, and Helga. During the period known as the Chicago Renaissance, he was secretary to Emil Seidel, Milwaukee's first socialist mayor, and then he took various writing jobs. During World War I, Sandburg served the Newspaper Enterprise Associates as Stockholm correspondent. Upon return, he wrote editorials for the Chicago Daily News and settled on Lake Michigan in Harbert, east of Chicago, and, in 1919, in Elmhurst.

Sandburg published his famous "Chicago" in 1914 in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and produced pulsing, realistic verse set in America's urban industrial complex, which he idealized as a brusque, up-and-coming national treasure. His steady outpouring — Chicago Poems (1916), Corn Huskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Good Morning, America (1928), and The People, Yes (1936), which lauds the vigorous folk hero Pecos Bill — resulted in Complete Poems (1950), winner of the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In addition, he staked out new territory with a cross-cultural collection of folk ballads, The American Songbag (1927). The work derives from his voice-and-guitar platform presentations. He also published a polemical memoir, The Chicago Race Riots (1919), three children's stories — Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeon (1923), and Potato Face (1930) — and an American saga, Remembrance Rock (1948), his only novel.

Sandburg was a lifelong collector of Lincolniana. He was living at Chickaming Goat Farm in Harbert while lecturing, collaborating with P. M. Engle on Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (1932), and completing a six-volume Life of Abraham Lincoln, composed of the two-part The Prairie Years (1926) and the four-part The War Years (1939). The work was a solid success, acquiring instant readership and universal admiration, and it won him the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Saturday Review of Literature award in history and biography. After numerous summers of touring to earn ready cash with recitations and folk songs plucked out on his banjo and guitar, Sandburg's last years brought the secure notoriety of the people's poet. He published memoirs of his coming of age in Always the Young Strangers (1953).

Following a crippling seizure in 1965, Sandburg inaccurately predicted that he would survive to a year divisible by eleven. He was bedridden his last two years, and he relied on his wife as spokesperson until his death at home from a second heart attack on July 22, 1967. He was eulogized at the nearby St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church; his and Paula's ashes are buried in Galesburg beneath Remembrance Rock.

Chief Works

Sandburg's poem "Chicago" is self-consciously artless — a brash, assertive statement of place. In 1914, the poem thrust him into national prominence as a modernist poet and image-maker for the laboring class. A rambunctious portrait of a flourishing urban center, the poem makes a vigorous proletarian thrust with its initial images of a butcher, tool maker, harvester, and freight handler. Outside the pre-modern niceties of predictable line lengths and rhyme, the poet ignores scholars and entrepreneurs as he surges toward the city skyline. With crudely forceful, startling figures, he mines the verbal subsoil for the source of Chicago's raw energy and steadying optimism. He applauds its ample frame, personified as a muscular, essentially male pair of shoulders, but balances his realistic assessment by chastising the urban penchant for vice and crime.

As though addressing an individual, Sandburg personifies the city as a brutal depriver of women and children, who perform a lesser role as victims dependent on man-sized protection and support. He confronts the attacker who would vilify his "alive," "coarse," "strong," and "cunning" city, a "tall bold slugger" of a metropolis. The forces that undergird Chicago's permanence founder on the edge of honesty and respectability, implying that too much gentility saps a growing nation, depriving it of the underworld heft essential to progress. To further the image of growth, the poet piles up present participles, beginning with a dog lapping and moving briskly through "building, breaking, rebuilding." With a return to the opening stanza, Sandburg repeats the skills of the burly, uncompromising city, the sources of its might. By its nature, the poem itself becomes one of the enduring homegrown products of America's "second city."

A persistent contrast to "Chicago" is "Fog" (1916), which is often a companion piece in anthologies. An American haiku, the poem captures a phenomenon of nature in a second natural image. A feral image of sinuous grace, the diminutive cat shape perches over the skyline before soundlessly creeping away. The silky presence relieves the gathering fog of menace as it unifies the harbor and city streets under one silent, soft-furred cloud. Simple, yet rich in brooding, elusive mysticism, the figure compels the reader to draw conclusions from personal experience with both fog and cats.

In 1918, at the end of World War I, Sandburg produced "Grass," a savagely realistic, calm poem, more heavily symbolic and less spontaneous than his imagist verse. A familiar theme in world literature, the idea of creeping cemetery grass uniting all wars dates to ancient Mediterranean verse. By speaking through the persona of grass, Sandburg captures the impersonal work of nature: the vivid green blades conceal from passersby the destruction of three wars — Napoleonic battles, the American Civil War, and World War I. By naming cities forever linked to carnage, Sandburg reminds the reader that, once inflicted on humanity, war leaves an indelible history as grass reclaims battle grounds and turns them into burial places. Although veiled by spreading root structure, the events remain in memory, a prologue to subsequent wars.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Characterize the sturdy American figures in Sandburg's "I Am the People, the Mob," "Psalm of Those Who Go Forth Before Daylight," and "Chicago," with the New Englanders in Robert Frost's poems, Chicagoans in Gwendolyn Brooks' ghetto pictures, Harlemites in Langston Hughes' poems, and Midwesterners in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

2. Analyze the imagism of Frost's "Grass" or "Fog," H. D.'s "Pear Tree," and William Carlos Williams' "Red Wheelbarrow." Determine which of the verses depends most heavily on sense impressions.

3. Contrast "Chicago" and "Fog" in terms of nature images. Which of the two poems ends more jubilantly?

4. How is Sandburg's "Grass" more realistic than his other poems?