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date: 18 October 2019

Sandburg, Carlfree

(06 January 1878–22 July 1967)
  • Penelope Niven

Carl Sandburg

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115064).

Sandburg, Carl (06 January 1878–22 July 1967), poet, writer, and folk musician, was born Carl August Sandburg in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of August Sandburg, a railroad blacksmith’s helper, and Clara Mathilda Anderson. His parents were hardworking Swedish immigrants who had met when August Sandburg was working on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg and Clara Mathilda Anderson, who had traveled on her own to the new world, was employed as a hotel maid in Bushnell, Illinois. The frugal couple instilled in their seven children the necessity of hard work and education, as well as a reverence for the American dream. When Carl Sandburg entered first grade, he Americanized his Swedish name, thereafter signing his school papers and his early work as a poet, orator, and journalist “Charles A. Sandburg.”

Officially ending his public school education after eighth grade, Sandburg worked in his hometown shining shoes, delivering milk and newspapers, and performing other odd jobs. His thirst for travel and adventure, supported by a railroad pass borrowed from his father, led in 1896 to his first significant journey, a trip to Chicago, the city he later covered as a reporter and celebrated as a poet. In 1897 Sandburg became one of thousands of American hoboes stowing away atop and inside railroad boxcars, working their way west by train through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado in search of jobs.

After a few months Sandburg returned to Galesburg for a brief, restless stint as a housepainter before enlisting in Company C of the Sixth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers for service in the Spanish-American War. He was assigned to duty in Puerto Rico from July until late August 1898. In October 1898, although he lacked a high school diploma, Sandburg’s status as a war veteran qualified him for admission with free tuition to Lombard College in his hometown. He also received a conditional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1899. He traveled to West Point to take the entrance examinations but failed the required mathematics and grammar tests. He returned to Galesburg to study at Lombard until May 1902.

He left college without a degree but with a new appetite for reading and writing poetry, encouraged by his first significant mentor, economist and poet Philip Green Wright, a Lombard professor who later taught at Harvard. An amateur publisher, Wright used a small handpress in his cellar to produce four leaflets by Charles A. Sandburg: In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), Incidentals (1907), The Plaint of a Rose (1908), and Joseffy (1910), a promotional profile commissioned by a popular magician and inventor. The other three booklets contained short essays, aphorisms, and poems after the fashion of Sandburg’s favorite writers at that time: Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, and Elbert Hubbard.

Chronically infected with wanderlust, Sandburg roamed the country after his departure from college, supporting himself by selling Underwood and Underwood stereoscopic pictures and giving an occasional lecture on Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, or Abraham Lincoln. When he ran out of money, he hopped a freight train and “rode the rods,” a feat that left him stranded for ten days in the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1902 because he could not pay the requisite train fare.

From 1902 through late 1907 Sandburg wrote for minor journals in Chicago and tried to launch a career on the Lyceum and traveling Chautauqua lecture circuits, specializing in orations on Whitman, Lincoln, Shaw, and the ideals of socialism. Emblazoned on the 1907 advertisement for his lecture on Walt Whitman titled “An American Vagabond” were the words “Books are but empty nothings compared with living, pulsing men and women. Life is stranger and greater than anything ever written about it.”

His fiery intensity as an orator won the attention of Wisconsin Social-Democratic party leader Winfield P. Gaylord, who recruited Sandburg to become a party organizer. From 1907 until 1912 Sandburg campaigned vigorously throughout Wisconsin for social democracy, writing for newspapers and journals, organizing workers, making stump speeches, and in 1910 serving as secretary to Emil Seidel, the first socialist mayor of Milwaukee. At Social-Democratic party headquarters in Milwaukee in December 1907 Sandburg met Lilian Steichen, a young Socialist and schoolteacher, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago (1904), and the younger sister of painter and photographer Eduard Steichen (later Edward Steichen), who had already won wide recognition in New York and Paris.

During the first six months of 1908, Lilian Steichen and Charles Sandburg corresponded, he from the outposts of Wisconsin and she from Princeton, Illinois, where she was teaching. They fell in love and were married in 1908 in Milwaukee. They had three children. Because his wife encouraged Sandburg to reclaim his christened name, he became once and for all Carl Sandburg.

In his spare time during the Milwaukee years, Sandburg wrote poems replete with such rugged, unorthodox free verse and such unconventionally realistic subject matter that he himself could not even be sure they were poetry. He continually experimented with poetic images of the working men, women, and children whose harrowing problems he confronted daily in the Milwaukee municipal office. Always the passionate advocate of social justice and equality, Sandburg gradually became disenchanted with Social-Democratic party politics in Milwaukee because of the ever-widening gap between reality and the ideal. In 1912 he moved his family to Chicago, where he went to work on the staff of the socialist Chicago Evening World. Later he worked for other Chicago journals, including the Scripps daily tabloid, the Day Book, simultaneously writing occasional articles for the International Socialist Review, usually under pseudonyms. Both of these journals and a handful of others also published his poetry.

Otherwise Sandburg received no significant affirmation as a poet until Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of the landmark Chicago journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, accepted six of his poems for publication in the March 1914 issue. In effect, his career as a poet was launched, and he stepped into the stimulating company of poets and writers such as Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, and Eunice Tietjens, who inhabited the modest Poetry offices. From Europe, Ezra Pound, associate editor of Poetry, wrote letters of advice and encouragement to Sandburg, and Masters and Dreiser urged him to collect his poems in a book. Another Poetry associate editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, persuaded young editor and book salesman Alfred Harcourt to read Sandburg’s manuscript for Henry Holt and Company, who published Sandburg’s Chicago Poems in 1916.

This first volume of poetry articulated his lifelong themes. From the beginning, Sandburg the poet gave a powerful voice to the “people—the mob—the crowd—the mass” (p. 172). He championed the cause of “the Poor, millions of the Poor, patient and toiling; more patient than crags, tides, and stars; innumerable, patient as the darkness of night” (p. 6). He was quickly established as the poet of the American people, pleading their cause; reciting their songs, stories, and proverbs; celebrating their spirit and their vernacular; and commemorating the watershed experiences of their shared national life.

His second volume of poetry, Cornhuskers, was published by Henry Holt in 1918, but in 1919 Sandburg moved with Alfred Harcourt to the new company he had founded, Harcourt, Brace & Howe, which published collections of poems titled Smoke and Steel (1920); Good Morning, America (1928); The People, Yes (1936), an epic, book-length poem about the depression; and Complete Poems (1950), for which Sandburg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Sandburg moved as restlessly through literary forms as he did through the American landscape, also distinguishing himself as a journalist at the Chicago Daily News. He covered World War I in Europe for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and the articles he wrote as a syndicated columnist during World War II were collected in Home Front Memo in 1943. Between wars he investigated the American scene, covering politics, crime, business, and civil rights. His farsighted investigative reportage of racial strife in Chicago for the Chicago Daily News resulted in The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919, published in 1919.

The poet of the American vernacular was not only a tough, gregarious reporter but a rollicking folk musician who accompanied himself somewhat crudely on the guitar while he sang American folk songs in his mellifluous baritone. He interspersed his songs with poems and commentary, and audiences across the country so loved Sandburg the showman that until the end of his life he was in great demand as a consummate platform entertainer. He had collected folk songs since his hobo days, interviewing people in his travels across the country over many years and setting down the lyrics and the notations in his pocket notebooks. He gave many of these songs their first publication in The American Songbag in 1927.

Sandburg was also a devoted and tender family man. Before World War I he had begun inventing zany, sometimes poignant American fairy tales for his children. Two events influenced him to develop those stories into a book: the First World War and the ensuing economic, political, and racial strife left him profoundly disillusioned, and then his eldest daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy, for which there was as yet no seizure-suppressing medication. From that global and personal misery sprang a delightful series of storybooks for young people: Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), Rootabaga Country (1929), and Potato Face (1930). Sandburg also wrote two books of poems for children: Early Moon (1930) and Wind Song (1960).

The popularity of the Rootabaga books prompted Alfred Harcourt to suggest that Sandburg write a juvenile biography of Abraham Lincoln, whose life had fascinated Sandburg since his boyhood in Illinois, Lincoln’s home state. Eagerly setting to work on the proposed short book for young people, Sandburg soon became engrossed in thousands of Lincoln’s papers scattered throughout the country, most still in the hands of private individuals. His growing absorption in the Lincoln research quickly convinced Sandburg that he should write a full-fledged biography that would evoke not only Lincoln the tragic hero but the national spirit his life and death embodied.

With the appearance of the massive, two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926), Sandburg the poet was superseded by Sandburg the biographer, who made a small fortune from these bestselling books. He immediately set to work on a four-volume sequel, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which dominated his creative life until its completion in 1939. He received the Pulitzer Prize in history for The War Years.

In 1943 the most famous troubadour poet and Lincoln biographer in the United States was ready for another new challenge. He signed a lucrative contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Hollywood to write an epic, multigenerational American novel that would be converted into a motion picture. The movie was never made, but the novel, Remembrance Rock, published in 1948, was a popular if not a critical success.

Sandburg was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal in biography and history in 1952, one of numerous honors and awards, and settled down to finish writing his memoirs at “Connemara,” the beautiful 245-acre farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina, that he had purchased in 1945. By that time his wife had begun to breed champion dairy goats that needed wider grazing lands and a more temperate winter climate than their home on the dunes of Lake Michigan afforded. In 1953 Sandburg published Always the Young Strangers, the lyrical, autobiographical account of the first twenty years of his life. He was a much-honored American icon by then, an elder statesman who freely spoke his mind on contemporary issues and enjoyed the adulation of an international audience.

Sandburg set aside work on the second volume of his autobiography, Ever the Winds of Chance (posthumously published in 1983) to collaborate with his world-famous brother-in-law, Edward Steichen, on an unprecedented photographic exhibition, The Family of Man (1955). The work included 503 pictures gathered by Steichen from sixty-eight countries to serve as a “mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” In an era of Cold War and McCarthyism, this was a bold and courageous affirmation of the ideal of global community, as well as, for both Sandburg and Steichen, a culmination of the work of their lives. Steichen, then director of the Department of Photography for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog, which sold more than 5 million copies by the mid-1990s, and Sandburg wrote the prologue, recapitulating the themes that had animated his work for more than half a century. He celebrated the universal “toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers … workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers … landlords and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the brutal and the compassionate—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.”

In 1959 Sandburg gave a Lincoln Day address before a joint session of Congress and later in the year traveled with Steichen on a State Department tour to open The Family of Man exhibition in the Soviet Union. He lived in Hollywood during much of 1960, working as George Stevens’s creative consultant on The Greatest Story Ever Told, and he published his last book of poetry, Honey and Salt, in 1963. The next year he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To the end of his life, accolades continued to pour in, and he took special pride in the more than half a dozen public schools named in his honor.

Sandburg sized himself up in the preface to Complete Poems:

All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write. At sixty-five I began my first novel, and the five years lacking a month I took to finish it, I was still traveling, still a seeker. . . . It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did [the Japanese poet] Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: “If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer.”

Considered garrulous, sentimental, and dated by some, and powerful, original, and timeless by others, Sandburg spoke to and for the American century in which he lived and did his work. At the Carl Sandburg Memorial Ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 17 September 1967, nearly two months after Sandburg’s death at Connemara, poet Archibald MacLeish told President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and thousands of Sandburg’s fellow Americans that “with Sandburg it is the body of the work that weighs, the sum of it, a whole quite literally greater than the total of its parts… . Sandburg had a subject—and the subject was belief in man.”


The Carl Sandburg Collection at the University of Illinois Library in Urbana-Champaign is the major repository of Sandburg’s papers. Smaller collections of Sandburg papers exist at Connemara, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, now a national park, in Flat Rock, N.C. Other important Sandburg manuscript collections are housed at the University of Virginia and Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. Other major published works by Sandburg include Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928); Harvest Poems (1960); Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection, with Oliver R. Barrett (1949); Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow, with Paul Angle (1932); The Sandburg Range (1957); and Steichen the Photographer (1929). Sandburg’s daughters and granddaughter produced helpful editions of his work, as well as memoirs. See Margaret Sandburg, ed., Breathing Tokens (1978), for previously unpublished poems, and The Poet and the Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg (1987); Helga Sandburg, A Great and Glorious Romance (1978), Sweet Music: A Book of Family Reminiscence and Song, with a preface by Carl Sandburg (1963), and “ … Where Love Begins” (1989); and Paula Steichen, My Connemara (1969), and “Hyacinths and Biscuits,” in Carl Sandburg Home Handbook 117 (1982). Two important editions of Sandburg’s letters are Carl Sandburg, Philip Green Wright and the Asgard Press, comp. Joan St. C. Crane (1975), and The Letters of Carl Sandburg, ed. Herbert Mitgang (1968). A comprehensive biography is Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991). Other biographical studies include North Callahan, Carl Sandburg, Lincoln of Our Literature (1970); Richard Crowder, Carl Sandburg (1964); Gregory d’Alessio, Old Troubadour (1987); Karl Detzer, Carl Sandburg: A Study in Personality and Background (1941); Hazel Durnell, The America of Carl Sandburg (1966); and Harry Golden, Carl Sandburg (1961; repr. 1988). For an analysis of Sandburg’s controversial political journalism and poetry, consult Phillip Yanella, The Other Carl Sandburg (1996). Additional unpublished or uncollected Sandburg poems have been gathered in George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, eds., Carl Sandburg: Billy Sunday and Other Poems (1993) and Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems (1996). For a collection of Sandburg’s film criticism, see Dale and Doug Fetherling, eds., Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era, 1920–1927 (1985). For Carl Sandburg on Broadway, consult Norman Corwin, The World of Carl Sandburg (1961).