“Trying to write briefly about Carl Sandburg is like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black-and-white snapshot,” wrote his friend and biographer Harry Golden. Here’s one such snapshot.
Sandburg was a journalist, poet, folk musician, and fierce advocate for the working class. He published more than forty books and was awarded three Pulitzer prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The son of Swedish immigrants, he was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1878. He quit school after eighth grade to help support the family, taking work where he could find it: delivering milk, laying bricks.
The bug for travel caught him early. At nineteen, Sandburg hopped a freight train headed west, living as a hobo. After nearly half a year of this vagabond life, he enlisted, serving eight months in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. At the armistice, he returned to Galesburg, enrolling in the local college, where he began, seriously, to write. A professor published Sandburg’s first book of poetry, on his own printing press.
He left college without a degree. “I’m an idealist,” he wrote. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” Once again, he took to the road, selling stereoscopic pictures and giving paid lectures.
Sandburg distrusted organized religion. “There is a great difference between Christianity and churchianity,” he wrote. “You can follow Christ without playing tag with the coattails of an ordained preacher.” He wrote a poem excoriating the popular evangelist Billy Sunday, who is said to have shot back: “He sounds to me like a Red.”
His writing, though, betrays a wrestling with the God who made him, and made America too. “Lay me on an anvil, O God,” he wrote in one poem. “Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar. / Let me pry loose old walls. Let me lift and loosen old foundations.”
In 1907, Sandburg got a job with the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party, advocating for government reform, the prohibition of child labor and the protection of women in the workplace, a graduated income tax, free medical care for the unemployed, city ownership of utilities, and better working conditions for all.
The evening of his first day of work, December 29, a woman called Lilian Steichen, a dedicated party member and translator of socialist pamphlets, stopped by headquarters to say goodbye to friends on her way back to her teaching job after Christmas. They talked, he saw her to the door, he got her address. In response to his first letter, she wrote:
Do tell me how you contrive to be a moral philosopher and a political agitator at one and the same time – and especially how you contrive to write such poet’s English one minute and the plain vernacular the next. The combination is baffling.
Over the next months, they wrote constantly. “The soul of you,” Carl wrote to her, “all that sea of surging thought & tinted dreams that is in you, all the sky of love and earth of beauty in you, I know from your letters.”
He had been writing under the anglicized version of his name, Charles; she convinced him to write under his baptismal name. Once, he told her that he was considering giving up poetry. She protested: “You discover to me the only poetry that has ever satisfied me since I learned to think twentieth century thoughts.” They were married in June 1908.
Sandburg worked for several newspapers, and kept writing poetry. His realistic portrayals of the lives of working people and his use of familiar words brought him a devoted audience. “Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes,” he wrote in 1923. “Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration. Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.”
The couple and their growing family – they would eventually have three daughters – moved to Chicago, where Sandburg worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. His reporting of the Chicago race riots of 1919 garnered him nationwide appreciation.
“There is a great difference between Christianity and churchianity.”
The 1920s brought more books of poetry, children’s stories, and a two-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg had known Civil War veterans who remembered the president, and had met people who’d been at the fifth Lincoln–Douglas debate, held at his college. “Sprinkled through the speeches of Lincoln,” Sandburg wrote, “were stubby, homely words that reached out and made plain, quiet people feel that perhaps behind them was a heart that could understand them.” The description could have been of Sandburg himself.
On his lecture tours, he would sing American folk songs he’d gathered in his travels, accompanying himself on the guitar. Lloyd Lewis, a newspaper colleague, wrote that when Sandburg sang, “you see farmhands wailing their lonely ballads, hillbillies lamenting over drowned girls, levee hands in the throes of the blues, cowboys singing down their herds, barroom loafers howling for sweeter women, Irish section hands wanting to go home.… The characters are real as life, only more lyric than life ever quite gets to be.”
Throughout the next decades, he kept writing, kept speaking, responding to each national moment as the troubadour and advocate of the American people. During World War II, he worked on foreign broadcasts for the Office of War Information. The next decades found him in Moscow as a cultural envoy for the State Department; in Washington, DC, meeting with John F. Kennedy in the White House; and participating in the civil rights movement.
He died on July 22, 1967, at his home in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He once observed: “I’ll probably die propped up in bed trying to write a poem about America.” That was more or less correct.
“Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson, on hearing of his death. “He was America.”
See the visual interpretation of Sandburg’s poem “Buffalo Dusk” by Julian Peters.