Authors: Carl Sandburg

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet, biographer, journalist, and children's writer

January 6, 1878

Galesburg, Illinois

July 22, 1967

Flat Rock, North Carolina

Biography

Carl Sandburg, as an individual and a writer, seems distinctively American, belonging to a land where people are restless, inventive, jacks of all trades, where people rise to greatness from humble beginnings. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, Carl August was the second of seven children of August and Clara Anderson Sandburg. Legend says that his father, a blacksmith, changed his name from Johnson to Sandburg to avoid confusion with the other August Johnsons in Galesburg, but Carl himself (perhaps to increase the confusion) quoted his mother as saying the name was originally Danielson.

The restlessness of America came early to young Carl. His schooling was fitful, and at thirteen he began the first of many jobs that sound almost like a poetic cataloging from one of his own works: newsboy, milkman, bottle washer, scene shifter, potter’s helper, hobo, icehouse worker, and painter’s apprentice. The tour as a hobo (which included being punched in the jaw by a railroad brakeman) took him through Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. When he returned to Galesburg in 1898, he began wearing out his hands by sandpapering wood for a painter, but then the Maine was sunk in Havana harbor, war was declared against Spain, and the restless Sandburg joined Company C, Sixth Infantry, Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. The war took him to Puerto Rico and almost, but not quite, into battle.

Carl Sandburg

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(Library of Congress)

Returning once more to Galesburg, Sandburg entered Lombard College there. About that same time he began to write. He was editor in chief of the school paper and captain of the basketball team. Leaving Lombard without graduating (though the college later awarded him one of his many honorary degrees), he again roamed the United States, finally settling in Milwaukee as an organizer for the Wisconsin Socialist Democratic Party. In 1904 he published In Restless Ecstasy, a pamphlet of twenty-two poems that reveal the beginnings of his famous style. In 1908 he married Lillian Steichen, sister of the outstanding photographer Edward Steichen.

After several years as secretary to the mayor of Milwaukee, Sandburg moved to Chicago, his “City of the Big Shoulders,” where he became a newspaperman. However, the poet came along, too; in 1914 he published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine his poem “Chicago,” a rugged, hard-punching tribute. Following this success he produced volumes of poetry at regular intervals: Chicago Poems; Cornhuskers; Smoke and Steel; Slabs of the Sunburnt West; Good Morning, America; and The People, Yes. These poems show ties between Sandburg and nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman; Whitman, too, wrote about common Americans caught up in their common lives. Sandburg continued to make his living as a newspaperman. During World War I he was Stockholm correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Associates and later an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News.

In 1920 still another Sandburg emerged, the lecturer and singer of folk songs. Equipped with a voice as powerful and wide-ranging as his poetry, Sandburg gave performances in which he talked philosophy, read his poems, and sang American ballads. He collected these ballads in The American Songbag in 1927.

Another connection Sandburg had with Whitman was their common high regard for slain president Abraham Lincoln. Like Whitman, Sandburg focused one of his most famous works on Lincoln, in Sandburg’s case a mammoth biography of Lincoln. The rather flat characterization of Sandburg as biographer of Lincoln is inadequate, however. Without sacrificing his own individuality, Sandburg—by combining admiration and research—seemed to look at things as Lincoln did. Author and subject seem to blend in the poetic prose of Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (two volumes) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (four volumes). His biography brought him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. In 1954 he condensed the six volumes into one.

There were still other sides to this versatile, inventive writer. His Rootabaga Stories and Potato Face, full of the fanciful repetition that is so much a part of childhood, became classic stories for children. Perhaps because there seemed to be so few literary forms left to conquer, Sandburg tried a novel and in 1948 produced Remembrance Rock, a rambling saga of Americans from Plymouth days to the 1940’s. Always the Young Strangers, an autobiography, is an account of his early years written with charm and strength.

Honors came late to Sandburg, but they were many. Among them were his selection as a Phi Beta Kappa poet, the Litt.D. degree at Harvard University, the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. One of his most triumphant days came in 1953 on his seventy-fifth birthday. At a dinner in his honor the tributes included one from the homeland of his parents when he received Sweden’s Commander Order of the Northern Star. As a part of the general celebration, Sandburg returned to his birthplace, Galesburg, and read the poems and sang the ballads that had made him famous. Radio and television widened his audience even more; his deep voice and his craggy face, overhung by hair, penetrated the American living room.

Sandburg died on July 22, 1967, at the age of eighty-nine, in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He was survived by his wife, Lillian, and their three daughters, Margaret, Janet, and Helga. The year after his death, Sandburg's home was named a National Historic Site.

Author Works Poetry: In Restless Ecstasy, 1904 (as Charles A. Sandburg) Chicago Poems, 1916 Cornhuskers, 1918 Smoke and Steel, 1920 Slabs of the Sunburnt West, 1922 Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg, 1926 Good Morning, America, 1928 Early Moon, 1930 The People, Yes, 1936 Home Front Memo, 1943 (verse and prose) Chicago Poems: Poems of the Midwest, 1946 Complete Poems, 1950 Wind Song, 1960 Harvest Poems, 1910-1960, 1960 Honey and Salt, 1963 Breathing Tokens, 1978 (Margaret Sandburg, editor) Ever the Winds of Chance, 1983 (Margaret Sandburg and George Hendrick, editors) Long Fiction: Remembrance Rock, 1948 Nonfiction: The Chicago Race Riots, 1919 Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 1926 (2 volumes) Steichen the Photographer, 1929 Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow, 1932 (with Paul M. Angle) A Lincoln and Whitman Miscellany, 1938 Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 1939 (4 volumes) Storm over the Land: A Profile of the Civil War, 1942 The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, 1944 Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection, 1949 Always the Young Strangers, 1953 Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, 1954 The Sandburg Range, 1957 “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, February 12, 1959,” 1959 The Letters of Carl Sandburg, 1968 (Herbert Mitgang, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Rootabaga Stories, 1922 Rootabaga Pigeons, 1923 (republished as More Rootabaga Stories, 2003) Abe Lincoln Grows Up, 1928 Potato Face, 1930 Prairie-Town Boy, 1955 The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was in It, 1967 Edited Texts: The American Songbag, 1927 The New American Songbag, 1950 Bibliography Allen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. In this brief but informative pamphlet, Allen explains how Sandburg changed the course of American literature, despite the critical controversies about his work. Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. A literary biography. Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964. This insightful work aims to give details of Sandburg’s life that are relevant to his writing. Summarizes the prose and verse content of his major works, reviews the critics’ reception of each major work, analyzes the themes and craftsmanship in each volume, and appraises Sandburg’s achievement in American letters. Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Washington, D.C.: University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965. Durnell gives a chronological survey of Sandburg’s life and achievements, discusses aspects of American life in his writing, examines Sandburg’s place in American literature, and ends with a section on Sandburg and his critics. Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976. The editors of this work view all the three authors discussed as having stood outside the main currents of twentieth century poetry. The section on Sandburg examines the poet’s motives and methods, asserting the priority of populist traditions rather than intellectual values in his work. Sandburg is depicted as the preserver of traditions and ideals, rather than the breaker of new literary ground. Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Niven utilizes more than fifty thousand papers in the Sandburg Collection in Connemara, North Carolina, to chronicle Sandburg’s life from his birth into his maturity and fame. Includes sixteen pages of photographs. Salwak, Dale. Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A useful bibliographic reference, current through the late 1980’s. Yannella, Philip. The Other Carl Sandburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Yannella focuses on the articles Sandburg wrote during World War I for the International Socialist Review and uses this material to argue that the young Sandburg was a political opportunist and a far left radical.

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