Last reviewed: June 2017
American poet, biographer, journalist, and children's writer
January 6, 1878
July 22, 1967
Flat Rock, North Carolina
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
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.