Sandburg chose this site as the place where he could find both solitude and inspiration for his multifaceted examination of American life. The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site preserves Connemara, the 245-acre farm where Carl Sandburg and his family lived the last twenty-two years of his life. The farm consists of a twenty-two-room house, barns, sheds, pastures, woods, trails, two small lakes, a trout pond, flower and vegetable gardens, and an orchard.
Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
1928 Little River Road
Flat Rock, NC 28731
ph.: (828) 693-4178
Web site: www.nps.gov/carl/
Perhaps the best way to get both an idea of the literary approach of Carl Sandburg and a glimpse of pre-World War II America is to visit Sandburg’s chosen home in North Carolina.
Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His father, August Johnson, emigrated to America from Sweden and, upon encountering several August Johnsons in Galesburg, changed the family name to Sandburg. The Sandburgs were not rich, and only Carl’s mother, Clara, could read and write. Because of the economic needs of the family, Carl Sandburg went to work at the age of thirteen after only eight years of schooling. For the next few years, Sandburg worked at several odd jobs ranging from selling fruit on street corners to shining shoes and sweeping floors at a local barbershop. He later fondly recalled the barbershop job because it taught him the art of storytelling and familiarized him with the idiomatic phrases of the Midwest.
The year 1896 proved to be an important one in Sandburg’s life: He first heard the compelling oratory of William Jennings Bryan and began a lifelong commitment to populist ideas; he witnessed the celebration of the anniversary of an Abraham Lincoln-Stephen A. Douglas debate which had taken place in Galesburg forty years before, thus commencing a lifetime fascination with Lincoln memorabilia; and he made his first visit to Chicago, a city with which his name always would be identified. The following year, Sandburg traveled westward across the United States, riding the rails with hoboes, pitching wheat in Kansas, and keeping an informal notebook of his travels and of the songs and stories that he heard along the way. He returned to Galesburg, where he enlisted in the Illinois state militia and fought in a few skirmishes in the Spanish-American War.
Sandburg’s experiences in the Spanish-American War marked an important stage in his literary development. While he was stationed in the Caribbean, Sandburg sent home long letters that were published in the Galesburg Evening Mail. Upon his return, with discharge money in his pocket and the right to a year’s free tuition at Lombard, a local college, Sandburg enrolled as a special college student. Although he never graduated, he participated fully in assorted campus activities: He sang in the glee club, belonged to the debate club, captained the basketball team, was coeditor of the 1901 yearbook, and served as editor-in-chief of The Lombard Review.
By far the most important influence on his life at Lombard was Professor Philip Green Wright. Wright, who taught economics and math as well as English, encouraged Sandburg to continue his insatiable reading (Ivan Turgenev, Rudyard Kipling, Karl Marx, and others) and also encouraged him to perfect his writing and critical skills on Sunday afternoons in a group Wright dubbed “The Poor Writers Club.” Wright would be the first to publish a Sandburg collection, a small thirty-nine-page pamphlet titled In Reckless Ecstasy (1904). The title and the content of the pamphlet clearly revealed Sandburg’s literary signature; he always attempted to write sensibly, he wrote, but if that did not work, he would write with “reckless ecstasy.”
Sandburg inexplicably left the Lombard campus in 1902 and once more began to roam the United States, this time confining himself mainly to the northeast coast of the United States. He again rode the rails with the hoboes, getting arrested at one point and spending several days in a Pennsylvania county jail, but he also visited some of the large cities on the East Coast. He returned to Galesburg in 1904 and spent the next two years at various jobs, including stints as a police reporter and a town fireman. More important, however, was the renewal of his contact with Professor Wright. He left Galesburg in 1906 (returning for occasional visits over the years) and moved to Chicago.
For the next twenty-five years Sandburg’s life was interwoven with the threads of political and cultural life in the Midwest, with its nexus in Chicago. He began to give lectures, sponsored by a lyceum based in Chicago, and he became the associate editor of The Lyceumite. While in Chicago he met a state organizer for the Wisconsin Social-Democratic party and was soon deeply involved in the reform politics of that group. He also met Lillian Steichen, with whom he discussed the ideas of Victor Berger, the leading socialist in Wisconsin, and soon an intellectual encounter blossomed into romance. Lillian, whom he called “Paula,” was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a graduate of the University of Chicago and would act as a profound influence upon Sandburg’s literary as well as political decisions. It was she who encouraged him to write without worrying about a label, including the free verse poetry that flowed from his pen, noting that others could worry about labels while he should simply write. Sandburg returned to Chicago in 1912 after three years as private secretary to Emil Seidel, socialist mayor of Milwaukee, and took a job with the Day Book, an E. W. Scripps daily. Chicago was in the midst of a literary renaissance, and the “Chicago Group” included such notables as Sandburg, H. B. Fuller, Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. Harriet Monroe, in whose little magazine, Poetry, Sandburg’s first widely acclaimed writing was published, and Margaret Anderson, whose Little Review served as a vehicle for young writers, were prominent sponsors of the writings of the Chicago Group. Monroe published Sandburg’s poem Chicago, the opening lines of which at first shocked readers but soon became the anthem of his people’s verse.
Two years later, in 1916, Sandburg’s first book of poetry, Chicago Poems, was published. Many of the reviews were not favorable; one reviewer called Sandburg’s free-verse the work of a “mystical mobocrat.” His reputation and popularity, however, continued to grow, and the scope of his literature continued to broaden.
Following work in Sweden for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, Sandburg returned to Chicago in 1919 as special reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He served in that capacity for thirteen years and enjoyed the freedom to choose the topics about which he wished to write. His interests ranged from serving as a motion-picture editor to acting as observer and commentator on the Chicago race riots of 1919. The freedom to choose his topics also gave him more time to pursue other, non-newspaper interests, and he published the Rootabaga Stories (1922), a collection of children’s stories he had written for his daughters, took to the college lecture circuit, pieced together the lyrics and music to songs that he sang at his public appearances in The American Songbag (1927), and continued to collect material about his favorite interest, Abraham Lincoln.
His success as a lecturer, poet, newspaper reporter, writer of children’s stories, and, finally, author of a popular biography of the pre-presidential life of Abraham Lincoln called The Prairie Years(1926, two volumes), made it possible for Sandburg, his wife, and his extended family to purchase a farm in Harbert, Michigan, which served as a summer residence from 1926 to 1932 and a permanent residence from 1932 to 1945.
The activities that he pursued at Harbert from 1932 to 1945 were similar to the ones that he experienced in North Carolina during the last twenty-two years of his life; the literary productivity of those last years, however, was slightly more curtailed. His wife Paula became interested in raising goats and named the place Chicaming Goat Farm. The farm produced milk and yogurt for family and friends, and Sandburg’s life, if not his poetry, became more bucolic. Sandburg’s interest in Lincoln continued, culminating in Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939; 2 vols.), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and his public performances and literary awards continued.
In 1945, at the age of sixty-seven, Sandburg moved with his wife, daughters, grandchildren, Lincoln material, furniture, and Chicaming goats (which were shipped by express) to Flat Rock, North Carolina. There, at a 245-acre farm which had been named Connemara by its previous owner, Sandburg hoped to escape the harsh climate of Michigan and gain a semblance of the privacy he felt that he needed to complete his life. This would be the place where Sandburg would spend, as biographer Richard Crowder described, the “harvest years” of his life.
The farmhouse, a twenty-two-room white clapboard two-story structure which originally had been built in 1838, sits on a hill surrounded by pastures, woods, trails, small lakes, a trout pond, gardens, and an orchard. The National Park Service, which purchased the farm shortly after Sandburg’s death in 1967, has successfully preserved the house and its contents to closely resemble the appearance it had when Sandburg was alive. The downstairs consists of several rooms, the most notable of which is the twelve-foot by fifteen-foot living room with a grand piano, overstuffed chairs, bookcases, and magazines to which Sandburg subscribed. Downstairs there is also a library, a farm office, and a bedroom. Upstairs are two bedrooms and Sandburg’s workroom. The workroom contains the tools of his trade: reference works, books, a green eyeshade that he always used when he wrote, and an old typewriter.
Connemarra has something for every member of the family. Children will enjoy the goats, which still roam the farm, the family will enjoy the trails, and those interested in getting a glimpse of the people’s bard will not be disappointed.
Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. Boston: Twayne, 1964. A brief biography that summarizes most of the events of Sandburg’s life. Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. The result of fourteen years of research, this biography concludes that Sandburg’s life was probably more important than his literary output. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926. The first major biographical work on Lincoln, originally contracted as a children’s book and expanded into an adult biography. _______. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. 4 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939. A continuation of the life of Lincoln, these volumes follow his career as president. It was awarded the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in Biography. _______. Always the Young Strangers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953. An autobiographical account of the first twenty years of Sandburg’s life. _______. The American Songbag. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927. Songs, both the words and music, which were often sung by Sandburg at his public lectures. _______. Complete Poems. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950. Also contains a “New Section.” _______. The New American Songbag. New York: Broadcast Music, 1950. A collection of forty of the songs from the 1927 publication and an addition of several other songs collected since that book. _______. Rootabaga Country. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929. A selection of several of the fantastic stories that Sandburg had improvised for his daughters and later formally written.