Carl Sandburg

As a child of an immigrant couple, Carl Sandburg was barely American himself,
yet the life, which he had lived, has defined key aspects of our great country,
and touched the hearts and minds of her people. Sandburg grew up in the American
Midwest, yet spent the majority of his life traveling throughout the states. The
country, which would define his style of poetry and his views of society,
government, and culture, would equally be defined by his writing, lecturing, and
the American dream he lived: The dream of becoming successful with only an idea
and the will to use it. Historically, Sandburg’s most defining poetic element is
his free verse style. His open views towards American democracy, labor, and war
earned him great respect, and even greater criticism. He was considered one of
America’s finest poets during his lifetime; moreover, he is now renowned as one
of America’s greatest poets of all time (Niven 388-406). August, his father, on
a typical hard labor job expected from an immigrant male raising a family in the
early nineteen hundreds. Odd jobs helped Carl support his family when he was
forced to work at the young age of thirteen. Although raised poor, Carl aspired
to travel the country and it’s cities. He accomplished this goal with great help
from the American rail system (Niven 388-392). Sandburg went on to become a
great and successful writer for several newspapers as well as author to many
books of poetry. After brief political success, Carl left office to write for
Milwaukee’s paper, “The Social Democratic Herald” in 1911. Then, just
a few years later, Sandburg starts work at the “Chicago Daily
News”(Niven 392-393). After a friend, Alfred Harcourt, risked his job to
get Sandburg published for the first time, Sandburg’s career took off. Even
despite massive criticism based only on his political views, Sandburg sold
thousands of books and became highly acclaimed (Lowell, 3012-3014). On January
12, 1920, Untemeyer, a writer for New York’s “New Republic” claims
that Sandburg is one of the two greatest living poets of the times (Macleigh
3018). Sandburg wrote a landmark six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. A
consummate platform performer, he roamed the United States for nearly a half
century, guitar in hand, collecting and singing American folk songs. For his own
children and children everywhere he wrote Rootabaga Stories, and Rootabaga
Pigeons, some of the first authentic American fairy tales. He was a journalist
by trade; his newspaper reportage and commentary documented labor, racial, and
economic strife and other key events of his times. But Carl Sandburg was first
and foremost a poet, writing poems about America in the American idiom for the
American people. The titles of his volumes of poetry testify to his major
themes: Chicago Poems, Cornhuskers, Smoke and Steel, Good Morning, America, The
People, Yes. (Niven 399-400) Sandburg’s vision of the American experience was
shaped in the American Midwest during the complicated events that brought the
nineteenth century to a close. His parents were Swedish immigrants who met in
Illinois, where they had settled in search of a share of American democracy and
prosperity (Macleigh, 3016-3018). August Sandburg helped to build the first
cross-continental railroad, and in the twentieth century his son Carl was an
honored guest on the first cross-continental jet flight. August Sandburg was a
blacksmith’s helper for the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg,
Illinois, when his son was born on 6 January 1878 in a small cottage a few steps
away from the roundhouse and railroad yards. Carl August Sandburg was the second
child first son of the hardworking Sandburgs. He grew up speaking Swedish and
English, and, eager to be assimilated into American society, he Americanized his
name. In 1884 or 1885, “somewhere in the first year or two of school,”
he began to call himself Charles rather than the Swedish Carl because he had
said “the name Carl would mean one more Poor Swede Boy while the name
Charles filled the mouth and had ’em guessing (Niven 401-405) There were
seven children in the Sandburg family, and the two youngest sons died of
diphtheria on the same day in 1892. Charles Sandburg had to leave school at age
thirteen to work at a variety of odd jobs to supplement the family income. As a
teenager he was restless and impulsive, hungry for experience in the world
beyond the staid, introverted prairie town, which had always been his. At age
eighteen, he borrowed his father’s railroad pass and had his first look at
Chicago, the city of his destiny. In 1897 Sandburg joined the corps of more than
60,000 hoboes who found the American railroads an exhilarating if illicit free
ride from one corner of the United States to another. For three and a half
months of his nineteenth year he traveled through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas,
Nebraska, and Colorado, working on farms, steamboats, and railroads, blacking
stoves, washing dishes, and listening to the American vernacular, the idiom that
would permeate his poetry (Niven 404-405). The journey left Sandburg with a
permanent wanderlust. He volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898 and
served in Puerto Rico from until late August. As a veteran, he received free
tuition for a year at Lombard College in Galesburg and enrolled there in October
1898. He was offered a conditional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at
West Point, New York, on the basis of his Spanish-American War service, but in
June 1899 failed entrance examinations in arithmetic and grammar. He returned to
Lombard, where he studied until May of 1902, when he left college without enough
credits for graduation (Niven, 398-400). From 1910 until 1912 Carl and Paula
Sandburg lived in Milwaukee, where Sandburg was instrumental in the Milwaukee
Socialists’ unprecedented political in 1910. When Emil Seidel was elected
Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor in that year, Sandburg, then thirty-two, was
appointed his secretary. Sandburg left city hall in 1911 to write for Victor
Berger’s Social Democratic Herald in Milwaukee. In June 1911 the Sandburgs
first child, Margaret, was born. A daughter died at birth in 1913; Janet was
born in 1916, and Helga was born in 1918. In 1912 the Sandburgs moved to
Chicago, where Sandburg joined the staff of the Socialist Chicago Evening World,
which had expanded in the wake of a pressman’s strike that closed most other
Chicago newspapers. Once the strike was settled, the World went out of business,
and Sandburg work with small periodicals such as the business magazine System
and Day Book, an addles daily newspaper owned by W.E. Scripps. He contributed
occasional articles to the International Socialist Review, often using the Jack
Phillips. Sandburg struggled to find an outlet for his poetry and enough income
to support his young family. His fortunes turned in 1914 when Harriet Monroe of
Poetry published six of his radical, muscular poems in the March issue of her
forward-looking journal. This first significant recognition of his work brought
him into the Chicago literary circle (Lowell, 3013-3015) Carl Sandburg found his
subject in the American people and the American landscape; he found his voice,
after a long, lonely search and struggle, in the vivid, candid economy of the
American vernacular. (Niven 406) He worked his way to an individual free-verse
style, which spoke clearly, directly, and often crudely to the audience which
was also his subject. His poetry celebrated and consoled people in their
environments–the crush of the city, the enduring solace the prairie. In his
work for the Day Book, the Chicago Daily News, and the Newspaper Enterprise
Association (NEA), Sandburg had become a skilled investigative reporter with
passionate social concerns. He covered war, racial, lynching, mob violence, and
the inequities of the industrial society, such as child labor, and disease and
injury induced in the workplace. These concerns were transmuted into poetry.

Chicago Poems offered bold, realistic portraits of working men, women, and
children; of the “inexplicable fate” of the vulnerable struggling
human victims of war, progress, and business. “Great men, pageants of war
and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children–these all I,
and felt the solemn thrill of them,” Sandburg wrote in “Masses.”
(Sherwood, 3022-3024) Sandburg’s themes in Chicago Poems reflect his Socialistic
idealism and pragmatism, but they also contain a wider humanism, a profound
affirmation of common man, the common destiny, the common tragedies and joys of
life. Just as Sandburg’s subject matter transcended that of conventional poetry,
his free verse form was unique, original, and controversial. Some critics found
his forms “shapeless” and questioned whether Sandburg’s work was
poetry at all. (Sherwood, 3022) Sandburg transmuted the harsh reality of his
times into poetry, and the emerging volume, Smoke and Steel (1920), was
dedicated to his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen. As in preceding volumes,
Sandburg vividly depicts the daily toil of the workingman and woman, “the
people who must sing or die.” The smoke of spring fields, autumn leaves,
steel mills, and battleship is the emblem and extension of “the blood of a
man,” the life force which under girds the industrial society and the
larger human brotherhood: “Deep down are the cinders we came from–/ You
and I and our heads of smoke,” he wrote in the title poem. Sandburg’s
American landscape broadens in Smoke and Steel from Chicago and the prairie to
specific scenes in places such as Gary, Indiana; Omaha; Cleveland; Kalamazoo;
Far Rockaway; the Blue Ridge; New York. In all of these places Sandburg found a
common theme, the struggle of the common man, the quest of the “finders in
the dark.” “I hear America, I hear, what do I hear?” he wrote in
“The Sins of Kalamazoo.” (Lowell 3012-3014) Throughout his life, Carl
Sandburg influenced the lives of many Americans. He didn’t just define American
poetry; he defined America through his views on the world’s culture and society.

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Although growing up as a child of immigrants, Carl was very successful and
proved that the ever-present “American Dream” can happen and has
happened before. The poetry that made him famous was unique and original on its
own, yet this did not make him an American influence. His views on politics were
different than most people’s views, yet his beliefs and his understanding of the
democratic system allowed him to express his doubts and express his concerns for
the American people. This allowed others to take an honest look at the American
way of life and it’s flaws. Sandburg was, put simply, An American Influence.

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