Carl Sandburg was a truly American writer. Not only because every poem he wrote dealt with life the United States, or because his greatest work of prose was a three-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, or because he collected and published a book of American folk songs. It was also because Sandburg was a man of great social conscience who made himself a voice of compassion for the poor farmers, the lowly factory workers, the struggling milkmen, the desperate "working girls."
Carl SandburgAl Ravenna/World Telegram [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
|Who shall speak for the people?
who has the answers?
where is the sure interpreter?
who knows what to say?
--From "The People, Yes"
Sandburg came from a poor family himself. Although he was extremely intelligent, he knew that his parents would never have the money to send him to college, and so he left school at the age of fourteen. With neither regrets nor reservations, he set out to help his family by learning "a trade." He worked as a milkman, a barber, and as a pharmacy clerk in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. When, at age seventeen, he longed to see more of the country, he set out by rail to become a wandering laborer.
Travelling from city to city, he took jobs wherever he could, working throughout the midwestern states as a farmhand or a dishwasher. Sometimes he got paid in money, sometimes he accepted food for payment. Between cities he hopped freight trains--"hoboing" as they called it then. He met a lot of interesting people. It was a fine preparation for writing poetry.
He returned to Illinois, "changed...easier about looking people in the eye....deep in my heart now I had hope as never before. Struggles lay ahead, I was sure, but whatever they were I would not be afraid of them." He found a new struggle at the age of twenty, when the Spanish Government blew up the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana Harbor, and thousands of young men joined the army to "throw the Spanish government out of Cuba and let the people of Cuba have their republic."
I have thought of beaches, fields,
I have thought of homes put up-
And blown away.
I have thought of meetings and for
Every meeting a good-by.
I have thought of stars going alone,
Orioles in pairs, sunsets in blundering
I have wanted to let go and cross over
to a next star, a last star.
I have asked to be left a few tears
And some laughter.
--From Good Morning, America
Sandburg did not have the money to go to college, and did not expect to go. However, he did everything he could to educate himself. He felt very lucky when one of his friends found a way for him to attend Lombard, a local college, on a full scholarship. He studied literature. It was during this time that he published his first book of poems, In Reckless Ecstasy. It was then that he met Lilian Steichen, whom he married. He began his professional life as a reporter for the Wisconsin newspaper Milwaukee Leader and became very active in local politics: he believed that every single person deserved to have a good life, not just the rich and the powerful. Sandburg continued to write, travel, and meet other writers; he led the paragon of a literary life. He produced many books of poetry and nonfiction. He also wrote stories for kids that had fascinating titles such as Rootabaga Stories, Early Moon, and Potato Face.
Long after his death, Sandburg is still a hero to many Americans. Every April his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois throws a "Sandburg Festival." One of his former homes has been turned into a state park, another into a national historic site. There's even a college named after him. Lilian Steichen's brother, Edward, was a photographer: he was constantly taking pictures of Sandburg, which is why there are so many flattering portraits of him, and even a picture book about his life.
Did Carl Sandburg have a hero himself? It seems as though he had many. In his autobiography he names one of his old bosses, a milkman with a good sense of humor, as his hero. In the same book he also frequently mentions Abraham Lincoln in heroic terms, and the fact that he dedicated years to writing Lincoln's biography confirms Sandburg's high estimation of the former President. But there were others as well, possibly too many to name. Carl Sandberg once wrote a eulogy for his college teacher and mentor, Professor Philip Wright:
Philip Green Wright will always be a momentous figure to me... I had four years of almost daily contact with him at college, for many years visited him as often as possible, and there was never a time when he did not deepen whatever reverence I had for the human mind. He was a great man and teacher in his profound influence on the potential young men with whom he came in contact. Many of these will always bless his memory and keep it green.