Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Carl Sandburg’s six-volume Abraham Lincoln is a monumental work on a monumental theme: the life, works, and times of a symbolic American of history and legend. Sandburg sets Abraham Lincoln against a tremendous movement of history as he tells simultaneously, on different levels, the story of a man, a war, an age, and a people. In the end the qualities that set this work apart seem appropriate and significant. Lincoln, that ungainly, complex, humorous, melancholy, and serenely sad man, was also one of the great solitaries.

When Abraham Lincoln: The War Years appeared in 1939, more than one reviewer commented on the happy conjunction of the perfect writer and the perfect subject. In Sandburg’s case there is more truth in this critical generalization than in most, for he brought to his tremendous task a greater familiarity with the regional and folk aspects of Lincoln’s life than anyone had possessed since Lincoln’s day. In the late nineteenth century there was still no wide gap between Sandburg’s boyhood in Galesburg, Illinois, and Lincoln’s young years in the Sangamon River country. Familiar with New Salem, Vandalia, Springfield, and other landmarks of Lincoln’s early life, the Swedish immigrant’s son had known the men and women of Lincoln’s day and had listened to their stories. Poet, fabulist, folklorist, and singer of the American Dream, Sandburg felt in time that the Lincoln story had become a part of himself, not in the sense of blind hero worship but as evidence of the believable reality and fulfilled promise of American life.

More than thirty years of preparation, research, and writing went into the two divisions of Abraham Lincoln. At first Sandburg had in mind a history of Lincoln as the prairie lawyer and politician, but as the writer’s investigations continued he realized that his book was outgrowing its projected length and purpose. Sandburg’s increasing desire to tell all the facts of Lincoln’s life as they existed in books already published, in documentary records, and in the memories of men and women finally led him to divide his material into two parts, the first a story of the country boy and lawyer-politician, the second an account of Lincoln in the White House.

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years was published in 1926. In these two volumes Sandburg deals with the more legendary aspects of the Lincoln story: boyhood days and backwoods life; a young man’s journeys down the Mississippi River; Lincoln’s education, mostly self-taught, in grammar, mathematics, surveying, debate, and law; the years of clerking in grocery stores and working at odd jobs; military service in the Black Hawk War; his relations with Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, and Mary Todd; his law practice; and his early political career. This material is presented with a wealth of anecdote—stories about Lincoln and by him—so that it resembles at times an anthology of Lincoln lore. This period of Lincoln’s life lends itself at times to fabulous or lyric treatment of which Sandburg the poet takes full advantage. There are passages that read like poetry, sentences and paragraphs that celebrate the beauty of nature and the mystery and wonder of life, yet these occasional flights of poetic fancy are held within bounds by realistic portrayal and strict regard for fact. In these volumes Sandburg’s Lincoln emerges as a man of the people but no hero in the ordinary sense. Circumstances had shaped him into a man of vision and resource, but he was also a troubled, threatened, doubted man when he left Springfield in 1861 on the eve of his inauguration as president of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was published in four volumes thirteen years later, in 1939. In the meantime Sandburg had traveled widely to gather material from every available source; read extensively in histories, biographies, newspapers, pamphlets, diaries, letters, and handbills; looked at pictures and cartoons; collected memorabilia of every sort; and written steadily while he studied, pondered, and re-created—in effect, relived—Lincoln’s life...

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Abraham Lincoln Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. Brief but useful introduction to Sandburg’s life and creative career. Includes references to the poet’s biographical studies of Abraham Lincoln.

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987. Provides an overview of Sandburg’s career and critical readings of his poems; offers a complete discussion of Sandburg’s works on Lincoln.

_______. Carl Sandburg: Lincoln of Our Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1970. A critical biography of Sandburg that focuses, in large part, upon the nature of the poet’s interest in Abraham Lincoln’s life and writings.

Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964. Excellent overview of Sandburg’s life and literary career. The chapters “Lincoln and America” and “The People and the Union” recount and interpret the development of Sandburg’s publications on Lincoln. Notes that Sandburg was as interested in Lincoln the myth as he was in the historical personage, which accounts for the unique power of Sandburg’s biographical works on the president.

Cullen, Jim. “’A Tree Is Best Measured When It’s Down’: Carl Sandburg, James Randall, and the Usable Pasts of Abraham Lincoln.” In The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. Describes how Sandburg’s recollections of Lincoln were shaped by contemporary concerns and perspectives.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. First-rate critical biography of Sandburg, with a section on “The Lincoln Years.” Discusses the nature of Sandburg’s interest in and identification with Lincoln. One of the best single works to date on Sandburg and his literary career.

Wooley, Lisa. “Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay: Composite Voices of the Open Road.” In American Voices of the Chicago Renaissance. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. Describes how the two poets used language to convey simplicity, democracy, and Americanness—characteristics associated with Chicago’s literary renaissance.