Sandburg, Carl (Vol. 10)
Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967
Sandburg was a poet, biographer, novelist, children's author, and folklorist who is often considered to have captured the essence of America in his works. He recorded and celebrated the history of the American people in such free-verse poems as "Chicago" and The People, Yes, works which reflect his respect and hope for the common man. Sandburg's own background provided a basis for his strong populist feeling. The son of illiterate immigrant parents, he traveled through the Midwest as a self-styled hobo, working a variety of odd jobs before becoming an organizer for the Socialist party and a Chicago newspaperman. Early in life Sandburg began to accumulate material on Abraham Lincoln, the result of which was an exhaustive, monumental six-volume biography for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939. He wrote a novel, Remembrance Rock, and tales for children, The Rootabaga Stories, and also collected and performed national folk songs. Sandburg's second Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1951 for his Collected Poems. In his poetry Sandburg often presented his images in the language of America, using colloquial and idiomatic lines and phrases which are both colorful and eloquent. Although his poetry has been criticized as being "subliterary," its readers have recognized themselves and their land in it. Sandburg was perhaps the most representative spokesman for Americans among the literary figures of his lifetime. In his eulogy, Lyndon Johnson said, "Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America…. He was America." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Gay Wilson Allen
A prominent theme in Chicago Poems is the longing of ordinary people for the beauty and happiness they have never known. This clutching at dreams was not a creation of Sandburg's fantasy, but a social phenomenon which he accurately observed. (p. 18)
A more cheerful theme in Chicago Poems is the laughter and joy workmen manage to find in spite of their toil and poverty. (p. 19)
In the use of slang and undignified language Sandburg achieved in actuality the theory which Wordsworth set forth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads: to "present incidents and situations from common life … in a selection of language really used by men …" Sandburg's poems are also more realistic than Wordsworth's, or even naturalistic (in the Zola sense), as in "The Walking Man of Rodin," with "The skull found always crumbling neighbor of the ankles." Yet Sandburg is also just as definitely romantic in his ability to see beauty in the commonplace. "The Shovel Man," for example, is
A dago working for a dollar six bits a day
And a dark-eyed woman in the old country dreams of him for one of the world's ready men with a pair of fresh lips and a kiss better than all the wild grapes that ever grew in Tuscany.
(The entire section is 1519 words.)
[Vachel] Lindsay once said that "the people of America walk through me, all the people walk through my veins, as though they were in the streets of a city, and clamor for voice." But it was Carl Sandburg …, even more than Lindsay, who wrote the poetry whose underlying intention is suggested by these words. His legacies to later poets were his "report of the people," as William Carlos Williams called it, and his flexible, inventive, and scrapbook methods of presentation. His work provoked bitter controversy. To admirers he seemed to give poetry purpose and relevance and to liberate its technique. (p. 356)
The Chicago Poems were a shock to most readers. The title poem created a myth of the city as a strong man, a sweating worker, and rejoiced in his brutal strength. Other poems pictured the urban and industrial milieu. Sandburg underscored the contrast of the slums with the wealthy homes along the lakeshore; he pictured such sights as the skyscrapers looming in the smoke…. He tended especially to give portraits or brief accounts of typical characters….
Here was a directly phrased poetry of the contemporary world. It gave sights and sounds. It showed people at work. It had something to say about the character and quality of their lives. It dwelt on the romance in the familiar and it enforced a political and social message by concrete contrasts. (p. 357)
Sandburg did not merely describe the...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
[Sandburg's] way of using language can be deceptive. It is much like prose in its syntax, and the colloquial vocabulary adds to an apparent casualness. In his best poetry Sandburg uses vernacular language, slang even; by this I mean that in Sandburg's instance it isn't the self-conscious employment of a "low" vocabulary to call attention to commonness, a vaunting of plebeian virtue (though later in his career Sandburg was prone to do just this, ad nauseam). An expression such as "the crack trains of the nation" is an organic part of his vocabulary, not an affectation, and he employs the adjective because it is simply the appropriate word to image what he wishes to convey about the train. As such it provides precisely the intensification of language, the heightened awareness of the texture of experience, that the best poetry affords.
I stress this because unless the way in which Sandburg employs vernacular imagery is properly recognized, his way of poetry will be misunderstood. If we compare, for example, "Limited" [in Chicago Poems (1916)] with another fine poem about a train, Stephen Spender's "Express," we can see the difference. Spender writes of "the black statement of pistons," portrays the train as "gliding like a queen," as "gathering speed" so that "she acquires mystery," and so on, until "like a comet through flames she moves entranced," and as conclusion: "Wrapt in her music, no bird song, no, nor...
(The entire section is 2103 words.)