In “Notes for a Preface” to his Complete Poems, Carl Sandburg remarked,At fifty I had published a two-volume biography and The American Songbag, and there was puzzlement as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubadour with a guitar, a midwest Hans Christian Andersen, or a historian of current events whose newspaper reporting was gathered into a book The Chicago Race Riots.
That puzzlement has persisted since Sandburg’s death in the critical reevaluations of his career. Sandburg was by turns journalist, poet, biographer, folklorist, and children’s writer, and this is what makes it so difficult to assess his reputation. Was he a great poet, as Gay Wilson Allen has asked, or was he primarily a journalist and biographer? Somehow Sandburg’s stature seems greater than the quality of his individual works. Certainly he was a great communicator—as writer, poet, folk singer, and entertainer—whose poetry reached out to millions of Americans, and certainly he was, like his hero, Lincoln, a great spokesman for the common man. Sandburg had a particular genius for reaching out to ordinary people and touching their lives through his poetry and song. In his public performances, one felt the power of a dynamic personality, which helped establish the popularity of his poems.
During his lifetime, Sandburg published seven major volumes of poetry, and at his death, he left enough uncollected verse for an additional posthumous volume, Breathing Tokens, which was edited by his daughter Margaret. Contained in these volumes are more than a thousand free verse poems. In The People, Yes, he compiled a record of American folk wisdom, humor, and truisms which Willard Thorpe called “one of the great American books.” Besides his six-volume Lincoln biography, he completed biographies of his brother-in-law, the photographer Edward Steichen, and of Mary Todd Lincoln. His delightful children’s books, the most popular of which remains Rootabaga Stories (1922), were read and admired by many adults, including the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For many years, Sandburg was a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily News. In 1928, he was named Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poet, and he won the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 1940, in history, for his Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), and in 1951, in poetry, for his Complete Poems. He also received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for Cornhuskers. However, for many Americans, he is best recalled as the genial, white-haired folk singer and poet, the embodiment of folksy Americana.
Even though Sandburg was perhaps justly called “America’s best loved poet” during his...