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Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) published a collection of poems in 1914 called Chicago Poems. The first poem in the collection was titled, aptly, “Chicago.”
The city has long been characterized as a blue-collar area, and as such it has a rough and tumble reputation regarding business, crime, and politics. As America was industrializing and urbanizing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many people felt that the problems associated with urban centers like Chicago outweighed the economic progress they helped create and develop.
Sandburg’s poem is a reaction against that sentiment. Sandburg himself called the poem, “A chant of defiance by Chicago.” While the poem acknowledges problems with the city, its overall message is that Chicago is a prosperous, energetic, and creative town.
A look at the imagery in the poem certainly reveals a “masculine” flavor. The first five lines set this masculine tone:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player of Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
In the lines above, Sandburg mentions several blue-collar jobs that would normally be filled by men: “butcher,” “tool maker,” and “stacker.” He also personifies the city in male terms with “husky,” and “Big Shoulders.”
When Sandburg does refer to women in the poem, they are not a part of the vitality of the city. Instead, they are either criminals, as in line 6:
“I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.”
Or weak and vulnerable, as in line 8:
“On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”
Later in the poem, Sandburg refers to Chicago as a “tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.” This line contrasts Chicago with smaller, quieter towns, mocking them as “little” and “soft.” The tall bold slugger continues the masculine imagery.
Finally, late in the poem he uses direct personification to depict the city in male terms with the use of the possessive pronoun “his”:
From line 18: Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth
Line 21: Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people
The masculine tone and emphasis in the poem shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. American society was still largely dominated by males, and in 1914, when the poem was published, women were still six years away from gaining the right to vote.
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