Carl Sandburg Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111201154-Sandburg.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A prolific writer of verse and prose for adults and children, Sandburg extended the poetic techniques of free verse and glorified the American working person as its subject. He also sought to revitalize the biographical format by making it more human.

Early Life

Second of seven children, Carl August Sandburg grew up in Abraham Lincoln country in Illinois, absorbing the Lincoln lore and the hotly argued local politics. During the Panic of 1893, fourteen-year-old Sandburg dropped out of school after finishing eighth grade to help his family financially. He did not get along with his austere Swedish immigrant father but shared his mother’s love of books, learning, and word play.

In 1897, at the age of nineteen, a restless Sandburg headed West and became infatuated with the lifestyles of “gay-cats” or hoboes, who exchanged songs and stories around campfires. As he worked in the wheat fields of Kansas, chopped wood, and washed dishes along the way, he filled his pocket journal with the lingo of strangers, memorable stories, and plaintive songs of the road. His travels made him identify with working-class people and the displaced, alerted him to critical social problems of the 1890’s, and provided materials for his later poetry and prose. Unwilling to settle down, Sandburg volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War (1898-1899), which left within him a lifelong hatred of war.

As an 1899 war veteran entitled to free college tuition, Sandburg entered Lombard College in Galesburg despite not having earned a high school diploma. From 1899 to 1902, Sandburg became a good student, excelling in basketball and developing a passion for literature. He identified, in particular, with American poet Walt Whitman and imitated Whitman’s free verse (poetry without predictable rhyme, meter, or format). Sandburg left Lombard College in 1902 without graduating because he took only “interesting” courses rather than those counting toward graduation. Before he left, however, he came under the tutelage of Professor Philip Wright who, recognizing Sandburg’s poetic talents, later privately published Sandburg’s early poems in the collection In Reckless Ecstasy (1904).

Between 1902 and 1908, Sandburg became a vagrant, a peddler, a fireman, a lecturer, and a writer. As he roamed the country, he stored observations in his notebooks, studied experimental poetry, and wrote biting newspaper columns on strikes, sweatshops, and socialism. In 1907, he organized workers for the Socialist Party and spoke on street corners about needed government reforms, women’s rights, and child-labor exploitation. Sandburg began a six-month courtship with schoolteacher Lilian Steichen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, resulting in marriage in 1908.

In constant need of money for his growing family, Sandburg increased his hectic pace—campaigning for socialist candidates, doing investigative journalism, lecturing, and selling advertising. From 1912 until the late 1920’s, Sandburg worked as a newspaperman and movie critic, primarily in Chicago, Illinois. Late nights found him tinkering with his unconventional poems, which, when submitted to professional magazines, were rejected by unimpressed editors because they did not follow traditional expectations. Tall, gaunt, and with serious eye problems, Sandburg struggled to find his poetic niche, encouraged only by his wife.

Life’s Work

In 1913, a disheartened, thirty-six-year-old Sandburg sent a batch of his rejected poems about corrupt, energetic Chicago to a new magazine, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Editor Harriet Monroe of Poetry—startled by Sandburg’s unorthodox poetic forms, hard style, and original subject matter, which ranged from brutal images to lyrical beauty—published his poems in March, 1914. Some Chicagoans hated Sandburg’s unflattering portrait of Chicago and protested his “hog butcher” school of poetry, while others saw him as a rebel assaulting traditional poetry and weaving virility with tenderness. As a rising poet, Sandburg joined the Chicago School, a circle of American writers and poets around Chicago from 1912 to 1925 that included Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Theodore Dreiser. Sandburg also won the Levinson Prize in 1914 for the best American poems. After long years of apprenticeship and failure, Sandburg found success.

In 1916, Sandburg’s first commercially published volume—Chicago Poems, which celebrated working people’s loves, struggles, and tragedies—garnered good reviews and established him as the poet of industrial Chicago. Sandburg served as special correspondent for a news organization in 1917 in Sweden and Norway, ferreting out information on the Finnish and Russian revolutions during World War I. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Sandburg shifted from attacking the lunacy of war in his prose and poetry to supporting the United States’ war efforts. After the war, he worked for the Chicago Daily News, writing columns and covering labor-management disputes. Sandburg’s second book of poetry, Cornhuskers (1918)—a...

(The entire section is 2128 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Carl Sandburg was born to Swedish- American parents on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois, a prairie town that attracted large numbers...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sandburg was the first modern poet to use the language of the American people extensively in his work. For this reason alone, he deserves a place in American literary history. Although his work is not always polished, he achieved at times an enduring art. His best poems convey the vigor and brokenness of industrialization, the quaintness of small towns, and the transience of nature and love. His vision encompassed both the light and the dark. His best poems captured a part of the essence of his time and enlarged the potentials of language and subjects for other modern poets.

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Carl Sandburg was the son of Swedish immigrants who settled in Illinois. He attended public schools until the age of thirteen, then he began a long series of varied jobs, including carpenter’s assistant, dishwasher, and house painter. His experiences as a common laborer exemplify one side of Sandburg’s writings: the noisy, brash representation of the laboring classes, of which Chicago Poems (1916) is the best example.

As a student under the tutelage of Philip Green Wright at Lomard College, Sandburg published his first book, a paperbound pamphlet of thirty-nine pages titled In Reckless Ecstasy (1904). In 1907-1908, Sandburg worked for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party, then began writing for...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Carl August Sandburg was born on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois, the second of five children in the family of August and Clara Sandburg, Swedish immigrants of peasant stock. August Sandburg was a blacksmith’s helper with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, and his wife kept house with the children and later took in boarders. The two had met in Illinois while Clara was working as a hotel chambermaid, and August had come to town as a section hand with the railroad. Carl had an older sister, Mary; a younger brother, Martin; and two younger sisters, Esther and Martha. Two other younger brothers died of diphtheria.

The Sandburgs were a thrifty, hardworking family, regular in their Lutheran Church...

(The entire section is 1848 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carl Sandburg, as an individual and a writer, seems distinctively American, belonging to a land where people are restless, inventive, jacks of all trades, where people rise to greatness from humble beginnings. Born in Galesburg, Illinois, Carl August was the second child of August and Clara Anderson Sandburg. Legend says that his father, a blacksmith, changed his name from Johnson to Sandburg to avoid confusion with the other August Johnsons in Galesburg, but Carl himself (perhaps to increase the confusion) quoted his mother as saying the name was originally Danielson.

The restlessness of America came early to young Carl. His schooling was fitful, and at thirteen he began the first of many jobs that sound almost like...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Charles August Sandburg was born in a modest clapboard cottage on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois, to Swedish immigrants August Sandburg and Clara Anderson Sandburg. August worked for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad; Clara Anderson had been a hotel chambermaid before she was married. August Sandburg could read a Swedish Bible, but that was all. He signed his name with an X. Clara Sandburg could write in colloquial Swedish and could phonetically spell English and encouraged her son’s learning.

Charles, or Carl, as he was later to call himself, enjoyed school but deviated from the prescribed curriculum. He quit school after the eighth grade to help his father support the family. Sandburg stated...

(The entire section is 842 words.)

Carl Sandburg Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Carl August Sandburg was born on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois. His parents, August and Clara Sandburg, were Swedish immigrants who...

(The entire section is 865 words.)