Carl Sandburg

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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....

(This entire section contains 2128 words.)

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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 nostalgic paean for America’s heartland—established him as a national poet. In addition to cross-country lecturing on Walt Whitman and labor-management conflicts, Sandburg investigated rising racial tensions and released his first commercial book of prose, The Chicago Race Riots (1919).

During the 1920’s, Sandburg offered several other volumes of poetry: Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), and Good Morning, America (1928). In these volumes, Sandburg examined “the People” in conflict with governmental power, industrial corruption, and the emptiness of contemporary life. Critics noted Sandburg’s maturing use of free verse, powerful images, and spare, economical style. Concurrently, Sandburg developed a series of children’s fantasies that he had begun to entertain his own three daughters at bedtime. Disliking European fairy tales, Sandburg created a whimsical American fairyland of bizarre settings such as the Zipsap Railroad and the Village of Liver-and-Onions, populated by such strange characters as Gimme the Ax and Jason Squiff, with a popcorn hat and mittens. The results were the highly successful Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), Rootabaga Country (1929), and Potato Face (1930).

Among Sandburg’s diverse projects during the 1920’s was a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Fascinated with Lincoln and the importance of the Civil War, Sandburg collected Lincoln stories, letters, and early biographies that focused on his public life. Sandburg, however, wanted to probe Lincoln’s private life, the elusive core of Lincoln’s character. At first, he considered writing his Lincoln book for children, but the complex material lent itself to adult fare. By 1924, Sandburg also decided that the book could only sketch Lincoln’s frontier days—his early career as country lawyer and prairie politician—and would end with Lincoln becoming president in 1861. Filled with realistic details of the era, Sandburg’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926) became a best-seller. Critics gave the book mixed reviews: Some hailed it an overpowering masterpiece that captured the contradictory nature of Lincoln’s character, while others objected to the book for having no footnotes and including fictitious scenes rather than verifiable facts. Above the controversy, Sandburg stood at the height of his career. He was now eagerly sought out for lectures, magazine articles, and radio programs.

During his early traveling days and into the 1920’s, Sandburg collected American folk tales and ballads. He used these materials to become a charismatic lecturer-entertainer who strummed a few chords on the guitar and transfixed audiences with his craggy voice while singing spirituals and songs of the pioneers, soldiers, prisoners, and laborers. Refining the material, he brought out The American Songbag (1927) and made an early “talking-book” record. Overworked, ill, and driven by family demands and publishing deadlines, Sandburg suffered a nervous breakdown in 1927, which forced him to reduce his activities.

Despite his “slowdown,” Sandburg produced Steichen the Photographer (1929), a biography of his famous brother-in-law, and coauthored Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (1932) with Paul Angle. The market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930’s deeply affected Sandburg’s perspective. As his response to the calamity, he offered The People, Yes (1936), an epic poem that draws upon the mythic past, examines conditions of the 1930’s by detailing the suffering of the exploited masses, and projects the future, affirming that “the People” will survive and thrive through their strength and heroic actions. Sandburg intertwines his own experiences with historical personages, folklore, and anecdotes. Critics generally praised the originality and scope of the poem, but some found unsettling political overtones and propaganda within the poem.

Sandburg’s other major achievement during the 1930’s was his four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), which chronicled Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War and his assassination. Sandburg examined Lincoln’s humor, religious behavior, humility, and mystical leanings in the midst of crisis. To stem the criticisms of poor scholarship and too much poetic license that his earlier Lincoln book had suffered, Sandburg relied on Lincoln scholars and historians to provide guidance and insight. Most critics lauded Sandburg as the foremost spokesperson on Lincoln. Sandburg received personal accolades and many honorary degrees, and, in 1940, he accepted the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Sandburg campaigned vigorously for the reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. With the United States’ entry in World War II, Sandburg worked on government propaganda films, made radio speeches, lectured, and wrote syndicated columns mainly concerned with working-people’s efforts and sacrifices. He brought out Storm over the Land (1942), a Civil War story, and Home Front Memo (1943), his views on World War II in verse and prose. ln 1945, as he and his family moved from the Midwest to the warmer climate of Flat Rock, North Carolina, Sandburg began his first novel at age seventy. An epic, Remembrance Rock (1948) spanned three hundred years of America’s development, from the Mayflower and the Pilgrim years through the end of World War II. The novel sold well, but critics found it tedious and overwritten, with wooden characters steeped in allegory.

In the 1950’s, Sandburg continued traveling, lecturing, and accepting more honors. He brought out The New American Songbag (1950) and promoted his Complete Poems (1950), winning a second Pulitzer Prize in 1951, this time for poetry. With the deaths of so many intimate friends, Sandburg began working on his own autobiography, culminating in Always the Young Strangers (1953), which described his adventures while growing up in Galesburg, Illinois.

Sandburg’s final years in the 1960’s were spent mainly at his estate in the Flat Rock area, where he died peacefully in 1967. His last book of poetry published before his death, Honey and Salt (1963), showed a mature poet at work. Several works were published posthumously: Breathing Tokens (1978), a collection of his poems; and Ever the Winds of Chance (1983), autobiographical materials drawn from 1898 to 1907.


Carl Sandburg’s poetry, according to his detractors, was crude, sentimental, and deficient in traditional forms, and his messages of social protest were often propagandistic. To his admirers, however, Sandburg’s poetry celebrated the United States’ agricultural and industrial power, particularly that of the Midwest. In creating over eight hundred poems, Sandburg found his subject matter mainly in the struggles of the working class, using simple situations to reveal universal themes and identifiable life experiences. Sandburg also created new poetic techniques, melding the literary tools of realism and free verse couched in everyday language. As a craftsman and endless reviser, Sandburg sought strong, simple words and short lines to convey exact images. Having a keen inner ear for appropriate cadence and an eye for visual impact on the printed page, Sandburg became a renowned poet whose goal was clarity, not obscurity.

Sandburg allowed his restless poetic imagination to interplay with his experiences as an investigative journalist, movie critic, newspaper columnist, and lecturer to produce some twenty-three books of prose. Identifying with Abraham Lincoln’s rise from humble origins on the Midwest prairie and his passionate sense of social justice, Sandburg became the premier historian of Lincoln. From 1920 to 1939, Sandburg produced seven volumes for adults on Lincoln and the Civil War and one volume for teenagers, Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928). He also wrote seven books for young children, a novel, several autobiographical pieces, and collected little-known American folk songs.


Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987. Outlines Sandburg’s life and the significance of his writings. Includes Callahan’s personal reminiscences.

Fetherling, Dale, and Doug Fetherling, eds. Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era, 1920-1927. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. Selects Sandburg’s best movie columns to reveal an early film critic’s concern with realism, film techniques, and film serving as a social conscience. Demonstrates Sandburg’s melding of his journalistic talents with artistic sensibilities.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Fascinating insights on the influence that Sandburg’s wife and family had on the poet-writer. Includes photographs and a full listing of Sandburg’s works.

Steichen, Edward, ed. Sandburg: Photographers View Carl Sandburg. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. A pictorial odyssey of Sandburg’s life using excerpts from his writings to highlight his achievements.

Yannella, Philip R. The Other Sandburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Provides evidence from Sandburg’s own writings from 1900 to 1920 that Sandburg was deeply radicalized, promoting socialism and calling for the overthrow of capitalism.


Critical Essays