Carl Sandburg: A Biography Summary
by Penelope Niven

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Carl Sandburg

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was, in many ways, the embodiment of the American Dream. Son of a Swedish immigrant railroad worker in Galesburg, Illinois, Sandburg worked at a variety of odd jobs, dropped out of school, volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War, took courses at Lombard College, served as a fireman, and tramped around the country selling stereopticon slides and viewers. During this formative period—amounting to the first twenty-five years of his life—Sandburg read voraciously and kept detailed notes in a pocket notebook. When his career began officially with the publication his work in POETRY magazine in 1914, Sandburg was a self-taught poet and journalist who had come by his vision of America through honest hard work and voluminous experience. Sandburg would soon become a regular feature of the literary scene as his poetry books began to appear regularly; his massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, an indisputable labor of love, solidified his reputation.

Penelope Niven spent fourteen years researching and composing this truly comprehensive biography of Carl Sandburg. She studied more than fifty thousand Sandburg letters and papers, interviewed 150 people who knew the poet, read all of the Sandburg family letters (as well as the Sandburg materials in major academic libraries—and in the FBI files). In the process of doing all this work, Penelope Niven became part of the Sandburg story herself. She was named founder and codirector of the Carl Sandburg Oral History Project for the National Park Service and the University of Illinois. Yet all these documents and data do not keep Niven from writing clean, vivid, and invariably graphic prose that makes every phase of Sandburg’s career come to life. Without violating the standards of scholarly objectivity, she somehow manages to make the reader feel empathy for the shy, penniless, lonely young man who was clearly groping his way toward greatness. Like all great literary biographies, Penelope Niven’s CARL SANDBURG will inspire the reader to return to the memorable poetry and journalism that made Sandburg famous in the first place.