Carl Sandburg, Yes Analysis
by William Garland Rogers

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Carl Sandburg, Yes Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Carl Sandburg, Yes was written specifically for young readers, but, on the whole, Rogers does not condescend to his juvenile audience. In fact, the book’s predominantly colloquial language—of which Sandburg would no doubt have approved—is liberally spiced with a refreshingly rich and challenging vocabulary. Like most books intended for a juvenile audience, however, this biography is characterized by the simple presentation of the facts together with clear explications, not by depth or sophistication of analysis.

The Sandburg that emerges from Rogers’ biography is a man of simple needs and tastes. The author claims that Sandburg favored “workaday” language to florid rhetoric. He also consistently supported causes of the Left while being undogmatic enough to have voted (however regretfully) for Herbert Hoover in his first, and successful, bid for the presidency. Rogers also portrays him as totally committed to the idea that literature need not be the province of the intellectual elite or the highbrow alone.

Yet Rogers avoids the still-controversial question of whether, nice and noble sentiments aside, Sandburg’s poetry really stands up as poetry. Omitting a discussion of such a basic issue can be justified in the context of a biography, however, particularly one whose concerns more closely mirror social history, not aesthetics. Even so, the emphasis in Carl Sandburg, Yes is very much on its subject’s literary output. Rogers is well aware of the fact that Sandburg’s journalism, politicking, public speaking, and dabblings in folklore are interesting less in their own right than for the light that they might shed on his poetry, prose, and historiography—which, after all, established Sandburg’s international reputation.

Thinking perhaps of an ancient Persian proverb on the same subject, Sandburg once wrote that “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and bis-cuits.” By this, Rogers plausibly asserts, he meant that poetry springs from the wedding of the ineffable or mysterious with the run-of-the-mill or commonplace. Such a principle may have been behind Sandburg’s lifelong fascination with Abraham Lincoln, who became the subject of several of his biographies. Lincoln, rail-splitter from the backwoods of Illinois and the sixteenth president of the United States, also combined commonsense values with uncommon eloquence. Indeed, there were more than a few Lincolnesque traits in Sandburg. Rogers calls attention to the fact that there is much that links Lincoln with Galesburg—not the least of which being that Galesburg was the scene, at Knox College on October 7, 1858, of one of the famous debates between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Rogers relates how Sandburg once said that only in the United States could a man whose father could not write his own name write the biography of a man whose mother could not write hers.

It might be assumed that a biography which so clearly overlaps with social history would treat its central figure in a realistic manner. No doubt, that was indeed the author’s intention. Nevertheless, Rogers offers a much-romanticized version of Sandburg. This enthusiastic portrait is perhaps in keeping with the traditional approach of most biographies that are shaped and structured specifically for a juvenile audience. Most authors of young adult biography, addressing as they are readers who may not have formed opinions of their own, seek to awaken not only an interest in but also a reverence toward their subjects. Rogers is no exception, and his biography of Sandburg succeeds in this goal.