Carl Sandburg Sandburg, Carl - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Carl Sandburg 1878-1967

(Full name Carl August Sandburg; has also written under the pseudonyms Charles A. Sandburg, Militant, and Jack Phillips) American poet, biographer, novelist, journalist, songwriter, editor, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents criticism of Sandburg's works. See also Carl Sandburg Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 10, 15.

One of America's most celebrated poets during his lifetime, Sandburg developed a unique and controversial form of free verse that captured the rhythms and color of Midwestern English vernacular. Sometimes dismissed for his sentimental depictions of urban and agrarian landscapes and for his simple style, Sandburg is nonetheless lauded for his rhapsodic and lyrical technique and his effective patterns of parallelism and repetition. In Chicago Poems (1916), his first major collection and one of his most respected works, Sandburg employed images and topics not commonly considered poetical to paint realistic portraits of ordinary people in such environments as the railroad yard, the marketplace, and the factory. His work in Chicago Poems and a number of further collections, generally recognizable by its loosely-structured, prose-like versification, broke many of the established poetic norms of the period in terms of literary style and subject. While occasionally disparaged by critics for these offenses, Sandburg's works have since been numbered among the most influential in twentieth-century American verse, although comparatively few of his individual poems continue to be widely studied or read.

Biographical Information

Sandburg was one of seven children born to Swedish immigrants in Galesburg, Illinois. Although Sandburg's parents were fluent in both English and Swedish, they did little to encourage their children's education in either language. Nevertheless, Sandburg developed an interest in reading and writing but was forced to leave school at age thirteen to help supplement the family income. Before borrowing his father's railroad pass at age eighteen to visit Chicago for the first time, Sandburg drove a milk wagon, worked in a barber shop, and was an apprentice tinsmith. He would later utilize the images and vernacular he was exposed to during such experiences to create verse reflective of daily life among the working class. After spending three and a half months traveling through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado on the railroad, Sandburg volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and served in Puerto Rico. As a returning veteran he was offered free tuition for one year at Lombard College in Galesburg, which he accepted. He studied there for four years but left in 1902 before graduating. It was at Lombard that Sandburg began to develop his talents for writing, encouraged by the scholar Philip Green Wright. On a small hand press in the basement of his home, Wright set the type for Sandburg's first publications: In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), Incidentals (1905), The Plaint of a Rose (1905), and Joseffy (1906). These four slim volumes contain Sandburg's juvenilia and are stylistically conventional. In retrospect, Sandburg declared them “many odd pieces … not worth reprint.” First in Wisconsin and later in Chicago, Sandburg worked as a reporter for a number of newspapers, including the Milwaukee Daily News and later the small, left-wing Day Book, in which appeared a handful of his early poems. Sandburg soon gained recognition when Harriet Monroe, editor of the progressive literary periodical Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published six of his poems in 1914. During this time Sandburg cultivated a number of literary friendships with, among others, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, and Sherwood Anderson, and gained the attention of Henry Holt and Company, the firm that was to publish his first significant volume of poetry, Chicago Poems. This work and the five collections that succeeded it over the course of the following two decades contributed to Sandburg's rise to popular esteem, making him one of the most recognized American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Between 1917 and 1932 Sandburg also served as a reporter and later a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During World War II his weekly column appeared in the Chicago Daily Times, and he made a number of radio broadcasts for the U.S. Office of War Information, many of them transcribed in his Home Front Memo (1943). Beginning in this period Sandburg also undertook an increasingly exhaustive schedule of lectures and public performances, in which he recited his poetry, spoke, and sang folksongs with his own guitar accompaniment. The publication of Sandburg's Complete Poems in 1950 earned him a Pulitzer Prize, although its critical impact was scant. Having published his last collection of new poetry, Honey and Salt (1963), at the age of eight-five, Sandburg retired to his estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He died there in the summer of 1967 and was subsequently honored in a National Memorial Service at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Major Works

Chicago Poems, with its humanistic rendering of urban life, place descriptions, and casual assemblage of character sketches, provides a stark but idealized view of the working class. “Chicago,” the centerpiece of the work and one of Sandburg's most celebrated poems, not only portrays the faults of the Midwestern metropolis but also praises what Sandburg considered the joy and vitality integral to life there. While Chicago Poems depicts the urban experience, Sandburg's next volume, Cornhuskers (1918), explores the realities of agrarian life. In such poems as “Prairie” and “Laughing Corn,” Sandburg expresses his fondness for family life and nature. Also included in this collection are a number of war poems that depict images of soldiers who died in conflicts previous to World War I. Smoke and Steel (1920) addresses complex postwar issues such as industrialization and urbanization and is less optimistic and idealistic than Sandburg's earlier works. With Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Sandburg began using a poetic technique in which he presented a series of images in parallel forms as well as in rough, colloquial language. Good Morning, America (1928), Sandburg's fifth significant volume, begins with thirty-eight “Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry,” which adumbrate a view that Sandburg subsequently neglected to codify into a consistent critical theory of verse. In this collection Sandburg delves into mythology, history, and universal humanism through extended use of proverbs and folk idioms. A new concentration on history foreshadowed the content of Sandburg's epic prose-poem, The People, Yes (1936). In this work Sandburg fused American colloquialisms with descriptions of historical and contemporary events to create a collection of verbal portraits of the American people. Sandburg's Complete Poems is an accumulation of his six previous volumes of poetry, as well as seventy-two new pieces. A final collection of new material, Honey and Salt illustrates a number of stylistic and thematic developments in Sandburg's late work and depicts a quiet and reflective mastery of the poetic craft in its title poem, as well as in the pieces “Foxglove” and “Timesweep.” Several other volumes, including Breathing Tokens (1978) and Billy Sunday and Other Poems (1993), were published posthumously but contain little or no previously unreleased poetic material. Among Sandburg's non-poetic works, his monumental multi-volume biographies of the sixteenth U.S. president, including Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), and his autobiography entitled Carl Sandburg (1926) are considered notable contributions to their respective genres. Although deferential to the former president, Sandburg's Lincoln biography endeavors to remedy many of the excesses of previous works on the subject and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

Critical Reception

Sandburg was an eminent figure of the “Chicago Renaissance” and the era encompassing World War I and the Great Depression. His Chicago Poems was upon its initial publication in 1916 greeted with mixed reaction, with many reviewers finding its subject matter startling and its prosaic poetry oddly structured. Nevertheless, the volume proved a career-making event and is generally regarded as one of Sandburg's finest poetic achievements. Together with six subsequent volumes into the mid-1930s, Sandburg solidified his success as the most popularly known poet on the American scene. Less well received by established critics, Sandburg witnessed a decline in his reputation by mid-century as his folksy and regional approach was overshadowed by the allusive and cerebral verse of such poets as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. While Sandburg continued to depict ordinary people in their everyday settings, other poets were gaining critical acclaim for internalizing and codifying experiences. Despite the fact that it was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1951, Sandburg's Complete Poems elicited little more than brief commentary on the occasion of its publication; few took the opportunity to evaluate the whole of Sandburg's poetic career. Since Sandburg's death in 1967 a few critics have spoken nostalgically about the “Chicago Poet” of 1916, but sustained critical analysis of his collected poetic works has been limited. More recently, some commentators have suggested that this disfavor was a result of the whims of various critical movements and not based on the strength or significance of Sandburg's poetic contribution. Despite continued disputation, Sandburg is frequently recognized as one of the outstanding and innovative American poets of the twentieth century and a successor to Walt Whitman as an emblematic poet of American populism.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

In Reckless Ecstasy 1904

Incidentals 1905

The Plaint of a Rose 1905

Joseffy 1906

Chicago Poems 1916

Cornhuskers 1918

Smoke and Steel 1920

Slabs of the Sunburnt West 1922

Selected Poems of Carl Sandburg 1926

Good Morning, America 1928

The People, Yes 1936

Complete Poems 1950

Harvest Poems, 1910-1960 1960

Honey and Salt 1963

Breathing Tokens 1978

Billy Sunday and Other Poems 1993

Selected Poems 1996

The Chicago Race Riots (journalism) 1919

Rootabaga Stories (fables) 1922

Rootabaga Pigeons (fables) 1923

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. (biography) 1926

Carl Sandburg (autobiography) 1926

The American Songbag [editor] (songs) 1927

Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (biography) 1932

Abraham Lincoln: The War Years 4 vols. (biography) 1939

Home Front Memo (journalism/radio broadcasts) 1943

Remembrance Rock (novel) 1948

Always the Young Strangers (autobiography) 1955

The Letters of Carl Sandburg (letters) 1968

Grassroots (juvenilia) 1997

Harriet Monroe (review date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Monroe, Harriet. Review of Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 8, no. 2 (May 1916): 90-93.

[In the following review of Chicago Poems, Monroe characterizes Sandburg's work as “a masterpiece of portraiture” that ranges from the “rugged” to the “exquisitely delicate.”]

In this American melting-pot the English language becomes the mother tongue of the sons of Perse and Slav and Swede; and through that language, and the literature born in it, more and more as time goes on, must blow tropic and arctic airs, winds from East and West, perfumes of Araby and salt spray from the northern seas. No prophet can measure the...

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John T. Frederick (review date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Frederick, John T. Review of Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. Midland 2, no. 6 (June 1916): 189-93.

[In the following review, Frederick praises the “clearness and validity” of Sandburg's interpretation of early twentieth-century America in his Chicago Poems.]

When Poetry published a group of poems by Carl Sandburg, a few months ago, a friend remarked “Here is a real poet.” That judgment is verified by the recently published volume, Chicago Poems. The book lacks uniformity of purpose and achievement, and much of it is relatively trivial. But nevertheless it constitutes a permanent contribution to the literature of the Middle West and...

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Caesar Zwaska (review date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zwaska, Caesar. Review of Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. Little Review 3, no. 5 (August 1916): 9-11.

[In the following review, Zwaska comments on Sandburg as a success among modern poets, and on the vast range of life displayed in Chicago Poems.]

It has come to be that on the stage, where once we watched for artists, we find only vainly strutting weak-willed human beings. We are not held, and the light within the sacred space grows dimmer. We lose all interest in places where once we have found Art.

And how desperate we have become!

The procession of the Imagists has been the only sacred thing before our eyes—thin...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Francis Hackett (review date 1916)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hackett, Francis. Review of Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. New Republic 8, no. 104 (28 October 1916): 328-29.

[In the following review, Hackett admires the intensity and rhythm of Chicago Poems but disagrees with Sandburg's vision of Chicago.]

We seem to be getting new popular notions as to rhythm. It is not so very long since Ruskin raged about Wagner pretty much as he raged about Whistler. It was the correct philistine performance to resist the rhythm of Wagner and set him down as noise. People have already forgotten this senseless conservatism. The conceptions of dance rhythm and verse rhythm have similarly, recently, emancipated themselves....

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Amy Lowell (essay date 1917)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lowell, Amy. “Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg.” In Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, pp. 139-232. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

[In the following excerpt, Lowell considers Sandburg's life, his work as a propagandist and lyric poet, and his place in the American poetic tradition.]

… To turn from Edgar Lee Masters to Carl Sandburg is like crossing the line of a generation. In actual years, they are not so far apart, but they represent the two sides of the barrier of change. Mr. Sandburg, although intellectually and poetically in the second stage of our “movement,” belongs to the new America which I have called multi-racial. He springs from the...

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Louis Untermeyer (essay date 1919)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Untermeyer, Louis. “Carl Sandburg.” In The New Era in American Poetry, pp. 95-109. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919.

[In the following essay, Untermeyer extols the combination of strength, delicacy, and passion in the verses of Chicago Poems and Cornhuskers.]

I can begin this chapter on Carl Sandburg in no better way than by admitting the worst thing that most of his adverse critics charge against him—his brutality. And, without hastening to soften this admission, I would like to quote a short passage from a volume to which I have already referred. In Synge's preface to his Poems and Translations (published in 1911) he wrote, “In...

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Paul L. Benjamin (essay date 1920)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Benjamin, Paul L. “A Poet of the Common-Place.” Survey 45 (2 October 1920): 12-13.

[In the following essay, Benjamin lauds Sandburg as a poet of sympathy, simplicity, and the everyday.]

The poetry of Carl Sandburg, the poet who loves the common folk, and who weaves into the meshes of his song the simple, homely things of life—the Kansas farmer with the corn-cob between his teeth, the red drip of the sunset, the cornhuskers with red bandannas knotted at their ruddy chins—cannot be shredded apart from Carl Sandburg, the man. Indeed, as I write I seem to be chatting with him about his work and about the moving things of life, the deep, rich things, of...

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William Loeber (review date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Loeber, William. Review of Chicago Poems, Cornhuskers, and Smoke and Steel, by Carl Sandburg. Double Dealer 3, no. 14 (February 1922): 105-07.

[In the following review of Sandburg's first three major volumes of verse, Loeber argues against those critics who dismiss Sandburg's poetry as merely “tough” or “insensitive.”]

Snobbishness is so characteristically an imperishable human trait, it is high time it came to be listed among the virtues. Even so universal an appreciation as the appreciation of literature is touched and tainted by this dry-rot of the critical attitude.

Last week I read a paragraph by Dr. Felix E....

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Ezra Pound (essay date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pound, Ezra. “Ezra Pound on Sandburg.” Double Dealer 3, no. 17 (May 1922): 277-78.

[In the following essay, Pound writes flippantly on the subject of labeling Sandburg a “tough” poet.]

Ezra Pound writes from Paris, with particular reference to the article in The Double Dealer for February entitled “The Literary Tough” (q. v.):

“Neither Sandburg's last book nor Professor Schelling's review of it has reached me. As an ‘effete neo-European’ may I be permitted to ask whether ‘tough’ is a term of insult?

Sandburg was a lumber-jack, at least that was, I think, the term used in the first introduction of...

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Percy H. Boynton (essay date 1922)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Boynton, Percy H. “The Voice of Chicago: Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg.” English Journal 11, no. 10 (December 1922): 610-20.

[In the following excerpt, Boynton discusses Sandburg as a Chicago writer, the “brutality” of his language, his concern with social injustice, and his poetic frankness.]

… With the years just following the World's Fair of 1893, Chicago

Gigantic, wilful, young, …
With restless violent hands and casual tongue

became vocal in a new way. The city had never been voiceless, though up to these years the rest of the country had heard little from it but the shouts from the wheat pit and the uproar...

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Howard Willard Cook (essay date 1923)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Howard Willard. “Carl Sandburg.” In Our Poets of Today, pp. 129-35. New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1923.

[In the following excerpt, Cook briefly summarizes Sandburg's life and career as a poet up to 1923.]

“Carl Sandburg is an observer with sympathy but without fear. … He puts words to the uses of bronze. His music at times is of clearest sweetness like the tinkling of blue chisels; at other times it has the appropriate harshness of resisting metal.”

So Carl Sandburg is described by Edgar Lee Masters in writing of his Chicago Poems, published in April, 1916.

A number of poems included in this...

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Bruce Weirick (essay date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Weirick, Bruce. “The Rise of the Middle West.” In From Whitman to Sandburg in American Poetry: A Critical Survey, pp. 192-221. New York: Macmillan, 1924.

[In the following excerpt, Weirick calls Sandburg the chief poet of the Middle West and the principal successor to Walt Whitman in American poetry.]

The chief figure in middle western poetry, the poet who unites in himself many of the interests which these other writers suggest or touch on merely, and perhaps the chief figure in American poetry since Whitman, is Carl Sandburg. In his book there is a large massiveness, a variety, and a stirring, that is vastly nearer the heart of things than either Masters'...

(The entire section is 2715 words.)

Llewellyn Jones (essay date 1925)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Llewellyn. “Carl Sandburg: Formalist.” In First Impressions: Essays on Poetry, Criticism, and Prosody, pp. 53-68. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925.

[In the following excerpt, Jones evaluates Sandburg as a poet and underscores his strongly satirical voice.]

In the layman's mind there are two kinds of physician: the up-to-date specialist with his elaborate examinations, his apparatus, and his “air”; and, on the other hand, the rough-and-ready country doctor with his absence of “air,” his hail-fellow-well-met attitude, his lack of up-to-date science, and his ability to cure.

Having made this nice distinction between doctors, the...

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William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1925)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Phelps, William Lyon. “Sara Teasdale, Alan Seeger, and Others.” In The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century, pp. 277-311. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925.

[In the following excerpt, Phelps finds Chicago Poems “overrated” but acknowledges that Sandburg is an original writer with the “true power of poetic interpretation.”]

Carl Sandburg sings of Chicago with husky-haughty lips. I like Chicago and I like poetry; but I do not much care for the combination as illustrated in Mr. Sandburg's volume, Chicago Poems. I think it has been overrated. It is pretentious rather than important. It is the raw material of poetry,...

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Thomas King Whipple (essay date 1928)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Whipple, Thomas King. “Carl Sandburg.” In Spokesmen: Modern Writers and American Life, pp. 161-83. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928.

[In the following essay, Whipple surveys Sandburg's poetic sensibility and vision, arguing that while his talents and significance are considerable, Sandburg's poetry is sometimes poorly realized.]

The final impression left by Sandburg's four volumes of poetry is one of much power ill controlled. Not only has his work variety, ranging from a harsh strident realism through a romantic, tender feeling for natural beauty to a dim evocation of hinted mystery; it is not only varied, but variable—that is, uneven and...

(The entire section is 6071 words.)

Charles H. Compton (essay date 1929)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Compton, Charles H. “Who Reads Carl Sandburg?” South Atlantic Quarterly 28, no. 2 (April 1929): 190-200.

[In the following essay, Compton collects responses to Sandburg's works from a number of ordinary readers.]

Ten years ago the critics had their fling at Sandburg. Today he is accepted. Anthologies of modern verse include him—some with due praise, others without enthusiasm. What about the general reader, the gentle reader, the man in the street, the flapper, flaming youth? Are they reading him? Where will you find them, that we may ask them? They are all represented among the users of the modern public library, today the most democratic, and as yet the...

(The entire section is 4835 words.)

Alfred Kreymborg (essay date 1934)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kreymborg, Alfred. “Springfield, Spoon River and the Prairies.” In Our Singing Strength: A History of American Poetry, pp. 368-94. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1934.

[In the following essay, Kreymborg traces Sandburg's poetic development from Chicago Poems to Good Morning, America.]

… In 1914, Harriet Monroe's Poetry issued a group of poems by a stranger named Carl Sandburg. It included the ode to the “Hog Butcher for the World,” Chicago. A lanky galoot, with a bang over one eye, had finally arrived: he was thirty-six at the time. One recalls the violent sensation the group aroused. What right had any man to be so brutal in print,...

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Oscar Cargill (essay date 1950)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cargill, Oscar. “Carl Sandburg: Crusader and Mystic.” College English 11, no. 7 (April 1950): 365-72.

[In the following essay, Cargill investigates political themes in Sandburg's writing, which he finds to be ultimately detrimental to Sandburg's later poetry.]


With a guitar to strum and a sympathetic audience, Carl Sandburg could make Harry S. Truman's budget message sound, if not like “Lycidas,” at least like Allen Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” The hardest critical problem, for those of us who have on occasion been captivated by Sandburg's infectious grin, vibrant baritone, and communicable relish as he literally...

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Robert E. Spiller, et al. (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Spiller, Robert E., et al. “The ‘New’ Poetry.” In Literary History of the United States: History, Third Edition, pp. 1171-96. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

[In the following excerpt from a summary volume of U.S. literary history, the unsigned critic alleges that there is no significant stylistic development among Sandburg's collections of poetry but acknowledges that The People, Yes (1936) “is one of the great American books.”]

… Of the many poets whose careers Poetry helped to shape, none went so far on his own road as Carl Sandburg. He believed always that the best hope of the people is to be found in the men with “free...

(The entire section is 1336 words.)

Roy P. Basler (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Basler, Roy P. “Your Friend the Poet—Carl Sandburg.” Midway 10, no. 2 (autumn 1969): 3-15.

[In the following essay, Basler appraises Sandburg as a poet outside of the literary establishment.]

For the period of my life during which I was engaged in editing The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, it was my fortune to operate in and from a suite of offices in the First National Bank Building of what has been known with pride, locally at least, as “Lincoln's Home Town.” One day, as I entered the elevator on the way up, I was greeted by a lawyer from the adjoining office, with the news that “Your friend the poet is upstairs looking for you.” For...

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Mark Van Doren (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Van Doren, Mark. Introduction to Carl Sandburg: A Bibliography of Sandburg Materials in the Collections of the Library of Congress, pp. 1-15. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1969.

[In the following essay, Van Doren assesses Sandburg's varied poetic talent and accomplishments.]

When he was fifty, Carl Sandburg once said, “there was puzzlement as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubadour with a guitar, a midwest Hans Christian Andersen, or a historian of current events whose newspaper reporting was gathered into a book, The Chicago Race Riots.” This was before he had published the last four volumes of his Abraham...

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Wolfgang Mieder (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mieder, Wolfgang. “Behold the Proverbs of a People: A Florilegium of Proverbs in Carl Sandburg's Poem ‘Good Morning, America.’” Southern Folklore Quarterly 35 (1971): 160-68.

[In the following essay, Mieder studies Sandburg's use and manipulation of American proverbs in his poem “Good Morning, America.”]

There are basically only two ways for the scholar to achieve his task of collecting proverbs—either he undertakes field research with such modern aids as electronic recording devices to gather up the popular language, or as the Germans call it the expressions of the Volksmund, or he must rely on the written records of a certain age,...

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Gay Wilson Allen (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Gay Wilson. “Carl Sandburg.” In Carl Sandburg, pp. 5-48. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Wilson details Sandburg's life and literary career, citing significant developments in his later poetry.]

Carl Sandburg never won the Nobel Prize, but some Americans thought that he should have, and when Hemingway received it in 1954 he told reporters that it should have gone to Sandburg. Later in the year at the National Book Awards program in New York when Harvey Breit, of the New York Times Book Review staff, asked Sandburg how he felt about Hemingway's friendly gesture, he replied: “Harvey Breit, I want to...

(The entire section is 12790 words.)

Richard Crowder (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Crowder, Richard. “Sandburg's Chromatic Vision in Honey and Salt.” In The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, edited by John E. Hallwas and Dennis J. Reader, pp. 92-104. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Crowder investigates Sandburg's rich and figurative use of color in his 1963 collection, Honey and Salt.]

Caroline Spurgeon reminds us that the act of seeing involves all that man is. It is the means by which, for example, the poet observes and absorbs a great part of life, engaging both the mentality and the imagination in receiving sight impressions, then...

(The entire section is 6860 words.)

Charles W. Mayer (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mayer, Charles W. “The People, Yes: Sandburg's Dreambook for Today.” In The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg, edited by John E. Hallwas and Dennis J. Reader, pp. 82-91. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Mayer traces the “lyrical pessimism” of Sandburg's early poetry, finding a late response to it in The People, Yes, which presents Sandburg's theme of “the divinity of the people.”]

There were two poets in Carl Sandburg. One was the advocate of democracy, committed to the lusty, often brutalized life of the people; using the common idiom to...

(The entire section is 5618 words.)

Richard H. Crowder (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Crowder, Richard H. “Carl Sandburg's Influence on Modern Poetry.” Western Illinois Regional Studies 1, no. 1 (spring 1978): 45-64.

[In the following essay, Crowder claims that Sandburg's impact on American poets and poetry is greater than most critics are likely to admit.]

In 1914 critical readers (as well as uncritical) found in Sandburg some disturbing departures from the poems they were accustomed to enjoy. Stephen Crane, it is true, had experimented, but he was dead. That eternal sophomore, Richard Hovey, had written innocuously of wanderers, lovers, and comrades, but he too was dead. James Whitcomb Riley had long before run out of steam with a few...

(The entire section is 7039 words.)

Ingegerd Friberg (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Friberg, Ingegerd. “The Clash of American Dreams in Carl Sandburg's Poetry.” Moderna Sprak 74, no. 1 (1980): 3-20.

[In the following essay, Friberg probes Sandburg's poetry as it presents a tension between two ideals—America as a paradise and America as a land of progress—and as it promotes the possibilities of a socialist society in America.]

In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal Leo Marx studies the two well-known American dreams: America as the Garden of Eden and America as the Land of Progress. He traces these dreams through a discussion of the beliefs of Primitivists, Progressivists, and representatives of the...

(The entire section is 7096 words.)

Robert L. Reid (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Reid, Robert L. “The Day Book Poems of Carl Sandburg.” The Old Northwest: A Journal of Regional Life and Letters 9, no. 3 (fall 1983): 205-18.

[In the following essay, Reid focuses on four largely unknown poems by Sandburg originally published in the Chicago newspaper The Day Book while Sandburg was a member of the staff.]

Early in 1914, Carl Sandburg, an aspiring poet unrecognized by the literary world, joined the staff of a small daily newspaper in Chicago. He worked as a reporter for The Day Book for three and a half years until the paper ceased publication in July 1917. This assignment represented the longest period of regular...

(The entire section is 4772 words.)

Anne-Marie Brumm (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brumm, Anne-Marie. “The Cycle of Life: Motifs in the Chicago Poems of Carl Sandburg.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik: A Quarterly of Language, Literature, and Culture 31, no. 3 (1983): 237-55.

[In the following essay, Brumm enumerates leitmotifs—including the innocent child, victimized maiden, and death—in Sandburg's Chicago Poems.]

Full of ideals and dreams, Carl Sandburg went to “the big city,” Chicago, for the first time in 1896. He was then only eighteen and his meager money only permitted him to remain three days, yet it was the beginning of a marked change in the young poet. Again and again, “Chi” would lure him to...

(The entire section is 9930 words.)

Adrian Oktenberg (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Oktenberg, Adrian. “From the Bottom Up: Three Radicals of the Thirties.” In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero, pp. 83-111. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Oktenberg examines Sandburg's myth of “the People” and unfavorably compares the poet to Walt Whitman as an representative of America and democracy.]


Carl Sandburg is almost unread today, when he is not a laughingstock, among those who still read poetry. The charges against him are severe, and of many of them his poetry stands...

(The entire section is 1562 words.)

Mark Van Wienen (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Van Wienen, Mark. “Taming the Socialist: Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems and Its Critics.” American Literature 63, no. 1 (March 1991): 89-103.

[In the following essay, Van Wienen maintains that Sandburg was far more political in his early poetry than is generally acknowledged.]

Carl Sandburg's reputation as the adulatory biographer of Lincoln and as a folksy, silver-haired singer of ballads and reciter of poems has obscured the radically innovative and oppositional character of his earlier poetic work. Set in the context of Sandburg's socialist politics of the teens rather than the moderate populism of his later career, the early poems emerge as...

(The entire section is 5475 words.)

Joseph Epstein (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “The People's Poet.” Commentary 93, no. 5 (May 1992): 47-52.

[In the following essay, Epstein sees Sandburg as more an entertainer than a poet and chronicles his spectacular lifelong fame.]

The Poet is a heroic figure belonging to all ages; whom all ages possess, when once he is produced, whom the newest age as the oldest may produce—and will produce, always when Nature pleases. Let Nature send a Hero-soul; in no age is it other than possible that he may be shaped into a Poet.

—Thomas Carlyle

Passages like my epigraph probably go a long way toward suggesting that...

(The entire section is 5554 words.)

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Chicago Poems, by Carl Sandburg. Virginia Quarterly Review 68, no. 3 (summer 1992): 102.

[In the following review of the reissued Chicago Poems, the unsigned critic draws attention to the work's ambivalent status near the end of the twentieth century.]

This reissue of Sandburg's first book of poems, originally published in 1914, includes the much-anthologized “Chicago” (which labeled the city as the “Hog Butcher for the World”) and “Fog” (which moved on famously feline paws). As John E. Hallwas points out in his evenhanded introduction, all of Sandburg's strengths and weaknesses are clearly displayed in this book, arguably...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Chris Beyers (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Beyers, Chris. “Carl Sandburg's Unnatural Relations.” Essays in Literature 22, no. 1 (spring 1995): 97-112.

[In the following essay, Beyers links Chicago Poems to poetic tradition, observing that in many cases Sandburg modernized older forms in his verse.]

Carl Sandburg, Bernard Duffey has remarked, “is something of an institution” (295). Indeed, by the time of his death, Sandburg had reached the level of cultural icon—so much so that a list of his activities and honors tells a story of American cultural history, 1940-1969. It's not just his two Pulitzer Prizes (one in 1940 for Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, the other in 1950 for...

(The entire section is 7850 words.)

The Explicator (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sandburg's ‘They Will Say.’” The Explicator 59, no. 3 (2001): 134.

[In the following essay, an anonymous critic discusses the merits of Sandburg's poem “They Will Say.”]

Pity poor Carl Sandburg. Not only is he, at least in Chicago Poems, shamefully driven by ideology (Waggoner 452, 455), but he is guilty of “overly insistent tempos and rigid parallelisms,” “compulsive metrics and rhythms” (Pearce 270, 271), and simultaneously of lacking “meter and verse form, even regular rhythm” (Spiller 180). He “sling[s] a loose, prosy line” (Spayde 108), utters a “blowsy hurrah” (Perkins 42), and is “expostulatory” and...

(The entire section is 1460 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Blankenship, Russell. “Carl Sandburg.” In American Literature as an Expression of the National Mind, pp. 605-13. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1931.

Remarks on Sandburg's life, his unconventional poetry and diction, and idiomatic vision of Chicago, finally labeling him “a true mystic of the modern age.”

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967.” Chicago Tribune (1 January 1978): section 7, p. 1.

Offers a brief summary of Sandburg's poetic career in honor of the centennial of his birth.

Frank, Waldo. “Chicago.” In Our America, pp. 117-47. New York: Boni...

(The entire section is 373 words.)