Sandburg, Carl 1878–1967
Sandburg was a Whitmanesque poet, a short story writer, a singer, and a biographer of Abraham Lincoln. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
I can't make a hero of Sandburg. Programmatically, he is absolutely sound. His poetry was rooted in real speech, in folksongs and lore, in real people, with never the slip of literature showing, always tied to a concrete situation and event, distinguishing itself fundamentally and all along the line from the English tradition and diction, so foreign to the Middle West of Swedish harvest hands and French voyageurs. No one, not even Whitman, has ever embarked on an American literary career with sounder ideas and better intentions. What happened? The war; the Red Raids; Normalcy. The perfection of that monstrous hallucination piped into every head from Madison Avenue—the American Way of Life. Sandburg fell for it…. At that point Sandburg gave up all those clear bright people, Anna Imroth and Chick Lorimer and Inez Mullholland and J. B. McNamara and Billy Sunday, real sweatshop fires, real baseball games between the Chillicothe and Rock Island teams, for a sweet muddy abstraction, "The People."
Kenneth Rexroth, in his Assays (© 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1961, pp. 223-25.
Maintaining a studied unkemptness of dress and a carefully shaggy head of hair, Sandburg has built an image of himself as one of the common people—tall, broad, rough-hewn, deep-voiced. At the same time, he has wanted to be their spokesman. He has created, as their representative, a definite literary personality, skillful, worldly, conscious of what he is doing—at times simple and direct, at times rhapsodic, sometimes obscure. (He himself admits that he has forgotten the meaning of poems written long ago.) (Preface)
[This was] Sandburg's dilemma: he was speaking for the masses, he would have liked to be one of them, yet he could not be; for as artist he had to maintain his individuality and to refine and cultivate his senses in a way totally alien to the people as a whole. From the beginning, however, he had committed himself to the myth of the ultimate efficacy of the people…. (p. 57)
Sandburg had been the first poet of modern times actually to use the language of the people as his almost total means of expression. In 1798 Wordsworth had approached the problem, but he had not really put the common idiom down on paper. Sandburg had entered into the language of the people; he was not looking at it as a scientific phenomenon or a curiosity (as had H. L. Mencken). He was at home with it. (p. 125)
Though the professional historians expressed dissatisfaction with Sandburg's passing over much unpublished manuscript material and many scholarly monographs [in his biography of Lincoln], the reader must be impressed, even if bored, by the minutiae. He is sometimes moved by the emotional involvement and consequent lyricism of the author. He can recognize the often saving humor. But he senses above all Sandburg's admiration for his subject and the way it had taken him—not in the direction of a blind lover's exaggeration or distortion, but toward simple, honest reporting that resulted in breadth, humaneness, and drama. (p. 136)
A writer hard to pigeon-hole, he had made an undeniable impression as a poet on the course of literature. If his language had been a departure from what had been expected, if it smacked of the streets and factories, it was nevertheless real American speech. If his tone was chiefly midwestern, it nevertheless transcended...
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regional boundaries and entered the world of man's condition. If his subject matter was full of the exigencies of the machine age, he strove with a poet's will to see what beauty could be unearthed from the new materials. Even if not always successful, as a pioneer he had nevertheless been bold, imaginative, and compassionate. (pp. 151-52)
Nothing in Sandburg's verse equals the best poetry yet written in America—for example, the best of Robinson or Frost, of Wallace Stevens or of William Carlos Williams. But one can say with confidence that to have read Sandburg is to have been in the company of a profoundly sincere American and of a craftsman capable of communicating pity, scorn, brawn, beauty, and an abiding love. (p. 157)
Richard Crowder, in his Carl Sandburg, Twayne, 1964.