Carl Sandburg Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The popular American poetry of 1916 tended to be sentimental and cliché-ridden. What contrasting qualities in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” would have been much appreciated by perceptive readers of the time?

In Sandburg’s poem “Grass,” how does his imaginative handling of grass differ from Walt Whitman’s in Song of Myself (1855)?

Which poet, Sandburg or Robert Frost, deserves more credit for using “the language of the American people” effectively in poetry?

What qualifications did Sandburg bring to his biography of Abraham Lincoln?

Is William Carlos Williams’s charge that Sandburg had no unifying imaginative vision a just one?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

0111201154-Sandburg.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Besides his poetry, Carl Sandburg wrote a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln, composed children’s stories, collected American folk songs, and worked for many years as a journalist.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

In “Notes for a Preface” to his Complete Poems, Carl Sandburg remarked,At fifty I had published a two-volume biography and The American Songbag, and 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.

That puzzlement has persisted since Sandburg’s death in the critical reevaluations of his career. Sandburg was by turns journalist, poet, biographer, folklorist, and children’s writer, and this is what makes it so difficult to assess his reputation. Was he a great poet, as Gay Wilson Allen has asked, or was he primarily a journalist and biographer? Somehow Sandburg’s stature seems greater than the quality of his individual works. Certainly he was a great communicator—as writer, poet, folk singer, and entertainer—whose poetry reached out to millions of Americans, and certainly he was, like his hero, Lincoln, a great spokesman for the common man. Sandburg had a particular genius for reaching out to ordinary people and touching their lives through his poetry and song. In his public performances, one felt the power of a dynamic personality, which helped establish the popularity of his poems.

During his lifetime, Sandburg published seven major volumes of poetry, and at his death, he left enough uncollected verse for an additional posthumous volume, Breathing Tokens, which was edited by his daughter Margaret. Contained in these volumes are more than a thousand free verse poems. In The People, Yes, he compiled a record of American folk wisdom, humor, and truisms which Willard Thorpe called “one of the great American books.” Besides his six-volume Lincoln biography, he completed biographies of his brother-in-law, the photographer Edward Steichen, and of Mary Todd Lincoln. His delightful children’s books, the most popular of which remains Rootabaga Stories (1922), were read and admired by many adults, including the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For many years, Sandburg was a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily News. In 1928, he was named Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poet, and he won the Pulitzer Prize twice: in 1940, in history, for his Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), and in 1951, in poetry, for his Complete Poems. He also received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for Cornhuskers. However, for many Americans, he is best recalled as the genial, white-haired folk singer and poet, the embodiment of folksy Americana.

Even though Sandburg was perhaps justly called “America’s best loved poet” during his...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. In this brief but informative pamphlet, Allen explains how Sandburg changed the course of American literature, despite the critical controversies about his work.

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. A literary biography.

Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964. This insightful work aims to give details of Sandburg’s life that are relevant to his writing. Summarizes the prose and verse content of his major works, reviews the critics’ reception of each major work, analyzes the themes and craftsmanship in each volume, and appraises Sandburg’s achievement in American letters.

Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Washington, D.C.: University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965. Durnell gives a chronological survey of Sandburg’s life and achievements, discusses aspects of American life in his writing, examines Sandburg’s place in American literature, and ends with a section on Sandburg and his critics.

Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976. The editors of this work view all the three authors discussed as having stood outside the main currents of twentieth century poetry. The section on Sandburg examines the poet’s motives and methods, asserting the priority of populist traditions rather than intellectual values in his work. Sandburg is depicted as the preserver of traditions and ideals, rather than the breaker of new literary ground.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Niven utilizes more than fifty thousand papers in the Sandburg Collection in Connemara, North Carolina, to chronicle Sandburg’s life from his birth into his maturity and fame. Includes sixteen pages of photographs.

Salwak, Dale. Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. A useful bibliographic reference, current through the late 1980’s.

Yannella, Philip. The Other Carl Sandburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Yannella focuses on the articles Sandburg wrote during World War I for the International Socialist Review and uses this material to argue that the young Sandburg was a political opportunist and a far left radical.