Although Carl Sandburg wrote The People, Yes during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, his strong voice remained as cheerful and reassuring to later ages as it was in the time of bread lines and soup kitchens. However, in this work Sandburg does not raise his voice to shout down the pessimists, he does not sing hymns to America out of a sense of duty. His book arises from a genuine love of plain people who will somehow survive their blunders, somehow find the answers to where to? and what next?
Sandburg asks these questions in the opening in the voices of children of workers who come to build the Tower of Babel, and the questions are still unanswered at the end, when the poet looks forward to the “Family of Man” and the time when “brother may yet line up with brother.” Between those two points, the poet pays his tribute to people, the American people in particular, as he presents the legends, sayings, slang, tall tales, and dreams of twentieth century America.
The best and most quoted sections of the work include the one that deals with Abraham Lincoln and the one about tall tales, beginning “They have yarns. . . .” Sandburg gained a solid reputation as an authority on Lincoln, having written a great biography and many poems, speeches, and articles about Lincoln, but nowhere is he more successful than in this short poem. Here, Sandburg presents the many talents of a great person by asking questions, such as “Lincoln? was he a poet?” and “Lincoln? was he a historian?” to which he supplies answers from speeches, letters, and conversations of the man himself. The tall-tales poem is an encyclopedia of laughs that range from the familiar “man who drove a swarm of bees across the Rocky Mountains and the Desert ’and didn’t lose a bee’” to the less familiar story of a shipwrecked sailor who has caught hold of a stateroom door and floated in near the coast; when his would-be rescuers tell him he is off the coast of New Jersey, he takes a fresh hold on the door and calls back “half-wearily, ’I guess I’ll float a little farther.’”
Much of The People, Yes is in this same lighthearted tone, for Sandburg loves the American language and the twists of its sayings. For irony, he quotes from a memorial stone: “We, near whose bones you stand, were Iroquois./ The wide land which is now yours, was ours./ Friendly hands have given us back enough for a tomb.” He offers such homespun wisdom as “Sell the buffalo hide after you have killed the buffalo”...
(The entire section is 1034 words.)