Rootabaga Stories

by Carl Sandburg

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Although in his other work, Sandburg was a passionate social activist, in Rootabaga Stories he relaxes and has fun. In a different context, for example, Sandburg might have treated the Potato Face Blind Man as an object of pity or as a victim of the social system. A street person, he “used to play an accordion on the Main Street corner nearest the postoffice in the Village of Liver-and-Onions.” Instead, he tells delightful stories and dreams that amuse the children of the village.

Nevertheless, the words of the Potato Face Blind Man are as close to morality or social commentary as the stories come. Whitson Whimble, “the patent clothes wringer manufacturer,” reads the blind man’s sign, which says “You look at ’em and see ’em; I look at ’em and I don’t. You watch what their eyes say; I can only feel their hair.” He then tells his chauffeur to “go on.” In this brief exchange, Sandburg’s sympathies are with the working poor, represented by the Potato Face Blind Man, rather than with capitalists such as Whimble. Earlier, the Potato Face Blind Man has explained another of his signs to Pick Ups:“Some of the people who pass by here going into the postoffice and coming out, they have eyes—but they see nothing with their eyes. They look where they are going and they get where they wish to get, but they forget why they came and they do not know how to come away. They are my blind brothers. It is for them I have the sign that reads ‘I am Blind Too.’ ”

This gentle admonition to look around is as much of a moral as appears in Rootabaga Stories. If the stories have a message at all, it is to enjoy language and imagination. Sandburg’s fun with words—for example, coinages such as “spanch” and “whincher,” “snizzling and sniffering”—is intended to delight more than to instruct. The stories are full of lively repetitions and poetic moments that encourage joy in imagination and language.

The Rootabaga Country, which includes the Village of Liver-and-Onions and the Village of Cream Puffs, as well as the Potato Bug Country and the Thimble Country, also encompasses prairies, mountains, and seas and is within traveling distance of places “far up in North America,” such as Medicine Hat and Moose Jaw. Sandburg appropriates the names of actual places when they have the right sound, as when the Gimmes sell everything to travel to the Rootabaga Country and their neighbors think, “They are going to Kansas, to Kokomo, to Kankakee, to Kalamazoo, to Kamchatka, to the Chattahoochee.”

Having fun with names, Sandburg invents creatures such as “flongboos” and “flummywisters,” as well as mentioning actual animals, especially rats and mice. When Sandburg uses names such as Wingtip the Spick and the gringo, he is using them for their comic sounds, not because they have meaning as slang. When names are intended to be insulting, he makes that clear, as in the “wars” in “How Two Sweetheart Dippies Sat in the Moonlight” in the sequel Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), in which the boomers and the sooners call one another names.

In another story, an “old woman whose husband had been killed in a sewer explosion when he was digging sewer ditches” appears. She is “carrying a bundle of picked-up kindling wood in a bag on her back because she did not have enough money to buy coal.” Bevo the Hike tells her, “You have troubles. So have I. You are carrying a load on your back people can see. I am carrying a load and nobody sees it.” Like the Potato Face Blind Man, rather than becoming a figure of pathos, the old woman helps Bevo solve his problem.

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Critical Context