Poet of the People.
"I shall cry over the dead child of a stockyards hunky./His job is sweeping blood off the floor./He gets a dollar seventy cents a day when he works/And it's many tubs of blood he shoves out with a broom day by day."
--"The Right to Grief"
ABOVE ALL ELSE, Carl Sandburg was, a poet of the people. Sandburg's life and writing were heavily influenced by his identification with and belief in the power of working people. He came from a working-class Swedish immigrant family and spent much of his young life traveling on trains with hobos, holding many different jobs, moving from town to town selling stereoscopes, viewing instruments that showed 3-D images, working the quintessentially underpaid job--newspaper reporter. Despite his wandering, however, Sandburg expressed certainty in one thing. As he once said, "I'm either going to be a writer--or a bum."
He was hot just a writer, however, but also an activist. Because of his identification with working people, Sandburg dedicated himself to various socialist causes. In 1907, he became an organizer for the Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, where he met his wife, Lilian--sister of famous photographer Edward Steichen. A year later, he campaigned with presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and two years after that he got a job as the private secretary to Milwaukee's Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.
Sandburg integrated his philosophy with his personal life. As he w-rote to his wife-to-be: "All the big people are simple, as simple as the unexplored wilderness. They love the universal things that are free to everybody. Light and air and food and love and some work are enough. In the varying phases of these cheap and common things, the great lives have found their joy...."
Although he was influenced by many poets, Whitman, Dickinson, Poe, Mallarme, and others, Sandburg never traveled in any elite writer's cliques. Because of his poetry's colloquial nature, and despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, some poets objected to his work. Robert Frost called him a fraud; William Carlos Williams said that he" deliberately invited" failure because of his lack of attention to poetic craft.
Sandburg was also a popular lecturer, a writer of children's stories, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. He wrote and gave his famous lectures, which often included the singing of folk songs that he picked up throughout his travels, and which he published in 1927 as The American Songbag. In 1922, he published Rootabaga Stories, a very popular set of children's tales, of which Frank Lloyd Wright said in a note to the author: "Dear Carl--I read your fairy-tales every night--before I go to bed--they fill a long felt want--Poetry. I'll soon know them all by heart...." In 1939, he published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, a four-volume follow-up to Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926). Sandburg wrote the history of Lincoln in a way that was unique for the times. As a reviewer noted, "This Lincoln, made with the poet's hands, takes on a reality, strong, rank, pungent, gorgeous reality." Sandburg believed in the transformative power of history. He once said: "One thing I'm sure of; the biggest part of American history has all to be rewritten; and it will be done."
Although he was never able to tackle the daunting task of rewriting all of American history, his life and work became an integral part of our country's story. As his wife Lilian stated to the press on the day of his death, "Now Carl belongs to the Ages."
WILLIAM A. UPDIKE is assistant editor for National Parks.
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|Author:||UPDIKE, WILLIAM A.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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