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Carl Sandburg became one of the most celebrated poets in America. He used a form of free verse that was sometimes applauded and sometimes panned, but represented Midwestern vernacular. His simple style and realistic depictions of common scenes and ordinary people made his work appeal to a wide variety of people. His works were among the most influential twentieth-century American poetry. His two-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln was monumental.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Sandburg, the son of Swedish immigrants August and Clara Mathilda Anderson Sandburg, was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January6, 1878, and raised there. In the year of his birth, memories of the Civil War were still fresh. As a boy Sandburg met Civil War veterans, as well as old associates of Lincoln, and learned about the Lincoln-Douglas debate that had taken place at Galesburg’s Knox College. The youth left school after the eighth grade, took rough odd jobs, and rode boxcars. In 1898, at age twenty, he volunteered for the Spanish-American War and served in Puerto Rico. On his return, he decided to go back to school and in 1899, enrolled in Galesburg’s Lombard College, which he left in 1902 before graduating.
After leaving school, Sandburg worked for several newspapers in the Midwest. His first essay on Abraham Lincoln, ”The Average Man,” which was produced in 1906 or 1907, to some degree reflected his interest in socialism. A member of the Social Democratic Party, Sandburg campaigned with Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs in Wisconsin in 1908, and then became the private secretary of Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor in 1910.
Poetry and Journalism
Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1914, and while writing poetry, gathered information on Lincoln for a biography. Six of his poems were published in Poetry magazine in 1914. Sandburg received a certain amount of recognition as a result and came to the attention of Henry Holt and Company, the publisher of his first large volume of poems, Chicago Poems (1916). Chicago Poems provided what one reviewer called ”a stark but idealized view of the working class” in an urban setting. Over the next twenty years, this work and five others made Sandburg a very popular poet. At the same time, Sandburg worked as a reporter and then a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During World War II, he also made radio broadcasts for the U.S. Office of War Information, lectured, recited his poetry, and sang folksongs.
Lincoln: The Work of a Lifetime
Sandburg’s two volume account of the life of Abraham Lincoln (The Prairie Years (1926) and The War Years (1939) was one of the monumental biographical works of the century. Sandburg collected and classified Lincoln material for thirty years, moving himself into a garret, storing his extra material in a barn, and for nearly fifteen years, writing on a cracker-box typewriter. His intent was to separate Lincoln the man from Lincoln the myth, to avoid hero-worship, to relate with graphic detail and humanness the man he so admired.
The two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years was published in 1926. The Prairie Years covered Lincoln’s life before his inauguration in 1861. Sandburg’s Lincoln was decidedly folksy and rustic and was widely praised as the ”real” Lincoln rather than a cold statue or a Sunday-school model for aspiring youths.
Sandburg, Lincoln, and Roosevelt
By 1928 Sandburg had decided to write a sequel to The Prairie Years on the war years. The project occupied the next eleven years of his life, interrupted by his writing other shorter works and by his undertaking cross-country tours on which he lectured, read poetry, and strummed folk songs on a guitar. The two principal influences on his treatment of the war years were his journalistic experience and his changed political views. Having worked for various magazines and Chicago newspapers, Sandburg tended to see historical events as a newspaperman, as an endless stream of daily dispatches, news stories unconnected by historical threads and measured by their daily impact rather than by their significance in retrospect. In the 1930s, Sandburg became a big admirer of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. The New Deal was the collective name for programs Roosevelt had put into place upon taking office at the height of the Great Depression to provide Americans relief, including unemployment compensation, jobs programs, and social security. Sandburg’s treatment of Lincoln was somewhat influenced by his view of Roosevelt as a similarly heroic politician leading the American people through a dark period.
The War Years
Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was published in 1939 in several volumes. Once again Sandburg relied on a massive accumulation of details. The books had no single theme and appeared to most reviewers to give almost a journalistic chronicle of the Lincoln administration. Sandburg again presented the president as a human being, a careworn man facing a crisis of immense proportions. Sandburg managed to show Lincoln as both a stern war leader and a personally forgiving man. The War Years was widely acclaimed as a literary masterpiece, and earned Sandburg the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1940.
Much of the appeal of the Lincoln biographies was due to the time in which they appeared, particularly The War Years, which was released on the brink of the Second World War. As Stephen Vincent Benet noted, The War Years was a ”good purge for our own troubled time and for its more wild-eyed fears.” In his time, nevertheless, Sandburg greatly broadened the audience for books on Lincoln. On February 12, 1959, Sandburg delivered a Lincoln Day address before a joint session of Congress attended by the Supreme Court, the cabinet, and the diplomatic corps.
Sandburg published his Complete Poems in 1950, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. At age eighty-five, Sandburg published his last book of poems, Homey and Salt (1963), and then retired to his home in North Carolina, where he died in 1967.
Works in Literary Context
Sandburg composed his poetry primarily in free verse, following in the style of Walt Whitman, whom he admired. Concerning rhyme, a predominant feature in traditional poetry, Sandburg once said, ”If it jells into free verse, all right. If it jells into rhyme, all right.” Free verse poetry is organized to the cadences of speech and image patterns rather than according to a regular metrical scheme. Its proponents argue that free verse eliminates much of the artificiality of poetry and is more suited to a more modern, casual style. The first English-language poets to be influenced by free verse, a movement that originated in France in the 1880s, were T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, Richard Aldington, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. Sandburg dabbled in the techniques of imagism, a movement initiated in England in 1912 by Aldington, Pound, Flint, and Hilda Doolittle; according to the imagist manifesto, one of their aims was ”to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.” Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens all wrote some variety of free verse.
The Lincoln Biography
Biographies of Lincoln began to appear right after his assassination. Dozens of scholars have written biographies of Lincoln, and Sandburg followed that tradition. One of the most important early biographies of Lincoln appeared before Sandburg’s were published, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln (1889). Sandburg’s biographies of Lincoln were probably the most popular. However, because Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln was the work of an amateur historian, its influence was somewhat undermined. His books contained both small and large errors. Sandburg’s criteria for evidence, especially early on, were more poetical than historical; he liked good stories. He soft-pedaled Lincoln’s racial views and failed to comprehend the significance of his long adherence to the Whig party. However, Sandburg’s goal was to ”take Lincoln away from the religious bigots and the professional politicians and restore him to the common people,” and in this he succeeded admirably.
Works in Critical Context
Both Sandburg’s poetry and his huge multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln met mixed reviews. At best, his poetry was thought to be only at times brilliant, while the harshest critics believed it was not poetry at all. His Lincoln biographies, while painstakingly researched, were also beset with errors. Professional historians sometimes praised and sometimes panned his work. Nevertheless, Sandburg won a Pulitzer Prize both for his Collected Poems and Lincoln: The War Years.
Sandburg’s free verse met with mixed reviews. In Carl Sandburg, Karl Detzer says that in 1918, ”admirers proclaimed him a latter-day Walt Whitman; objectors cried that their six-year-old daughters could write better poetry.” Chicago Poems provided what one review called ”a stark but idealized view of the working class” in an urban setting. Amy Lowell, a poet and literary promoter, called Chicago Poems ”one of the most original books this age has produced.” Lowell’s observations were reiterated by columnist H. L. Mencken, who called Sandburg a true original, his own man.” The New York Times Book Review praised the work for pictures of our modern life, short, vivid, conveyed in few and telling words.” However, the same reviewer criticized Sandburg for his free verse: ”Some of it is poetry, some is decidedly not poetry. It is a pity that so many writers are bent on confusing the terms.”
Work on Lincoln
Some reviewers of the biography of Lincoln were uneasy with Sandburg’s presentation of Lincoln’s life more as a story and less as a historical account. Wrote one reviewer, ”There is in it so much of poetry and imagination, so much of tradition mingled with fact, that some may doubt whether it be biography at all. It is clearly not within the canons of historical writing.” Nevertheless, maverick historian Charles A. Beard called Sandburg’s Lincoln biography ”a noble monument of American literature,” and praised the work for its detail and thoroughness. Allan Nevins saw it as ”homely but beautiful, learned but simple, exhaustively detailed but panoramic … [occupying] a niche all its own, unlike any other biography or history in the language.” The New York Times Book Review called Sandburg’s work on Lincoln ”the fullest, richest, most understanding of all the Lincoln biographies. … The War Years follows The Prairie Years into the treasure house which belongs, like Lincoln himself, to the whole human family.” The reviewer went on, ”Mr. Sandburg’s great work is not the story of the one man’s life. It is a folk biography. The hopes and apprehensions of millions, their loves and hates, their exultation and despair, were reflected truthfully in the deep waters of Lincoln’s being, and so they are reflected truthfully in these volumes.” James G. Randal said in 1942 that Sandburg’s made all other Lincoln books ”dull or stupid by comparison.” The Pulitzer Prize committee, prohibited from awarding the biography prize for any work on Washington or Lincoln, circumvented the rules by placing the book in the category of history.
- Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: Lincoln of Our Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1970.
- Corwin, Norman. The World of Carl Sandburg: A Stage Presentation. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
- Detzer, Karl. Carl Sandburg: A Study in Personality and Background. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1941.
- Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.
- Golden, Harry. Carl Sandburg. Chicago: World, 1961.
- Lowell, Amy. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1917. Monroe, Harriet. A Poet’s Life. New York: Macmillan, 1938.
- Niven, Penelope and Katie Davis. Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet. Orlando: Harcourt, 2003.
- Untermeyer, Louis. Modern American Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936.
- Hackett, Francis. ”Impressions.” The New Republic 8 (October 28, 1916), 328-329.
- ”The Lincoln of Carl Sandburg,” The New York Times Book Review, (December 3, 1939), 1, 14.
- Lowell, Amy, ”Poetry and Propaganda.” The New York Times Book Review (October 24, 1920), 7.
- A Review of Chicago Poems. The New York Times Book Review (June 11, 1916), p. 242.
- Woodburn, James A. A review of Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. American Political Science Review 20 (August 1926), 674-77.
- net. Retrieved November 16, 2008, from http://www.carlsandburg.net/. Last updated on October 18, 2007.
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