As a child of an immigrant couple, Carl Sandburg was barely American himself,yet the life, which he had lived, has defined key aspects of our great country,and touched the hearts and minds of her people. Sandburg grew up in the AmericanMidwest, yet spent the majority of his life traveling throughout the states. Thecountry, which would define his style of poetry and his views of society,government, and culture, would equally be defined by his writing, lecturing, andthe American dream he lived: The dream of becoming successful with only an ideaand the will to use it.
Historically, Sandburg’s most defining poetic element ishis free verse style. His open views towards American democracy, labor, and warearned him great respect, and even greater criticism. He was considered one ofAmerica’s finest poets during his lifetime; moreover, he is now renowned as oneof America’s greatest poets of all time (Niven 388-406). August, his father, ona typical hard labor job expected from an immigrant male raising a family in theearly nineteen hundreds.
Odd jobs helped Carl support his family when he wasforced to work at the young age of thirteen. Although raised poor, Carl aspiredto travel the country and it’s cities. He accomplished this goal with great helpfrom the American rail system (Niven 388-392). Sandburg went on to become agreat and successful writer for several newspapers as well as author to manybooks of poetry. After brief political success, Carl left office to write forMilwaukee’s paper, “The Social Democratic Herald” in 1911. Then, justa few years later, Sandburg starts work at the “Chicago DailyNews”(Niven 392-393). After a friend, Alfred Harcourt, risked his job toget Sandburg published for the first time, Sandburg’s career took off. Evendespite massive criticism based only on his political views, Sandburg soldthousands of books and became highly acclaimed (Lowell, 3012-3014). On January12, 1920, Untemeyer, a writer for New York’s “New Republic” claimsthat Sandburg is one of the two greatest living poets of the times (Macleigh3018). Sandburg wrote a landmark six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Aconsummate platform performer, he roamed the United States for nearly a halfcentury, guitar in hand, collecting and singing American folk songs. For his ownchildren and children everywhere he wrote Rootabaga Stories, and RootabagaPigeons, some of the first authentic American fairy tales. He was a journalistby trade; his newspaper reportage and commentary documented labor, racial, andeconomic strife and other key events of his times. But Carl Sandburg was firstand foremost a poet, writing poems about America in the American idiom for theAmerican people. The titles of his volumes of poetry testify to his majorthemes: Chicago Poems, Cornhuskers, Smoke and Steel, Good Morning, America, ThePeople, Yes. (Niven 399-400) Sandburg’s vision of the American experience wasshaped in the American Midwest during the complicated events that brought thenineteenth century to a close. His parents were Swedish immigrants who met inIllinois, where they had settled in search of a share of American democracy andprosperity (Macleigh, 3016-3018). August Sandburg helped to build the firstcross-continental railroad, and in the twentieth century his son Carl was anhonored guest on the first cross-continental jet flight. August Sandburg was ablacksmith’s helper for the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg,Illinois, when his son was born on 6 January 1878 in a small cottage a few stepsaway from the roundhouse and railroad yards. Carl August Sandburg was the secondchild first son of the hardworking Sandburgs. He grew up speaking Swedish andEnglish, and, eager to be assimilated into American society, he Americanized hisname. In 1884 or 1885, “somewhere in the first year or two of school,”he began to call himself Charles rather than the Swedish Carl because he hadsaid “the name Carl would mean one more Poor Swede Boy while the nameCharles filled the mouth and had ’em guessing (Niven 401-405) There wereseven children in the Sandburg family, and the two youngest sons died ofdiphtheria on the same day in 1892. Charles Sandburg had to leave school at agethirteen to work at a variety of odd jobs to supplement the family income. As ateenager he was restless and impulsive, hungry for experience in the worldbeyond the staid, introverted prairie town, which had always been his. At ageeighteen, he borrowed his father’s railroad pass and had his first look atChicago, the city of his destiny. In 1897 Sandburg joined the corps of more than60,000 hoboes who found the American railroads an exhilarating if illicit freeride from one corner of the United States to another. For three and a halfmonths of his nineteenth year he traveled through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas,Nebraska, and Colorado, working on farms, steamboats, and railroads, blackingstoves, washing dishes, and listening to the American vernacular, the idiom thatwould permeate his poetry (Niven 404-405). The journey left Sandburg with apermanent wanderlust. He volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898 andserved in Puerto Rico from until late August. As a veteran, he received freetuition for a year at Lombard College in Galesburg and enrolled there in October1898. He was offered a conditional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy atWest Point, New York, on the basis of his Spanish-American War service, but inJune 1899 failed entrance examinations in arithmetic and grammar. He returned toLombard, where he studied until May of 1902, when he left college without enoughcredits for graduation (Niven, 398-400). From 1910 until 1912 Carl and PaulaSandburg lived in Milwaukee, where Sandburg was instrumental in the MilwaukeeSocialists’ unprecedented political in 1910. When Emil Seidel was electedMilwaukee’s first Socialist mayor in that year, Sandburg, then thirty-two, wasappointed his secretary. Sandburg left city hall in 1911 to write for VictorBerger’s Social Democratic Herald in Milwaukee. In June 1911 the Sandburgsfirst child, Margaret, was born. A daughter died at birth in 1913; Janet wasborn in 1916, and Helga was born in 1918. In 1912 the Sandburgs moved toChicago, where Sandburg joined the staff of the Socialist Chicago Evening World,which had expanded in the wake of a pressman’s strike that closed most otherChicago newspapers. Once the strike was settled, the World went out of business,and Sandburg work with small periodicals such as the business magazine Systemand Day Book, an addles daily newspaper owned by W.E. Scripps. He contributedoccasional articles to the International Socialist Review, often using the JackPhillips. Sandburg struggled to find an outlet for his poetry and enough incometo support his young family. His fortunes turned in 1914 when Harriet Monroe ofPoetry published six of his radical, muscular poems in the March issue of herforward-looking journal. This first significant recognition of his work broughthim into the Chicago literary circle (Lowell, 3013-3015) Carl Sandburg found hissubject in the American people and the American landscape; he found his voice,after a long, lonely search and struggle, in the vivid, candid economy of theAmerican vernacular. (Niven 406) He worked his way to an individual free-versestyle, which spoke clearly, directly, and often crudely to the audience whichwas also his subject. His poetry celebrated and consoled people in theirenvironments–the crush of the city, the enduring solace the prairie. In hiswork for the Day Book, the Chicago Daily News, and the Newspaper EnterpriseAssociation (NEA), Sandburg had become a skilled investigative reporter withpassionate social concerns. He covered war, racial, lynching, mob violence, andthe inequities of the industrial society, such as child labor, and disease andinjury induced in the workplace. These concerns were transmuted into poetry.
Chicago Poems offered bold, realistic portraits of working men, women, andchildren; of the “inexplicable fate” of the vulnerable strugglinghuman victims of war, progress, and business. “Great men, pageants of warand labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children–these all I,and felt the solemn thrill of them,” Sandburg wrote in “Masses.”(Sherwood, 3022-3024) Sandburg’s themes in Chicago Poems reflect his Socialisticidealism and pragmatism, but they also contain a wider humanism, a profoundaffirmation of common man, the common destiny, the common tragedies and joys oflife. Just as Sandburg’s subject matter transcended that of conventional poetry,his free verse form was unique, original, and controversial. Some critics foundhis forms “shapeless” and questioned whether Sandburg’s work waspoetry at all. (Sherwood, 3022) Sandburg transmuted the harsh reality of histimes into poetry, and the emerging volume, Smoke and Steel (1920), wasdedicated to his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen. As in preceding volumes,Sandburg vividly depicts the daily toil of the workingman and woman, “thepeople who must sing or die.” The smoke of spring fields, autumn leaves,steel mills, and battleship is the emblem and extension of “the blood of aman,” the life force which under girds the industrial society and thelarger human brotherhood: “Deep down are the cinders we came from–/ Youand I and our heads of smoke,” he wrote in the title poem. Sandburg’sAmerican landscape broadens in Smoke and Steel from Chicago and the prairie tospecific scenes in places such as Gary, Indiana; Omaha; Cleveland; Kalamazoo;Far Rockaway; the Blue Ridge; New York. In all of these places Sandburg found acommon theme, the struggle of the common man, the quest of the “finders inthe dark.” “I hear America, I hear, what do I hear?” he wrote in”The Sins of Kalamazoo.” (Lowell 3012-3014) Throughout his life, CarlSandburg influenced the lives of many Americans. He didn’t just define Americanpoetry; he defined America through his views on the world’s culture and society.
Although growing up as a child of immigrants, Carl was very successful andproved that the ever-present “American Dream” can happen and hashappened before. The poetry that made him famous was unique and original on itsown, yet this did not make him an American influence. His views on politics weredifferent than most people’s views, yet his beliefs and his understanding of thedemocratic system allowed him to express his doubts and express his concerns forthe American people. This allowed others to take an honest look at the Americanway of life and it’s flaws. Sandburg was, put simply, An American Influence.
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