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Carl Sandburg - Bio

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878--July 22, 1967), poet, essayist, biographer, and folk musician, was born Carl August Sandburg in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of August Sandburg, a railroad blacksmith's helper, and Clara Mathilda Anderson. Hardworking Swedish immigrants, his parents had met when August Sandburg worked on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Galesburg and Clara Mathilda Anderson labored as a hotel maid in Bushnell, Illinois. Although quite poor, they were a lively and loving family, advocates of hard work and education, and they shared as well a belief in the American dream. That dream did not come easily for Sandburg, who at the age of thirteen left school out of economic necessity, working first in his hometown shining shoes and delivering milk and newspapers. Sandburg then set out from Galesburg as a migratory laborer, shuffling from job to job in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, traveling often by train as was the case with so many other American “hoboes.”During this time, Sandburg took on the sort of work his poems would later detail in rugged, realistic terms. He was, at various times, a milkman, harvest hand, brickmaker, barbershop porter, and sign painter. For a time he sold stereoscopes and the popular stereoscopic views of the day. All of these jobs provided essential life-learning and exposure to the working class that are necessities for any poet of the people, as Sandburg decidedly became.

Returning to Galesburg, Sandburg tried his hand at house painting, before enlisting in Company C of the Sixth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers for service in the Spanish-American War. He was assigned to duty in Puerto Rico from July until late August 1898, serving as a correspondent for the Galesburg Evening Mail, his first newspaper affiliation. In October 1898, although he lacked a high school diploma, Sandburg's status as a war veteran qualified him for admission with free tuition to Lombard College in his hometown.

At Lombard, Sandburg earned a good scholastic record and gained distinction locally for his basketball skills. However, a few weeks before the close of his senior year, he simply disappeared from the college scene, leaving without a degree. From 1902 through 1907 Sandburg served as a roving newspaper reporter and tried to launch a career on the traveling lecture circuits, specializing in orations on Whitman, Lincoln, Shaw, and the ideals of socialism. His fiery oratory won the attention of the Wisconsin Social-Democratic party, for whom he later became a party organizer. From 1907 until 1912 Sandburg campaigned throughout Wisconsin for social democracy, penning pieces for newspapers and journals, organizing workers, presenting stump speeches, and in 1910 serving as secretary to Emil Seidel, the first socialist mayor of Milwaukee. Through this connection, Sandburg met Lilian Steichen, a young Socialist and schoolteacher, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago, and the younger sister of painter and photographer Edward Steichen. They fell for each other and were married in 1908, their long marriage producing three children.

Sandburg began writing poems so original in character and so rough in form that he wondered if these works were indeed poetry. His big break came when Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of the influential Chicago journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, accepted six of his poems for publication in the March 1914 issue, including Sandburg's “Chicago.”Sandburg soon found newspaper work with the Chicago Daily News, gradually falling into the company of a coterie of energetic writers forging what became to be known as “the Chicago Renaissance.”For a while, the literary center of the nation resided truly in its geographic center of Chicago (and decidedly not in New York, Boston, or the West Coast). Sandburg dallied, argued, and professed poetry with some of the key figures of the day, those who were serious about the notion of a new twentieth-century American poetry standing in stark contrast to the genteel poetry of the previous century. Sandburg kept the company of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, and Eunice Tietjens. From Europe, Ezra Pound, associate editor of Poetry, wrote letters of advice and encouragement to Sandburg. Another Poetry associate editor, Alice Corbin Henderson, convinced editor and book salesman Alfred Harcourt to read Sandburg's manuscript for Henry Holt and Company, who published Sandburg's Chicago Poems in 1916.

Those poems, several of which are presented here, invoked Sandburg's characteristic themes in the bare-knuckled and often indecorous style he became known for. Whether it was the woman digging onions for twelve hours a day, the slaughterhouse worker pushing blood with a broom, or the laborer shoveling a smooth train bed for wealthy patrons, Sandburg's characters maintained a qualified dignity in the face of economic exploitation. Sandburg, a populist poet of the American people, celebrated their lives and spirit in a vernacular tongue even they might not recognize as poetic.

His second volume of poetry, Cornhuskers, was published by Henry Holt in 1918, but in 1919 Sandburg moved with Alfred Harcourt to the new company he had founded, Harcourt, Brace & Howe, which published collections of poems titled Smoke and Steel (1920); Good Morning, America (1928); The People, Yes (1936), an epic, book-length poem about the depression, and Complete Poems (1950), for which Sandburg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Sandburg often spiced his poetry readings with aspects of minstrel show, accompanying himself on the guitar while he sang American folk songs. Having collected folk songs since his hobo days, setting down lyrics in his small notebooks, Sandburg offered many of these their first publication in The American Songbag in 1927. He also dabbled with books for children, including Rootabaga Stories (1922). Later, Sandburg produced a classic biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926) and the four volumes of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), the latter of which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize.

One can find the major repository of Sandburg's papers in The Carl Sandburg Collection at the University of Illinois Library in Urbana-Champaign. Another important Sandburg manuscript collection is housed in-state at Knox College in Galesburg.

Carl Sandburg - Poems

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Audio Files

  1. Carl Sandburg Reading His Poetry, Caedmon Records, 1962.
  2. Carl Sandburg Reading Fog and other poems, Caedmon Records, 1968.