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Sandburg, Carl (1878-1967)
by Solomon, Susan

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Carl Sandburg 1878-1967

Carl Sandburg was born to Swedish immigrants in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois. The second of seven children, his early education ended with the eighth grade, when he began working full-time to help his father support the family. His jobs included work as a milk deliveryman, barber, ice cream scooper, ice harvester, migrant worker, railway hobo, fireman, stereoscopic-view salesman, tinsmith apprentice, potter, and house-and-barn painter. From early on he played a number of instruments, loved to sing, and read for pleasure. The songs he learned during his travels around the United States and in his many jobs would later reappear in his invaluable collection and history of American folksongs, The American Songbag (1927).

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Sandburg joined Company C of the Sixth Infantry Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, which, landing in Puerto Rico, saw no action and suffered no casualties. On his return, he entered Lombard College with a veteran's tuition waiver. While there he was particularly influenced by Professor Philip Green Wright, around whom a casual writer's circle—the Poor Writer's Club—formed. In 1904 Wright published the first collection of Sandburg's verse and prose, In Reckless Ecstasy, in his basement print shop.

In 1907, Sandburg began working as a recruiter for the Wisconsin Socialist Party and undertook the first of many reporting jobs (Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Daily News, Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee Leader, Chicago World, Day Book, Chicago Evening American, Chicago Daily News, Chicago Daily Times). In 1908 he married the teacher and translator Lillian Paula Steichen (sister of photographer Edward Steichen), with whom he had three daughters.

“Chicago Poems,” published in the 3.6 issue (March 1914) of Poetry, brought Sandburg his first tangible success as a poet. Joining his literary talent to his devotion to social issues, these poems reflect the legacy of Walt Whitman among American poets of this era—in their free verse and typographical form as well as in their indigenous inspiration. Sandburg won the 1913-14 Levinson prize from Poetry for the series, which brought with it a $200 prize (the equivalent of two months' wages from his job at the time with the Chicago Day Book). With the help of this distinction, along with Alice Corbin Henderson's backing, Sandburg obtained a contract in 1916 with Henry Holt & Co. for a longer collection, also called Chicago Poems, which included selections from his “Days” poems (7.1) as well. Sandburg's verse also attracted new attention to Poetry magazine—The Dial responded unfavorably to the poems in 3.6, thereby initiating new debates on the nature and role of poetry. Edgar Lee Masters at one time credited the appearance of Sandburg's poems in Poetry as an inspiration for his Spoon River Anthology. Many of the pieces collected in Sandburg's next volume, Cornhuskers (1918), which won a prize from the Poetry Society of America, earlier appeared as the “My People” (10.1) series in Poetry, and most of the poems from the “Redhaw Winds” (13.1) group later appeared in Smoke and Steel (1922). Sandburg would go on to write thirty volumes of prose and poetry, including a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, the last four volumes of which ("The War Years") earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. His Complete Poems, published in 1953, also won the Pulitzer Prize. Named the Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1962, he enjoyed considerable cultural prestige and remained socially and politically engaged until he died on his goat ranch in North Carolina in 1967.

—Susan Solomon

Selected Works by Carl Sandburg

  • The American Songbag. Harcourt Brace, 1927.
  • “Chicago Poems.” Poetry 3.6 (March 1914): 191-98.
  • Chicago Poems. Henry Holt, 1916.
  • Complete Poems. Harcourt Brace, 1950.
  • Cornhuskers. Henry Holt, 1918.
  • “Days.” Poetry 7.1 (October 1915): 1-11.
  • “My People.” Poetry 10.1 (April 1917): 1-11.
  • “Redhaw Winds” and “Assyrian Tablets.” Poetry 13.1 (March 1919): 22-25.
  • Smoke and Steel. Henry Holt, 1920.

Further Reading

  • Kramer, Dale. Chicago Renaissance: The Literary Life in the Midwest, 1900-1930. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966. Chapters 5 and 20.
  • Lowell, Amy. “Edward Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg.” Tendencies in Modern American Poetry. Macmillan, 1917.
  • Monroe, Harriet. “The Enemies We Have Made.” Poetry 4.2 (May 1914): 61-64.
  • Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912-22. Urbana, Chicago, London: U of Illinois P, 1977.
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