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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

[4848] Jack Delano, Blue Island, Illinois. Switching a Train with Diesel Switch Engine on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1943), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-026606-E DLC].

Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, to parents who had emigrated from Sweden. His father was a hard-working blacksmith, but the young Sandburg didn’t exhibit his father’s enthusiasm for manual labor and a steady home life. Sandburg left school after the eighth grade and then worked at a variety of odd jobs before volunteering in the Spanish American War in 1898. While serving in the war, he wrote columns about his experiences in the army for the Galesburg newspaper. After the war, Sandburg applied unsuccessfully to West Point. Eventually he attended Lombard College and worked at the local fire department to make ends meet. Although Sandburg became known around the institution for his writing, he didn’t finish his degree, but instead spent the next decade traveling around the country, working odd jobs, including selling stereoscopic photographs. He also rode on the trains with hobos, an experience that explains his lifelong sympathy for the downtrodden. In 1904, he regained work at the Galesburg newspaper and also published his first collection of poems, In Reckless Ecstasy. Two years later he attended the fortieth anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg, where he encountered the son of Abraham Lincoln. This experience intensified his interest in the president. In later life he wrote a magisterial four-volume biography of Lincoln as well as a book about his wife, Mary Todd. For the next few years, he worked a variety of jobs, until returning to Chicago, where he again landed work as a journalist. In 1914, he published several poems in the prestigious Poetry magazine, and he quickly became famous.

A public favorite, Sandburg began touring the country giving readings and lectures, and he wrote in a variety of genres, publishing children’s books, articles, the aforementioned biographies and an autobiography, as well as his poetry. But his poetic colleagues, such as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, considered Sandburg a poet with little craft. To an extent, they were right. Sandburg was more interested in subject matter than form or meter, and his poems often seem less polished. Despite what his contemporaries thought, Sandburg enjoyed wide public acclaim throughout his career. The governor of Illinois honored him by celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday as “Carl Sandburg Day,” the king of Sweden recognized him, the U.S. Congress invited him to give an address, schools were named after him in his home state, and President Johnson bestowed on him the Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Deeply influenced by Walt Whitman, Sandburg shared his predecessor’s devotion to American subject matter and common life. Sandburg strove to give poetic voice to a country whose poets seemed too willing to take a back seat to European tradition and to emulate Continental and other borrowed voices and forms. Based in Chicago, Sandburg was part of a school of poets who tried to wrest American poetry from the literary elite. Sandburg’s poetry was ultimately more political than either Whitman’s or William Carlos Williams’s, and his sharp journalistic eye made a frequent appearance in his verse. A political socialist, Sandburg saw his poetry as rooted in the vernacular and the experiences of the working class.

Teaching Tips

  • Like Taggard and later Pound, Sandburg engaged with socialism. Have your students reread some of Taggard’s poems about working-class people. How do Sandburg’s poems reflect his political leanings? What themes and images associate him with socialism? How does his work differ from Taggard’s social critiques?
  • Like many modernists, Sandburg uses the symbol of the modern city in his work. Have your students take turns reading “Chicago” aloud. Ask them to critique each other’s performances, paying close attention to intonation, emphasis, and rhythm. How does reading the poem aloud help them to appreciate it on a deeper level? Are they now better able to answer more complicated questions like the following: How does Sandburg’s portrayal of the city differ from that of other modernists? How does his portrayal of the city seem uniquely American?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Chicago,” who is “they” in the section beginning in line 6? How does Sandburg portray Chicago? What is the effect of his use of personification? What is the tone of this poem?
  2. Context: In “Child of the Romans,” who are the people in the train? How do they compare to the shovelman? Where do our sympathies lie? What is the significance of the title? How does this poem compare to “Chicago”? What are some of the themes that appear in both poems?
  3. Exploration: As mentioned earlier, the city was an important symbol in modernist poetry. Compare Sandburg’s portrayal of the modern city in “Chicago” with Eliot’s portrayal of London in The Waste Land.
  4. Exploration: For many American poets, it was difficult to write in the shadow of the long and rich literary traditions of older, more established cultures, particularly those of Europe and the Orient. Thus, part of creating an American poetic identity meant making American history and culture legitimate or revered. With a much shorter history and tradition, American poets often felt they had to work harder to establish themselves and their poetry. In addition, the melting pot culture made it difficult to create a collective American identity. How does Sandburg portray history in “Cool Tombs”? What is he saying about Lincoln, Grant, and Pocahontas? How does his idea of history differ from Hughes’s in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”?

Selected Archive Items

[4501] Anonymous, Chicago, Looking North from State and Washington Streets (1930), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Some of Carl Sandburg’s best-known poems are about his home city, Chicago. Sandburg was at the vanguard of a literary movement that sought to bring poetry to the working class.

[4848] Jack Delano, Blue Island, Illinois. Switching a Train with Diesel Switch Engine on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-026606-E DLC]. 
The Chicago and Rock Island Rail Road Company was an important line that began operation in 1848. The 1930s saw the rise of a much lighter diesel engine that brought great innovations in both freight trains and stream-lined “lightweight” passenger trains. Trains would come to symbolize both the hopefulness of modernism and the horrors of World War II.

[6551] Kenyon Cox, Columbia & Cuba–Magazine Cover–Nude Study (1898), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-68463]. 
An allegorical cover of an 1898 magazine, exemplifying the openness toward the human body of the late-nineteenth-century realists. The names of the women, “Columbia” and “Cuba,” refer to the imagined relationship of the nations during the Spanish American War.

[7110] H. C. White Co., Making Link Sausages–Machines Stuff 10 Ft. per Second (c. 1905), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-50217]. 
Photograph of Swift and Company’s Chicago packing house. Mechanization and urbanization encouraged some writers’ nostalgia for the United States’s agricultural past.

[8000] Al Ravenna, Carl Sandburg, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Left (1955), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-115064]. 
Like William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg was deeply influenced by Walt Whitman. He shared Whitman’s love of common things and his devotion to Abraham Lincoln and American themes.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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