Happy Birthday

carl sandberg
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Carl Sandburg, American Poet

January 06, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
Carl Sandburg was known primarily as a “poet of the people.” But as an artist it is hard to confine him to poetry alone. He dabbled in newspaper reporting, wrote biographies and fiction, and even played music. His practical approach to writing yielded an honest portrayal America.

Early Days

Carl Sandburg was born in a small “workingman’s cottage” in Galesburg, Ill., on Jan. 6, 1878. The son of Swedish immigrants, Carl was the second of seven children. Financial stresses forced him to quit school after the eighth grade, and he spent the following decade working an array of odd jobs. In 1897, Sandburg traveled as a hobo for a time, and then volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War. His veteran status earned him free admission to Lombard College 1898. It was there he started honing his writing ability.

At Lombard, Professor Philip Green Wright saw great potential in Sandburg’s future. Wright provided the encouragement Sandburg needed to become a writer, and also paid to publish his first volume of poetry, “Reckless Ecstasy.” Sandburg spent four years in college, but never earned a diploma from Lombard (in fact, he “disappeared” from school and found work as a newspaper reporter). Later, he met and married a woman named Lillian Steichen, the sister of photographer Edward Steichen. They had three children together.

Notable Accomplishments

Sandburg was a “poet of the people.” His hard-working early years gave him a practical approach to his writing. Sometimes, his poetry was so rough in form and subject matter that he wasn’t even sure it was poetry. He earned his career break when six of his poems, including “Chicago,” were published in “Poetry: A Magazine of Verse” during March 1914.

One of Sandburg’s more remarkable literary achievements is his biographical work about Abraham Lincoln, a man whom he deeply admired. “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work that is longer than the whole of Shakespeare’s writings by about 150,000 words. Sandburg spent decades preparing to write the book, storing materials he collected about Lincoln in a barn. As he wrote on a “cracker-box typewriter,” his goal was to uncover the “true” Abraham Lincoln. Historian Charles A. Beard called the book “a noble monument of American literature.”

The Rest of the Story

Perspectives on Sandburg’s writing covered a broad spectrum. While some viewed him as a “latter-day Walt Whitman,” others said “their six-year-old daughters could write better poetry,” The Poetry Foundation explains. As for Sandburg, he seemed not to care, once writing, “There is a formal poetry only in form, all dressed up and nowhere to go. The number of syllables, the designated and required stresses of accent, the rhymes if wanted—they all come off with the skill of a solved crossword puzzle.”

Interestingly, Sandburg’s name appears in some FBI documents, even though he was never the subject of an investigation. On a return trip from Sweden in 1918, “all of his property of the Newspaper Enterprise Association” was confiscated by customs and the military. Files bearing his name are available under the Freedom of Information Privacy Act.

Sandburg died in 1967. Connemara, the home where he wrote more than a third of his works, is now a national historic landmark.

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