"Carl Sandburg," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 54: American Poets, 1880-1945, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale Research Inc., 1987, pp. 390-405.
[Below, Niven discusses Sandburg's life and works.]
American poet and biographer Carl Sandburg sketched a revealing portrait of himself in the preface to his Complete Poems (1950): "there was a puzzlement," he said, "as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubadour with a guitar, a midwest Hans Christian Andersen, or a historian of current events.... " He was seventy-two in 1950 and "still studying verbs and the mystery of how they connect nouns.... I have forgotten the meaning of twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago. I still favor several simple poems published long ago which continue to have an appeal for simple people."
Sandburg wrote a landmark six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. A consummate platform performer, he roamed the United States for nearly a half century, guitar in hand, collecting and singing American folk songs. For his own children and children everywhere he wrote Rootabaga Stories (1922) and Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), some of the first authentic American fairy tales. He was a journalist by trade; his newspaper reportage and commentary documented labor, racial, and economic strife and other key events of his times. But Carl Sandburg was first and foremost a poet, writing poems about America in the American idiom for the American people. The titles of his volumes of poetry testify to his major themes: Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Good Morning, America (1928), The People, Yes (1936).
Louis Untermeyer described Sandburg in 1923 as the "emotional democrat" of American poetry, the "laureate of industrial America." Harriet Monroe, founder and first editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, gave Sandburg's poetry its first serious audience in 1914. She believed that this son of Swedish immigrants was particularly suited to write about the "incomplete, but urgent and hopeful" American democracy. She wrote in Poets and Their Art (1926) that Sandburg was bent on the business, "in the deepest sense a poet's business, of seeing our national life in the large—its beauty and glory, its baseness and shame."
Sandburg's vision of the American experience was shaped in the American Midwest during the complicated events which brought the nineteenth century to a close. His parents were Swedish immigrants who met in Illinois, where they had settled in search of a share of American democracy and prosperity. August Sandburg helped to build the first cross-continental railroad, and in the twentieth century his son Carl was an honored guest on the first cross-continental jet flight. August Sandburg was a blacksmith'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 steps away from the roundhouse and railroad yards. Carl August Sandburg was the second child and first son of the hardworking Sandburgs. He grew up speaking Swedish and English, and, eager to be assimilated into American society, he Americanized his name. 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 had "a feeling the name Carl would mean one more Poor Swede Boy while the name Charles filled the mouth and had 'em guessing."
There were seven children in the Sandburg family, and the two youngest sons died of diphtheria on the same day in 1892. Charles Sandburg had to leave school at age thirteen to work at a variety of odd jobs to supplement the family income. As a teenager he was restless and impulsive, hungry for experience in the world beyond the staid, introverted prairie town which had always been his home. At age eighteen, he borrowed his father's railroad pass and had his first look at Chicago, the city of his destiny. In 1897 Sandburg joined the corps of more than 60,000 hoboes who found the American railroads an exhilarating if illicit free ride from one corner of the United States to another. For three and a half months of his nineteenth year he traveled through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, working on farms, steamboats, and railroads, blacking stoves, washing dishes, and listening to the American vernacular, the idiom which would permeate his poetry.
The journey left Sandburg with a permanent wanderlust. He volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and served in Puerto Rico from July until late August. As a veteran, he received free tuition for a year at Lombard College in Galesburg and enrolled there in October 1898. He was offered a conditional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on the basis of his Spanish-American War service, but in June 1899 he failed entrance examinations in arithmetic and grammar. He returned to Lombard, where he studied until May of 1902, when he left college without enough credits for graduation.
At Lombard, he encountered the first catalyst for his poetry, Prof. Philip Green Wright, economist, scholar, and poet. Wright fostered Sandburg's interest in writing and published the young poet's first small books at his Asgard Press, which he modeled after William Morris's Kelmscott Press and its offspring, Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft Press. On the small handpress in the basement of his Galesburg home, Wright set the type for Charles A. Sandburg's In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), Incidentals (1907), The Plaint of a Rose (1908), and Joseffy (1910). The last book was commissioned by Joseffy, a magician, musician, inventor, and wanderer, who wanted an "appreciation" to promote his lyceum appearances. The three other early works, slim booklets which are now rare collectors' items, contain Sandburg's juvenilia, which he viewed in retrospect as "many odd pieces ... not worth later reprint." They record the tentative and conventionally modeled lyrics of a young poet deeply influenced by Villon, Browning, Kipling, Emerson, and Whitman, as well as idealistic aphorisms in the style of Elbert Hubbard. These early writings are foretokens of the major themes of Sandburg's later poetry, as well of the idealism which led him to become an activist and organizer for the Social Democratic party in Wisconsin from 1907 until 1912.
By the time he was thirty Sandburg had tried a variety of jobs, often supporting himself as an itinerant salesman of Underwood and Underwood stereopticon equipment and pictures. He tried to establish himself as a Lyceum and Chautauqua lecturer, published occasional poems, and worked for a variety of periodicals. In 1908 he married Lilian Steichen, sister of photographer Edward Steichen, who had already achieved some international success with his artistic photographs. Lilian Steichen was a beautiful Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago, a schoolteacher, and an active Socialist. Sandburg said later that the three chief influences in his life were Philip Green Wright, Edward Steichen, and Lilian Steichen Sandburg, his wife for fifty-nine years. He called her Paula, and she urged him to return to his christened name Carl, to affirm his Swedish roots. She also urged him to concentrate on his poetry, and her steady faith in his work undergirded his long struggle to find his own poetic style and a serious audience for his poetry.
From 1910 until 1912 Carl and Paula Sandburg lived in Milwaukee, where Sandburg was instrumental in the Milwaukee Socialists' unprecedented political victory in 1910. When Emil Seidel was elected Milwaukee's first Socialist mayor in that year, Sandburg, then thirty-two, was appointed his secretary. Sandburg left city hall in 1911 to write for Victor Berger's Social Democratic Herald in Milwaukee. In June 1911 the Sandburgs' first child, Margaret, was born. A second daughter died at birth in 1913; Janet was born in 1916, and Helga was born in 1918. In 1912 the Sandburgs moved to Chicago, 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 other Chicago newspapers. Once the strike was settled, the World went out of business, and Sandburg found work with small periodicals such as the business magazine System and Day Book, an adless daily newspaper owned by W. E. Scripps. He contributed occasional articles to the International Socialist Review, often using the pseudonym Jack Phillips. Sandburg struggled to find an outlet for his poetry and enough income to support his young family. His fortunes turned in 1914 when Harriet Monroe of Poetry published six of his radical, muscular poems in the March issue of her forward-looking journal. This first significant recognition of his work brought him into a Chicago literary circle which included Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Vachel Lindsay, Emanuel Carnevali, Alice Corbin Henderson, Floyd Dell, and others. His poetry also came to the attention of Ezra Pound, who was the magazine's foreign editor. Masters and Dreiser encouraged Sandburg to construct his first book of poetry, and Henderson, then assistant editor of Poetry, brought the collection to the attention of Alfred Harcourt, a young editor at Henry Holt and Company, who risked his own job to persuade the firm to publish Sandburg's Chicago Poems in 1916.
Carl Sandburg found his subject 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 the American vernacular. He worked his way to a rugged, individual free-verse style which spoke clearly, directly, and often crudely to the audience which was also his subject. His poetry celebrated and consoled people in their environments—the crush of the city, the enduring solace of the prairie. In his work for the Day Book, the Chicago Daily News, and the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), Sandburg had become a skilled investigative reporter with passionate social concerns. He covered war, racial strife, lynchings, mob violence, and the inequities of the industrial society, such as child labor, and disease and injury induced in the workplace. These concerns were transmuted into poetry. Chicago Poems offered bold, realistic portraits of working men, women, and children; of the "inexplicable fate" of the vulnerable and struggling human victims of war, progress, business. "Great men, pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children—these all I touched, and felt the solemn thrill of them," Sandburg wrote in "Masses." "And then one day I got a true look at the Poor, millions of the Poor,/patient and toiling; more patient than crags, tides, and stars; innumer-/able, patient as the darkness of night—and all broken, humble ruins of nations."
Sandburg's themes in Chicago Poems reflect his Socialistic idealism and pragmatism, but they also contain a wider humanism, a profound affirmation of the common man, the common destiny, the common tragedies and joys of life. Just as Sandburg's subject matter transcended that of conventional poetry, his free verse form was unique, original, and controversial. Some critics found his forms "shapeless" and questioned whether Sandburg's work was poetry at all. In her Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Sandburg's respected friend and colleague Amy Lowell called him a lyric poet but stated that "the lyricist in him has a hard time to make itself heard above the brawling of the marketplace." She praised Sandburg's virility and tenderness, his originality and strength, and ratified his importance as a democratic poet. But she objected to the propagandistic overtones she perceived in Sandburg's poetry. In June 1917 Sandburg wrote to Lowell in his own defense that his aim was not to advance social theories, but "to sing, blab, chortle, yodel, like people, and people in the sense of human beings subtracted from formal doctrines."
The reviews for Chicago Poems were predictably disparate in their assessment of what the reviewer for the American Library Association Booklist (October 1916) called Sandburg's "tradition-shattering poetry," but the criticism which caused him long hours of reflection was Lowell's view that there was too much propaganda in his work. He continued as a journalist, joining the Chicago Daily News in 1917 as a labor reporter and editorial writer, but he was a poet by vocation. His newspaper job exposed him to the issues and conflicts of his time. The grim realism of labor conflict, racial strife, and mob violence in Chicago and the growing chaos of World War I led Sandburg to a growing cynicism and pessimism. He struggled for an equilibrium which would help him avoid the confusion of poetic theme and propaganda of action. But Sandburg was becoming the poet of democracy, and he believed that the poet had a public duty to speak to his times.
Cornhuskers (1918) is a celebration of the prairie, the agrarian life, the people living it. The volume includes some revealing autobiographical poems, many gentle, lyrical evocations of his family life, and poignant portraits of American working men and women reminiscent of Chicago Poems. The strength of Cornhuskers rests in its remarkable war poems. In the concluding section, "Shenandoah," Sandburg sketches with a deceptively gentle irony the phantoms of soldiers who died in past battles of earlier wars. He concludes with a forceful and bitter attack on modern warmongers who use the lives and deaths of "A Million Young Workmen, 1915":
Critical reception for Cornhuskers was mixed, ranging from the view that Sandburg was in the front rank of American poets to the opinion that his outspoken idealism prevented him from being a poet at all. Some reviewers described him as the first American poet of his generation, revealing the "vitality and strength of the English tongue as it was in its beginnings" (Review of Reviews, January 1919), while others, such as the New York Times reviewer, commented on the melancholy mood of the book, attributing it to "the racial soberness of the Scandinavian" (12 January 1919).
By the time the book appeared in October 1918, Sandburg was in Stockholm, Sweden, for his first closeup view of his parents' homeland, as well as for a brief view of World War I. He stayed on after the November Armistice to continue his work as Eastern European correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association and became entangled with wartime bureaucracy when he brought back to the United States a trunk full of Russian literature and propaganda and some funds intended for the Finnish People's Republic Movement in New York. His good intentions validated, Sandburg was not charged with any violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, but he was sobered and distressed by the questioning of his loyalty as an American citizen. Back at work at the Chicago Daily News, he covered a range of postwar issues, as well as the ongoing racial and labor conflict in Chicago. He was assigned to investigate the background of racial tensions in the city during the summer of 1919, and his thoughtful series of articles proved tragically prophetic when the Chicago Race riots erupted in late July. Alfred Harcourt gathered Sandburg's columns into a book entitled The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919 (1919).
Once again, Sandburg transmuted the harsh reality of his times into poetry, and the emerging volume, Smoke and Steel (1920), was dedicated to his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen. As in preceding volumes, Sandburg vividly depicts the daily toil of the working man and woman, "the people who must sing or die." The smoke of spring fields, autumn leaves, steel mills, and battleship funnels is the emblem and extension of "the blood of a man," the life force which undergirds the industrial society and the larger human brotherhood: "Deep down are the cinders we came from—/You and I and our heads of smoke," he wrote in the title poem. Sandburg's American landscape broadens in Smoke and Steel from Chicago and the prairie to specific scenes in places such as Gary, Indiana; Omaha; Cleveland; Kalamazoo; Far Rockaway; the Blue Ridge; the Potomac; New York. In all of these places Sandburg found a common theme, the struggle of the common man, the quest of the "finders in the dark." "I hear America, I hear, what do I hear?," he wrote in "The Sins of Kalamazoo."
Sandburg's voyage to Sweden and his perspective of World War I are transcribed in the poems in two sections of Smoke and Steel titled "Passports" and "Playthings of the Wind." Harsh depictions of human cruelty (a lynching is graphically described in "Man, the Man-Hunter," for instance) are juxtaposed to the gentle, often joyous lyricism of poems about Paula Sandburg, family, home, the beauty of nature.
Smoke and Steel is a strong but uneven work, and it elicited contradictory critical views. In a review for the 15 January 1920 issue of the New Republic Louis Untermeyer hailed the book as "an epic of modern industrialism and a mighty paean to modern beauty" and named Sandburg and Robert Frost as America's two major living poets. Other critics charged that Sandburg had no sense of the past or vision of the future and that he had begun to produce an undiscriminating quantity of work, often imitating himself in the process. In the 9 December 1920 issue of the London Times a reviewer mused that Sandburg's poems were true to a certain kind of life and that they were undoubtedly American, but questioned whether Sandburg's work constituted "a high and right art."
The negative appraisals were overshadowed for Sandburg by the welcome acclaim of his friend Amy Lowell. "Reading these poems gives me more of a patriotic emotion than ever `The Star-spangled Banner' has been able to do," she wrote in the New York Times (24 October 1920). "This is America and Mr. Sandburg loves her so much that suddenly we realize how much we love her, too." Earlier lectures about propagandistic poetry aside, Lowell forecast that posterity would rank Sandburg "high on the ladder of poetic achievement."
In 1921 Sandburg was forty-three years old, comfortably employed by Victor Lawson and Henry Justin Smith at the Chicago Daily News, and a poet whose three books had earned him a widening reputation and prestigious awards—including the Poetry Society of America Award, which he shared with Margaret Widdemer in 1919, and the Poetry Society of America Annual Book Award, which he shared with Stephen Vincent Benet in 1921. He lived with his wife and three small daughters in Elmhurst, Illinois, and traveled with increasing frequency on the college lecture circuit, reading his poetry and playing and singing American folk songs from his flourishing collection. His growing disillusionment with "the imbecility of a frightened world" was intensified by deep personal sorrow and anxiety at the discovery that his eldest child, Margaret, suffered from nocturnal epilepsy, an illness for which there was no effective treatment in 1921. Sandburg heightened his lecture activity to supplement his income so that Margaret could have every possible medical treatment for her mystifying illness, and he began to work in earnest on the Rootabaga Stories (1922), a charming, whimsical series of fables invented for his own children. A sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, appeared in 1923.
He managed amid family stress to produce his fourth book of poetry, a slim volume entitled Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), dedicated to his youngest child, Helga. The book begins with a muted portrait of Chicago, "The Windy City," a catalogue of the city's monotony and vitality, its weather and its people. "And So Today," an extended eulogy to an unknown soldier, brings a certain closure to the war poems of this period of the poet's life. There are poems to well-known subjects—including sculptor Constantin Brancusi, Charlie Chaplin, and Robert Frost. The title poem uses the vehicle of the journey of an overland passenger train to unite the past and present members of the great "procession" of "wonderful hungry people" who created the American nation. For the first time, Sandburg made extended use of the catalogue, the repetitive accrual of images in parallel forms and the quotation of American slang and platitudes.
These devices irritated some critics, who found Sandburg's work incoherent and his vocabulary dated. "Slang is last night's toadstool growth," Clement Wood wrote in the Nation (26 July 1922), warning that Sandburg wrote in "unfamiliar rhythms, and a vocabulary that tomorrow will speak only to the archaeologist." But other critics admired Sandburg's virility and originality, his mellower, more musical tone and his cogent style. Malcolm Cowley pointed out in the Dial (November 1922) that Sandburg's use of parallel constructions and repetition yielded verse which "is highly organized," producing effects "as complex and difficult sometimes as those of Swinburne's most intricate ballades.... " The New York Times reviewer warned that Sandburg "is already in danger of becoming the Professional Chanter of Virility" (4 July 1922), but on one point reviewers and Sandburg's large audience of readers agreed: he was a completely American poet, the Poet of the People.
Slabs of the Sunburnt West made frequent use of prose structures at a time when Sandburg was discovering an interesting fact of literary economics: prose paid better than poetry. His Rootabaga Stories were so successful that Alfred Harcourt proposed that Sandburg follow his longtime wish to write a juvenile biography of Abraham Lincoln. From the disillusioning realities of the world he had documented so long in poetry, journalism, and political speeches, Sandburg turned to the refuge of history and legend. He began to immerse himself in Lincoln research and in American folklore and folk music. For the next seventeen years, in the prime of his creative life, Sandburg focused on one central, overriding subject: Abraham Lincoln. He took "occasional detours" for poetry, producing two significant volumes, Good Morning, America in 1928 and The People, Yes in 1936. But the poet who had shown the American people the reality of their language and their lives in his innovative verse forms began the long work of presenting to them the higher reality of their mythology and legends in the tragic folk hero Lincoln and in The American Songbag, an anthology of American folk music that he edited in 1927.
The title poem of Good Morning, America, composed and delivered as the Phi Beta Kappa Poem at Harvard University in 1925, was Sandburg's strongest affirmation yet of "the little two-legged joker ... Man." The collection begins with thirty-eight "Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry" and moves—with a panoramic sweep reflecting Sandburg's departure from realism—into mythology, legend, history, and a universal humanism. Sandburg converts an informed view of history, the product of his mounting Lincoln research, into poetic subject matter. His extended catalogue of proverbs and folk idioms foreshadows the content of The People, Yes as it dramatizes "the short miserable pilgrimage of mankind."
Sandburg's two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years brought him new celebrity and financial stability in 1926. The American Songbag, warmly received and reviewed in 1927, testified not only to Sandburg's versatility but to his comprehensive interest in documenting the American experience. If the Poet of the People needed further ratification of his place as a popular American literary figure, Good Morning, America received such an endorsement from the majority of critics. Sandburg was compared to Whitman, praised for his humor, his vision, the rhythms of his verse. Some critics, such as Perry Hutchison, chided that Sandburg demonstrated no real growth as a poet, that he had "sat too long at the feet of Walt Whitman" (New York Times, 21 October 1928). But the consensus was that "sunburned Carl Sandburg, in love with the earth," as Leon Whipple called him in Survey (1 November 1928), had found the subject and the style vigorous and free enough for "a Continental plateau and the Great Divide.... "
In the early 1930s Sandburg formed a lifelong friendship with Archibald MacLeish, and the men carried on an introspective dialogue about the obligations of the poet to speak to the issues of his times. The Depression years provoked in Sandburg a profound desire to console "the people of the earth, the family of man," to lift the hopes of the people who, "In the darkness with a great bundle of grief," marched "in tune and step/with constellations of universal law." Sandburg relinquished his Chicago Daily News job in 1932 to devote his full time to writing biography and poetry; he began to take a "detour" from work on the last stages of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years to write a long, innovative poem based in part on the lessons he had learned from Lincoln and American history. The People, Yes (1936), an epic prose-poem, is in many ways the culmination of Sandburg's work as a poet. He crafted it over an eight-year period, fusing the American vernacular with the details of history and contemporary events. Sandburg's immersion in the Lincoln era had given him an informed sense of history, and he saw striking parallels between Lincoln's time and the Depression years. Believing that economic inequity lay at the root of all social injustice, from labor conflict to racial and civil strife, he responded to the economic and social upheavals of the 1930s with The People, Yes, his testament to the seekers and the strugglers, the people who were the counterparts of his own immigrant parents. "Man is a long time coming," Sandburg concluded in the final, one hundred and seventh, stanza of the poem. "Man will yet win./Brother may yet line up with brother."
The critics looked for coherence and could not find it, sought structure and could not find that, and wondered anew if the Poet of the People could in fact write poetry at all. But there was generous praise for Sandburg's vision of the American people as heroic, for his lusty humor and vivid irony, for his success in rendering "the authentic accents of his brother." Sandburg's readers embraced the book and wrote to him in legions to thank him for it. He took all responses in stride. He had written the poem he wanted to write, and he called it the "best memorandum I could file for the present stress."
In 1940 Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for the four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, published in 1939. The People, Yes was his last major book of poetry. During the decade of the 1940s Sandburg lectured widely, wrote occasional poetry, involved himself actively in the war effort, and worked as a syndicated columnist. A collection of his newspaper columns and radio broadcasts was published as Home Front Memo (1943), along with the text and photographs from Road to Victory, a patriotic exhibit which he and his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen, had created for the Museum of Modern Art in 1942.
Sandburg and MacLeish were critical of writers who remained detached from the national emergency of World War II, and Sandburg cautioned that "A writer's silence on living issues can in itself constitute a propaganda of conduct leading toward the deterioration or death of freedom."
Sandburg's commitment to speak to the issues of his times, his passion for American history, and his desire to try writing in every genre led him to sign a contract on 11 September 1943 to write an epic historical novel that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios could make into what the studio hoped would be a popular wartime film. Sandburg was an innovator, seldom afraid to risk new ventures; thus he set out in 1943, at age sixty-five, to write his first and only novel, Remembrance Rock. It was finally completed and published in 1948, but the film version was never made.
Sandburg had tried almost every genre by the time he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1951 for his Complete Poems (1950). In Always the Young Strangers (1953) he recorded the first twenty years of his life. Sandburg enjoyed the height of his celebrity in the 1950s, traveling widely as an increasingly visible public figure. He was a natural for the new medium of television, and his familiar face, with high cheekbones framed by the sweep of white hair, was photographed and recognized across the nation he celebrated throughout his life and work. In 1959 Sandburg and Edward Steichen traveled to the Soviet Union with The Family of Man, an exhibition of photographs and text which they had jointly arranged as a celebration of humanity. Sandburg made his second and final trip to Sweden at the end of that journey.
Sandburg wrote, traveled, and entertained audiences as long as he had the strength to do so. He went to Hollywood in 1960 to spend a year and a half as creative consultant to George Stevens and his film The Greatest Story Ever Told. The octogenarian Sandburg had by the 1960s become known as a legend in his time. "A legend in our time," he often exclaimed. "Jesus, it could be worse."
"Being a poet is a damn dangerous business," Sandburg observed at his eighty-fifth birthday dinner in 1963, on the event of the publication of his final book of poetry, Honey and Salt. The volume is notable for its variety, but its quality is uneven. Some of the poems are sentimental caricatures of his early work, but many of them reveal powers which had stayed and grown. Honey and Salt is a summation of Sandburg's life and work weighted with reflections on the passage of time, the waning of physical and creative powers, the perdurability of the physical universe, and the transitory nature of human life. Honey and Salt contains whimsy and pain, sentimentality and strength, and Sandburg's enduring idealism, memory, and hope, as well as his rudimentary affirmation of the bonds of universal life and the family of man.
The Sandburgs left the midwestern heartland in 1945, moving to the mountains of North Carolina in search of more solitude and space for the family and Paula Sandburg's thriving herd of championship dairy goats. They settled at Connemara, a 245-acre estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Carl Sandburg died there in the hush of the mountain summer on 22 July 1967 at age eighty-nine. His wife, Paula, survived him, along with daughters Margaret, Janet, and Helga, and Helga's children, John Carl and Karlen Paula, who as teenagers had legally taken their grandmother's maiden name, Steichen. At the simple funeral ceremony in a nearby chapel, Edward Steichen placed a pine bough on Sandburg's coffin, in memory of their years of fellowship.
Unlike American writers whose families had long been American citizens, Sandburg felt no compulsion to serve a literary apprenticeship abroad. While others found stimulation and sustenance in Paris, London, or Rome, Sandburg turned to Milwaukee and Chicago. Sandburg's immigrant father never learned to write the language his son used to explore, describe, interpret, and celebrate the American experience. August and Clara Sandburg were strangers to the American prairie and the robust complexity of the city Carl Sandburg sought to interpret for them and others like them. Witnessing the obstacles thrust before the modest hopes of simple working people such as his parents, he became the passionate champion for people who did not have the words or power to speak for themselves. During the turbulent events of nearly a century of American life, Sandburg sought to articulate and affirm the hopes of the average American citizen. "There are poets of streets and struggles, of dust and combat, of violence wanton or justified, of plain folk living close to a hard earth," Sandburg wrote in "Notes for a Preface" in his Complete Poems. He was convinced that "When men lose their poetic feeling for ordinary life, and cannot write poetry of ordinary things, their exalted poetry is likely to lose its strength of exaltation."
Sandburg found his subject and his themes in ordinary life. He viewed himself as "one more seeker" in the long procession of humanity. His celebration of the durable human spirit transcends time or place. This uniquely American poet found in the American experience symbols for the universal human experience. "The people take the earth/as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope," he wrote in The People, Yes. "Who else speaks for the Family of Man?/They are in tune and step/with constellations of universal law."
Carl Sandburg spoke for the Family of Man in bold new forms and subjects. Twentieth-century critics have seriously underestimated his influence in legitimizing and popularizing the free-verse form in American literature. Sandburg was often his own best critic; he anticipated that some of his work would later be judged as dated and obsolete. If some of his poems seemed "to be not for this hour," he suggested, they could be "passed by as annals, chronicles or punctuation points of a vanished period." He was a conscientious public poet whose work, to be comprehended fully, must be read within the context of his times.
Yet as the spokesman for the great human family, Carl Sandburg, biographer, historian, troubadour, and poet, speaks to any period, any place.