GEORGE & WILLENE HENDRICK
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D URING THE WINTER OF 1914
A JOURNALIST-POET NAMED CARL SANDBURG
AND HIS WIFE, PAULA, SISTER OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER EDWARD STEICHEN, DECIDED TO SEND A GROUP OF HIS POEMS TO HARRIET MONROE’S CHICAGO MAGAZINE POETRY: A MAGAZINE OF VERSE.
The sub-editors Alice Corbin Henderson and Eunice Tietjens were the first readers and were enthusiastic about these unconventional poems. They urged Monroe to accept them.
At first Monroe hesitated, as Penelope Niven has noted in her biography of Sandburg, because of “their unorthodox form and their range from brutality to misty lyricism.” But Monroe did see the poems as fresh and very original and published nine of them in the March 1914 issue of her magazine.
The lead poem for that issue of Poetry was “Chicago,” which began:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas
lamps lurin the farm boys .....
These and other lines of the poem came as a “shock” to Harriet Monroe, but she “took a long breath and swallowed it.” Monroe’s motto for Poetry was from Whitman: “To have great poets there must be great audiences too.”
She obviously felt that her discovery of Sandburg, who had neve r before been published in a major journal, was a promising new find and that Sandburg would have a large readership. Eunice Tietjens, however, wrote that the poems “roused a veritable storm of protest over what was then called their brutality. Many Chicagoans were furious at seeing their city presented in this, to them, unflattering light. .... . .‘ It wasn’t just Chicagoans who were offended by Sandburg’s poetry. The Dial attacked the “hog butcher” school of poetry, finding “no trace of beauty in the ragged lines,” whose style “admits no aesthetic claim of any description, and acknowledges subordination to no kind of law.”
In the next issue of Poetry, Monroe defended the unorthodox poet Sandburg. As an editor she was willing to take chances, she said, to make “room 4or the young and new” and to “break the chains which enslave Chicago to New York, America to Europe, and the presen t to the past.”
Her gamble succeeded: Sandburg soon received the Helen Haire Levinson Prize for the best poems of the year, and he began to have an appreciative audience. While some of his poems dealt with social protest and the raw life of the city, others such as “Fog” were pure images which, once read, were not forgotten:
The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches and then moves on.
Alice Corbin Henderson had recommended Sandburg’s poetry to Alfred Harcourt, then a young editor at Henry , Holt and Company. Harcourt was enthusiastic about most of the poetry but felt he would have difficulty getting the more radical poems approved by the conservative senior editors. Sandburg, then in his radical Socialist phase, had included in his manuscript several extremely revolutionary poems, including “Dynamiter”:
I sat with a dynamiter at supper in a German saloon
eating steak and onions.
And he laughed and told stories of his wife and
children and the cause of labor and the working class....
His name was in many newspapers as an enemy of the
nation and few keepers of churches or schools
would open their doors to him....
Harcourt questioned the radical tone of some of the poems, including this one. In a letter of February 4, 1916, to Harcourt , Sdndburg defended the poem: “You placed a question mark on ‘Dynamiter.’ I would say put it in. I believe the backing for this book will come from the younger, aggressive fellows, in the main. Without tying it up to any special schools or doctrines, the intellectual background of it takes color from the modern working class movement rather than old fashioned Jefferson democracy .” The poem was published.
Heeding Harcourt’s advice, however, Sandburg did make changes in his scathing attack on pseudo-religion in a poem called “ Billy Sunday.” Harcourt believed that some of “the poems, the subjects of which are living people referred to by name, should certainly be omitted.” Sandburg’s slashing attack on the evangelist Billy Sunday, while not omitted, was somewhat tempered. The title became “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.” Sunday was not named in the poem, and other deletions made it acceptable to the Holt publishing firm. In his letter defending the revised poem, Sandburg wrote to Harcourt on February 4, 1916: “The only other American figure that might compare with Sunday is Hearst. Both dabble in treacheries of the primitive, invoke terrors of the unknown, utilize sex as a stage prop, and work on elemental fears of the mob, with Hearst the same antithesis to Tom Jefferson that Billy Sunday is to Jesus of Nazareth.”
Sandburg was finally allowed to include, sometimes in revised form, many of the social protest and anti-war poems that Harcourt had questioned. When Holt finally published Chicago Poems in 1916, reactions and reviews were mixed. The conservative critic William Stanley Braithwaite thought it was a “book of ill-regulated speech that has neither verse or prose rhythms.” He did believe, however, that Sandburg had a “strong if unpleasant imagination, which is also strangely woven with a tenderness that is striking.” The New York Times reviewer judged the work to be “all alive, stirring, human. The best is very good indeed; the worst is dull and shapeless. But the worst can easily be let alone, for there is so much of the good.”
Living up to Harriet Monroe’s belief in him, Sandburg did indeed quickly find a wide audience among the masses for whom his poetry was deliberately written. How did he do this? How did he become a poet of the people and for the people?
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C ARL AUGUST SANDBERG WAS BORN ON A CORNHUSK MATTRESS IN A SMALL COTTAGE IN GALESBURG, ILLINOIS, ON JANUARY 6, 1878.
He was the second child and first son of August and Clara Sandberg, both immigrants from Sweden. August took the name Sandberg after he came to Illinois, where he worked for many years as a blacksmith’s helper at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shop in Galesburg, then a small town of about fifteen thousand with many immigrants.
In Sweden his family name was Danielson, or perhaps Sturm, or was it Holmes? Carl was never able to learn the original family name. Later the children in the family adopted the spelling Sandburg, and Carl, as part of his Americanization, for many years used Charles instead of Carl for his first name.
The elder Sandberg worked ten hours a day for fourteen cents an hour. He was a quiet, undemonstrative man, fearful of poverty. He could read Swedish but could not write. He never attempted to perfect his English. His wife, Clara, had come to Illinois as a hotel maid. She learned English more easily than her husband. The elder Sandbergs spoke Swedish at home, and Carl learned Swedish before he could speak English. August had little interest in “book learning.” Clara, though, supported her children’s interest in education. Carl saw her as a kind, bighearted woman.
Sandburg wrote perceptively about his early years in Always the Young Strangers. There were seven Sandberg children (two boys died young), and funds were always short. Young Charlie delivered newspapers and did janitorial work to help the family income. He was a bright boy, a good student, curious about whys and wherefores. He was a reader and a dreamer.
The Sandbergs were Swedish Lutherans, and August was a staunch Republican in a strong Republican region. But young Charles had a friend, John Sjodin, who was “a hard-and-fast political-action radical. ‘The big corporations’ were running the country, as John saw it, and the time would come when the working people, farmers and laborers, would organize and get political power and take over the big corporations, beginning with the government ownership of railroads. Always John was sensitive about the extremes of the rich and the poor, the poor never knowing what tomorrow would bring and the rich having more than they knew what to do with.” Although Sandburg did not become a Socialist at that time, Sjodin started him thinking about politics, business, and crime in America.
When young Carl finished the eighth grade in 1891, he quit school and went to work at a series of dead-end jobs, contributing money to the family treasury. He seemed no different from millions of young working-class adolescents in America then . Unsure of himself and his future, he tried one job after another: milk delivery boy, newspaper boy, shoeshine boy, and as a hobo in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado he was a farmhand, dishwasher, odd-job man. Sandburg gives a vivid picture of those years in Always the Young Strangers; even as an adolescent with no goals in life, no long-term plans, he was a careful observer of the people he met and the events he saw.
In 1896, at the age of eighteen, Sandburg went to Chicago for the first time. His father got him a pass on the “Q” as the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was known . Charlie had a dollar and fifty cents, but John Sjodin, who knew the city, told him how to live cheap, and cheap it was. He stayed three days. His flop -house charge was twenty-five cents a night; breakfast at Pittsburgh Joe’s was wheat pancakes, molasses, margarine, and coffee, five cents.
At the same diner his lunch and dinner were identical: a bowl of meat stew, bread, and coffee—ten cents a meal. For three days he walked: he saw the department stores and the newspaper offices where the papers he had carried in Galesburg were edited; he saw for the first time a large body of water; he observed the Board of Trade activities. Mostly, though, it was the “roar of the streets” that really fascinated him, just as the movement of people and traffic in Manhattan had fascinated Walt Whitman.
On his last day in Chicago Charlie went into a saloon that featured a free lunch . He paid his five cents for a glass of beer, which he accompanied with rye bread, cheese, and baloney. While he was eating and drinking a woman came up and took a chair at his table. She appeared young, but there were “hard lines at the mouth and eyes.”
As Sandburg reconstructed the scene many decades later, “She smiled a hard smile and said, ‘What are yuh doin? Lookin fer a good time?”’ “I said, ‘I’m polishing nail heads for Street and Walker.’
It was a saying then. If you were out of work and looking for a job you walked the streets where the wooden sidewalks had nail heads sticking up and your shoes polished those nail heads.
“Her face lighted up and she blazed it at me, ‘I’m goin to polish your nail head fer yuh!’ She was terribly alive and the words came hard through her teeth and her pretty mouth. “I waited a few seconds fumbling around with what to say and then told her, ‘You’re up the wrong alley, sister, I ain’t got but two nickels and they wouldn’t do you any good.’ She stood up, said, ‘All right’ cheerily and skipped along toward men at other tables.”
In three days the young Sandburg saw much of the city he was to write about in his 1914 poem “Chicago,” including painted women luring country boys.
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S ANDBURG MIGHT HAVE REMAINED A BRIGHT MAN WORKING ONLY DEAD-END JOBS ALL HIS LIFE EXCEPT FOR ONE EVENT — THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR.
When the hostilities began in 1898 he enlisted in Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment, Illinois Volunteers. Private Sandburg saw duty in Puerto Rico and then returned home to Galesburg. As a veteran he was offered, for the first year, free tuition at Lombard College in his hometown. Lombard had been founded by the Universalist church and was theologically and academically liberal. It had a small enrollment, usually under two hundred, a good faculty, and sponsored a great many extracurricular activities. Sandburg had never expected to go to college; as fate would have it, he was a student at just the right institution. Because he had not attended high school, he was enrolled as a special student and allowed to take makeup classes as well as regular college classes. He threw himself into college life.
To make money for books and other expenses, Charlie signed on as “call man” for the fire department. He slept at the fire station nights and left his classroom if a fire broke out during the day. He was paid ten dollars a month. He ate his meals at home and had a hall bedroom in the family house as a study. After his first year of college, he worked at odd jobs to pay his tuition for the next years. In his four years at Lombard, 1898—1902, Sandburg received a fine liberal arts education, as he reported in the second volume of his autobiography, Ever the Winds of Chance, unfinished at the time of his death in 1967 and finally published in 1983. He read and pondered major literary texts, took an intensive composition course (“Daily Themes”), studied Latin, chemistry, history, sociology, and religion. He gave orations, acted in plays, played on sports teams, most notably basketball, was business manager, then editor-in-chief of the literary magazine The Lombard Review, and was coeditor of The Cannibal, the college yearbook.
These were years of intellectual ferment and social maturity for Sandburg. The great influence upon him during this time was Professor Phili Green Wri ht a brilliant teacher of composition, economics, astronomy, and mathematics, who invited students to his house to discuss literature. In Sandburg’s last year at Lombard, Wright “organized ‘The Poor Writers’ Club,’ saying we were poor, and we were writers, so why not?” Wright was a Socialist, “closer to William Morris than to Marx.” John Sjodin had introduced Sandburg to socialism, but Wright moved Sandburg more firmly into that camp. The Lombard professor was also a poet and encouraged Sandburg to become a writer . Sandburg correctly saw Wright as one of the major influences on his life, career, and philosophy.
Sandburg left college without taking a degree. In the four years since his army service he had changed greatly. He had improved his writing skills, had read widely, and had discovered the poetry of Whitman, which would influence his own poetry. Through participation in elocution courses and drama performances, he began to recognize his own abilities as an orator and actor . He took advantage of the cultural opportunities on the Lombard and Knox College campuses in Galesburg; he got cheap seats for lectures and plays in the Auditorium in downtown Galesburg. He was now an educated man, but instead of entering a profession he began some wandering years, a life of self-education among the people. While at Lombard one summer he had sold Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic photographs.
After leaving college in 1902 he moved around the country selling these very same stereoscopic views, working just enough to meet his simple needs . In his spare time he read in public libraries or borrowed books and worked at his poetry and prose. He “rode the rails” and served time in jail for traveling without a ticket.
In 1904 he returned to Galesburg, wrote a column for the local newspaper, and put together his first book , In Reckless Ecstasy. Philip Wright had a hand printing press in his basement and published it as a pamphlet. Sandburg had not yet found his style and his voice in this early work, and it was not a success. He was still a wanderer and a seeming idler, but he was now seriously committed to becoming a poet.
In 1905 he went to Chicago again and got a job as an assistant editor of Tomorrow Magazine, where he published both his own prose and his own poetry. As a way of supporting himself, he turned to lyceum lecturing, working up programs on Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw . His socialism at the time was similar to that of Shaw and the Fabian movement in England.
Still uncertain about how he should support himself, in 1907 Sandburg became an organizer for the Social Democratic party in Wisconsin. Soon after taking that new position he met the beautiful Socialist Lilian Steichen. Theirs was a passionate and intellectual courtship, largely by mail, and they were married in June 1908. (Margaret Sandburg, their oldest daughter, edited their love letters in The Poet and the Dream Girl.) Paula (as Sandburg called Lilian) was convinced that her Sandburg was a poetic genius. She was an excellent critic of his writing and, like Wright, a major influence on his thinking and on his poetry, as was her brother, the artist and photographer Edward Steichen.
In the early years of their marriage, the Sandburgs moved about continually doing Socialist work. Sandburg wrote numerous articles and pamphlets for the cause and worked for Eugene Debs in his candidacy for president.
In Milwaukee he began to write for Socialist newspapers, and in 1910 the Socialist mayor appointed Sandburg his private secretary. With Paula’s encouragement he continued to write poetry and began to develop his own distinctive voice.
Sandburg’s reputation as a journalist was growing, and in 1912 the Sandburgs left Wisconsin and moved to Chicago. There he first worked on the Socialist paper, the Evening World, and then The Day Book, an ad-less, left-leaning paper. The radical journalist Don MacGregor was city editor there, and the two became friends . Sandburg also fell in with more radical Socialists and began to publish, often under assumed names, in the International Socialist Review. Philip R. Yannella has traced this radical phase of the poet-journalist in The Other Carl Sandburg.
Several of the poems in the collection that follows belong to this period in Sandburg’s life—his earliest years after he moved to Chicago in 1912. We know that he knew IWW leaders such as Big Bill Haywood and the dynamiter Anton Johannsen , but he also made influential literary friends: Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, and Amy Lowell. Lombard had been the right college for Sandburg’s young years. Chicago, with its teeming life and literary ferment, was the right city for him in his early maturity . He flourished in the Windy City.
Working as a reporter in Chicago, he began to write poems as a kind of daily diary. He roamed the city and its byways. He spent many evenings at the bohemian Dill Pickle Club , founded by Jack Jones, reputed to have been a safecracker early in his life. That club on the Near North Side of Chicago had a sign at the door: “Step High, Stoop Low , Leave Your Dignity Outside. ” Inside was a cartoon of a man shouting, “We gotta change the system.” The clientele of the Dill Pickle sure appealed to Sandburg: tycoons, pickpockets, artists, hoboes, thieves, professors, politicians, hopheads, whores, social workers, labor organizers, writers.
Sandburg went to the theater, visited galleries and museums, and was a regular visitor at the offices of Poetry. He was a part of the artistic, social, and economic ferment of those years lust before and after World War I, but he was also a private person, contemplative, musing on the world around him, writing nature poetry. It was in this exhilarating atmosphere that Sandburg came to poetic maturity.
* * * * * * *
A fter publishing Chicago Poems in 1916, Sandbur:g quickly completed three other volumes of poetry: Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), and Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922). By 1936, when he published The People, Yes, his most active poetic period was over.
* * * * * * *
Sandburg opposed World War I in its early phases, writing notable anti-war poems. Socialists in the United State were divided over support of American involvement in the European war, but when the United States entered the war >Sandburg joined those who supported President Woodrow Wilson. Yet he continued to write articles in the International Socialist Review (under the name Jack Phillips) up holding part of the Socialist agenda. He was “zigzagging in
wartime,” as Philip Yannella properly points out in The Other Carl Sandburg.
He was torn between his strong anti-war sentiments and his equally strong need to support his country at war.
In the final months of World War I, after many difficulties caused by wartime red tape, Sandburg became a foreign correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association and was stationed in Sweden . Many of the stories he sent back to his editors were sympathetic to “the Bolsheviks [the successful Russian revolutionaries] and the failed revolutionaries of Finland.”
One of Sandburg’s major sources for information at the time was Mitchell Berg, born Gruzenberg, who finally assumed the name Mikhail Borodin. He was later Stalin’s agent in trying to introduce China to communism. When the war ended in November 1918 and Sandburg was scheduled to return home, Bert asked him to take documents and films about the Bolsheviks back to the United States. Berg also asked Sandburg to deliver $10,000 in bank drafts to Santeri Nuroteva, the head of the Finnish Socialist workers information office in New York” and to take a small sum to Berg’s wife, still residing in Chicago. Sandburg for some reason then went to see officials in the United States legation to report on materials he was carrying with him, but he refused to indicate the source of the $10,000 in bank drafts. When Sandburg arrived in New York on Christmas Day, 1918, American officials, suspecting that Nuroteva was an agent of Lenin’s, interrogated Sandburg and seized the bank drafts and many of the films and documents he had brought with him from Neden.
Sandburg thought he had acted as a responsible journalist and was protecting his sources when he refused to say who had given him the $10,000. Although he was not prosecuted, he found himself in serious legal trouble.
Liberals and radicals who had supported the Russian revolution were suspect in the years immediately after the war. As Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer began to harrass liberals and radicals, raiding their homes and offices, Sandburg began to move away from his earlier radical views. Just why he did this cannot now be determined with any certainty, but he does seem to have been frightened by the new political mood in the United States. Still, he remained a man with a strong social conscience throughout the rest of his life. Politically he became a New Deal Democrat, and he supported Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.
* * * * * *
I N THE EARLY 1920s SANDBURG TURNED TO WRITING IMAGINATIVE STORIES FOR CHILDREN , STORIES THAT WERE FOR HIM A REFUGE FROM A WORLD TEETERING ON MADNESS
Rootabaga Stories appeared in 1922, followed by Rootabaga Pigeons the next year. His biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in two volumes (1926), which he originally intended for children, was safely outside the political scares of the twenties.
He had joined the Chicago Daily News staff not long after he returned from Sweden, at first as a labor reporter; but he soon became the paper’s film critic, certainly an apolitical assignment.
He was not well paid at the Daily News, and the health problems of his two older daughters strained the Sandburg budget for many years. As early as 1920 he began to develop his lecture-recitals as an artistic endeavor and as a source of additional income to support his family . He had shown dramatic and oratorical abilities at Lombard College, and now in young middle age he found success on the stage. His programs combined readings of his poetry and fanciful stories for children, and the singing of folk songs and spirituals, interspersed with his own wry comments. His performances on college campuses and before civic and cultural groups were financially and critically successful. As a stage performer he rivaled Mark Twain and Will Rogers’
Throughout the early twenties Sandburg sought new outlets for his abilities—the stories for children, the biography for Lincoln, the stage performances, and the collecting of songs, published in 1927 as The American Songbag. Clearly he did not become a reactionary, but he repositioned himself in American society as poet and troubadour, story-teller, and biographer of a beloved, almost mythic president.
By the 1930s his role as cultural icon was fully established. He had returned to Lincoln studies in the late twenties, working on a four-volume biography of Lincoln as president. This was a mammoth project; the sources were voluminous, and Sandburg had no institutional support, no Guggenheim grant. He left the Daily News early in the depression, spending several months a year on the lecture circult and devoting the rest of the year to research and writing. All through the thirties he labored away at a seemingly endless writing task he had set for himself.
In mid-decade he took time out to write his last major volume of poetry, the folksy work he called The People, Yes This was his affirmation “of swarming and brawling Democracy [;] it attempts to give back to the people their own lingo.”
In 1939 Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was at last published to great acclaim. It was a poetic interpretation, not a scholarly one, written for the general reader. Sandburg’s reputation as a biographer was secure, and he received a Pulitzer Prize for history the following year. In 1951 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. At the time his informal lecture-folksinging-poetry recitals were even more popular across the country. He and Robert Frost became the most applauded poet-performers in the land.
Sandburg published a few more poems in his old age, some of these poems were earlier works taken from what he called his “kit-bag” file. He appeared with symphonies to read Lincoln’s words, and he made many radio and television appearances. In his performances, wherever they were, the poetry he read, his music, his witty comments—all were for the people.
Manuscripts of several hundred unpublished or uncollected Sandburg poems remain in the Sandburg Collection housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many of these poems are from one of his best and strongest poetic periods, 1912-1922, his first decade as a journalist in Chicago. They show Sandburg as a critic of economic and social conditions in urban America a walker in the city observing gritty street life, high life, and bohemian life; and a sensitive poet born to immigrant parents. He could record the cruelties of his society, the consequences of war, the despair of urban workers. He could write apolitical imagist poems and poems describing nature. He could also display a self-questioning, even romantic and tender side, especially in his ruminations and sometimes in some of his poems of protest, with their sympathetic identification with “the people.”
Why didn’t Sandburg publish these other hundreds of poems? In the “New Section” of his Complete Poems (1950), in Harvest Poems (1960), and in Honey and Salt (1963), he and his editors did make use of some poems in his vast backlog. Later in his life he may have deliberately excluded some of his early poems from a more radical time in his life . In some cases the poems may simply have been lost in the clutter of his files. At times he seems to have put poems aside for later revisions and then never returned to them. Some poems of his early period were unpublished at that time because of their language or subject matter or because he thought of them as workshop wtercises.
We have attempted in this volume to make a representative selection from the unpublished or uncollected manuscripts available to us. We have grouped these poems into categories: Don MacGregor, Images and Colors, Chicago, Sense and Nonsense, An Indian Legend, Character Studies and Personalities, Protest Poems, Nature Poems, Literary and Movie Criticism, African-Americans, World War I, Ruminations, and Toward The People, Yes.
Sandburg prided himself on being a poet of the people, a poet who published simple poems for simple people. A few of the poems in this collection, however, are not easily understood without historical or literary explication, and that may be why Sandburg rejected them. When needed, we have attempted to provide necessary information for the context of the subject at the beginning of each section. Some of the poems we include do not demand such analysis, and we provide little or no comment on works clearly relating to Sandburg’s “common people.”
Most of the poems in this collection are from Sandburg’s mature poetic period. He was an imaginative imagist and a believer in workers and their causes, a critic of those among the wealthy who were largely unconcerned about the economic and social fate of most Americans. At times he could be crude, especially but not exclusively in the first drafts of such poems as “Billy Sunday”; but his clear voice can be heard, and his compassion illuminates his calling as the poet of the people.
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
Obvious typographical errors in Sandburg’s poems have been silently corrected. Titles have been supplied for a few poems and are placed in brackets. Some poems are dated by Sandburg, but most are not. We cannot now determine the exact date when the undated poems were written. In his “New Section” of Complete Poems, Sandburg himself left many of his poems undated.
Permission to publish the unpublished Sandburg poems has been granted by the Carl Sandburg Family Trust and the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
One More By Carl
“Poems for the People “ (Pgs. 3-19)
Copyright @ 1999 by: Carl Sandbury Family Trust
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993