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by Bamber Gascoigne

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)


American poet, historian, novelist and folklorist, "the singing bard". Carl Sandburg gave voice to the people of the Midwestern. He was a central figure in the Chicago Renaissance and he played a significant role in the development in poetry that took place during the first two decades of the 20th century. His emphasis on the tradition of American experience associate him with Hart Crane and Robinson Jeffers.

these people of the air,
these children of the wind,
had a sense of where to go and how,
how to go north north-by-west north,
till they came to one wooden pole,
till they were home again.

(from The People, Yes, 1936)

Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of poor Swedish immigrant parents. His father was August Sandburg, a blacksmith and railroad worker, who had changed his name from Johnson. His mother was the former Clara Anderson. Sandburg was educated at public school until he was thirteen, and he then worked in odd jobs in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. In 1898 he returned to his home town for a short time with the trade of house-painter.

One of Sandburg's favorite stories was that he was rejected by West Point because he failed the test in arithmetic and grammar. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Sandburg enlisted in the 6th Infantry, but saw no combat. Upon his return he entered Lombard college in Galesburg, studying the Classics. During these years he worked as a janitor and as a "call man" on the Galesburg fire department. Encouraged by professor Philip Green Wright, Sandburg started to write poetry. His first book, In Reckless Ecstasy, was printed privately in 1904.

Just short of receiving his degree in 1902, Sandburg moved to Wisconsin. He held various jobs, working as traveler for a stereoptican slides firm, labor organizer for the Wisconsin Social-Democrats, and as a journalist on the Milwaukee Leader. He also was involved in the presidential campaign of Eugene V. Debs. Sandburg rode along Debs's train, The Red Special.

In 1908 Sandburg married Lillian Steichen, a fellow socialist and a schoolteacher. Her brother was the noted photographer Edward Steichen, whose biography Sandburg was to write. At the time they first met, Sandburg had not been a member of a socialist organization, but Lillian had attended socialist meetings and encouraged him in his work as an organizer. "This is an age of action – not of dreaming or contemplation or gratulation," she wrote in one of her letters. (see The Poet and Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen & Carl Sandburg, edited by Margaret Sandburg, 1987)

From 1910 to 1912 Sandburg was secretary to the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee. Like Theodore Dreiser and a number of other writers and artists, Sandburg was considered a security risk by J. Edgar Hoover and F.B.I. kept a dossier on him. A turning point in Sandburg's life came in 1910 – he bought a guitar, and then learned to play it. Eleven years later he wrote to a friend: "I am reading poems and singing Casey Jones, Steamboat Bill, and medleys. . . . This whole thing is only in its beginnings, America knowing it songs." ('Introduction to the 1990 Edition' by Garrison Keillor, The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg, originally published in 1927)

"I'm an idealist. I don't know where I'm going but I'm on the way."

In 1913 Sandburg moved with his family to a suburb of Chicago. He was employed as an editor of a business magazine, and published articles in the International Socialist Review. His poems started to appear in Harriet Monroe's (1860-1936) magazine Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. The Levinson Prize, awarded by Poetry in 1914, established Sandburg as an important new figure in the literary scene.

While in Sweden in 1918, Sandburg met a cousin named Erik Carlson and received from King Gustav VI a special medal for his achievements. Upon his return he was questioned by Federal authorities, who accused him of supporting the Bolsheviks in Russia. However, although Sandburg shared the dream of workers paradise where all people were equal with such writers as Jack London, Upton Sinclair and John Reed, he was not a political thinker. Sandburg did not like being labelled as a socialist for he did not accept all socialist ideas. "What kind of a socialist?" he would ask. 

Sandburg's first major collection of poems, Chicago Poems, came out in 1916. It presented the poet as a loud-voiced, proud proletarian, full of joy of life. The book included the famous 'Chicago' and 'Fog.' "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.../" (from 'Chicago') Sandburg was too old to serve in the army during World War I, but he traveled to Stockholm to serve as a foreign correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association. In Cornhuskers (1918) Sandburg documented his experiences. Upon his return, in 1919, he joined the staff of the Chicago Daily News for thirteen years.

"Carl Sandburg was never a hair-trigger reporter," recalled his colleague Harry Hansen, "he could never get into action quickly and weave a fanciful story as Ben Hecht, seated only at the adjoining desk, was wont to do; his work required meditation and leisure, and often he toiled far into the night and Henry Smith would find his neatly typewritten manuscript on his desk when he arrived early the next morning." (Carl Sandburg Home by Paula Steichen, 1983, p. 83) In his articles Sandburg dealt with, among others, garment trades. In 1919 appeared another series of articles in The Chicago Race Riots. Sandburg's free verse, reflecting industrial America, gained wide popularity during the Depression years, although his vernacular language at first shocked readers.

Chicago Poems, Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920) are considered among Sandburg's best collections. Rootabaga Stories (1922) featured the imaginary country of Rootabaga, on the other side of Balloon Picker's country. The railway tracks run zigzag there; it is the work of the zizzies, a species of bug, who have twisted all the rails. Magic is a normal part of life, although the country has clearly midwestern milieu of cornfields and prairies. Its has been said, that this work marked the emergece of genuinely American fairy tales. 

In the 1930s Sandburg became active in the Socialist movement. Interested in American folksongs, he published in 1927 a collection in The American Songbag and later New American Songbag (1950). These songs Sandburg had heard from railroad men, cowboys, lumberjack, hobos, convicts and workers on farm and in factory. Outside industrial cities was the prairie, of which he wrote: "I was born on the prairie, and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song, a slogan." 

Between the wars Sandburg travelled widely as a poetry-reciter, accompanying himself on a guitar, wearing a blue working man's shirt and his white hair rumpled. On the lecture tours, his most prominent competitor was Robert Frost, four years older than Sandburg. They met in 1917, Sandburg called him "the strongest, loneliest, friendliest personality among the poets today." The good-natured Sandburg remained his friend for nearly fifty years, in spite of Frost's constant attacks on his person and the qualtity of his literary production. When Sandburg performed at Michigan, Frost said: "His mandolin pleased some people, his poetry a very few and his infantile talk none."

The People, Yes (1936) is probably Sandburg's most popular single book. From his very first volumes Sandburg recorded the speech of Midwesterners, spoken by the working class of the industrial cities; this became a clear feature of his poetry. It also showed the author's epigrammatic skills. Sandburg was often called the successor to Walt Whitman; the both writers were fascinated by the rhythms of the urban life and admired common laborers, but they also had a kind of shamanistic streak in their expression.

Sandburg's life of Lincoln was published in six volumes (1926-1939) and although historians have criticized its mistakes, it was praised for its style and readability. Edmund Wilson's wisecrack in Patriotic Gore (1962) is perhaps the most fierce attack on the work: "The cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg." Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939, 4 vols.) won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for history. It traced Lincoln's career from the time of his departure for the White House, to May 4, 1865. Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928) was written for young readers, and was drawn from The Prairie (1926). Sandburg's autobiographical works include Always the Young Strangers (1953) and Ever the Winds of Change (1983).

Be land ready
for you shall go back to land.
Be sea ready
for you have been nine-tenths water
and the salt taste shall cling to your mouth.
Be sky ready
for air, air, has been so needful to you

you shall go back, back to the sky.

(from Wind Song, 1960)

In 1928 Sandburg moved to Harbert, Michigan, and in 1943, seeking a milder climate, the family moved again, this time to Connemara, a farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina. The Greek Revival-style house, which remained his home forthe rest of his life, had been built by C.G. Memminger, one of South's great attorneys and advocates of equal education, in 1838-1839.

During World War II Sandburg wrote a folksy syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Times. From 1945 he lived as a writer and farmer, breeding goats and combining poetry reading with folk singing. In 1960, Sandburg earned $125,000 for working as a creative consultant on a Hollywood film, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Its production was postponed in 1961. "This picture will be made," Sandburg declared before returning to Flat Rock, "and it will be a great all-time picture." Eventually it was released in 1965, directed by George Stevens and starring Max von Sydow.

Sandburg's surprising sojourn was not his first experience with Hollywood: when he was a motion-picture critic for the Chicago Daily News, he had done interviews with stars of the silent film. And D.W. Griffith had planned to produce a movie about Lincoln based on Sandburg's books, but engaged Stephen Vincent Benét to write the screenplay.

At the age of sixty-five, Sandburg began his first and only novel, Remembrance Rock, an epic saga of America, which was published in 1948. Sandburg died on July 22, in 1967, at the age of 89. He once said: "It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: 'If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer.'"

For further reading: Carl Sandburg: a Study of Personality and Background by Karl W. Detzer (1941); Carl Sandburg by Harry L. Golden (1961); Carl Sandburg by Richard Crowder (1964); Sandburg: Photographer's View by E. Streicher (1966); Carl Sandburg: Lincoln of Our Literature by North Callahan (1970); Carl Sandburg by G.W. Allen (1972); Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works by North Callahan (1987); Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide, edited by D. Salwak (1988); Carl Sandburg by P. Niven (1991); The Other Carl Sandburg by P.R. Yannella (1996); Carl Sandburg: A Biography by Penelope Niven (2000); The Carl Sandburg Home: Connemara by Galen Reuther (2006); Carl Sandburg's America: A Study of His Works, His Politics, and His New Imagination by Evert Villarreal (2015). See also: Sherwood Anderson. Sandburg's influence in Finland: the literary group Kiila. Sandburgilta on suomennettu mm. valikoima Runoja (1956) sekä Elmer Diktoniuksen ruotsiksi kääntämänä Dikter i urval (1934).

Selected works:

  • In Reckless Ecstasy, 1904
  • Incidentals, 1904
  • The Plaint of a Rose, 1905
  • Joseffy: An Appreciation, 1910
  • Youn and Your Job, 1910
  • Chicago Poems, 1916
  • Cornhuskers, 1918
  • The Chicago Race Riots, 1919
  • Smoke and Steel, 1920
  • Slabs of the Sunburnt West, 1922
  • Rootabaga Stories, 1922 (illustrations and decorations by Maud and Miska Petersham)
  • Rootabaga Pigeons, 1923 (illustrations and decorations by Maud and Miska Petersham)
  • Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 1926 (2 vols.)
  • Selected Poems, 1926 (edited by Rebecca West)
  • The American Songbag, 1927 (editor)
  • Abe Lincoln Grows Up, 1928
  • Good Morning, America, 1928
  • M’Liss and Louie, 1929
  • Steichen, the Photographer, 1929
  • Early Moon, 1930 (illustrated by James Daugherty)
  • Potato Face, 1930
  • Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow, 1932 (with P.M. Angle)
  • The People, Yes, 1936
  • A Lincoln and Whitman Miscellany, 1938 (editor)
  • Abraham Lincoln: The War Years 1939 (4 vols.; Pulitzer Prize)
  • Bomber!: Commentary for the Defense film, "Bomber," Produced by the Office for Emergency Management, 194-
  • Bronze Wood, 1941
  • Storm over the Land, 1942
  • Home Front Memo, 1943
  • Always the Young Strangers, 1943
  • The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, 1944 (with Frederick Hill Meserve)
  • When the Blue Star Has Turned to Gold, 1945
  • Poems of the Midwest, 1946 (containing two complete volumes: Chicago poems, and Cornhuskers; illustrated with photographs selected by Elizabeth McCausland; introduction by Lloyd Lewis)
  • Remembrance Rock, 1948
  • Lincoln collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection, 1949
  • The New American Songbag, 1950 (editor)
  • Complete Poems, 1950 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Always the Young Strangers, 1952
  • Names, 1953
  • Abraham Lincoln, 1954 (condensed version)
  • Prairie-Town Boy, 1955 (illustrated by Joe Krush)
  • The Sandburg Range, 1957
  • Address before a joint session of Congress, 1959
  • Carl Sandburg on Abraham Lincoln; Speech before the Congress of the United States, February the Eighteenth [i. e. Twelfth] 1959
  • Harvest Poems, 1910-1960, 1960 (with an introd. by Mark Van Doren)
  • Wind Song, 1960
  • Six New Poems and a Parable, 1961
  • Honey and Salt, 1963
  • The Letters of Carl Sandburg, 1968 (edited by Herbert Mitgang)
  • The Sandburg Treasury: Prose and Poetry for Young People, 1970 (introd. by Paula Sandburg; illustrated by Paul Bacon)
  • Seven Poems, 1970 (ilustrated with seven original etchings by Gregory Masurovsky)
  • The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was in It, 1978 (pictures by Harriet Pincus)
  • Breathing Tokens, 1978 (edited by Margaret Sandburg)
  • Rainbows Are Made: Poems, 1982 (selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins; wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg)
  • Ever the Winds of Chance, 1983 (with an introduction by Margaret Sandburg and George Hendrick)
  • Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era, 1920-1927, 1984 (edited by Dale Fetherling and Doug Fetherling)
  • The Poet and the Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen & Carl Sandburg, 1987 (edited by Margaret Sandburg)
  • Fables, Foibles, and Foobles, 1989 ( edited and with an introduction by George Hendrick; illustrated by Robert C. Harvey)
  • Billy Sunday and Other Poems, 1993 (edited with an introduction by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick)
  • Arithmetic, 1993 (illustrated as an anamorphic adventure by Ted Rand)
  • Carl Sandburg, 1995 (edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin; illustrated by Steve Arcella)
  • Not Everyday an Aurora Borealis for Your Birthday: A Love Poem, 1998 (pictures by Anita Lobel)
  • Poems for Children: Nowhere Near Old Enough to Vote, 1999 (illustrated by Istvan Banyai; compiled and with an introduction by George and Willene Hendrick)
  • The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928, 2000 (edited and with historical commentary by Arnie Bernstein; with an introduction by Roger Ebert)
  • From Daybreak to Good Night: Poems for Children, 2001 (art by Lynn Smith-Ary)
  • Selected Poems, 2006 (edited by Paul Berman)
  • Never Kick a Slipper at the Moon, 2008 (illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger)
  • Carl Sandburg, the People’s Pugilist: Writings from Charles H. Kerr’s Journal The International Socialist Review, 1912 to 1918, 2010
  • The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919, 2012 (with an introductory note by Walter Lippmann; preface to the Dover edition by Paul Buhle)
  • Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was in It, 2017 (pictures by Harriet Pincus)
  • Rootabaga Stories, 2017 (illustrations and decorations by Maud and Miska Petersham)
  • Chigago Poems, 2019 ( Publishing)

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