TV review: Chronicling author Carl Sandburg's many achievements

Author's contributions explored on 45th anniversary of death

Published: Saturday, Sept. 22 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Carl Sandburg with his typewriter at Connemara, his home in Flat Rock, N.C. A documentary on his life will air Monday.

Courtesy of Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

Two of my favorite quotes are from Carl Sandburg:

"A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." And "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."

Author, troubadour and statesman, Sandburg is profiled in a new PBS American Masters documentary to be broadcast on KUED Monday, at 9 p.m. Honoring the 45th anniversary of his death, "The Day Carl Sandburg Died" makes a convincing argument that Sandburg's contributions, though minimized after his death, should be treasured — and can now be reviewed from a "decidedly modern perspective," according to the filmmaker.

"He had both a deeply American sentiment and a world view that was way ahead of his time" is the belief of Paul Bonesteel, writer, director and editor of the 90-minute program.

The filmmaker acknowledges Sandburg's own belief that a biography should "begin with the breath of a man when his eyes first meet the light of day, then working on through to the death when the light of day is gone." Bonesteel's loving portrait has been rightfully acclaimed as "a masterfully constructed and inspirational visual essay."

The program is essential viewing for any lover of language and it's a reminder of the power a single voice can have.

For a brief rundown of his achievements, Sandburg earned three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his writings "The Complete Poems" and "Corn Huskers," and another for his landmark biography of Abraham Lincoln. But there are also his whimsical children's books, "Rootabaga Stories" and "Rootabaga Pigeons." His intent was to write truly American fairy tales, and occurring characters were named using nicknames for his three daughters — Spink, Skabootch and Swipes — for whom he wrote the books.

There was also a Grammy honor, for his recording of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" with the New York Philharmonic. His "American Songbag" is a massive collection of folk songs, and Sandburg, an accomplished musician and perhaps the first American urban folk singer, often performed these songs to wide acclaim.

"The Day Carl Sandburg Died" is also a love story. Sandburg enjoyed a happy marriage with Lilian Steichen, who fervently supported her husband's writings. Before Sandburg's reputation as a major poet was established with the publication of "Chicago Poems," his wife would type and retype his works to submit to publishers for review. He affectionately dubbed his wife and daughters his "Homeyglomeys."

Sandburg collaborated with Edward Steichen, his brother-in-law, on "The Family of Man," an important photography exhibition first shown at the Museum of Modern Art before traveling to 38 countries. A book followed which has sold more than 4 million copies.

A truly American voice, Sandburg had unbridled optimism in the country. "This is America," he said, "and in America, many a poor boy grows up and up and nobody can tell how far a boy can go."

After his death in 1967, Lyndon B. Johnson paid tribute to Sandburg in an address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

"What will live on forever though is his faith — his faith in the individual human beings whom we impersonally call 'Americans.' He knew that always in America 'the strong men keep coming on.'"

The president concluded, "There will not be one like him again."

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