CARL SANDBURG: HIS LIFE AND WORKS; By North Callahan; Pennylvania State University Press; $29.95.
Carl Sandburg died July 22, 1967. A generation later, we know that Sandburg himself was uniquely a reason behind his own success. Bookdealers like to say no one ever signed more copies of his own books. (They list Adm. Richard Byrd second.) Sandburg lectured, was on the radio, wrote for newspapers, worked on movies, made records, got honorary doctorates and won Pulitzer Prizes: wonderful promotions for an author and his works.But how does his work hold up in the 1980s and for the future? Not bad, judging by "Books in Print," which lists 18 titles by Sandburg still in print.
Now, North Callahan and the Pennsylvania State University Press have produced a retrospective of the man and his writings. As a biography, it is interesting but not consequential; as a re-evaluation of his works it shows why Sandburg still lives as an author.
When writing about Abraham Lincoln, Sandburg portrayed how very good biography can and ought to be. He showed contradictions in Lincoln and the reasons for his actions. In his poetically eloquent "Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" and the later "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years," Sandburg gave us a man growing, taking chances and being wrong at times but learning as he went along.
Callahan ought to have done the same for Sandburg.
What, for example, of Sandburg when he was not so great: when he was a socialist-turned-propagandist for World War I, was the somewhat embittered man in the 1920s who wrote "Good Morning, America" or was the creator of the novel, "Remembrance Rock," that refused to confront the American dream it portrayed?
Callahan is much more successful in dealing with Sandburg's work. He reviews "Rootebaga Stories" (superb children's tales and literature); the Lincoln biography; Sandburg's fascinating but uneven autobiographies; "The People, Yes" (his best work, although "Chicago Poems" has its own immortality) and Sandburg's speeches (he choked up both houses of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth). The author's best evaluation is done on "Remembrance Rock" (described as an attempt at the Great American Novel).
One shortcoming of Callahan's book shows up quickly, starting with the first paragraph and ending with the last, both of which refer to Callahan himself. He is not in the index but should be, as he distractingly and annoyingly introduces himself at least a dozen times in the text.
In such cases Callahan's writing loses an objectivity that often takes pages to regain. But regain it he does, and his research on Sandburg's writings is excellent.
The spirit of Sandburg's zesty writings eventually takes over and makes the book delightful reading, particularly for a poet, lecturer, folk singer or writer. Sandburg was all of these, and he liked, as Callahan reminds us, his verbs "to quiver" and his nouns to contribute color. Carl Sandburg loved both words and life, and we see a lot of that in this book.