Carl Sandburg has received many accolades and honors, but "Poet of the People" is probably the most used and most appropriate.
Sandburg is remembered for his 11 books of poetry. However, his greatest claim to fame may be the epic biography of Abraham Lincoln: "The Prairie Years" and "The War Years," which won the Pulitzer Prize.This year marks the 120th anniversary of Sandburg's birth. The country will be noting his contribution to American literature with celebrations in his hometown, Sand-burg festivals in libraries and poetry readings. Revised editions of his works are on the shelves, and some of his children's works are taking on a fresh, new look.
Carl August Sandburg was born on June 1, 1878, in Galesburg, Ill., the second child and only son of Swedish immigrants. He was christened by his father, a blacksmith's helper with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad for 35 years. "I was born on the prairie and the mild of its wheat, and the red of its clover/the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan," he wrote about his birthplace.
When Sandburg was in second grade he insisted on going by the name of Charlie, since it "filled the mouth full," and Carl was " . . . just one more Swede boy."
Because Galesburg was a "cross-roads" between the East and West, the railroad provided glimpses of hoboes and tramps. And at the age of 19 he joined a procession of "adventure seekers," hopping box cars and dropping off just long enough to work in the wheat fields of Kansas, then traveling farther west.
It was on these "pilgrimages" that he began to chronicle his own life in the hobo jungles. He filled notebook after notebook with meticulously copied verses, jokes and lyrics that he heard on the roads and byways. He learned to listen for the songs, chants and ditties, the authentic voices of the people everywhere in his travels. They became the nucleus of "The American Songbag."
Sandburg wrote of labor problems, the blue-collar worker and the man without a job. He was passionate about political issues and included them in verse and from the lecture platform. Critics advised him to find a personal poetic form and voice. In most cases he ignored their reviews and wrote randomly from the heart.
He was appointed to the state executive board of the Social Democratic Party of Wisconsin with the position of fund-raiser. There he met Lilian Steichen, also a Socialist. Within a few days they were "one," and he wrote "the touch of your hand is hope." He called her "Paula," and she proclaimed that his given name best suited his personality. From that time he signed his name "Carl Sandburg."
With a wife and changing responsibilities, Sandburg's life as a vagabond came to an end. His salary of $20 a month was not enough for a man supporting a wife since she gave up her teaching career to marry. He wrote "dreams had to bend to reality . . .."
The Sandburgs moved from one small job to another, Carl writing and lecturing, and Paula submitting his pieces for sale. His unorthodox poetry often lost its luster in print, and critics were ruthless. He found a modicum of success working for numerous small newspapers, while all the time "versifying" and trying to find a voice that fit the common man, of which he so often wrote.
Sandburg's life as a published poet was not easy, but it was defined. He continued to write about things as diverse as work, race riots, war, baseball, babies and potato blossoms. He ventured into movie scripts, reviews and personal commentary. He continued to collect American folk music.
Sandburg wore many hats: vagabond, poet, dreamer, political activist, journalist, chronicler, minstrel, maverick. He was not a historian. He never claimed to be. But that did not deter this determined man. When the war was behind him, he believed he could paint a truthful portrait of a man that was America, Abraham Lincoln.
"Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" is an epic prose poem about a man and a nation that came of age simultaneously. It was fitting, perhaps, that Sandburg would write such a biography, both he and Lincoln grew up in the shadows of the prairie and each learned the value of language in a difficult way.
"Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" was such a mammoth document - more than 1,000 pages with 300,000 words - that Harcourt decided to publish it in two volumes. In addition, "The Prairie Years" was serialized in Pictorial Review. The $20,000 paid in royalties assured Sandburg financial security that he had never known before.
His next writing venture, "The American Songbag," a collection of pieces acquired as he criss-crossed America, took its toll on Sandburg's health. Yet with failing eyesight and a fragile body, he surged forward, writing with the help of his family. Thirteen years later, the four companion pieces to the Lincoln biography, "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years," was completed.
Sandburg wrote all of his other works on a reconditioned Remington typewriter perched atop a wooden fruit crate in a garret workroom.
The final work of Sandburg's life, "Honey and Salt," is notable for its variety of pieces, some sentimental caricatures and some new reflections on life, death, whimsy and pain. They are noted by many as "sentimental and strong."
Acclaim continued to come for Sandburg's work. Some honors he was able to accept personally, most he was not. On his 87th birthday, he was too weak to accept President Lyndon Johnson's invitation to his inaugural, or to attend the Hollywood premiere of "The Greatest Story Ever Told," a screenplay on which he had worked.
His walks with his beloved Paula became shorter and his time listening to classical music longer. In life he had spoken and sung millions of phrases and lyrics, and his final word was his wife's name, "Paula." It was Friday, July 21, 1967.
The funeral was one he had planned and the eulogy was taken appropriately from one of his poems, "Death comes once, let it be easy . . .." His ashes were buried at his birthplace in Galesburg, Ill., beneath a granite boulder, which has been called Remembrance Rock. Lilian Steichen Sandburg died 10 years later, and her ashes joined his under that rock on the prairie.