Sandburg wrote of the American common people; his work glorified both the everyday person and everyday life. “Moonlight and mittens,” he believed, were the stuff of art. In addition, he made poetry of the harsh realities of immigrant urban life. Like nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, Sandburg broke with poetic convention by addressing “unpoetic” subjects, such as butchering and railroads. Also like Whitman, he broke with conventional rhyme schemes and forms; his verse is often called “prosy” in that he uses much dialogue and employs long lines.
Sandburg defended free verse by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Rhythm alone is a tether, and not a very long one. But rhymes are iron fetters.” Sandburg had an excellent ear for speech rhythms and the musical cadences of words. His form grew naturally out of his content, not only because of his skill in hearing the musical connotations of words but also because of his ability to balance and counterbalance phrases and clauses.
Critics sometimes regarded Sandburg as “subliterary.” The polished literary fashion of his time considered form, structure, imagery, tension, and irony more important than content.
Sandburg’s poetry was a vehicle for his message of faith in “the people.” He did not brood over poetry and what constitutes art but instead had an almost irreverent attitude toward aesthetic theories. The question remains, however, whether Sandburg invented adequate poetic structures to replace those he spurned. Sandburg was not without poetic theory, but his definitions of poetry were impressionistic (“poetry is a shuffling of boxes of illusion buckled with a strap of facts”) more than analytical. He wanted to synthesize the ethereal and the concrete, “hyacinths and biscuits,” by juxtaposing one with the other. His poetry itself, however, reveals more care than his vague definitions would indicate.
William Carlos Williams made a classic case against Sandburg by charging that he had no unifying imaginative vision; as he had no formal poetic theory, he could write no coherent poetry. His poetry simply cataloged realistic detail in a sprawl of words. Other critics, however, found this uniting vision in the very inclusiveness of Sandburg’s work and in his faith in the people, a faith that the slang and hardships of the people were the materials as well as the subjects of art.
Sandburg’s poetry touched on the variety of American life, particularly that of the working class. Although he made his reputation on the brassy poem “Chicago,” he also wrote of simple moments of joy, poignancy, and despair. A Jewish fishmonger has “a joy identical with that of [Anna] Pavlova dancing”; a runaway girl is “Gone with her little chin.” His populist views appear in countless images of struggle, such as a woman so worn out from making mittens that she sees evergreens by moonlight as a pair of mittens. That Sandburg should be obsessed with Abraham Lincoln is no surprise. Lincoln exemplified the worker who made good, the American Dream, the practical one who retained Midwest ideals in the face of one of America’s most complex periods.
Sandburg has been faulted for not dealing with the evils of life, but this is a superficial criticism at best. True, there are no villains or monsters either in his poetry or in his children’s tales, but evil exists, usually in the form of poverty, despair, and recurring defeats. The individual is saved not by circumstances, but by one’s resilience, humor, and common sense.
Although Sandburg has often been linked with Whitman, they differ in major respects, such as their attitudes toward death. Whitman celebrates death as undergirding and completing life; Sandburg views it merely as a terminus. Whereas Whitman believes in a pantheistic kind of immortality, Sandburg asks the eternal questions throughout his work but fails to find answers. Only in his last volume does he think he sees something of a “purpose” in life’s randomness.
A typical Sandburg poem, however, does employ literary devices that are similar to those of Whitman. Like Whitman, Sandburg is a master of the long, “prosaic” line, and he catalogs, glorifies, and repeats details from daily life. Sandburg’s repetitions, however, also owe much in style to the Bible. He makes heavy use of dialogue in his work, and the verse is so free...
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Carl Sandburg 1878-1967
(Full name Carl August Sandburg; has also written under the pseudonyms Charles A. Sandburg, Militant, and Jack Phillips) American poet, biographer, novelist, journalist, songwriter, editor, and author of children's books.
The following entry presents criticism of Sandburg's works. See also Carl Sandburg Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 4, 10, 15.
One of America's most celebrated poets during his lifetime, Sandburg developed a unique and controversial form of free verse that captured the rhythms and color of Midwestern English vernacular. Sometimes dismissed for his sentimental depictions of urban and agrarian landscapes and for his simple style, Sandburg is nonetheless lauded for his rhapsodic and lyrical technique and his effective patterns of parallelism and repetition. In Chicago Poems (1916), his first major collection and one of his most respected works, Sandburg employed images and topics not commonly considered poetical to paint realistic portraits of ordinary people in such environments as the railroad yard, the marketplace, and the factory. His work in Chicago Poems and a number of further collections, generally recognizable by its loosely-structured, prose-like versification, broke many of the established poetic norms of the period in terms of literary style and subject. While occasionally disparaged by critics for these offenses, Sandburg's works have since been numbered among the most influential in twentieth-century American verse, although comparatively few of his individual poems continue to be widely studied or read.
Sandburg was one of seven children born to Swedish immigrants in Galesburg, Illinois. Although Sandburg's parents were fluent in both English and Swedish, they did little to encourage their children's education in either language. Nevertheless, Sandburg developed an interest in reading and writing but was forced to leave school at age thirteen to help supplement the family income. Before borrowing his father's railroad pass at age eighteen to visit Chicago for the first time, Sandburg drove a milk wagon, worked in a barber shop, and was an apprentice tinsmith. He would later utilize the images and vernacular he was exposed to during such experiences to create verse reflective of daily life among the working class. After spending three and a half months traveling through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado on the railroad, Sandburg volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and served in Puerto Rico. As a returning veteran he was offered free tuition for one year at Lombard College in Galesburg, which he accepted. He studied there for four years but left in 1902 before graduating. It was at Lombard that Sandburg began to develop his talents for writing, encouraged by the scholar Philip Green Wright. On a small hand press in the basement of his home, Wright set the type for Sandburg's first publications: In Reckless Ecstasy (1904), Incidentals (1905), The Plaint of a Rose (1905), and Joseffy (1906). These four slim volumes contain Sandburg's juvenilia and are stylistically conventional. In retrospect, Sandburg declared them “many odd pieces … not worth reprint.” First in Wisconsin and later in Chicago, Sandburg worked as a reporter for a number of newspapers, including the Milwaukee Daily News and later the small, left-wing Day Book, in which appeared a handful of his early poems. Sandburg soon gained recognition when Harriet Monroe, editor of the progressive literary periodical Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published six of his poems in 1914. During this time Sandburg cultivated a number of literary friendships with, among others, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, and Sherwood Anderson, and gained the attention of Henry Holt and Company, the firm that was to publish his first significant volume of poetry, Chicago Poems. This work and the five collections that succeeded it over the course of the following two decades contributed to Sandburg's rise to popular esteem, making him one of the most recognized American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Between 1917 and 1932 Sandburg also served as a reporter and later a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During World War II his weekly column appeared in the Chicago Daily Times, and he made a number of radio broadcasts for the U.S. Office of War Information, many of them transcribed in his Home Front Memo (1943). Beginning in this period Sandburg also undertook an increasingly exhaustive schedule of lectures and public performances, in which he recited his poetry, spoke, and sang folksongs with his own guitar accompaniment. The publication of Sandburg's Complete Poems in 1950 earned him a Pulitzer Prize, although its critical impact was scant. Having published his last collection of new poetry, Honey and Salt (1963), at the age of eight-five, Sandburg retired to his estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina. He died there in the summer of 1967 and was subsequently honored in a National Memorial Service at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Chicago Poems, with its humanistic rendering of urban life, place descriptions, and casual assemblage of character sketches, provides a stark but idealized view of the working class. “Chicago,” the centerpiece of the work and one of Sandburg's most celebrated poems, not only portrays the faults of the Midwestern metropolis but also praises what Sandburg considered the joy and vitality integral to life there. While Chicago Poems depicts the urban experience, Sandburg's next volume, Cornhuskers (1918), explores the realities of agrarian life. In such poems as “Prairie” and “Laughing Corn,” Sandburg expresses his fondness for family life and nature. Also included in this collection are a number of war poems that depict images of soldiers who died in conflicts previous to World War I. Smoke and Steel (1920) addresses complex postwar issues such as industrialization and urbanization and is less optimistic and idealistic than Sandburg's earlier works. With Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Sandburg began using a poetic technique in which he presented a series of images in parallel forms as well as in rough, colloquial language. Good Morning, America (1928), Sandburg's fifth significant volume, begins with thirty-eight “Tentative (First Model) Definitions of Poetry,” which adumbrate a view that Sandburg subsequently neglected to codify into a consistent critical theory of verse. In this collection Sandburg delves into mythology, history, and universal humanism through extended use of proverbs and folk idioms. A new concentration on history foreshadowed the content of Sandburg's epic prose-poem, The People, Yes (1936). In this work Sandburg fused American colloquialisms with descriptions of historical and contemporary events to create a collection of verbal portraits of the American people. Sandburg's Complete Poems is an accumulation of his six previous volumes of poetry, as well as seventy-two new pieces. A final collection of new material, Honey and Salt illustrates a number of stylistic and thematic developments in Sandburg's late work and depicts a quiet and reflective mastery of the poetic craft in its title poem, as well as in the pieces “Foxglove” and “Timesweep.” Several other volumes, including Breathing Tokens (1978) and Billy Sunday and Other Poems (1993), were published posthumously but contain little or no previously unreleased poetic material. Among Sandburg's non-poetic works, his monumental multi-volume biographies of the sixteenth U.S. president, including Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), and his autobiography entitled Carl Sandburg (1926) are considered notable contributions to their respective genres. Although deferential to the former president, Sandburg's Lincoln biography endeavors to remedy many of the excesses of previous works on the subject and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
Sandburg was an eminent figure of the “Chicago Renaissance” and the era encompassing World War I and the Great Depression. His Chicago Poems was upon its initial publication in 1916 greeted with mixed reaction, with many reviewers finding its subject matter startling and its prosaic poetry oddly structured. Nevertheless, the volume proved a career-making event and is generally regarded as one of Sandburg's finest poetic achievements. Together with six subsequent volumes into the mid-1930s, Sandburg solidified his success as the most popularly known poet on the American scene. Less well received by established critics, Sandburg witnessed a decline in his reputation by mid-century as his folksy and regional approach was overshadowed by the allusive and cerebral verse of such poets as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. While Sandburg continued to depict ordinary people in their everyday settings, other poets were gaining critical acclaim for internalizing and codifying experiences. Despite the fact that it was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1951, Sandburg's Complete Poems elicited little more than brief commentary on the occasion of its publication; few took the opportunity to evaluate the whole of Sandburg's poetic career. Since Sandburg's death in 1967 a few critics have spoken nostalgically about the “Chicago Poet” of 1916, but sustained critical analysis of his collected poetic works has been limited. More recently, some commentators have suggested that this disfavor was a result of the whims of various critical movements and not based on the strength or significance of Sandburg's poetic contribution. Despite continued disputation, Sandburg is frequently recognized as one of the outstanding and innovative American poets of the twentieth century and a successor to Walt Whitman as an emblematic poet of American populism.