Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967)
Author, poet, folklorist
Swedes, the Sandbergs were. They lived in Illinois. Young Carl- or Charles, as he called himself, in one of several adjustments to his persona- dropped out of school at thirteen. He worked as a milk wagon driver, a hotel porter, a bricklayer, a farm hand in Kansas, hotel janitor, and a coal heaver, all before he was 21. He did a brief stint at Galesburg College, then moved to Chicago and got a foothold in journalism with a couple of local papers.
He left that to volunteer for the American forces in the Spanish-American War. It was a quick, popular conflict, and when it was over he spent two weeks at the U.S. Military Academy. Having flunked maths and grammar tests, he returned to Galesburg College, which he left- without a degree- in 1903.
Sandburg- he’d changed the “e” for a “u” by then- moved to Milwaukie, then the nation’s Socialist paradise. He spent two years as secretary to the mayor, a Socialist, and met a lovely woman called Lillian Steichen at party meetings. She was a smart gal from a smart clan- her brother was the photographic pioneer Edward Steichen.
The two married. She persuaded him to use his real name, Carl. He decided he’d call her Paula. Go figure. They were Socialists.
The Sandburgs set up house in Chicago and had three daughters. Carl set to being a writer with a will. With financial backing from a Galesburg professor, he’d published his first of 19 collections of poetry in 1904, to good reviews. Inspired by the mythic possibilities of Chicago, packing house to the world, he made a fast name for himself, and in 1918 collected the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. His variety of expression and subject matter made him a uniquely popular poet in an age of great poets.
Sandburg blazed through the Twenties and Thirties. He published more poetry, launched a massive biography of Abraham Lincoln, and in 1927, published the first of three great folksong anthologies. With a strong singing voice and an ever-present guitar, he traveled widely, performing, for decades. The Lincoln biography won his a second Pulitzer in 1940. He collaborated with Aaron Copland to produce the musical narrative, “A Lincoln Portrait”; his recording of it won the 1959 Spoken Word Grammy. By then he was the embodiment of the 16the President. As part of a 150th-anniversary celebration of Lincoln's birth, Sandburg became the only poet to address a joint session of Congress.
He won his third Pulitzer, again for poetry, in 1951. The Robert Frost Medal and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal in History followed. From 1945 on, Sandburg’s base was Connemara, a farm he and Paula bought at Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1945. He was a regular on TV, took part in film documentaries and sound recordings, and continued to write. His total output neared fifty books, including 13 collections of essays and nonfiction, a novel, a collection of silent movie criticism he wrote as a young journalist, five biographies (he had enough material left from his six volumes on Lincoln to produce one on Mary Todd Lincoln, too), three memoirs, and five kids’ books, including the two immensely popular Rutabaga Tales. He was always an activist; leveraging his fame, he won national attention for the causes he supported, and won an award from the NAACP as “a major prophet of civil rights in our time”.
Late in life his fame won the ultimate American accolade: school namings. He was delighted to attend the opening of Carl Sandburg High School in Illinois; years later, on a visit home, he dropped in to see it and was ejected. The principal thought Sandburg, who had no ID on him, was a tramp.
Carl and Paula raised goats at Connemara, and filled every room in the house with books. When he died, at 89, the nation mourned the loss of a national treasure. Paula lived another decade, dying at 93; their daughters lived to 85, 85 and 95. Helga, the youngest- and, in the end, eldest- died in 2014. Connemara is a popular National Historic Site.