Sunday, April 29, 2012

National Poetry Month—Carl Sandburg "I Am the People, the Mob"

Note:  National Poetry Month is almost over and I haven’t posted some of my favorite poets.  Can’t let it slip away from Carl Sandburg.  The biography has been recycled on this blog a couple of time, adapted from my program Four Hundred Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets from John Milton to Sylvia Path.

Carl Sandburg, the son of working class Swedish immigrants, was born in Galesburg, Illinois on January 6, 1878 and was, from the beginning, thoroughly American.  His father labored as a blacksmith’s helper for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and struggled to support his wife and seven children. 

The second oldest, Charley, as he was called, was compelled to find odd jobs from earliest childhood.  He left school after eighth grade in 1891 and struck out on his own to remove one hungry mouth from the family table.  He joined tens of thousands of similar young men in the life of an itinerant laborer, a hobo.  He shined shoes, delivered milk, harvested ice, laid bricks and followed the army of harvest stiffs through the wheat fields of Kansas.  While traveling he absorbed the lore of the hobo, including the tales of Coxy’s Army.  He experienced capitalist exploitation and like so many of his fellow workers was radicalized. 

When the Spanish American War broke out, Sandburg opted for adventure and a steady paycheck by enlisting in the volunteers.  Posted to Puerto Rico, he saw no action but watched yellow fever and the Armour Company’s tainted pork and beans ravage the Army. 

He returned to Galesburg upon discharge and wrangled his way into the local Lombard College, a liberal arts school founded by Universalists.  He supported himself with odd jobs and as a fireman.  Sandburg was delighted with the open and embracing Universalism he encountered at the college, a welcome relief from the strict Lutheranism of his youth and street corner evangelists he encountered in his travels.  He also discovered writing at the college under the tutelage of liberal professor Phillip Green Wright and his Poor Writers’ Club.  He adopted not only Universalism while on campus, but Debsian Socialism as well. 

After graduation Wright published Sandburg's first volume of poetry Reckless Ecstasy on his basement press in 1904.  Two more volumes followed in 1907 and 1908.  Coming from an obscure working class kid from the Midwest, the books completely missed attention of the nation’s literary elite. 

Sandburg determined to devote himself more actively to the socialist and labor cause.  In 1907 and 1908 he worked as an organizer for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee.  He met Lillian Steichen at party headquarters there in 1908 and married her. 

Now with family responsibilities, Sandburg moved to Chicago and took up reporting for the Chicago Daily News.  At first he worked the police and crime beat and later covered labor for the liberal newspaper.  He added criticism to his portfolio becoming one of the city’s first serious film critic before earning his own regular column. 

Sandburg was also writing revolutionary poetry, drawing on the city of Chicago for inspiration.  In 1914 he exploded into the literary mainstream when Harriet Monroe published a group of his poems in her seminal Poetry magazine.  In 1916 Chicago Poems was published to international acclaim followed by Cornhuskers in 1918.  He did not abandon his social conscience.  He wrote a powerful analysis of the 1919 Chicago Race Riots that attracted wide spread admiration. 

His days as a reporter were now behind him.  He turned to literature as a full time career.  A charming collection of children’s tales, Rootabaga Stories, caught the attention of his publisher Alfred Harcourt, who suggested that he undertake a children’s biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Instead Sandburg labored for two years to produce the two volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.  Breaking the academic mold of biography, the books looked at youthful Lincoln’s life with a novelist eye and a poet’s sensibility. 

The enormous success of the books finally gave Sandburg economic independence.  He moved to a new home among the lovely Lake Michigan sand dunes and dedicated himself to completing four additional volumes in his Lincoln saga.  Abraham Lincoln: The War Years won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1940. 

During those same years, Sandburg worked on his epic collection of American folk songs.  Carl Sandburg's American Song Bag introduced generations to a great musical tradition and helped provide material for the folk music revivals of the late 1940’s and again in the 1960’s.  In public performances Sandburg enjoyed pulling out his battered guitar and singing as much as he did reading.

His literary output was prodigious.  Not only did he continue to turn out poetry, but he wrote a well-received novel Remembrance Rock and an autobiography, Always the Young Strangers. 

In 1945 the Sandburgs relocated to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he continued to work and raise prize dairy goats.  He also found a welcome among the hardy North Carolina Universalists, who up held liberal religion in a conservative area. 

In 1951 Sandburg won his second Pulitzer Prize for his Complete Poems.

Sandburg died in 1967, perhaps the most beloved of American 20th Century Poets.  After a Universalist funeral, he had his ashes returned to Galesburg to be buried under a stone behind the small cottage where he was born.  He lays there today next to his wife under a red granite Remembrance Rock.

I Am the People, the Mob

I Am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is
done through me?

I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the
world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons
come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And
then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.
I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand
for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me.
I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted.
I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and
makes me work and give up what I have. And I

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red
drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the
People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer
forget who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

—Carl Sandburg

1 comment:

  1. It was the Unitarians that Sandburg attended in Ashville, NC, his wife and daughter being members of the congregation. No local Universalist congregations.