Carl Sandburg was a 20th-century American writer, known for his free verse poems celebrating the American people, countryside, and industry in the heartland of the United States, and for his six-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln.
Carl August Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. He was the son of poor Swedish immigrants, August Sandburg, a railroad blacksmith's helper, and Clara Mathilda Anderson. His hard-working parents instilled in him and his six siblings the necessity of hard work and education, as well as a reverence for the American Dream.
When Carl entered first grade, he Americanized his Swedish Christian name, thereafter signing his school papers and his early writings as Charles A. Sandburg. He left school after his eighth-grade year and, at the age of 13, became a day laborer. Carl shined shoes, delivered milk and newspapers, and performed other odd jobs.
In 1896, Sandburg made his first significant journey, a trip to Chicago on a railroad pass that he had borrowed from his father. He would later return to cover the city as a reporter and become known as one of its most celebrated poets. The following year, Sandburg decided to see the country and worked his way west as a hobo, stowing away on top and inside railroad boxcars, traveling through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado in search of odd jobs.
After a few months, Sandburg returned to Galesburg. During a brief period as a housepainter, he became restless and enlisted in Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers, for service in the Spanish-American War. He was assigned to duty in Puerto Rico from July through August 1898.
Although he lacked a high school diploma, in October 1898, Sandburg's status as a war veteran qualified him for admission tuition-free to Lombard College in his hometown. He then received a conditional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1899 and traveled to West Point to take the entrance examinations. To his dismay, he failed the mathematics and grammar tests. He returned to Galesburg to study at Lombard until May 1902.
Sandburg worked his way through college, and managed to attract the attention of Professor Philip Green Wright, who not only encouraged Sandburg's writing, but paid for publication of his first volume of poetry, a pamphlet titled Reckless Ecstasy, published in 1904. Sandburg attended Lombard for four years, but did not receive a diploma.
Beginnings: marriage and career
Following college, Sandburg moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he worked as an advertising writer and newspaper reporter. In 1908, he met Lillian Steichen, sister of the photographer Edward Steichen. Charles and Lillian fell in love and were married the same year in Milwaukee.
The couple had three children. His wife encouraged Sandburg to reclaim his christened name, so he became Carl Sandburg once and for all. At that time in his life, Sandburg was a socialist sympathizer and worked for the Social-Democrat Party in Wisconsin. He later served as secretary to the first socialist mayor of Milwaukee, from 1910 to 1912.
During World War I, Sandburg worked for the Newspaper Enterprise Associates as the Stockholm, Sweden, reporter.
In 1917, Sandburg later moved to Chicago where, in 1917, he became an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News. His poetry first began to attract attention when he was published in the magazine, Poetry. With the printing of his Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), and Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), his reputation as a poet was firmly established.
Sandburg was a devoted and kind-hearted family man. Before World War I, he had begun to write comical, sometimes poignant American fairy tales for his children. Two events encouraged him to develop those stories into a book: the sorrow and strife that he witnessed during the First World War, and his eldest daughter's epilepsy, for which there was as yet no seizure-suppressing medication.
From the sadness of that time sprang a wonderful series of storybooks for young people, the Rootabaga Stories published in 1922, Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), Rootabaga Country (1929), and Potato Face (1930). Sandburg also wrote two books of poems for children: Early Moon and Wind Song.
The Lincoln project
In the 1920s, Sandburg began some of his most ambitious projects, including his study of Abraham Lincoln. From childhood, Sandburg had loved and admired the legacy of President Lincoln. For 30 years he had sought out and collected material, and gradually began writing the six-volume biography of the fallen president.
Through the 1930s, Sandburg continued to write about life in America with Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow published in 1932, The People, Yes in 1936, and the second part of his Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, published in 1939, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Sandburg was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize in 1950, for his Complete Poems.
In 1952, Sandburg was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal in biography and history, one of several honors and awards. He settled down to finish writing his memoirs at his 245-acre farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina, purchased in 1945. In 1953, Sandburg published Always the Young Strangers, the autobiographical account of the first 20 years of his life.
Sandburg set aside work on the second volume of his autobiography, Ever the Winds of Chance, to collaborate with his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen, on an unprecedented photographic exhibition, The Family of Man, which made its debut in 1955.
The work included 503 pictures gathered by Steichen from several countries, to serve as a "mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world." It was a courageous affirmation of the ideal of global community and, for both Sandburg and Steichen, a culmination of the work of their lives.
In 1959, Sandburg delivered a Lincoln Day address before a joint session of Congress. Later in the year, he traveled with Steichen on a State Department tour to open The Family of Man exhibition in the Soviet Union.
Sandburg resided in Hollywood, California, during much of 1960, working as George Stevens' creative consultant on the film The Greatest Story Ever Told. His last book of poetry, titled Honey and Salt, was published in 1963. The following year, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A national memory
Much to Sandburg's delight, more than a half-dozen public schools were named in his honor.
Following his death in 1967, Sandburg's home of 22 years in Flat Rock was preserved by the National Park Service as the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Carl Sandburg College is located in Sandburg's birthplace of Galesburg.