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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



10. Rhythms
in Poetry


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
Author
Pairings
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

Blue Island, Illinois. Switching a Train with Diesel Switch Engine on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad
[4848] Jack Delano, Blue Island, Illinois. Switching a Train with Diesel Switch Engine on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (1943), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-026606-E DLC].

Carl Sandburg Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, to parents who had emigrated from Sweden. His father was a hard-working blacksmith, but the young Sandburg didn't exhibit his father's enthusiasm for manual labor and a steady home life. Sandburg left school after the eighth grade and then worked at a variety of odd jobs before volunteering in the Spanish American War in 1898. While serving in the war, he wrote columns about his experiences in the army for the Galesburg newspaper. After the war, Sandburg applied unsuccessfully to West Point. Eventually he attended Lombard College and worked at the local fire department to make ends meet. Although Sandburg became known around the institution for his writing, he didn't finish his degree, but instead spent the next decade traveling around the country, working odd jobs, including selling stereoscopic photographs. He also rode on the trains with hobos, an experience that explains his lifelong sympathy for the downtrodden. In 1904, he regained work at the Galesburg newspaper and also published his first collection of poems, In Reckless Ecstasy. Two years later he attended the fortieth anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Galesburg, where he encountered the son of Abraham Lincoln. This experience intensified his interest in the president. In later life he wrote a magisterial four-volume biography of Lincoln as well as a book about his wife, Mary Todd. For the next few years, he worked a variety of jobs, until returning to Chicago, where he again landed work as a journalist. In 1914, he published several poems in the prestigious Poetry magazine, and he quickly became famous.

A public favorite, Sandburg began touring the country giving readings and lectures, and he wrote in a variety of genres, publishing children's books, articles, the aforementioned biographies and an autobiography, as well as his poetry. But his poetic colleagues, such as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, considered Sandburg a poet with little craft. To an extent, they were right. Sandburg was more interested in subject matter than form or meter, and his poems often seem less polished. Despite what his contemporaries thought, Sandburg enjoyed wide public acclaim throughout his career. The governor of Illinois honored him by celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday as "Carl Sandburg Day," the king of Sweden recognized him, the U.S. Congress invited him to give an address, schools were named after him in his home state, and President Johnson bestowed on him the Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Deeply influenced by Walt Whitman, Sandburg shared his predecessor's devotion to American subject matter and common life. Sandburg strove to give poetic voice to a country whose poets seemed too willing to take a back seat to European tradition and to emulate Continental and other borrowed voices and forms. Based in Chicago, Sandburg was part of a school of poets who tried to wrest American poetry from the literary elite. Sandburg's poetry was ultimately more political than either Whitman's or William Carlos Williams's, and his sharp journalistic eye made a frequent appearance in his verse. A political socialist, Sandburg saw his poetry as rooted in the vernacular and the experiences of the working class.



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