Carl Sandburg was born to Swedish-American parents on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois, a prairie town that attracted large numbers of immigrants because of job opportunities at the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroad shops. His father worked in the railroad yards and never earned more than nine dollars a week, barely enough to feed, house, and clothe a young family and certainly not enough to send the children to high school. At the age of thirteen, Carl left school and began a succession of odd jobs. When he was nineteen, he left Galesburg in a boxcar, working his way to Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado. Shortly after his return to Illinois in 1898, he enlisted in the state militia and fought in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. He sent long letters about his experiences in Latin America to the Galesburg Evening Mail.
Based on the first 27 chapters of Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Sandburg’s Abe Lincoln Grows Up presents the first twenty years of Lincoln’s life, from his birth in a log cabin, through the migrations of the Lincoln family in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, until the time that Abe gathers his few belongings and leaves home for New Salem, in search of an education and a better life. This is a classic example of the American success story: a boy born and raised in poverty, with many hardships and very little formal education, struggles to make something of himself. Although the story ends just as Lincoln leaves home, all readers know that he is destined to become one of the best known and most loved presidents of the United States.
Abe Lincoln Grows Up begins in 1776, in Rockingham County, Virginia, where Lincoln’s paternal grandparents live. In 1782 Lincoln’s grandfather moves his family to the Kentucky wilderness. This wonderful new land teems with fertile black earth and bluegrass, but settlers face great dangers as well, particularly from Native Americans who try to protect their land from the newcomers. Brutal encounters are common; in fact, some towns offer rewards for Native American scalps.
Because Abe Lincoln Grows Up is biographical rather than fictional, it lacks a true plot. There is no rising action leading to a climax that changes the lives of the people involved. Instead, Sandburg creates a realistic background-the frontier wilderness of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois-and then populates it with historical figures. The major characters are Abe Lincoln; his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln; and his stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln.
The most outstanding literary characteristic of this work is the language. Sandburg’s prose often flows like his free verse poetry. A figurative device that Sandburg frequently uses in both poetry and prose is personification-that is, the endowment of an inanimate object with human qualities. For example, in chapter 10, Sandburg hypothesizes: “He [Abe] might have asked the moon, ‘What do you see?’ And the moon might have told him many things.” The extensive description of all that the moon might have witnessed in the past few years helps the reader to see and feel the current of life in those times.
The attitudes toward violence, Native Americans, and blacks depicted in Abe Lincoln Grows Up may concern parents and teachers. Sandburg frequently makes violence sound attractive: “Three boys teased him one day…they would not be satisfied till he had punched their noses.” Some descriptions of Mike Fink’s and Andrew Jackson’s escapades may be viewed as glorifications of physical violence. When Sandburg writes about social injustice, such as the treatment of Native Americans and slaves, he never offers any comment of his own. Some critics defend him on the grounds that the irony implicit in the situations amounts to a form of recrimination, but young readers may not recognize the irony as such and may instead interpret the lack of comment as moral neutrality or, worse yet, as approval. Most of these problems occur because the work was written over 60 years ago, when the collective social conscience was not as well-developed as it is now. The realization that moral standards change rapidly in American society is an important part of education today.
1. In this biography, Sandburg does more than merely recount the facts about the first twenty years of Abe Lincoln’s life. He tells about such assorted characters as Daniel Boone, Mike Fink, and Napoleon Bonaparte. What is the value of such digressions?
1. Sandburg mentions several games played at parties on the frontier, such as “Skip to My Lou.” How were these games played? What kind of musical instruments might have been used? (A valuable source here might be Sandburg’s own collection of folk songs, The New American Songbag. New York: Broadcast Music, 1950.)
Abe Lincoln Grows Up is adapted from the first part of Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln. Storm Over the Land: A Profile of the Civil War is a similar volume taken from Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. On a somewhat higher reading level than Abe Lincoln Grows Up, Storm Over the Land is much longer, covering all the years of the Civil War.