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.
After young Sandburg’s discharge from the service, he enrolled at Lombard College, where as a veteran he was entitled to a year’s free tuition. Admitted as a special student because he had not gone to high school, he spent four years at the college but left shortly before receiving his degree and resumed his roaming, this time to the East Coast. Back in Galesburg after a number of adventures, including ten days in jail for riding the rails without a ticket, Sandburg worked as a fireman and a salesman.
Although he first published his poems in 1904, he did not gain recognition as a poet until 1914, when he published “Chicago.” By this time, he had left Galesburg permanently and had worked as an organizer for the Social-Democratic party, as a newspaperman in Wisconsin, and as secretary to the mayor of Milwaukee. In 1908 he married Lillian Steichen, whose brother Edward later became a famous photographer. In 1912 Sandburg moved to Chicago, where he worked on various newspapers. He wrote editorials for the Chicago Daily News from 1918 to 1932 and began his work on Abraham Lincoln. The several volumes of poetry he published during this period gained a wide reputation for their informal style.
His two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years appeared in 1927, and his four-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning Abraham Lincoln: The War Years followed in 1939. Describing previous biographies of Lincoln as too idealistic, Sandburg offered his versions as more realistic. Historians note that Sandburg’s interpretations add little new information and no insights to the study of Lincoln but that his work’s value lies in its emotional and poetic intensity.
Sandburg wrote versions of his works on Lincoln and his autobiography that are geared toward younger audiences. Abe Lincoln Grows Up is taken from Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years; Storm Over the Land derives from Abraham Lincoln: The War Years; and Prairie Town Boy is based on the autobiographical Always the Young Strangers (1952).
His other writings include a novel and some children’s fantasies. Sandburg is also widely known as a collector of folk songs. In recognition of his achievements, Sandburg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. He died on July 22, 1967, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.