Sandburg, Carl, (1878-1967), American poet and biographer, known for his unrhymed free verse which uses precise and vivid images to portray the energy and brutality of American urban industrial life. Sandburg also wrote what is generally considered the definitive biography of United States president Abraham Lincoln.
Sandburg was born and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. Both of his parents were Swedish immigrants. In his late adolescence, Sandburg worked odd jobs and spent a year traveling in the Midwest. He served with a company of volunteers in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War (1898). After the war, he attended Lombard College (now Knox College) in Galesburg. Sandburg left college without a degree in 1902. He subsequently undertook newspaper and advertising work. He also became an organizer for the Social Democratic Party in Wisconsin and served as secretary to the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1910 to 1912. In 1908, Sandburg married Lillian Steichen, sister of photographer Edward Steichen.
In 1913 Sandburg moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he worked as a journalist, writing editorials for the Chicago Daily News from 1918 to 1933. In 1914 Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” was published in the magazine Poetry, and he was awarded the magazine’s Levinson prize that same year. Sandburg’s first full-sized volume, Chicago Poems (1916), established him as the poet of that industrial city. He joined Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters as a central figure in the flowering of literature in Chicago from 1912 to 1925. In its opening lines, the poem “Chicago” addressed and described the city:
“Hog Butcher for the World, /Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;/ Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of the Big Shoulders . . . ”
In this and the succeeding volumes Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), and Good Morning, America (1928), Sandburg became the bard of the Midwest, serenading its artists, praising its workers, lamenting the degradation of its poor, and looking lovingly at its countryside. To many who read “Fog” (1916), “I Am the People, the Mob” (1916), “Grass” (1918), and the 21 sections of Good Morning, America, Sandburg was successor to 19th-century poet Walt Whitman as the proclaimer of the American spirit. This impression was confirmed by The People, Yes (1936), an excursion into social history, folklore, and political faith, which included a declaration of confidence in the American working person.
Sandburg’s prose masterpiece is the monumental biography Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (two volumes, 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (four volumes, 1939), the latter of which earned him the 1940 Pulitzer Prize in history. When the houses of Congress came together in February 1959 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, Sandburg was invited to address the joint session. He was the first private citizen so honored. Sandburg’s other prose works include The Chicago Race Riots (1919), Steichen the Photographer (1929), and a biography of Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow (1932, coauthored with Paul M. Angle). Sandburg expressed his response to World War II (1939-1945) in prose and verse in Home Front Memo (1943) and wrote a historical novel, Remembrance Rock (1948), based on American history between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Always the Young Strangers (1953), was the engrossing record of Sandburg’s life until college, and the unfinished Ever the Winds of Chance (1983) chronicled his life until 1907. Sandburg also wrote the children’s books Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), and Potato Face (1930) to entertain his three daughters.
Sandburg also became known as a performer of folk songs, which he sang in a craggy voice to simple guitar accompaniment. He collected folk songs and related materials in The American Songbag (1927) and Carl Sandburg’s New American Songbag (1950).
Sandburg’s Complete Poems (1950) won him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1951. Honey and Salt (1963) contains the assured verses of his late years. During the latter part of his career, Sandburg moved from Illinois to North Carolina, where he continued to write until his death. The poetry collections Breathing Tokens (1978) and Billy Sunday and Other Poems (1993) were published after his death.