English and Journalism

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

By Bill Knight

Galesburg’s Main Street traffic still stops and stays stalled when the long Burlington Northern/Santa Fe freights routinely roll through town. A century ago, this Midwest rail hub was a small, rawboned industrial city of many immigrants, what native son Carl August Sandburg called “a piece of the American Republic.”

The very ordinariness of diverse people here profoundly affected him.

Sandburg was a Chicago newspaperman when a colleague on the Daily News pegged it best.

“Commonplace was the soul of Sandburg’s genius, ” said Ben Hecht, who became a successful playwright. “The commonplace is the nightingale that sings in his poetry. ”

Sandburg’s contact with common events and common people—and celebrating them with vigor and vision—gave meaning to his life and his work. Since 1967, when he died at the age of 89, Sandburg’s literary reputation seems to have declined. But Penelope Niven’s book, Carl Sandburg: A Biography (Charles Scribner’s Sons), a 14-year research effort associated with the University of Illinois, revives and renews Sandburg’s great value, placing his many contributions in the context of his times.

The typical image of Sandburg is that of the white-haired poet, and the renowned biographer of Lincoln. But after one finishes Niven’s highly readable volume, such an image seems a merely superficial glimpse of the man.

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