In western civilization, poetry has long been considered the most artful form of the written word. As classical educators, there’s very little we can do that deepens our appreciation of words and their power more than dedication to great poetry and poets. The “Know Your Poets” series will tell the life story of various poets while also introducing the nature and themes of their work. 

I saw a famous man eating soup.

I say he was lifting a fat broth

Into his mouth with a spoon.

His name was in the newspapers that day

Spelled out in tall black headlines

And thousands of people were talking about him.

When I saw him,

He sat bending his head over a plate

Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon. 


Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg was born January 6th, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois to Swedish immigrants. His life heretofore would illustrate the classic American tale. Carl, one of seven Sandburg children, rose from the desperate plight of the immigrant class to great literary success becoming a prominent member of a movement known as the Chicago Renaissance. 

Immigrants, like the Sandburgs, found conditions in post-bellum America difficult. August Sandburg, Carl’s father, worked ten hour days, six days a week throughout Carl’s entire childhood. At thirteen, due to financial hardship, Sandburg dropped out of school and worked odd jobs in the surrounding area. Though he never completed his formal education, his practical education began when he started tagging along with his father to political rallies lobbying for labor reform, and it was completed, when at 19, he traveled as a self-proclaimed “hobo” across the country.

Shortly after Sandburg’s travels ended, on the other side of the country President McKinley announced one of the greatest tragedies in American history, the sinking of the USS Maine. “Remember the Maine” rung out all across America calling for young men to join the military in defense of their country. In response, Sandburg joined the military and served in Puerto Rico, but his troop would return to the States within eight months. Though his service ended quickly, he was proud of it and remained lifelong friends with many of his fellow soldiers. Later on in his life, he published vocally anti-war poetry, but those poems cannot be understood properly without considering his experience as a soldier and a proud American.

Although Sandburg never went to  high school, Lombard College offered him a year of free tuition because of his veteran status. While at Lombard, Sandburg met Philip Green Wright, a professor who would go on to teach economics at Harvard. Wright encouraged Sandburg to publish his first volume of poetry Reckless Ecstasy. During college, he also captained his basketball team and became the editor of the college newspaper. Sandburg never graduated from Lombard, but his time under the tutelage of Wright began his literary career.

In 1902, after leaving college, he got a job as a reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he also started a political career. He began by volunteering for the Social Democratic Party which earned him the respect of party officials. In 1910, Milwaukee elected its first socialist mayor, and he asked Sandburg to serve as his secretary which he did until 1912. Sandburg remained politically active the rest of his life, even being asked to run for president against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sandburg’s political life, however, was not without controversy. The FBI classified him as a friend to communist sympathizers, but despite the accusation, the FBI never proved that he actually participated in a scheme to overthrow the government. In the era of the “red-scare,” many Americans feared people like Sandburg, and their influence. 

In 1917, Sandburg left Milwaukee and joined the Chicago Daily news as a reporter where, with the exception of a couple of years as a wartime correspondent during World War I, he would remain until 1932. While working as a reporter, Sandburg also continued to write poetry. He published Chicago Poems, Smoke and Steel, and Cornhuskers, a Pulitzer Prize special citation winner. As a daily reporter, he wrote highly popular columns on daily events, film criticism, and investigative journalism.  During the twenties, he also finished the first two volumes of his life work, a biography of Abraham Lincoln. His work culminated in a six volume magisterial biography completed in 1940 for which he won another Pulitzer. 

From 1910-1925, the Chicago newspapers, including the Chicago Daily, emerged as a training ground for novelists, poets, and journalists who would go on to shape the literary future of America. HL Mencken dubbed Chicago as the literary capital of America. Sandburg, the most well known of the Chicago Renaissance, wrote poetry and regular columns that praised the beauty of humanity, but set it against the tragedies inherent to the country’s expanding economy. 

Following his career as a reporter, Sandburg continued to write, sing (he released studio albums of his own folk music),  and lecture. In 1945, he wrote his only novel, Remembrance Rock, a historical-fiction of the American people from 1607 to 1945. In 1950, he was awarded his third and final Pulitzer prize for Complete Poems. And, in 1963 at the age eighty-five he published his final book of poetry Honey and Salt. Carl Sandburg died July 22, 1967  in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Carl Sandburg was truly an enigma. With no high school or college diploma, he wrote one of the greatest biographies of one of America’s greatest presidents. He was the captain of his basketball team, an investigative journalist, a film critic, a novelist, a singer, a guitar player, a song writer, he wrote children’s stories, was investigated by the FBI, was asked to run for president,  and he was a poet. Yet, the irony of his life is that this extraordinary mind was dedicated to the life of the common man. His poetry, his politics, and his entertainment were all done for the good of everyday people. Carl Sandburg was unlike any man who ever lived before him, and may live after him.

Categories: Exordium