Carl Sandburg, Poet and Lincoln Biographer

Midwestern Bard Made Lincoln Seem Familiar to Millions of Americans

photo of Carl Sandburg playing his guitar
Carl Sandburg.

Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Carl Sandburg was an American poet who became widely known to the public not only for his poetry but for his multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

As a literary celebrity, Sandburg was familiar to millions. He appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1938, with the accompanying photo essay focused on his sideline as a collector and singer of American folk songs. After Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, he remarked that he would have been "most happy" had Carl Sandburg gotten the award.

Fast Facts: Carl Sandburg

  • Known For: Poet, literary celebrity, biographer of Abraham Lincoln, and collector and singer of American folk songs
  • Born: January 6, 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois
  • Died: July 22, 1967 in Flat Rock, North Carolina
  • Parents: Clara Mathilda Anderson and August Sandberg
  • Spouse: Lillian Steichen
  • Education: Lombard College
  • Awards: Three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry (1919 and 1951) and one for history (1940)

Early Life and Poetry

Carl Sandburg was born January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois. He was educated in local schools, which he quit in his early teens to work as a laborer. He became a traveling worker, moving throughout the Midwest and developing a great appreciation for the region and its people.

After joining the Army during the Spanish-American War, Sandburg returned to his education, enrolling in a college at Galesburg. During that period he wrote his first poetry.

He worked as a journalist and as the secretary for the socialist mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to 1912. He then moved to Chicago and took a job as an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News.

While working in journalism and politics he began writing poetry seriously, contributing to magazines. He published his first book, Chicago Poems, in 1916. Two years later he published another volume, Cornhuskers, which was followed after another two years by Smoke and Steel. A fourth volume, Slabs of the Sunburnt West, was published in 1922.

Cornhuskers was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1919. He would later be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1951, for his Complete Poems.

Carl Sandburg in Life Magazine Cover February 21, 1938
The cover of Life magazine features a close-up of American poet Carl August Sandburg (1878 - 1967), February 21, 1938. The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

His early poems have been called "subliterary," as they tend to use common language and slang of the common people. With his early books he became known for his free verse that was rooted in the industrial Midwest. His plain manner of speaking and writing endeared him to the reading public and helped make him a celebrity. His poem "Fog," was known to millions of Americans, and appeared often in schoolbooks.

He had married Lillian Steichen, the sister of photographer Edward Steichen, in 1908. The couple had three daughters.

The Lincoln Biography

In 1926, Sandburg published the first volumes of what would become his massive biography of Abraham Lincoln. The project, which was originally conceived to be the story of Lincoln in Illinois, was influenced not only by Sandburg's own fascination with the Midwest, but with a circumstance of timing. Sandburg had known Civil War veterans and other local people who retained vivid memories of Lincoln.

The college Sandburg attended had been the site of one of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. As a student, Sandburg came to know people who recalled attending the debate five decades earlier.

Sandburg engaged in countless hours of research, seeking out Lincoln scholars and collectors. He assembled the mountain of material into artful prose that brought Lincoln to life on the page. The Lincoln biography eventually stretched into six volumes. After writing the two volumes of The Prairie Years, Sandburg felt compelled to continue, writing four volumes of The War Years.

In 1940 Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History. He eventually published an abridged edition of the Lincoln biography, and also shorter books on Lincoln for young readers. For many Americans of the mid-20th century, Carl Sandburg and Lincoln were somewhat inseparable. Sandburg's depiction of Lincoln was how countless Americans came to view the 16th president.

photo of Carl Sandburg addressing a joint session of Congress
Carl Sandburg eulogizing Lincoln at a joint session of Congress. Getty Images 

Public Acclaim

Sandburg put himself in front of the public, at times going on tour playing his guitar and singing folk songs. In the 1930s and 1940s he would appear on the radio, reading poems or essays he'd written on American life. During World War II he wrote a regular column about life on the American home front which was carried in a number of newspapers.

He continued to write and publish poetry throughout his life, but it was always his association with Lincoln that gained him the greatest respect from the public. On Lincoln's 150th birthday, February 12, 1959, Sandburg enjoyed the very rare honor of addressing a joint session of Congress. From the podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives he spoke eloquently of Lincoln's struggles during the Civil War and what Lincoln's legacy meant to America.

photo of Carl Sandburg and President Kennedy in the Oval Office
Carl Sandburg visiting President Kennedy in the Oval Office. Getty Images

In October 1961, Sandburg visited Washington, D.C., from his farm in North Carolina, to help open an exhibit of Civil War artifacts. He stopped by the White House to visit President John F. Kennedy, and the two men spoke of history and, of course, Lincoln.

Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967, at Flat Rock, North Carolina. His death was front-page news across America, and he was mourned by millions who felt as if they had known the unpretentious poet from the Midwest.

Sources:

  • "Sandburg, Carl." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 4, Gale, 2009, pp. 1430-1433. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Allen, Gay Wilson. "Sandburg, Carl 1878-1967." American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, edited by Leonard Unger, vol. 3: Archibald MacLeish to George Santayana, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 575-598. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Carl Sandburg." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 13, Gale, 2004, pp. 461-462. Gale Virtual Reference Library.