Tonight I watched The Day Carl Sandburg Died. I’ve been interested in (though have not pursued this interest) Sandburg’s place within Midwestern intellectual and cultural history. Sandburg was born in Illinois, and lived most of his life in the Great Lakes states of the Midwest. He first gained recognition as a poet when his poems on Chicago were published in Poetry magazine. Poetry was published in Chicago and published the works of modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. “Chicago” is one of Sandburg’s most famous poems, and much is made of it in the documentary. Studs Terkel calls Chicago “the archetypal American city”. In “Chicago”, Sandburg acknowledges the downfalls of the industrial city, “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.” While recognizing the pitfalls of modernity, he reaffirms the value of the city, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”
The theme of Sandburg’s life’s work is affirmation of the American people. His democratic romanticism leads him to a different interpretation of the industrial city than other modernists. “Chicago” is a far cry from Eliot’s “Wasteland”. Sandburg spent a great deal of time amongst workers when he was a socialist organizer. Sandburg is a Midwestern modernist, because he viewed the changes of modernity and industrialization first hand.
Sandburg’s work was popular in America. His biography on Lincoln shaped the way many Americans viewed the former president. Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy called upon Sandburg for insights into the American spirit. Like other Midwestern modernists he was popular as well as critically acclaimed.