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American Masters: The Day Carl Sandburg Died

The PBS American Masters series recently presented The Day Carl Sandburg Died, and it and links to much more on Sandburg are still available for viewing on the PBS website devoted to the film. It is a wonderful film and the director of it, Paul Bonesteel, has done Americans a great service amidst this election year by reminding us of the life and values of this great American who won Pulitzer Prizes for both his poetry and multi-volume Lincoln biography. 

carl sandburg

As a young man before World War I, Sandburg was a socialist because he believed that American socialists spoke out most clearly against the exploitation of child labor and for the rights of women and minorities. In 1919, he sympathized with Chicago’s African American community in his articles and book The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919. That same year he wrote, “I am with all rebels everywhere all the time.” Eventually, he came to support Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, believing that by doing so he could best help the common American. But when interviewed as an old man and asked on TV if he was still a radical, Sandburg replied that he had “sympathy with all radicals” and if pressed to choose between radicals and conservatives, “he would choose the radicals.”

The film replays this exchange and much more. There are many quotations from his writings, especially his poems. Sandburg scholars and those who knew the poet tell us about him. And there are numerous clips of Sandburg interacting with others. For example, there is a sequence where oral historian Studs Terkel, folk singer Pete Seeger, and Sandburg himself all recite from his long poem The People, Yes. We see Sandburg addressing a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress, on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth (February 12, 1959) and sitting in the White House talking with President Kennedy. And we see and hear President Johnson eulogizing him at the Lincoln Memorial after his death in 1967: “I will miss him. We will all miss him. There will not be one like him again.”

Of the Sandburg scholars, his major biographer, Penelope Niven, appears most often and is especially insightful and articulate about him. Of those who knew him well, we hear often from his wife of about 60 years, Paula, and daughter Helga. The comments of the charming Paula, whom he loved deeply, come from a 1969 interview with her when she was in her eighties. As Niven wrote about her in her Sandburg biography, she “was by all testimony of her daughters and friends a serene, deeply contended woman, fulfilled, sparkling with vitality, rejoicing in her life.” These qualities are readily apparent as we see and hear her speak fondly of her deceased husband.

There are too many others who speak about him in the film to mention them all—he had many friends—but I’ll cite just one more, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who tells us Sandburg “was full of insatiable curiosity” and told him of the importance of poets being good listeners.

Besides Sandburg’s many books of poems and volumes on Lincoln, he was also an avid collector of American folk music, an entertainer who played such music on his guitar, and a writer of children’s stories. We see and hear him singing in his rich melodic voice some of the songs he collected and published in several volumes. We also hear Pete Seeger and Dan Zanes sing some of them—the latter has previously recorded Parades and Panoramas: 25 Songs Collected by Carl Sandburg. In providing the images, recitations, interviews, and songs which the film does, it provides us with an experience of Sandburg that no essays or books can match. Seeing him amidst his family and friends in various places, including his successive homes on Lake Michigan and in North Carolina, and images of the common people and American scenes he loved to write about while we hear his poems about them adds an extra dimension to his writings.

Of course, the latter can provide much more detail, as Niven does in her biography, where we discover that in the 1920s Sandburg was also the main film critic for the Chicago Daily News. And we have to read more of and about Sandburg to appreciate fully his wisdom and rich sense of humor (see here and here on these subjects).

At the end of this memorable 11/2 hour film, various poets and writers emphasize his importance for today. Most significant is his sympathy for the common people. We hear from his 1916 Chicago Poems:

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I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.

Earlier in the film, as scenes of misery and protest from the Great Depression flash upon the screen, we hear the following lines from The People, Yes:

These are heroes then—among the plain people—
Heroes did you say? And why not?
They give all they've got and ask no questions and take what comes and what more do you want?

Niven calls Sandburg’s life an “extraordinary articulation of the American Dream,” which perhaps could only come from the child of immigrant parents, as Sandburg was. About the American Dream today, Jon Meacham recently wrote:

The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction. That great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality, is real and growing. The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation's long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system, the engine of what Thomas Jefferson called "the world's best hope," shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day.

In response to such conditions Republican candidate Mitt Romney told a group of wealthy supporters:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

walter moss

How different this is from Sandburg’s compassion for America’s poor and suffering, most of whom are willing to work hard! This was true when he wrote The People, Yes amidst the Great Depression, and it still is today.

Walter G. Moss