Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg's close friend Harry Golden once called Sandburg “the one American writer who distinguished himself in five fields—poetry, history, biography, fiction, and music.”1  Sandburg (1878-1967) was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, biographer, journalist, poet, and folk singer. Coming from a family of immigrants and a life of poverty, Sandburg's successful career itself is a testament to the American dream celebrated in his poetry. 

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    Carl Sandburg Biography

    Carl Sandburg was born to a very poor family of Swedish immigrants in 1878. His parents had settled in Galesburg, Illinois, where they had a 3-room cottage. Sandburg left school at the age of 13 to work several odd jobs and help support his family. At 19, he traveled to Kansas as a migrant worker and became a farm laborer.

    Sandburg volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War (Apr 21, 1898 – Dec 10, 1898). He was stationed in Puerto Rico for eight months. During that time, a fellow soldier from Galesburg convinced Sandburg to enroll in Lombard College, the small college in their hometown, after he left the military. In 1898, Sandburg entered into Lombard College, where his professors encouraged his writing and helped him publish his first collection of poetry entitled In Reckless Ecstasy (1904).

    Sandburg left Lombard without a degree in 1902 and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He began working for a newspaper and the Social-Democrat Party. Sandburg met his future wife in Milwaukee. They got married in 1908 and moved to Chicago after he was offered a job as an editorial writer for Chicago Daily News. He also met Harriet Monroe, who published many of his poems in her magazine Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.

    While living in Chicago, Sandburg became good friends with Harriet Monroe (1860-1936). Monroe was herself a recognized poet, editor, and literary critic. Born and raised in Chicago, Monroe was disillusioned by the meager pay that poets could make publishing their work in magazines. When a prominent New York newspaper published one of her poems without permission, Monroe sued them for $5,000 and used the money to start her own magazine.

    After winning her case, Monroe convinced 100 prominent businessmen in Chicago to sponsor Poetry, where she would serve as the editor. She launched the magazine in 1912 with the intent that it would be a magazine that paid writers a fair wage for their work.

    Monroe had just started publishing Poetry when Sandburg moved to Chicago. Immediately taken with Sandburg's free verse and homely writing style, Monroe encouraged Sandburg to keep writing and publishing his work. This marked the start of Sandburg's writing career.

    During this time, Sandburg started publishing his own poetry collections and established his reputation as a poet. He published Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920) in quick succession. In 1919, Cornhuskers won Sandburg his first of three Pulitzer Prizes. He also wrote four children's books, which started out as stories for his children. They were entitled Rootabaga Stories (1922), Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), Rootabaga Country (1929), and Potato Face (1930).

    Deeply influenced by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln from childhood, Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the former president's life. The biography was published in two books, encompassing six volumes: the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in 1926 and the four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years in 1929. The War Years won Sandburg the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for History.

    Carl Sandburg, portrait of Abraham Lincoln, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sandburg was deeply influenced by Abraham Lincoln and wrote arguably the most definitive biography of his life.

    In 1951, Sandburg won his third Pulitzer for Complete Poems (1950). His final collections of poetry are Harvest Poems (1960) and Honey and Salt (1963). Sandburg died of natural causes on July 22, 1967. He was inducted into the American Poets’ Corner in 2018.

    Carl Sandburg Interesting Facts

    Sandburg lived a varied life full of both poverty and fame. He made a name for himself in the literary world, despite never having graduated from either high school or college. He enlisted in the war, supported the civil rights movement, and delivered an address to Congress. Below are some interesting facts about his life.

    When Sandburg dropped out of school at the age of thirteen, he found work driving a milk wagon, laying bricks, washing dishes, and carrying luggage as a porter. He later worked as a farm laborer, hotel servant, and coal-heaver. It wasn't until 1912, when Sandburg was 34 years old, that he began writing professionally.

    Carl Sandburg, Farm labourers working in the field, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Before becoming a writer, Sandburg worked a variety of odd jobs, including working as a farm laborer.

    Sandburg spent 30 years collecting and classifying materials on Abraham Lincoln. Although he said he didn't read everything ever written about his hero, Sandburg had so much material that he stored it in a barn. It took him 15 years to write his Lincoln biographies. The Year Wars is over 150,000 words longer than all of Shakespeare's works put together.

    While working for The Daily News, Sandburg was assigned to investigate racial tension in Chicago. His articles were published under the title Chicago Race Riots: July 1919. His unbiased, objective reporting caught the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sandburg earned a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP and became the first white man to be honored with the Silver Plaque Award in 1965.

    Since the early 1900s, the Pulitzer Prize Plan of Award has explicitly prohibited works on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln from being considered for the biography category. To avoid this obstacle, the committee placed Sandburg's The War Years in the history category of the Pulitzer Prize. Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for History, not biography, for his biography of Lincoln.

    Sandburg was the first private citizen to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress. He was invited to speak at a celebration honoring the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.

    Sandburg was also a popular American folk singer. He accompanied his own poems with a solo guitar act at poetry recitals and lectures.

    Carl Sandburg, Folk musician strumming guitar, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Sandburg was a popular folk singer who played guitar while reciting his poetry.

    Carl Sandburg Books

    Sandburg's most famous books are his biographies of Abraham Lincoln and his children's stories.

    Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years

    The first two volumes of Lincoln's biography are entitled The Prairie Years. This book was published in 1926 and covers the time from Lincoln's birth through his inauguration. The last four volumes, published three years later, encompass The War Years. These volumes cover Lincoln's time as President of the United States through his assassination. Sandburg had hoped to separate who Lincoln actually was from the myths surrounding him in pop culture. Sandburg dedicated 30 years of his life sifting through all of the information he could find on Lincoln and depicting his life as accurately as possible, devoid of the hero-worship and tall tales that were the norm.

    Carl Sandburg's Children's Book

    Sandburg also wrote four children's books in the early 1920s. Growing up reading European fairytales himself, Sandburg had long wanted to create American fairytales to represent childhood in America. That representation was the primary aim behind the Rootabaga Stories, originally written for his daughters. It features a collection of whimsical, related short stories. The year after he published Rootabaga Stories, the sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, was released, he also released Rootabaga Country in 1929. Sandburg's lesser-known children's book, Potato Face, was published in 1930.

    Carl Sandburg Poems

    Some of Sandburg's most famous poems are "Fog," "Chicago," and The People, Yes.

    Carl Sandburg's "Fog"

    Sandburg's "Fog" first appeared in his 1916 collection Chicago Poems. It is a short, six-line poem that compares the fog coming into the Chicago Harbor to a cat. Sandburg was walking to see a juvenile court judge for an interview when he saw the fog over Chicago Harbor. Carrying a book of Japanese Haiku with him, Sandburg decided to write an "American haiku" before going to see the judge.

    Carl Sandburg's "Chicago"

    Sandburg wrote "Chicago" when he was living and working in the Windy City. It was first published in Monroe's poetry magazine, Poems, in 1914. It was later republished in Sandburg's famous Chicago Poems collection in 1916. "Chicago" reveals Sandburg's love of the city. The poem starts off by listing all of the criticism that Chicago receives: it's full of murderers and sex workers and hunger. But by the poem's end, the speaker highlights all of the positive aspects of the city and paints it as a prosperous hub of middle-class life. Even though many people think negatively about Chicago, it is a source of pride for the people who live there.

    Carl Sandburg, Chicago city at night, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Sandburg expresses his love of Chicago in his 1914 poem by the same name.

    Carl Sandburg's The People, Yes

    The People, Yes (1936) is a book-length poem that celebrates American life and history. The poem is filled with references to contemporary American culture and American history. It references figures like Abraham Lincoln, Paul Bunyan, and more. The People, Yes was written during the height of the Great Depression. Sandburg believed that economic inequity was caused by issues within social justice. The People, Yes addresses the economic upheavals of the 1930s. It is Sandburg's last long piece of poetry.

    Quotes by Carl Sandburg

    Below are some of the most famous quotes by Sandburg.

    Time is the coin of your life. You spend it. Do not allow others to spend it for you.”2

    As recorded by Sandburg's friend Ralph McGill, Sandburg said this on his 85th birthday. It speaks to the passage of time and personal identity. Sandburg spent much of his life bouncing from job to job and town to town before settling down in his mid-thirties. By the time he was 85, Sandburg was well aware of the value of time and touched on the themes in his poetry.

    Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes. Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration. Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.”1

    This quote comes from Sandburg's 1928 poetry collection Good Morning, America. Sandburg was often criticized because he wrote predominately in free verse instead of following any one particular form. Other critics stated that the focus of much of Sandburg's poetry was on the clever physical formation of the lines rather than their content. Sandburg responded to this criticism by defining what poetry is to him. Instead of some formal structure, poetry encompassed feelings, emotions, and the human condition. This quote gently chides critics who think that poetry can only be worthy if it is stuffy and formal.

    Carl Sandburg - Key takeaways

    • Sandburg was born in 1878 to a poor family of immigrants.
    • He dropped out of school at the age of 13 to help support his family.
    • He didn't start writing professionally until he was in his 30s.
    • Sandburg's most famous books are his biographies of Abraham Lincoln and his children's stories.
    • His most famous poems include "Fog," "Chicago," and The People, Yes.


    1. "Carl Sandburg." Poetry Foundation.
    2. Ralph McGill. The Best of Ralph McGill: Selected Columns, edited by Michael Strickland, Harry Davis, and Jeff Strickland. 1997.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Carl Sandburg

    Who is Carl Sandburg?

    Carl Sandburg was an American poet, journalist, editor, biographer, and folk singer. 

    What did Carl Sandburg write?

    Sandburg wrote many poems, including "Fog," "Chicago," and "The People, Yes." He also won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.

    What is Carl Sandburg famous for? 

    Sandburg is famous for winning three Pulitzer prizes. Two were for his poetry collections (Corn Huskers and Complete Poems) and one was for his biography of Abraham Lincoln (The War Years). 

    How old was Carl Sandburg when he died?

    Carl Sandburg died in July of 1967 at 89 years old. 

    What inspired Carl Sandburg?

    Sandburg was deeply influenced by Walt Whitman. He was also inspired by the story of Abraham Lincoln's life and dedicated 30 years to gathering information so that he could write a biography on the former president. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What category did The War Years win a Pulitzer in? 

    Who helped Sandburg get his first poems published? 

    What American figure did Sandburg write about in several of his famous works? 


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