Here at 9591 Iris we are all of a sudden in a lather about Carl Sandburg.
People remember Sandburg – when they remember him at all, or can tell him apart from Robert Frost – as a sweet, faded old guy. Someone corny and antique, what with the fog coming in on little cat feet and all.
No. Sandburg was tough and unsentimental. He was also an ardent progressive and a voice for human rights, throughout his life.
What got us on this Sandburg kick was reading his poem from 1916, “Ready to Kill,” in which the narrator looks at an equestrian statue of a general “Riding horseback with a flag and a sword and a revolver on him.” The narrator continues, “I want to smash the whole thing into a pile of junk to be hauled away to the scrap yard.”
Well, look at this, I said to Terry, and then we read the whole thing twice more and in our usual wandering fashion started looking for what else.
One of the greatest things Sandburg did for us all: he gave us back the truth about the Civil War. By the 1920s, a great lie had overtaken American history: that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about economic systems, or tariffs, or states’ rights, or some such. The institution of slavery, racism, those were minor notes. Americans had no a quarrel over such.
In his three-volume biography of Lincoln, Sandburg reminded us that abolishing slavery was the real issue of the Civil War. The only issue. He was so successful in this great task that today any other view of the war is regarded as eccentric and racist, as it should be.
Last night, newly back from Springfield, Illinois (and the photo above was taken in the kitchen of the Lincoln home), we ran across a poem of Sandburg’s that had never been published – had been lost, actually: “A Revolver” – discovered very recently by a scholar who is reading through the four tons of Sandburg papers at the University of Illinois. Read it here.
When I look over all these works, the poems and the multi-volume biography and even the children’s stories, what I am valuing is his clarity. The decency and the sense of righteousness and the call for human unity and the direct, spare clarity. Look at what we do in the world, he said; look at the consequences. Sandburg understood what he called the mystery of the American dream, and he worked to make us all understand it too, and reach for it.
If he were alive today, what would Sandburg do?