Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The radical early writings of Carl Sandburg, the "people's poet" - a good story for St. Joseph the Worker day

(Carl Sandburg's modest office at his home in Flat Rock, N.C. Note: his typewriter sits on a crate.)

Today is St. Joseph the Worker’s day in the Catholic calendar, a time to celebrate working people and the working stiff’s saint. So it’s appropriate for Labor South to talk about Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), the poet of the people who grew up poor and was a bricklayer, dishwasher, hobo, soldier and journalist en route to his career as a poet.

During a recent trip across the South, from Mississippi to my home state of North Carolina, I stopped in Flat Rock, N.C., and visited for the first time the Sandburg home, where the Illinois native moved with his family at the age of 67 and remained for the rest of his life.

It’s a great place, home to the more than12,000 books the Sandburgs collected and the descendants of the goats from the goat farm Carl’s wife Lillian (he called her Paula) managed.

My great discovery was that Sandburg was a radical firebrand in his youth, full of passion for the working class, serving as secretary to Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor from 1910 to 1912 and writing for the International Socialist Review from 1912 to 1918. He interviewed Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) leader Big Bill Haywood behind bars and “the Wobbly spirit of direct confrontation permeated” his writings, according to poet and Sandburg scholar Matthias Regan,

Another discovery during my visit was Regan’s book Carl Sandburg: The People’s Pugilist, a compelling collection of Sandburg’s writings in the early 1900s.

I never knew of Sandburg’s politics even though I’ve always liked his poetry and have his homage to newspapers—“I am out in the rain and sun where men work / I am the daily newspaper / Books? They stand clean and dreaming on shelves in houses / I am dirty and always fighting”—taped to my lamp in my office.

The public image of Carl Sandburg is of the friendly, guitar-playing, white-haired poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, safely neutered from any real critique of society. It’s much like Jack London is remembered as a teller of dog stories, not the wild-eyed radical who would sign his letters “Yours for the Revolution” and who wanted to be the voice for “socialists, anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws and undesirable citizens of the United States.”

Don’t tell me we don’t censor in this country and make our poets, writers, artists, and musicians safe for public consumption in our history books and lecture halls.

Here are a few lines from one of Sandburg’s early poems:

“I dreamt a million ghosts
of the young workmen rose
in their shirts all soaked in crimson
and yelled:
God damn the grinning kings.
God damn the kaiser and the czar!”

 Here’s Sandburg on the 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday:

“You come along—tearing your shirt—yelling about Jesus.
I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus? …

It was your crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers
that hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out of the running.

The bankers and corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers
and murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t play their game.
He didn’t sit in with the big thieves.”

Lots of anger, passion, righteous indignation there! Sandburg’s journalism was even more to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column in 1915 on a proposed inheritance tax:

“You politicians sitting around Washington, here’s a little job you can do if want to make good on this bluff you’re always pulling about how you love the people.

“Pass a tax law ordering that when John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan … or any other multi-millionaire is shoveled away in his grave, then the United States Government shall step in and take away everything from the children and relatives except one million dollars for the heirs to live on. …

“You can use the millions and millions of dollars taken away from those dead industrial kings to push along what the working class wants. You can take the kids out of factories and send them to school and feed ‘em.”

Pretty strong stuff, huh? Bet you never read that in your American Lit class.

Scholars say Sandburg distanced himself from his radical youth later in life. However, Matthias Regan says the populist spirit that inspired those early poems, articles and columns was the breeding ground for all his works. That’s why he’s still today called the “people’s poet”.

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