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This item is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.Inside Cover Portrait: Carl Sandburg David C. Ward
CARL SANDBURG by William Arthur Smith
Oil on canvas 1961
Stretcher: 99.1 x 91.4 x 2.5cm (39" x 36" x 1")
Frame: 127.6 x 118.1 x 7.6cm (50¼ x 46½ x 3")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Kent-Lucas Foundation NPG.80.39
Poor Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)! Evidently he thought Robert Frost, his near contemporary and fellow avatar of American folksiness, liked him and that they were comrades in their common purpose to celebrate America's common people. The canny and ultra-competitive Frost cast his gimlet eye on the Midwesterner and decided he was all bunkum, no threat, and could be treated politely, at least in public. In private, Frost mocked the Prairie Populist and his 'infantile talk'. Literary posterity has been equally unkind to Sandburg. Edmond Wilson memorably remarked that not only John Wilkes Booth did more damage to Abraham Lincoln than Sandburg's multi-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.
Sandburg's writing and his public persona, suffer from an excess of ingenuous sincerity. His poems are all foreground: they overpower the reader in their didactic populist directness. Sandburg took Whitman's forms and hollowed them out in his urgent mission to celebrate 'genuine' America and the heroism of ordinary people. He is well-meaning to a fault and his poetry shows the limits of writing to the imperative of a particular moment in a nation's history and culture. That moment, for Sandburg, or for John Dos Passos or John Steinbeck, whom he resembles, was governed by the urge artistically to rescue ordinary Americans from the maw of an anonymous, omnivorous society. It's poetry for the Popular Front.
Yet Sandburg, despite it all, is a poet who must be reckoned with simply because of his relentless drive to embody America in his writing. He is an endless singer of America. He assembled (and played) The American Songbag, an encyclopedia of vernacular culture. And he was hugely successful. His books sold in their thousands and he was, for most Americans, the face (ironically, along with Frost's) of American poetry. Moreover, he helped create the democratic body politic in the twentieth century, Sandburg is a cultural analogue to Roosevelt's New Deal. There is something to be said for representing your own time. the best thing that can be said about Carl Sandburg - and the worst - is that his heart was always in the right place.
DAVID C. WARD
This item is taken from PN Review 193, Volume 36 Number 5, May - June 2010.