blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Radical Sandburg

Includes excerpts from Penelope Niven's Carl Sandburg, Mark W. Van Wienen's "Taming the Socialist," and Phillip D. Yannella's The Other Carl Sandburg. Drawing by Carl Sandburg, "Hold the Fort: Grand Entertainment Given By Class War Prisoners," originally published in International Socialist Review.

That between 1905 and 1920 Carl Sandburg was active in radical politics is beyond dispute. The precise nature of his allegiance to radical social critique and political transformation generally, and to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America particularly, is a matter of some debate, however. How radical was Carl Sandburg? The following critical extracts are selected from three sources: Mark W. Van Wienen's "Taming the Socialist: Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems and Its Critics" (1991), Penelope Niven's Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991), and Philip R. Yanella's The Other Carl Sandburg (1996). These sources are interspersed with one another, roughly following the timeline of Sandburg's radical politics in the 1910s, so as to highlight matters both of debate and of consensus in recent scholarship on the subject of Sandburg's radical politics.

Penelope Niven's account of Sandburg's moderate socialism, and his attraction to the Wisconsin Social Democrats whom he worked for as an organizer and journalist between 1908 and 1912:

Sandburg's socialism encompassed both the welfare of society as a whole and the value of the individual life. He found lyrical affirmations of the "broadest average of humanity" in the writings of Whitman, Emerson, William James. He understood the propaganda of the self-help movement in oratory, and tried like his friend Elbert Hubbard to leaven the realities of daily existence in the new industrialized society by encouraging individual initative. In the platform of the Wisconsin Social-Democratic Party, he found a design for the kind of society he envisioned: reformed government; the elimination of corrupted power; the prohibition of child labor; protection of rights of women in the labor force; the right of literate women to vote; tax reform, including a graduated income and property tax; urban renewal; free medical care and school work for the unemployed; state farm insurance; pensions; workingmen's compensation; municipal ownership of utilities; higher wages and shorter hours for working pepole; better living and working conditions for everyone. With the Wisconsin socialists, Sandburg had found a new forum from which to "agitate and educate." . . .

Sandburg had a deep and prudent aversion to violence and to the work of the anarchists. As a son of immigrants, he could deplore the failures of the American dream and still ratify its possibilities, within the structure of the American political system. When he formally joined the socialist movement, he chose the right wing, the constructive Social-Democrats of Wisconsin who were pledged to the orderly incorporation of their reforms, through the ballot box. The Wisconsin socialists were highly organized, determined to achieve their programs with electoral support. (136-37)

Phillip Yannella's opening account of Sandburg's socialism:

As we shall see, there was another Carl Sandburg unknown to the mid-century or later public and unacknowledged by his commentators. During the crucial, watershed years surrounding World War I, when the future of American domestic and foreign policy was being shaped and the circumstances of the common people were as much a subject of fierce public debate and confrontation as they were at any moment in American history before or after, this other Sandburg was a profoundly different writer from the Sandburg lionized at mid-century. This other Sandburg believed that America was a faithless monster of a country. From his writing could be drawn no pieties about success through hard work, no civics lesson about the American way of life. He saw no possiblity that the conditions in which most Americans then lived could be bettered by liberal reforms such as he would later champion as a New Dealer and Stevenson and Kennedy Democrat. He held out only one hope for the country and its ordinary people. If the United States collapsed, the other Sandburg believed at that time, then there would be hope. Massive direct action by workers, class conflict in the form of strikes and crippling general strikes, and, finally, revolution to overthrow capitalism was the way to change the lot of the ordinary peole. Rather than renouncing his socialist beliefs and moving on to become a more objective writer, in short, Sandburg became deeply radicalized, was absolutely partisan, moved startlingly leftward.

Sandburg's newfound political beliefs were expressed most clearly and directly within forty-one remarkable articles he published in the Chicago-based Interational Socialist Review between 1915 and 1918. Its title could mislead a modern reader into believing that the Review was a staid academic quarterly. But at least during the period Sandburg wrote for it, after it had given up on electoral socialism and become fully supportive of the direct-action revolutionary tactics of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Review was no such thing. Sandburg's contributions were as down and dirty, as far removed from politeness as they could be. Written in what he called "workingmen's language," they were rough and tough and, most of all, "manly," a word he like other radicals, women as well as men, used regularly. There were usually scurrilous, often brilliantly so, especially about politicians, businessment, and "respectable" union leaders. Eleven of Sandburg's forth-one articles were lead pieces and editorial summaries of the Review's ultra-left positions. Eight were printed under the byline of Carl Sandburg. Most of these were his earliest contributions. Then Sandburg began cloaking his identity. Fourteen articles were unsigned, and the rest were printed under pseudonyms. But Sandburg acknowledged his authorship of the pseudonymous articles near the end of his life . . . and the anonymous ones are easily identifiable on the basis of internal evidence. (xiv-xv)

Niven, writing on Sandburg's work for the International Socialist Review:

Sandburg's output of poetry and prose was significant in 1915. In addition to his steady coverage of labor and politics for The Day Book (he took on the Rockefellers, Hearst, Marshall Field, Chicago Mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, the city police and the Bell Telephone monoopoly from April to December in that year alone), he was contributing regular articles and occasional poetry to the International Socialist Review, published from 1900 to 1918 by the Chicago socialist publisher Charles Kerr. Under its first editor, Algie Simmons, the Review was moderate in slant; subsequent editors Mary and Leslie March turned the Review into a popular magazine with strong leftist tendencies, and built the magazine's circulation to more than forty thousand by 1911. The Review was controversial even among socialists, and Sandburg often used pseudonyms ("Jack Philips," "Militant") for his Review byline, to keep his literary, political and journalistic identities compartmentalized. (261-62)

Van Wienen writing on the relationship between Sandbug's literary and political identities:

Carl Sandburg's reputation as the adulatory biographer of Lincoln and as a folksy, sliver-haired singer of ballads and reciter of poems has obscured the radically innovative and oppositional character of his earlier poetic work. Set in the context of Sandburg's socialist politics of the teens rather than the moderate populism of his later career, the early poems emerge as protests against established literary practice. Most sharply confrontational is Chicago Poems, which appeared at at time when Sandburg was active both in socialist politics and in literary circles. These poems reveal that Sandburg was busy propagating American socialism not only in his work as an organizer and a newspaperman, but also in the supposedly apolitical realm of literature. Other materials, particularly reviews of Chicago Poems and correspondence between Sandburg, his publisher, and the critics, present another, less visible side to the relationship between politics and poetry: They show the power of literary and publishing establishments to suppress or reinterpret writing that questions their received values. Thus, even though Chicago Poems offers significant potential for destabilizing the boundary between literary art and political life, the rhetoric mustered by the critics in response to Sandburg had (and continues to have) great power to reestablish this boundary and thereby blunt the radical critique that Sandburg's work offers. (89)

Yannella, on Sandburg's articles published in The International Socialist Review during the period 1916-17:

Following the Review's position, Sandburg preached deliverance through sacrifice, force, and massive direct action in nearly every one of his articles. A conversation he reported having with Irish Republican Army fugitive Jim Larkin about a new Chicago law that had been passed to control police riots--"Jim had tea and we took java," he said, stressing the difference between an Irishman and an authentic American husky--ended with Larkin saying that capitalist laws were unnecessary because "the working class can enforce any laws it wants" [ISR July 1916: 6]. An article that began by noting that during the summer of 1916 the country had come as close to revolution as it had since the Civil War--strikes had come fast and furiously that summer--described what would happen when workers took to the barricades. Sandburg's vision was similar to his dream of a coal and rail worker combination, though grander: "Get enough strikes going in transportation, fuel, and food supply industries, and the bottom falls out of national life. Chaos arrives. A condition results where all the machinery of government by which the propertied class ordinarily controls labor and drives the working class to its orders--all that elaborate machinery of courts, police, newspapers, soldiers, detectives, gunmen and strike-breakers--all goes to pieces" [ISR Sept. 1916: 137]. Out of chaos would come a fresh beginning. That, in short was the core lesson to be learned. As he put it a few months later, drawing on orthodox left traditions about the golden age to come after the revolution, when the working class awoke from its slumber, there would be "rising wage scales and the shortening workday and the deepening values and valuations of man as man" [ISR Feb 1917: 478]. (74-75)

Niven, on Sandburg's politics during 1916:

Sandburg's interest in the [1916 Presidential] campaign kept him from other work. "I'll bet more poetic temperaments have been violent over this election today than any in long years," he told a friend. He supported Wilson, and by then, according to a short autobiographical sketch he provided for Henry Holt and Company, he did not belong to "any clubs or societies" and had "quit the Socialist party as a party." After they left Milwaukee, he and Paula never renewed their membership in the Social-Democratic Party. Sandburg's political concern was as strong as ever, but he articulated it from the wider, more obejctive angle of the journalist and commentator rather than the immediate involvement of the activist and partisan.

Thus by 1916 Carl and Paula were no longer politically involved in socialism. Many socialists and former socialists, including John Reed, supported Wilson in 1916, and the national membership in the socialist Party had diminished by thirty-five thousand names, a decline of nearly thirty percent since the peak membership year of 1913. The Sandburgs never again affiliated with a polticial party, although they supported liberal causes all their lives. But as Sandburg's identity and visibility as a journalist grew nationally, his detachment from party politics was essential to his credibility. (285)

Van Wienen, on the influence of the literary avant garde, particularly Amy Lowell, on Sandburg's political commitments:

The active role of the literary establishment in bringing Sandburg's aesthetics and politics to heel is nowhere clearer than in his correspondence with Amy Lowell. On 23 July 1916, shortly after reading her review of Chicago Poems, Sandburg wrote to Lowell, more interested in currying favor than in discussing politics. "That's a pippin," he says of her article, and puts off a rebuttal until later: "I have, of course, a thousand points of defense or counter-offensive against the antagonisms you voice, and I'll get to those sometime with you." When Sandburg gets to this defense, on 10 June 1917, he insists that he does not endorse political activism; rather, he is interested in probing the underlying character of the people, of human beings considered more generally:

I admit there is some animus of violence in Chicago Poems but the aim was rather the presentation of motives and character than the furtherance of I.W.W. theories. Of course, I honestly prefer the theories of the I.W.W. to those of its opponents and some of my honest preferences may have crept into the book, as you suggest, but the aim was to sing, blab, chortle, yodel, like the people, and people in the sense of human beings subtracted from formal doctrines.

Sandburg may admit to sympathizing with socialist and even syndicalist "theories," but he adopts the view that these political ideas should be kept out of his poetry--they "crept" in. In another letter, written later that same month, Sandburg seems to capitulate even more completely: "Glancing over some old and genuinely propaganda materials of mine of ten years ago, I got a sneaking suspicion that maybe you're right and maybe I have struck a propaganda rather than a human note at times." (103)

Yannella, on Sandburg's correspondence with Lowell and his work throughout 1917 at the International Socialist Review:

Logically, the changes recorded in his private correspondence with Amy Lowell and, more to the point, in his public support of the war and the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy should have caused Sandburg to stop writing for the International Socialist Review or, alternatively, should have caused the editors of the magazine to fire him. But logic (among other things) did not prevail. Jack Phillips took on a life of is own, did not participate in his master's dissembling, faking, and feinting, and continued as a Review writer, producing articles in which, among other themes, he attacked the government for its persecution of the Wobblies, argued that the war should be supported not for patriotic or any other conventional reasons but because it promised to lead to a worldwide working-class revolution, and saw the overthrow of the czar by Russian workers in the spring of 1917 and then the Bolshevik Revolution of October as portents of the wondrous world to come. For their part, the Review edtiors, who must have known about Sandburg's pro-government activities, recorded no hesitation in publishing his offspring Jack Phillips, perhaps because Sandburg's virulent attacks on the pro-war socialists were compatible with their own distrust of [Victor] Berger and the party's right wing and center. (91-92)

Yannella again, on Sandburg's final contributions to the beleagured International Socialist Review, including an appearance of the poem "Grass":

There were limitations to how far Sandburg could go in using the Daily News to boost the fortunes of the Wobblies. There were even greater limitations at the International Socialist Review, because by October, although the magazine still existed, which is more than could be said for most other left organs, it did so just barely. . . . As indicated by the reduced size of the magazine, the quality of its layout, the use of reprints in place of fresh articles, the issuing of a double number, and so forth, it was soon clear that the Review had become another victim of government censorship and was about to fold. It did so in February 1918.

A desperate, funereal tone characterized Sandburg's last several contributions, beginning with Jack Phillips's September remarks on the Wobbly persecutions and his seething obituary of Harrison Gray Otis. In the same issue, Sandburg's poem "Grass" was reprinted from the avant-garde Seven Arts magazine. Here, wartime deaths, whether at Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, or Verdun, meant nothing except that the grass grew in those places again. Far from being preludes to revolution, war deaths had been fogotten by everybody in the past and would be in the future. "Shovel them under and let me work," said the grass. "I cover all." . . . In the October Review, there was another reprint of "Government," in the context of late 1917 more pointedly cynical than ever [ISR Oct. 1917]. The combined November-December issue, showing all the signs of editorial wear and tear, reprinted Sandburg's early October Daily News interview, though with a couple of significant changes: the last several paragraphs of the News version were lopped off and a new paragraph substituted, with Haywood now saying that "not a dirty German dollar has ever come into our hands" and "before the war ever started we were in favor of slashing the Kaiser's throat." This reprint served as a lead into the following anonymous piece, an appeal for money for the IWW defense, which, stylistically, sounded much like Jack Phillips. Following this piece, according to the table of contents, there was to be a Sandburg poem titled "Knucks," but for some reason the poem was pulled and the table of contents not modified. Instead of "Knucks," a piece of gallows humor was laid in, an announcement of a "Grand Entertainment" to be given by the Wobbly "Class War Prisoners" at the Cook County jail, complete with a list of songs, skits, and recitations. This piece was not even typeset; rather, it was a photo reproduction of a manuscript done in Sandburg's unmistakable handwriting [ISR Nov.-Dec. 1917]. (95-96)

Sandburg's hand-written version of the program for the Wobblies' "Grand Entertainment" in the Cook County Jail:

(This image has been slightly reduced to reduce loading time and to fit a typical maximized browser window. Click anywhere on the image to view the full-size version (106K)

 sm_fort.jpg (76169 bytes)

Yannella's summation of Sandburg's radicalism:

Although Sandburg was deeply engaged in American radicalism, he was not a single-minded zealot. As is made abundantly clear in Penelope Niven's biography, during these years, as during much of his career, he was usually a virtual dynamo of activity. The other Sandburg, so to speak, existed side by side with the Sandburg who was a husband, a father, and an emerging poet trying to make his way in the world of the literary avant-garde. He was developing relationships with Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound, for example, at the same times that he was involved with Eugene Debs, the leader of the socialist Party of America . . . and Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Worlders of the World. He composed good poems about his wife and children and his backyard garden in the same weeks and months, apparently, that he composed good poems about radical heroes and martyrs, the horrible behavior of the ruling class, and portents of revolution. There were times when he was being surveilled as a dangerous radical by Military Intelligence and, simultaneously, giving recitals to groups of polite people who were distinctly unradical. I do not know what readers will make of this multidimensionality, though I expect that some would prefer that Sandburg had been more pure, more a driven zealot. My own sense, which I briefly discuss in the epilogue, is that, given the necessities of his private life and the shape of Ameircn racialism in 1920, he went as far as he could. (xxi-xxii)

Return to Carl Sandburg