Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) lead a quintessential American life. He was the child of Swedish immigrants, and he grew up dirt poor in a small town in Illinois. At various points in his life, he was a bricklayer, a railroad worker, a hobo, a solider in the Spanish-American War, a member of the socialist political party, an ad man, a journalist, a poet, a biographer of Lincoln, and a goat farmer. (No, we are not kidding about him being a goat farmer.)
Because of his crazy diverse careers, Sandburg had a pretty unique view of what it means to be an American, and we see his love for the country that gave him all of his varied opportunities in the poem "Chicago." In some ways, this poem is a love letter to the city (and by extension, the good ol' USA) itself. It's a poem that acknowledges the bad along with the good, the horrific along with the wondrous, the salacious along with the holy. Chicago has room for hobos and poets alike, and this is what Sandburg loves about his city.
And Chicagoans and Americans love Sandburg right back. He was, and still is, one of the most frequently-read and taught poets of the past one hundred years. He won three Pulitzer Prizes in his lifetime (two for his poetry, and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln). And the Sandburg love keeps on keeping on. Indie rock musician Sufjan Stevens recently immortalized Sandburg on his album Come on Feel the Illinoise. In the title song to that album, Stevens imagines that the ghost of Sandburg visits him in his sleep. They have some deep conversations, and Sufjan asks Carl, "Are you writing from the heart, are you writing from the heart?"
We think: most definitely yes.
Why Should I Care?
Got an opinion on it? Love it? Hate it? Live there? Can't wait to leave there?
Carl Sandburg's "Chicago" is one of those poems that tries to capture THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. (Yes, those caps are necessary. Sandburg is very serious about this AMERICAN EXPERIENCE). His vision of Chicago, and, as an extension, America, isn't all sunshine and roses. In fact, in Sandburg's America, there are no sunshine or roses at all. "Chicago" is about hog butchers and freight handlers, about dust and smoke and prostitutes and railroads.
For Sandburg, the real America is this America—the crazy, industrializing city of Chicago, filled to the brim with people, people, and more people, all working hard in that windy city. You may love America, or you may have some mixed feelings about our fair nation, but either way, you've got to acknowledge that this is one awesome poem. And it's awesome not because it paints a beautiful picture, but because it exposes, and even revels in, the dirt, the coarseness, the brute strength of the city. Sandburg shows us a Chicago, and an America, that we can all recognize.