Study Guide

Chicago

Chicago Introduction

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.

What is Chicago About and Why Should I Care?

America.

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.

Chicago Resources

Websites

The Academy of American Poets
Here's a brief but informative intro to our man Carl.

Visit Sandburg's home in North Carolina
It's a National Historic Site (where you can check out Mrs. Sandburg's goat farm).

Some Smart Profs Weigh In
There's a lot to learn about Sandburg.

Visit the Windy City!
(Or, at least, visit its official webpage.)

Video

Sandburg on What's My Line
It's worth watching just for Sandburg's fake voices.

This is a Tribute
Check out "Chicago" as a cool music video.

"The Day Carl Sandburg Died"
"Chicago" is read in this excerpt from the PBS special.

Audio

"Chicago"
A group-reading set against some classic photos.

Librivox Version
Here's another reading.

Sufjan Stevens's Chillin' with the Ghost of Sandburg in Chicago
From the fantastic album Illinoise

The Man Himself
Way to rock the middle part, Carl.

Images

Super-busy Downtown Chicago
Here's a look back in Sandburg's day.

The Chicago Skyline…
Check out this view of the modern city by night.

Articles & Interviews

Sandburg's Radical Politics
Get the scoop.

Books

Selected Poems
Read the best of Sandburg's poems here.

Rootabaga Stories
Check out Sandburg's stories for kids.

Movies & TV

The Day Carl Sandburg Died
A PBS documentary on our dude.

Chicago
The Oscar-winning musical (which has nothing to do with good ol' Carl, but we highly recommend it anyway).