Study Guide

Chicago Quotes

By Carl Sandburg

  • Visions of Chicago

    Hog Butcher for the World,
    Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
    Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
    Stormy, husky, brawling,
    City of the Big Shoulders: (1-5)

    The poem begins on an intense note. It's addressed to Chicago, which the speaker personifies. It's "stormy, husky, brawling," and it has "Big Shoulders." Oh, and it's also, we find out in the first line, a "Hog Butcher for the World." Whether or not you are a lover of bacon (mmm bacon), you've got to admit that this is a pretty violent start to a poem. It begins with blood! Consider yourself warned: Chicago is a tough place filled with tough people.

    They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
    And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
    And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. (6-8)

    Here the speaker acknowledges all of the bad things about Chicago. Yes, it has painted women, murderers, and starving women and children. He doesn't deny it. Chicago is not sounding so wonderful right about now, but the speaker embraces it just the same.

    Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
    Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
    Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, (10-12)

    Despite the starving people, murderers, and prostitutes, the speaker loves his city. He dares us to name a place filled with more verve, life, and intensity. What do you think: does the speaker look past all of Chicago's problems? Is he being naïve? Or does he love the seedy side of life as much as he loves the city's majesty?

    Bareheaded,
    Shoveling,
    Wrecking,
    Planning,
    Building, breaking, rebuilding, (13-17)

    Here, Chicago seems to be in a never-ending cycle of "building, breaking, rebuilding." This is how the city (indeed, any city) grows. There is as much destruction as there is construction. This is really important to the speaker: the life of a city is constantly moving, moving, moving forward. And remember, this poem is written in the early twentieth-century, when the entire nation was industrializing, not just Chicago. Everywhere is building, breaking, rebuilding.

    Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
    Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
    Laughing!
    Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation. (20-23)

    Finally, Chicago is portrayed as a laughing, burly, brawling, strong young man. Chicago may be filled with wickedness, but the speaker locates it as a hub of America. It's right in the middle of the country, and it's more vibrant, bustling, and fierce than any other city. Take that, New York, Boston, and/or San Fran!

  • Strength and Skill

    Hog Butcher for the World,
    Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
    Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
    Stormy, husky, brawling,
    City of the Big Shoulders: (1-5)

    The poem begins with a show of strength: Chicago is a "stormy, husking, brawling / City of the Big Shoulders." The speaker compares it to people who do manual labor—hog butchers, stackers of wheat—all professions that require brute strength. The speaker also compares Chicago to industrial labor—he mentions the railroad and freight industries. In early twentieth-century America, when this poem was written, the railroads were the key to the great and expansive West.

    They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
    And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
    And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. (6-8)

    Chicago is a tough place filled with gunmen and prostitutes. The speaker even calls it "brutal." The speaker won't whitewash the truth of Chicago. There's no denying the essence of this city. We thus see different kinds of strength in the poem. There's the strength of workers, the strength of industry, but also the dark strength of violent killers.

    Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
    Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
    Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, (10-12)

    Dude! We get it. Chicago is a place for tough guys—it's like a baseball slugger, a rabid dog, a savage. And it's proud of its brute strength. No denying that.

    Bareheaded,
    Shoveling,
    Wrecking,
    Planning,
    Building, breaking, rebuilding, (13-17)

    Here we have yet another image of strength (surprise, surprise). Chicago is constantly being built and rebuilt—and the speaker just loves all the smashing, wrecking, and rebuilding. We can almost see the wrecking balls and scaffolds around us—this is some intense, active imagery!

    Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
    Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
    Laughing!
    Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation. (20-23)

    Okay we get it! Chicago is "stormy, husky, brawling." It's young and sweaty. It's a fighter! A laughing fighter! Don't worry, Sandburg, we're not challenging Chicago to a fight. We know Chicago would kick our butts.

  • Love

    Stormy, husky, brawling,
    City of the Big Shoulders: (4-5)

    When the poem begins, it almost sounds like the speaker is describing a sexy muscle-man. And then we find out that those "Big Shoulders" belong to the city, not to some tough hog butcher with great biceps. Oops. That's some intense personification going on.

    They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. 
    And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again. 
    And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. (6-8)

    Here the speaker acknowledges all of the bad things about the city—violence, hunger, etc. He's not blind to Chicago's faults, not one bit. He loves the city despite all of the bad things about it. This is not some silly puppy love in which the speaker idolizes his love object. He loves the city's faults as well as its strengths.

    And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
    Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
    Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
    Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, (9-12)

    Despite all its faults, the speaker really does love his city. It's just so gosh darn alive that he can overlook some painted women and gunmen. Is the speaker having a delusional moment here? Can you really love a city that is so utterly imperfect? Does the poem think that this love is irrational?

    Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation. (23)

    The poem ends on this note of pride. The city is proud, and the speaker is proud of the city. But can we call this pride love? Are pride and love the same thing?