History Through A Poet’s Eyes


Carl Sandburg’s books on Abraham Lincoln, far from traditional biography, remain unmatched for their vivid combination of mood, incident, and epochal sweep


Carl Sandburg LC-USZ62-115064

The “elusive Lincoln is a challenge for any artist.”  So the poet, troubadour, journalist, and political activist Carl Sandburg declared (in combination warning and boast) in the preface to his 1926 two-volume epic, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.  Few before or since have stalked the sixteenth president as relentlessly—or indelibly.  Later biographers have revised, and in some cases, debunked Sandburg’s opus—which the author augmented thirteen years later with the four volumes of The War Years.  Professional historians repeatedly lamented the absence of source notes, flights of fancy, and occasional factual errors.

But Sandburg’s work has long endured.  It remains the most influential and popular life of Lincoln ever published, with The Prairie Years alone selling some 1.5 million copies. As of Lincoln’s birthday month 2020, Prairie Years, War Years, and Sandburg’s 1954 one-volume abridgement all remained on Amazon’s list of the fifty best-selling Lincoln books.

An explanation for their sustained appeal may lurk within the assessment that critic Mark Van Doren offered in the Nation in 1926: “[I]n spite of some rather obvious poetry stuck in here and there,” Prairie Years was “amply and profoundly beautiful.” Yet behind the Whitmanesque free-verse vernacular was evidence of deep research.  To Van Doren, Sandburg seemed “drunk with data.” But as scholar Charles Austin Beard saw matters, “few if any historians…ever labored harder in preparation for composition.”

Sandburg’s own prefatory remarks reveal what truly set his work apart: he came at Lincoln as an “artist.” His evocation of Lincoln’s experiences and milieu remain unmatched for its vivid combination of mood, incident, and epochal sweep.

Sandburg filtered history through the poet’s ear. Tellingly, he had first dealt with his subject in verse, writing of Lincoln’s mother in his 1919 collection, Cornhuskers: “Oh, dream, Nancy. / Time now for a beautiful child. / Time now for a tall man to come.” Hooked, the poet began amassing Lincoln data.  He also carried memories of his own childhood in Galesburg, Illinois, site of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate, where Sandburg had “listened to stories of old-timers who had known of Lincoln.”

Initially, Sandburg planned only a children’s book, but soon determined to broaden his ambition.  Now he bundled “fact and legend” to “lurk and murmur” side-by-side for a full-scale, if impressionistic, biography.

Predictably, some Lincoln specialists of the day greeted the result coolly.  Writing in the American Historical Review, William E. Barton acknowledged Prairie Years as “a piece of genuine literature,” but cautioned that it was bathed in “the aura of poetic interpretation…not history.”  A caustic Edmund Wilson sneered that “the cruellest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”

Carl Sanburg’s Writing Room, 2014 by Ed Breen, Director of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection

Undeterred, Sandburg wrote on.  An ardent New Dealer, his 1939 War Years found a receptive audience among progressives who believed that only Lincolnesque leadership could guarantee American survival.  Robert E. Sherwood, soon to become a speechwriter for Franklin D. Roosevelt, had used Prairie Years as the basis for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois.  Now he praised War Years as another “superb literary outburst.” Sandburg, who began likening Lincoln to FDR, won his own Pulitzer Prize for history in 1940 for The War Years.

In short order, the poet became the dominant figure in the Lincoln “industry” that mushroomed after World War II—his shaggy white hair becoming nearly as iconic as Lincoln’s beard.  In 1959, Congress chose him to address a joint session marking Lincoln’s 150th birthday.  He appeared in TV documentaries, and in his distinctive twang, narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” on The Ed Sullivan Show.  His recorded Lincoln speeches even won a Grammy.  Seven years after his death, his books inspired (and his still-formidable name adorned) David L. Wolper’s miniseries, Sandburg’s Lincoln.

If nothing else, his prodigious works remain the most prodigious of Lincoln tomes: 962 pages in Prairie Years, 2,503 more in War Years.  True, they may constitute, according to Sandburg biographer Penelope Niven, only “a mythic text of American popular culture” But as such they remain unsurpassed—perhaps growing quaint around the edges, but still evocative and majestic, not to mention (Niven to the contrary) well-informed.  For example, no more realistic or bracing account of Lincoln’s exhausting work routine can be found than the chapter on “The Man in the White House” in The War Years, volume 2.  “I am from Indianny!” Sandburg recalls a proud Hoosier greeting Lincoln one day in the White House.  “So am I,” the beleaguered president replies.  “I almost wish I was back there again.”

Sandburg endures not because he is cited by modern scholars, but because he continues to be read for sheer pleasure.  In my own travels on the Lincoln circuit, I am often asked: “Do you like Sandburg’s books?” My affirmative answer invariably relieves questioners who find him a guilty and perhaps outdated pleasure.  Such skepticism never inhibited Carl Sandburg.  Writing in The People, Yes, he all but predicted his own durability in verse:


This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.

What is bitter to stand against today may be sweet

to remember tomorrow.


Sandburg transcends biographical fashion.  The old anvil of a poet could hammer out sweet prose, too.


Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.

(This article first appeared in the Review Section of the Wall Street Journal.)

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