The Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association (Galesburg, IL) is pleased to introduce to our viewers a new series featuring the life & works of Carl Sandburg, entitled
"Letters from a Docent" by Dr. John W. Quinley.  ENJOY!

Carl Sandburg Portrait Letters from a Docent

8 January 2024

by Dr. John W. Quinley
John W. Quinley

Dr. John W. Quinley, a retired college administrator and faculty member, was raised in Maywood, Illinois, just a few blocks away from where Sandburg lived 30 years earlier. He served as a docent for Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site for several years, and is the author of Discovering Carl Sandburg: The Eclectic Life of an American Icon  (2022). He and his wife, Melissa, live in Hendersonville, North Carolina, just a few miles from Sandburg's former home.


8 January 2024


Coit Tower Mural - Striking Workers

"Striking Workers" portion of California Industrial Mural,
by John Langley Howard (1933).  Coit Tower, San Francisco, California.


Poet of the People

By John W. Quinley

Dear Readers,

What do we mean when someone describes Carl Sandburg as the poet of the people?  Sandburg’s people were the industrial workers of the early 1900s. Many were immigrants from non-English speaking countries of eastern, southern, and central Europe. They labored in repetitive and monotonous jobs ten to twelve hours per day, six days a week, with no vacations. Pay was so low that nearly half of working-class families lived below the poverty line. If the breadwinner got injured or killed, there was no governmental safety net to turn to—only the charity of family and friends or the church. When labor tried to organize, Congress and the courts intervened on the side of business interests. Local, state, and federal forces squashed the efforts of striking workers, often with the aid of ruthless private detective agencies like the Pinkertons. Some believed that a working-class revolution was just around the corner.  

Sandburg believed that the stories of these ordinary working people needed to be told— especially because they didn’t have a way to speak for themselves. He wrote plainly in their common speech (even slang) and used a kind of verse that was more accessible to workers than the traditional devices of rhymed poetry. He wrote from his own experience as a laborer and as a reporter covering labor, poverty, and crime. Danny Heitman (award-winning columnist and editor of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum) said, “Like his reportage, the poems often read like prose with a topical flare. They crackle with the authenticity of everyday experience, the texture of daily life…[with] the vividness and urgency of a morning headline."

Sandburg wrote not only about the struggles of the working class, but also about their determination to overcome hardships and oppression. For him the word “people” meant more than the powerless working class. He believed that the people were both the bedrock and the movers of history. In his poem, “I Am the People, the Mob,” he writes:

AM the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is
          done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the
          world's food and clothes...
I am the seed ground.  I am a prairie that will stand
          for much plowing.

He then points out that while the people suffer, they forget who they are as a collective. “Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget.” He concludes that the transformation of society will come through a widespread awareness, a consciousness among the working classes of their inherent power.

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the
          People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer
          forget who robbed me last year, who played me for
          a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world
          say the name: "The People," with any fleck of a
          sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

Both in his works and personal life, Sandburg remained true to his reputation as the poet of the people. Although he achieved great fame, he never abandoned his common, working-class roots.

 Thanks for reading!


John Quinley is the author of Discovering Carl Sandburg: The Eclectic Life of an American Icon and is a former docent at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Membership in the Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association

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1 8 Jan 2024 Poet of the People
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