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

12 February 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.



12 February 2024

Carl Sandburg in his home in North Carolina with a bust of Lincoln in 1960.

Carl Sandburg in his home in North Carolina
with a bust of Lincoln in 1960.


Why did Sandburg, the liberal social activist, study Lincoln, the first Republican President?


By John W. Quinley

Dear Readers,

Carl Sandburg and Abraham Lincoln had much in common. Their lives were shaped by the prairies and common people of the American heartland. In Always the Young Strangers, Sandburg recalls hearing “the talk of men and women who had eaten with Lincoln, gave him a bed overnight, heard his jokes and lingo, remembered his silences and his mobile face.” The oldest citizens in Galesburg were among the Lincoln generation of rugged pioneers in what was then the western frontier. These “men of failing sight and hearing . . . told of seeing virgin prairie grass that rose standing six feet high, which had roots so tough and tangles so deep they often broke the wooden plowshare that tried to break them.”


Sandburg and Lincoln both derived strength from their humble beginnings and held enduring affection and respect for the working people from which they came. In Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years, Sandburg writes, “In the short and simple annals of the poor it seems there are people who breathe with the earth and take into their lungs and blood some of the hard and dark strength of its mystery.”


Their respective fathers questioned the value of an education. In Abe Lincoln Grows Up, Sandburg imagined Lincoln’s father saying: “I s’pose Abe is still fooling hisself with eddicatin. I tried to stop it, but he has got that fool idea in his head, and it can’t be got out.” Regardless, they both were hungry to understand the meaning of words, loved to listen to their sounds, and enjoyed reading aloud where “words came more real if picked from the silent page of the book. And pronounced on the tongues; new balances and values of words stood out if spoken aloud.”


Their adult lives were deeply influenced by a signature adventure in their youth: Sandburg riding the rails as a hobo for two thousand miles across the prairies and back to Illinois; and Lincoln navigating the Mississippi River on a flatboat for one thousand miles down to New Orleans and traveling another thousand miles back to Illinois.


The poet and president both believed that society moved forward by the work and innovation of working people and argued that government should clear the way for the economic mobility of those at the bottom. Hazel Durnell in The America of Carl Sandburg writes that “Sandburg was a common man with an uncommon mind. He has the same ideas about America that Lincoln had.”


And they both were multifaceted men: Lincoln as frontiersman, lawyer, politician, orator, storyteller, humorist, and poet; and Sandburg—except for frontiersman, lawyer, and politician—all of these, as well as journalist, singer and folklorist, children’s author, historian, and novelist.



He was a mystery in smoke and flags

Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,

yes to the paradoxes of democracy,

yes to the hope of government

Of the people by the people for the people…


“The whole people of this nation

               will ever do well

               if well done by.”

                                                       The People, Yes


These verses were written by Sandburg about Lincoln and quoted from a Lincoln speech by Sandburg. Each author would be comfortable with the words of the other.



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

If you enjoy reading Letters from a Docent, Sandburg's Hometown, Inklings & Idlings and our CSHSA Website & Facebook pages, we'd love to have your support as a contributing member of the Carl Sandburg Historic Site Association.


 No.  Date Title
1 8 Jan 2024 Poet of the People
2 22 Jan 2024 Before the Chicago Daily News
3 12 Feb 2024 Why Did Sandburg study Lincoln?
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