15 April 2024

Portrait of Carl Sandburg as a Young Man with his foot on a rock (1893) 


Portrait of Carl ("Charlie") Sandburg as a young man with his foot on a rock (1893)

From the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


Humble Beginnings 


By John W. Quinley

Dear Readers,

Carl Sandburg’s working-class parents believed that in America, even a poor boy could grow up to be someone special. Carl was born in 1878 on a cornhusk mattress in a three-room house in Galesburg, Illinois. Most folks worked for a living with their hands in town or on nearby farms. On the streets there were horses, not cars; and many first- and second-generation immigrants spoke with an accent or in their native language, like the Swedish Sandburgs. But Carl’s hometown didn’t lack sophisticated culture. Sometimes called the “Athens of the Corn Belt,” it was home to two small liberal arts colleges (Lombard and Knox) and a business school. And as a major hub for the railroad, the town routinely drew in vaudeville entertainers, politicians, public speakers, opera stars, magicians, circus acts, evangelists, and Broadway shows. Sandburg took advantage of all he could—even carrying buckets of water for elephants in the circus so he could afford a ticket.


Sandburg’s education was rooted in the town itself more than in school. He learned by doing. As a boy of eleven, he cleaned offices and delivered newspapers; and after eighth grade, a severe national economic depression compelled him to drop out of school to help support the family. In his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, he wrote that the Sandburg children knew it was hard times when their father “gave us each only a five-cent bag of candy, a large five-cent orange, and a long sad look. We honored the oranges by eating all the insides, pulp and peelings.”  


It wasn’t easy for him to find work during the hard economic times of his youth. With other boys and grown men, he competed for jobs, even lowly paid part-time ones, and gladly took whatever job he could find. “No work was beneath his dignity or, he would have argued, beneath anyone else’s.”


One of his jobs was milking cows and delivering milk, where part of his pay was dinner with the owner’s family. He worked in a brickyard and icehouse; washed out pop bottles, harvested wheat, rented out rowboats at a local lake; and carrying luggage and shining shoes as a porter at Galesburg’s premiere hotel.


Through his many jobs, Sandburg came to know most of the people in Galesburg, as he put it, “from the most respected to the most flagrantly immoral and the laziest, no-account bum.” He writes about how these early experiences helped him understand the literature he would later read in college, and helped shape his poetic vision:


In those years as a boy in that prairie town I got an education in scraps and pieces of many kinds, not knowing that they were part of my education. I met people in Galesburg who were puzzling to me, and later when I read Shakespeare, I found those same people were puzzling him. I met little wonders of many kinds among animals and plants that never lost their wonder for me, and I found later that these same wonders had a deep interest for Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. I met superstitions, folk’s tales, and folklore while I was a young spalpeen, “a broth of a boy” long before I read books about them. All had their part, small or large, in the education I got outside of books and schools.


 Who would have guessed that Carl would grow up to be one of the most successful American poets of the twentieth century?


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. You may contact John at jwquinley@gmail.com.

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 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?
4 22 Feb 2024 Remembering Karlen Paula
5 15 Mar 2024 The Old Troubadour
6 15 April 2024 Humble Beginnings