19 May 2024

Lilian Steichen in 1916.  Photo by brother, Edward Steichen


Portrait of Lilian Steichen in her 20s by her brother, Edward Steichen (ca.1916).

From the Carl Sandburg Papers at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.


Dream Girl Lilian Steichen


By John W. Quinley


YOU will come one day in a waiver of love

Tender as dew, impetuous as rain,
The tan of the sun will be on your skin,
The purr of the breeze in your murmuring speech,
You will pose with a hill-flower grace.

Carl Sandburg “Dream Girl” in Chicago Poems


Dear Readers,


You might wonder where Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg met for the first time? It was at the headquarters of the Social-Democratic Party in Milwaukee. Carl was an up-and-coming organizer for the southern district of Wisconsin and Lilian was a part-time translator of German and French socialist tracts. She declined when Carl asked her out for dinner but did agree that he could write to her to share his socialist articles. He slipped a few poems into his first mailing, including “The Dream Girl.” Lilian replied, “My hope is that socialism will gradually create an environment favorable to the development of such a Millennial Dream Girl. But meanwhile under capitalism your Dream-Girl must be a leisure class product.” Soon, they were writing letters to each other, dozens of them.


At a time when it was rare for a female to continue education past grammar school, she attended the University of Illinois and graduated from the University of Chicago as Phi Beta Kappa with Honors in English and Latin. She started a career in teaching: first as an instructor at a normal school in North Dakota, and then as an English and Latin teacher at a high school in northern Illinois.


Lilian and Carl married in 1908. They vowed to live a life of social action. She wrote, “I wasn’t meant to waste my life on a becalmed sail-boat! I was made to be a sailor-girl on rough seas with a proud sailor-boy, glad of the high wind and the work of sailing our vessel true!” They also committed to share a simple life unencumbered by things unimportant. Carl wrote Lilian (who was now using the name Paula) that:


All the big people are simple, as simple as the unexplored wilderness. They love the universal things that are free to everybody. Light and air and food and love and some work are enough. In the varying phases of these cheap and common things, the great lives have found their joy.


After receiving more rejection letters from publishers than they could count, Carl might have given up on his poetry without Paula’s insistence that he continue. As their family grew to three daughters, she kept a place in their home quiet so he could work and took care of the girls while Carl was on the road lecturing, reading poems, and singing folk songs. After he rose to the height of fame, she shielded him from the many people who vied for his attention. She kept the books, read all his works, assisted in scheduling appearances, and sometimes proofed drafts for publication.


It wasn’t until the family moved to Michigan in 1927, that Paula had an interest independent from Carl’s—raising goats. The Sandburg’s intentionally moved to their Connemara Farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina in 1945 to expand the herd. She continued her practice of carefully recording the type and amount of feed, breeding decisions, and resulting births. Her goats won numerous honors from their showings at local and state fairs throughout the South. She published articles in goat journals and made speeches at conferences and agricultural schools—talking with folks who often as not had never heard of Carl Sandburg. She also helped establish the American Dairy Goat Association and served as its director for over ten years. In 1960, a Sandburg goat was internationally recognized as the top producing doe in the world. Weighing 170 pounds, the goat produced more than two gallons of milk per day—her weight in milk every week. The record stood for two decades.


Paula became Carl’s dream girl in so many ways. In his poem, “The Great Hunt,” he writes:

I never knew any more beautiful than you:
I have hunted you under my thoughts,
I have broken down under the wind
And into the roses looking for you.
I shall never find any greater than you.

Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916


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 
7 19 May 2024 Dream Girl Lilian Steichen
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