When Carl Sandburg was young he felt he had 10 men inside him and "didn't understand or know one of them." So in 1897 at the age of 19 he set out West from his small Illinois town and stowed away on boxcar trains. At stops he worked as a dishwasher, an apple picker, and in railroad labor gangs. Sometimes he simply swapped tales with many of the thousands of hobos who were traveling at the time and picked up folk tunes he later captured in a 500-page book "The American Songbag." Back at home he worked as a stagehand absorbing the talks of actors and politicians. Soon he hit the road again as a salesman and gave occasional lectures about writers and politicians including Abraham Lincoln.
As the nation industrialized Sandburg saw power and might but also corruption, poverty, injustice. He wrote what he saw in books of poetry as sweeping as their titles: "Chicago Poems", "Cornhuskers", "Smoke and Steel", "The People, Yes." He became a socialist and once nearly went to jail for carrying home from Russia a $10,000 check given to him by a Communist agent and a trunk full of pamphlets. His publisher spurred him to write a children's biography on Lincoln, a project that grew into his life's biggest work. He wrote six volumes on Abe for adults and became a critical and commercial success, though some observers have complained since the series rambles. Fame never got the best of him; Sandburg remained the eternal hobo. He toiled late into the night at his last home in the mountains of North Carolina placing his Remington on an old apple crate. His Pulitzer Prize certificates, won for poetry and the Lincoln biography, were tucked into drawers, while acorns, stones and photos decorated his book-and-magazine piled offices.
-- by Timothy Gardner, a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Bonus video: Carl Sandburg Dances with Marilyn Monroe
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