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Reading: Sandburg and Steichen



"Such days!--Oshkosh, Hartford, Menomonee Falls, Milwaukee, the lake, Chicago & Princeton & YOU!!" What further proof do we need of the transforming power of love than its ability to make Oshkosh seem magical?

The sentiments are those of the young Carl Sandburg, poet and itinerant labor-party organizer, and they were written in 1908 to Lilian Steichen, "dream girl" and teacher of high-school English in Princeton, Illinois. Sandburg went on to become a troubadour, a Lincoln biographer, a professional prophet of democracy, and possibly the only goat keeper Marilyn Monroe ever cuddled with. Steichen went on to become Mrs. Carl Sandburg. Their six-month courtship was conducted almost entirely through love letters, many of which are collected in The Poet and the Dream Girl.

If all this collection offered was reminders of what an extraordinary malady love is, it would not be worth reading. But in between their gurglings, these two intelligent people told each other--and now us--about being hopeful reformers, about living in a small town, about the perennial conflict between convention and commitment.

The courtship of Steichen and Sandburg could make a perfectly bad movie. She was pretty and outwardly unconventional; he was not pretty but unconventional enough that it didn't matter. She felt she was an outsider because of her sex. He felt he was an outsider because of everything. She was impressionable and bored, he was Poetic. They shared their excitement about ideas and made many earnest pledges of commitment to the "struggle," as what began as a sharing of interests became a conjoining of minds and later an intertwining of souls.

Sandburg became famous. Steichen might have. Yet this book is hers, to the extent that she wrote most of the letters, most of the longer ones, and most of the more interesting ones. Steichen was the sister of famed photographer Edward Steichen. Her early life was proof that few possibilities were open to educated women in 1908; a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago, she ended up teaching English and "expression" in a farm town 100 miles west of Chicago.

Being in Princeton was not an onerous exile for Steichen, but evidently it was a dull one. The intellectual isolation was a spur to her pen. "When residing among 'retired farmers,'" she wrote, "one must live in books and letters." Later she wrote, "It's unsatisfactory business--this of being some three hundred miles away from the person to whom one wants to talk all the time." In her introduction and prologue, editor Margaret Sandburg (the authors' youngest daughter, now in her 70s) reports that the lovers met face to face only twice during these six months for only a few days.

The rest was words. They did not fall in love so much as talk themselves into it. After all, they believed that words could change the world and often improved each other's socialist propaganda. Every couple in love invent their own private language (Steichen to Sandburg: "Oh--and oh!--and OH! and H'm! H'm!") with which they reinvent each other. A dazzled Steichen hailed Sandburg: "You glorious man! . . . You miracle!"--a description that anyone else who knew him would probably not have recognized him by. Reading the later letters is like eating cotton candy. Even big bites melt away to nothing and leave you feeling a little ill. "Ten thousand lovebirds, sweetthroated and red-plumed, were in my soul," sang Sandburg, "in the garden of my under-life."

The medium of such sentiments is now the telephone. It would take a braver lover than young Sandburg to recite that "ten thousand lovebirds" speech out loud without laughing. Yet few people subject their thoughts to the relatively rigorous reflection that such letter writing demands. And it isn't just that people don't write love letters like that anymore. It's that they don't write letters at all. Our culture's failure to produce the Great Novel is less troubling than its failure to keep alive the everyday letter.

On topics other than Sandburg, Steichen was a canny critic, if a little high blown. (She displayed that overseriousness of people who have more intelligence and education than their daily lives allow them to use.) She would have liked to have been thought a dangerous thinker, but knew that Princeton thought her harmless. She professed to find jewelry barbaric and religion outdated. She held to feminist ideas about a woman's worth--"No artificialities for me! No corsets, no French heels, no patent medicines!"--but denigrated her considerable skill as a writer; she is never more eloquent than when she explains to her "Cully" that she can't write well.

Just as the revolutionary Sandburg in time became a Stevenson Democrat, Steichen's New Woman turned out to be the Old Woman with a degree; they both confused words with acts. While Steichen claimed to be a radical feminist, her conduct was conventional. When they first met in Milwaukee, she had refused the impetuous Sandburg's invitation to dinner, explaining later that nice girls did not go out with men to whom they had not been properly introduced. She also backtracked on her pledge not to wear a wedding ring, calling what was more likely a concession to mom "a practical rational concession to the people."

Steichen's rhetoric about equality is much less interesting than the glimpses she provides of her life and that of her mother. She thought women were made by nature for motherhood and men for work; perhaps she departed from the rest in Princeton in refusing to see one role as worthier than the other. The young Steichen did not romanticize work in the "real" world, perhaps because of her mother's experience. Her mother had provided for the family by running a small millinery shop while Lilian's father "did everything about the house." ("I feel sorry for father," she wrote. "Mother was too much his superior in every way.") She advocated a domestic meritocracy. Her low estimate of her own skills, which led her early on to abandon plans for a more public career, had less to do with the world's low opinion of women than with her own high standards. She pledged to Sandburg, "I shall be able to help the world on a little, through you." It proved to be her life's motto.

The Sandburg revealed in these letters is more familiar but just as problematic. He is histrionic, ebullient, and silly, and achieves eloquence through the force of his energy. "A flaming mad glad glory of a folly," he called their affair--the sort of thing he said when he wasn't naming stars after Steichen.

Yet even Sandburg recognized that there was more enthusiasm than art in his early poems that so delighted Steichen, and he later dismissed them as juvenilia. The love poems--which, with the early poems, are included here, some for the first time--he simply denied having written. He meant to protect their privacy, one feels, rather than his reputation. His discretion seems almost quaint today, and he is the more likable for it.

Sandburg has been dead 20 years now, which is long enough for him to be lumped among the artifacts of the past. We have no one quite like him today; younger readers will have to imagine a cross between John Cougar Mellencamp and Senator Paul Simon.

Still, the life of any man who counted Andres Segovia and Tallulah Bankhead among his intimates could not have been dull. It certainly entranced North Callahan, the retired New York University professor who recently finished Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. Born in 1878, Sandburg grew up "a typical Swedish peasant" in Galesburg, Illinois. The son of a workingman, Sandburg lived in a rude house beside the tracks and had the kind of childhood that we have since come to believe was made up in Hollywood--going to county fairs, watching baseball through knotholes in the fence, delivering newspapers. He held just about every job that a small-town boy could get hired for, though Callahan doesn't say why he walked away from each one.

As a boy, Sandburg was thrilled by the circus, the chautauqua, the minstrel show, the theater. Galesburg was no idyll, however. A working-class Swede in those days knew both economic and ethnic prejudice; early on he changed the spelling of his name from "Sandberg" to make it look less Swedish. And it was in Galesburg that he became a sentimental leftist.

When he met Steichen, he was 30 and still leading the unaimed life typical of a writer-to-be. A stint as a soldier in the Spanish-American War was followed by a stint as a student at Galesburg's Lombard College, where he studied Whitman. In between were odd jobs, including time on the road, where he learned how to be broke, and time in the lyceum business, where he learned his way around a stage. Eventually he became an organizer and pamphleteer in Wisconsin for the Social-Democratic party, a job that demanded the skills of a barker and the stamina of a plow horse.

He and Steichen were wed in June of 1908, but married life did not settle him. They lived for a while in Wisconsin, where Sandburg lectured about tuberculosis, wrote for four newspapers in succession, and for a time was secretary to Milwaukee's socialist mayor. In the last post Sandburg got his political education; he became disenchanted with the left. The fact that his disenchantment coincided so neatly with his marriage suggests that Sandburg's radicalism, like that of many young men, was hormonal.

Sandburg moved, with his wife and child, to Chicago in 1912 to write for the Chicago Daily Socialist. A strike had idled the city's capitalist papers, and the circulation of the Socialist spectacularly--and temporarily--shot up to 600,000. The paper folded six months later. But Sandburg in his mid-30s was still "searching." He worked for a half dozen magazines and newspapers in those early years in Chicago--never staying very long at any of them and writing poetry on the side. He walked everywhere in the city, but he didn't live in it, preferring to dwell in Maywood and Elmhurst. Callahan dares to suggest that the bard of Chicago never actually liked the place very much.

It was a heady time to be young and in Chicago, as local nostalgists keep reminding us. Sandburg's trail crossed those of Ben Hecht, Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Sinclair Lewis, and Eugene Debs. He made his name here as a poet, but he made his living as a newspaperman. He covered labor news for the Chicago Daily News for 13 years, although he also did time as a movie critic and columnist. He was no better than he needed to be. Callahan says that, when asked to interview labor types he knew from the old days, Sandburg sometimes invented replies to his own questions.

Sandburg's is one of the names associated with the famous "Chicago Renaissance" that excited national literary circles in the years around World War I. As a poet, Sandburg helped popularize what was, if not a new language, at least a new way of speaking poetically. That style was never much imitated; it survives in its purest form in TV beer commercials. Yet he inspired writers, such as Algren, who shared with Sandburg what Malcolm Cowley called "the Chicago spirit of bluffness and down-to-earthiness."

His critics often called Sandburg's bluffs. Frost said he was "probably the most artificial and studied ruffian the world has had." (That may also be a better description of Chicago than any Sandburgian bunk about big shoulders.) It is true that his poems do not hold up well--mostly they read like dumbed-down Whitman--but they were honestly intended and it hurts a little when Callahan offers as proof of his hero's lasting influence that Sandburg is quoted today by people like Ronald Reagan.

Sandburg went on to become a song collector, children's book author, and historian; he even found time to write a mediocre novel. However, Callahan believes that it is as a biographer that Sandburg will be remembered. If accomplishment is measured by shelf space, he will be; Sandburg's life of Lincoln ran to six volumes, each containing 650 pages. Cowley compared it to Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick as a national epic, although many historians have been less impressed with it as biography. The books were the product of the exhaustive researches of an uneducated man who, not knowing what deserved to be left out of the story, put everything in. Sandburg liked to identify with the dead president, and Callahan plays along, calling Sandburg "the Lincoln of our literature." One wonders whether the poet secretly regarded Lincoln as the Sandburg of our politics.

So engaging and versatile a fraud was bound to become famous. By the time he died in 1967, Sandburg had made the cover of Life, done the big TV shows, and picked up a Pulitzer. He collected honorary degrees the way some people collect stamps. He even went to Hollywood, where he worked as a high-priced consultant (an expert on mass taste, presumably) in the making of the biblical bore The Greatest Story Ever Told. He played the part of the quintessential midwesterner enthusiastically enough to make some people want to puke. The Sewanee Review said of him, "He participated in all the claptrap of mid-century middlebrow liberalism, blending invocations to democracy, pseudopopulist jargon, and commercialized aesthetics in a souffle heavily flavored with cliche." He was, in short, the kind of poet they name grade schools after.

Callahan's attempts at literary criticism may be charitably described as well intentioned. "Sandburg's original contribution to the vision of a tomb seems to lie in his unique description of one as dusty and cool," he writes. Callahan is a borderline homophobe (he praises Sandburg over Whitman as a "man's man") and a prude (he says that Sandburg's "off-color" stories "perhaps could be justified as entertainment"). He has archaic sensibilities about race (how many other books published in 1987 refer to blacks as "colored people"?), and pushily inserts himself into the narrative (he introduces Ben Hecht as the author of The Front Page, "in which I once appeared as the inimitable Hildy Johnson"). It says something about Sandburg's life that it remains interesting in spite of Callahan's treatment of it.

Readers who enjoy The Poet and the Dream Girl may want to pick up Callahan anyway, just to chart the subsequent career of the love affair. Steichen remained married to Sandburg until his death, nearly 60 years. It was one of those rare marriages that apparently satisfied the promise of the passion that prompted it. Typically, Callahan sentimentalizes it. The peripatetic Sandburg, he writes, was "always to be warmly welcomed at their domestic hearth by a loving and understanding wife," which makes her sound like the family Labrador.

In fact, the marriage wasn't always easy for Steichen. A daughter confided to Callahan that her mother considered leaving Sandburg during those early years when he was moving through life "somewhat in the haphazard manner of a water bug." Later there were rumors of other women, although it's hard to judge how far Sandburg's physical affection for them went. Many men exploit sentiment as a way to experience women, but Sandburg probably exploited women as a way to experience sentiment. In any event, he continued to write love poems to and about the formidable Steichen until the end, as well he might. She disdained servants even when they could afford them, raised chickens and goats to make money when he didn't, and tended to his correspondence, proofreading, and children, becoming expert at each.

Coping with a colorful American original could not have been easy. For example, writes Callahan, life at the family's last house in North Carolina featured the poet "coming into the kitchen from time to time to pass along a bit of poetry or homey philosophy, often accompanying himself on his 'gui-tar.'" No wonder that, when a reporter asked the aging Steichen if she was lonely when Sandburg was away performing for some larger audience, she answered, "Dear, no." She explained that she welcomed his absences because they gave her a chance to catch up on her own work. "A woman should create interests of her own," she added. "It would be lonely if a woman didn't get interested in things for herself."

Callahan recalls a Carnegie Hall rehearsal for a performance of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait with the aging Sandburg narrating. The poet got a standing ovation. "You were good, buddy," said Steichen, but told him that he would have to wear his lower incisors for the real thing so he could be understood. Sandburg insisted that he'd misplaced them, to which his wife replied, "I have them right here in my pocket."

Love, if it lasts long enough, learns that poems may be fine, but what you really need is someone who will keep track of your false teeth for you. In that exchange, she was as eloquent in her devotion as she had ever managed to be in her letters.

The Poet and the Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg, edited by Margaret Sandburg, University of Illinois Press, $22.95.

Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works by North Callahan, Pennsylvania State University Press, $29.75.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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