Always the Young Strangers, by Carl Sandburg
Always The Young Strangers.
by Carl Sandburg.
Harcourt, Brace. 445 pp. $5.00.
If we look back at Henry James’s ironic and affectionate portrait of The American, we find a hero surprisingly like Carl Sandburg: a restless man who covered a great deal of ground, had few personal aversions, was fond of statistics, and eyed the world steadily but without sophistication. As long as Americans maintain their respect for open spaces and for their national history, Sandburg has nothing to fear from critics who worry about style: most readers will not mind the bumbling indiscriminate prose of Always the Young Strangers because they are so eager to read the autobiography of a poet who seems to embody the national virtues.
To an urban reader, however, Sandburg seems unremittingly Midwestern, in the local rather than the “characteristically American” sense. This earnest album of recollections from the poet’s first twenty years, like the bellicose, impassioned vignettes of his poetry, is dominated by the image of the vast flat Midwestern plain. Brought up among miles of unvarying wheat and corn fields, identical villages, identical houses and front-yards, Sandburg seems to have been so overwhelmed by the Midwestern scene that he harps on the impersonal reality and slights his own—as he saw it—unprepossessing role; now at seventy-five he enumerates individuals and conditions out of simple deference to the fact that they existed as part of his landscape. We must hear about the albino girl in his class, the talk on education given by a shoestore owner, a crime he read about in the newspapers, a comic routine he once saw in a minstrel show. He is over-impressed by all of these, and underimpressed by himself.
His father, a railroad blacksmith, lived by sober and discouraging phrases: “Hard work never hurt anybody,” “A nice piece uh proputty,” “What good iss it?” And when his son began a conversation about the stars, he stifled it at once with: “We won’t bodder about dat now, Sholly.” August Sandburg could make a pint of grain alcohol last through the winter by putting one spoon at a time in his cup of black coffee. When he bought a book voluntarily, it was because the seller was Swedish. To a certain extent, he infected his son, who comes to books with awe rather than simple relish. Sandburg speaks of “trying to get my mind around the English Magna Carta,” of still looking with a “fishy eye” at books like Irving’s Sketchbook, The Scarlet Letter, and Ivanhoe; he really savors a homespun book of facts like Hostetter’s Illustrated United States Almanac. Among the first books he owned were vest-pocket biographies of General Beauregard, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Robert Ingersoll, and possibly these were the source of his continuing wide-eyed stares at great men. He never can resist a chance to tell us when he rubbed shoulders with people who were destined to become prominent, even if the occasion involved nothing more than passing them on the road in his milk delivery wagon.
After the panic of 1893, Sandburg’s father was earning only sixteen dollars a month, and the second son set out at fourteen to learn a trade. His father’s cult of work was not lost on him, and he describes with zest the period of “hard times” and the odd jobs he took to add twelve dollars a month to the family income. But Sandburg had none of his father’s feeling for work as an expression of skill. He never felt that he was “cut out” for any of his jobs, but only that he was in the thick of things, reading about the tariff in the newspapers he delivered or ordering his own “one and a bun” from a lunch-counter stool. As a barbershop porter he got to see the shining brass rail and tall spittoons of the Union Hotel, where big-time show people stopped off, and found a suave crony who had been to the Chicago World’s Fair. On the milk wagon he read Bryan’s campaign speeches and argued politics with the boss. In a Kansas City restaurant he washed dishes and listened to the melting songs of the waiter.
Popular songs and sayings intoxicate him. He remembers what he once wrote in autograph albums: “When you are old and cannot see, put on your specs and think of me.” He devotes a whole chapter, called “Kid Talk—Folk Talk,” to listing every slang expression and stray jingle he ever heard in his childhood, and cherishes exhausted repartees like “You’ve got bats in your belfry,” “He wasn’t born last week,” “Hello yourself and see how you like it,” “It’s a sin to steal a pin.” The queer thing about his use of this material is the attitude of vague, indiscriminate obligation with which he presents it: it is not exactly part of his own idiom as a writer, yet he does not introduce it with the class snobbery of James or Howells, but in fond retrospect, as one who has outgrown it but does not give it up out of loyalty. In part, of course, he holds on to it as a gesture of assent to the myth of himself as the “poet of the plain people” and the “Lincoln of poetry.” The response of a certain class of Paul Kecskemeti, philosopher and social scientist, is on the staff of the Rand research organization. His most recent contribution was “How Totalitarians Gain Absolute Power” (December 1952). EDWARD N. SAVETH teaches American history at the New School for Social Research. He contributed “What To Do About ‘Dangerous’ Textbooks” to the February 1952 COMMENTARY. liberals to such a book as The People, Yes, and to Sandburg’s sentimental folkishness generally, has surrounded him with a slightly distasteful aura of the Popular Front; actually, however, Sandburg belongs to the more spontaneous and innocent populism of the 1880’s.
Whenever he is working or wandering, his memoir carries the tang and spirit of early American journalism, and one wonders how he ever got away from newspapers and into poetry. He takes some trouble to represent himself as an insider, one of “us kids,” a member of the baseball team and the “dirty dozen.” But, always too quick with his approval to make distinctions and develop his style, and too impressionable to external events to know much about himself, he passes lightly over the moody hobo figure who is probably much more real to his readers. And when he mentions the “bitter and lonely hours” when he thought of doing away with himself, it is only to say that he does not know what came over him. One may find this ingenuousness of his as winning as his spunkiness, his resilience, and his energy; and one may like to think of all these as the “wholesome” American qualities. But the fact is that the center of gravity of our national myth is shifting, and the kind of writer that might today properly be identified as the representative American is likely to spring not from the Western plain but from the flexible boundary at which the nervous, ingenious East meets the indomitable West.