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Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 291-308

"Things money cannot buy": Carl Sandburg's Tribute to Virginia Woolf

Sally Greene 1
Chapel Hill, North Carolina


Carl Sandburg and Virginia Woolf are rarely held together in the mind's eye. Populist raconteur, sometime hobo, sometime socialist, biographer of Lincoln, author of The People, Yes, and the Rootabaga Stories, the American "people's poet" bears little resemblance to the upper-class British Modernist who bestowed "new revelations about the workings of the human heart" and "illuminated for us all she saw, all that has seemed transparent for a moment," while demanding little beyond a room of her own. And yet even when this assessment of Woolf was offered--an early verdict, from the New Republic, that typifies the critical response in the first generation after her death--some readers were looking beyond the "inexhaustible beauty" of her language to the solid grounding of her political criticism. 2 Indeed, one of those readers was Carl Sandburg.

Upon Woolf's death in the spring of 1941, Sandburg wrote a newspaper column about her (figure 1), an homage suggesting a long and thorough familiarity with her work. As far as we know, he had never written about Woolf while she lived. From the column, moreover, he created a poem (figure 2). Yet this was a work he kept to himself. It was not published until 1993, when it appeared posthumously in Billy Sunday and Other Poems. 3 To begin to understand why he chose to dwell on the relatively insignificant death of this British novelist at a moment when, like most Americans, he was preoccupied with the path of Hitler across [End Page 291] [Begin Page 293]

the European continent, we need to consider the person whom Philip Yannella has called "the other Carl Sandburg." 4 Not yet Lincoln's standard-bearer or popular culture's darling, this Sandburg was an advocate of the working classes in their struggle against the wage-labor system. A moderate socialist at the beginning of the twentieth century, he moved further left after 1912 as the nation's industrial strife intensified. 5 From then through the First World War, he wrote for the International Socialist Review, as well as for newspapers in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cleveland, always with the aim of advancing the goals of the labor community.

But although strongly identified with the movement for social democracy, even during these early years Sandburg was torn by conflicting interests. He was a poet aspiring to a literary world in which art and politics were not supposed to mix. At the same time that his work was gathering praise from the political left, he was being recognized as a new talent by the literary avant-garde: "Chicago," published in Poetry in 1914, was judged best poem in the magazine that year. 6 His first volume, Chicago Poems (1916), 7 contained some of his most trenchant commentary: the newspaper of the International Workers of the World pronounced it "'the most radically thought compelling'" political poetry of the day. 8 But the critics, although also excited about the work, did their best, as Yannella points out, "to separate the truly 'poetic' Sandburg from the vulgar, political Sandburg." 9

Amy Lowell's praise was, subtly, perhaps the most damaging. In Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), she situated Sandburg's poetry as transitional along a continuum of styles ranging from the lyrical and highly crafted pastoral realism of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost to the metrically free yet thematically concentrated imagism of H.D. The haiku-like "Fog" was written by "a true poet, observant of beauty, and quick with new trains of thought in which to express it," she remarks. Yet he merely "approach[es] the Imagist technique": his transformation to Lowell's pure aestheticism was incomplete. "[A]gain and again, he deserts the seer's mountain peak for the demagogue's soap-box." She practically implores Sandburg to rise above the "entirely ephemeral phenomena" of contemporary politics: "Propaganda is the pitfall of poets. So excellently...

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