The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Poet of the People Sings of Freedom: Carl Sandburg on Human Nature’s Greatest Hindrance to Social Justice and How to Transcend It

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878–July 22, 1967) left school at the age of thirteen to labor as a milk-wagon driver, then went on to win not one, not two, but three Pulitzer Prizes and to compose verses so beloved he would be remembered as “the Poet of the People.” During the years he spent working for a Chicago newspaper in his thirties, he wrote with passion and lucidity about how economic inequality unsteadies society into disharmony and conflict, about immigration, about poverty, about civil rights. On the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, after completing his Pulitzer-winning biography of the slain President, Sandburg became the first private citizen to deliver a speech before a Joint Session of Congress, which he concluded with the eternally timely observation that “wherever there is freedom there have been those who fought and sacrificed for it.”

Carl Sandburg performing folk songs after a poetry reading. (National Park Service)

Sandburg places the subject of freedom and the toil for it at the center of his contribution to This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the wonderful series envisioned by the courageous broadcaster Ed Murrow in the 1950s and resumed by NPR half a century later, inviting “thoughtful men and women in all walks of life” — nurses and artists, athletes and politicians, composers and construction workers — to convey the animating ethos of their lives and their beliefs, those atomic units of personhood we assemble by our own free will, in compact essays, each part manifesto and part contemplative practice.

Sandburg begins his by beholding the slippery line between the universal and the commonplace, along which the premise of the question sends any answerer:

I believe in getting up in the morning with a serene mind and a heart holding many hopes. And so large a number of my fellow worms in the dust believe the same that there is no use putting stress on it.

In consonance with Bertrand Russell’s exquisite quip about our self-concern amid a vast and impartial universe — “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism… All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” — Sandburg adds:

I can remember many years ago, a beautiful woman in Santa Fe saying, “I don’t see how anybody can study astronomy and have ambition enough to get up in the morning.” She was putting a comic twist on what an insignificant speck of animate stardust each of us is amid cotillions of billion-year constellations.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
Part of the Milky Way, from Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical art painted in the era of Carl Sandburg’s birth. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Half a century and myriad discoveries before physicist Brian Greene so poetically insisted that our humbling insignificance is the very wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Sandburg considers how this cosmic antidote to human hubris protects us from our own most perilous tendency:

I believe in humility, though my confession and exposition of the humility I believe in would run into an old fashioned two- or three-hour sermon. Also I believe in pride, knowing well that the deadliest of the seven deadly sins is named as pride. I believe in a pride that prays ever for an awareness of that borderline where, unless watchful of yourself, you cross over into arrogance, into vanity, into mirror gazing, into misuse and violation of the sacred portions of your personality.

A young Charlie (Carl) Sandburg poses at his Confirmation photo. (National Park Service)

Only when misplaced pride and personal self-importance fall away, he intimates, can we really begin to rise to the task of freedom:

I believe in platitudes, when they serve, especially that battered and hard-worn antique, “Eternal vigilance is the pride of liberty.” Hand in hand with freedom goes responsibility. I believe that free men over the world cherish the earth as cradle and tomb… I believe freedom comes the hard way — by ceaseless groping, toil, struggle — even by fiery trial and agony.

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly invigorating This I Believe with James Baldwin, writing in the same epoch, on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit two other stirring and saning contributions to the collection: Leonard Bernstein on how art fortifies our mutual dignity and Thomas Mann on living with time.

Published July 14, 2020




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