Time Machine: Carl Sandburg in Mount Vernon
Famed poet, writer visited Cornell College 19 times
Carl Sandburg had already published two volumes of poetry — “Chicago Poems” in 1916 and “Cornhuskers” in 1918 — when he arrived on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon in 1920.
His reputation as a poet was established — he’d won the Poetry Society of America prize in 1919 for “Cornhuskers” — but his work was not always well-received. (The poetry society award became the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922.)
But a number of literary critics did not take him seriously. A Chicago review of his 1916 book was headlined “If This Is Verse, We Will Stick to Prose.”
Sandburg, born in 1878, had been a reporter for the experimental, ad-free, daily newspaper, The Day Book, in Chicago — a city that would weigh heavily in his poetry. (His line about Chicago as the “Stormy, Husky, Brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” is one of his most famous.) He’d followed that with jobs at the Chicago Daily News and as a European correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association during World War I.
His poems were vivid word pictures reflecting his experiences as a blue-collar worker, farm laborer and a reporter covering such topics as racial conflict and steel strikes.
His poetry may have won a Pulitzer, but he still didn’t command a big audience.
The Cornell invite
In January 1920, Clyde “Toppy” Tull, head of Cornell College’s English department, invited Sandburg, who was then 42, to read his poetry at the school, offering him $100.
Sandburg thought the $100 was a remarkable sum, saying later the fee “looked as big as the moon to me.”
When asked about that invitation, Tull said, “We gave him a certain status at a time when he was criticized as a roughshod poet.”
At the spacious Cornell chapel, Sandburg got his first taste of lecturing before an academic audience. He read for an hour, then picked up his guitar.
“I’m going to sing for you now,” he told his audience. “That’s what I would be doing if I were at home this evening, and if the whole audience walks out, I’ll be at home.”
He began playing and singing ballads and folk tunes.
The audience loved him. The college’s English Club immediately booked him for another performance.
The English Club
He returned less than a year later, on Dec. 10. His second performance earned him election to the English Club at a dinner given in his honor Dec. 12. He gave another performance at the college auditorium later that evening.
After that, Sandburg would return to Cornell annually. He was made to feel welcome and invited into people’s homes, most often staying at Toppy and Jewell Tull’s home.
Tull later told of the long gab and song sessions with Sandburg that lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. “We just fell together and had good times together,” he said.
Sandburg often took a select group of friends to Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon to catch them up on what he’d been doing the past year and also for a preview of his newest works.
On his sixth visit, on May 26, 1925, he told his audience the “theory that poetry should be as explicit as a telephone book is preposterous.” He read his 38 definitions of poetry, one of which was, “Poetry is a pack sack of invisible keepsakes.”
As had become his habit, he concluded his poetry and prose reading by breaking out his guitar and singing American ballads.
The next year, in 1926, Harcourt Brace and Co. of New York published “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years.”
The work was universally acclaimed, and Sandburg’s success was assured.
But he still made his annual trip to Cornell, proudly claiming his membership in the English Club.
His 16th visit to Cornell was scheduled for June 1, 1936. His now-traditional program was described as “largely impromptu, in typical Sandburgian style.” His listeners had become accustomed to getting previews of his new work, and this visit was no exception. The audience was treated to selections from “The People,” a volume that wasn’t published until later in the summer.
For 16 years, Sandburg had never waited for a formal invitation to come to Cornell, and he had never raised his fee, even though he commanded much larger fees at other venues.
On his way to Mount Vernon, he often collected his brother, Mart, a businessman, from their hometown of Galesburg, Ill., and brought him along to Cornell.
His ‘annual report’
A few years passed before Sandburg sent a telegram to Cornell in May 1939, saying he’d like to drop by for a visit. He called himself the “sub rosa professor of the English department at Cornell.”
“My friends at Cornell are ‘stockholders’ in me. I have to make my annual report,” he wrote to his friend Tull.
Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for history for his four-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” in 1940.
On July 13, 1941, The Gazette announced that Sandburg — already considered a major figure in contemporary American literature — would return to “the soil which nurtured his literary talents — the newspaper,” with a weekly column that appeared for more than a year. The column displayed Sandburg as a thinker “who never held himself aloof from the sights and sounds of ordinary living.”
Sandburg’s 19th appearance at Cornell came on Feb. 19, 1951, the same year he won his third Pulitzer for his “Complete Poems.”
After his initial visits to Cornell, Sandburg requested that his readings be held in the smaller, more intimate, lower chapel. For this visit, Sandburg requested the college limit the number of tickets to 250, and those sold out immediately.
It would be his last visit to Mount Vernon.
Tull received a letter in November 1965 from Sandburg’s daughter, Margaret. Her father’s health was failing, and she asked Tull to send copies of Sandburg’s correspondence to Connemara, the Sandburg home in Flat Rock, N.C., for a collection she was pulling together.
Tull sent them off with a note. Margaret wrote back, telling Tull how pleased her father was to hear from him. Sandburg’s wife, Lilian, whom he called “Paula,” added a note, too: “I wish you could have seen how deeply moved Carl was, recalling his annual trips to Cornell and the warm affection shown him in those early struggling years by you, your lovely wife Jewell — and all there.”
Sandburg died in 1967, at age 89, at his farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
President Lyndon Johnson said then that “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.”
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