Carl Sandburg

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4 December 1939

Sandburg, Carl (6 January 1878 - 22 July 1967)

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, Sandburg featured Chicago in many of his poems. A Universalist, he voiced the long-range optimism characteristic of humanists, as in his “The People, Yes”:

And man the stumbler and finder, goes on,
man the dreamer of deep dreams,
man the shaper and maker,
man the answerer. . . .
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.

Second of seven children, he quit school after 8th grade and worked a variety of jobs, such as delivering milk, for the next decade. In 1897 he lived as a hobo. He would later perform the folk songs he learned on the road, and compile them into two folk song books. Sandburg enlisted in the Spanish-American War. When he returned, he attended the Universalist-founded college in Galesburg, Lombard College. Attracted to labor concerns, he became an organizer for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party. He met his wife-to-be, Lilian Steichen, at party headquarters in Milwaukee. They were wed in 1908. Sandburg became a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Sandburg's poetry began winning him acclaim by 1914, and he soon became a successful, published author.

Sandburg’s recollection of what it was like to attend Lombard, at which he was a member of the 1898–1899 basketball team, is found in his Ever the Winds of Chance (1983). He had been raised a Lutheran but said he subscribed to Unitarian Universalism “a little more definitely than to any other denomination.”

In "Contemporary Bunkshooter" (1916), he wrote after being turned off by the preaching of evangelist and revivalist Billy Sunday, who preached about how he was against sin:

You come along ... tearing your shirt ... yelling about Jesus.
Where do you get that stuff?
What do you know about Jesus?
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers and higher-ups among the con-men of Jerusalem everybody liked to have this Jesus around because he never made any fake passes and everything he said went and he helped the sick and gave the people hope.
You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist and calling us all damn fools so fierce the froth slobbers over your lips ... always blabbing we're all going to hell straight off and you know all about it.
I've read Jesus' words. I know what he said. You don't throw any scare into me. I've got your number. I know how much you know about Jesus.
He never came near clean people or dirty people but they felt cleaner because he came along. It was your crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out of the running.
I say the same bunch backing you nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of Nazareth. He had :: lined up against him the same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up with you paying your way.
This Jesus was good to look at, smelled good, listened good. He threw out something fresh and beautiful from the skin of his body and the touch of his hands wherever he passed along.
You slimy bunkshooter, you put a smut on every human blossom in reach of your rotten breath belching about hell-fire and hiccupping about this Man who lived a clean life in Galilee.
When are you going to quit making the carpenters build emergency hospitals for women and girls driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your gibberish about Jesus--I put it to you again: Where do you get that stuff; what do you know about Jesus?
Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to. Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every performance. Turn sixty somersaults and stand on your nutty head. If it wasn't for the way you scare the women and kids I'd feel sorry for you and pass the hat.
I like to watch a good four-flusher work, but not when he starts people puking and calling for the doctors.
I like a man that's go nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you--you're only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel--you're only shoving out a phony imitation of the goods this Jesus wanted free as air and sunlight.
You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they're dead and the worms have eaten 'em.
You tell $6 a week department store girls all they need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead without having lived, gray and shrunken at forty years of age, and you tell him to look at Jesus on the cross and he'll be all right.
You tell poor people they don't need any more money on pay day and even if it's fierce to be out of a job, Jesus'll fix that up all right, all right--all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.
I'm telling you Jesus wouldn't stand for the stuff you're handing out. Jesus played it different. The bankers and lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers and murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn't play their game. He didn't sit in with the big thieves.
I don't want a lot of gab from a bunkshooter in my religion.
I won't take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth and never cherishes any memory except the face of the woman on the American silver dollar.
I ask you to come through and show me where you're pouring out the blood of your life.
I've been to this suburb of Jerusalem they call Golgotha, where they nailed Him, and I know if the story is straight it was real blood ran from His hands and the nail-holes, and it was real blood spurted in red drops where the spear of the Roman soldier rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus of Nazareth.

In addition to his Pulitzer Prize for the six-volume Lincoln work, Sandburg won Pulitzers for Cornhuskers (1918) and Complete Poems (1950). His autobiography is Always the Young Strangers (1953). In The People, Yes (1936), Sandburg reasoned, “To work hard, to live hard, to die hard, and then to go to Hell after all would be too damned hard.”

At the request of Mrs. Sandburg, the Rev. George C. B. Tolleson, minister of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, conducted her husband’s funeral. She and two of the Sandburg daughters conferred with Mr. Tolleson prior to the service and told him about a little red notebook in which Sandburg had copied out a passage from Walt Whitman in memory of Lincoln. Tolleson used that excerpt in the service, the lines beginning, “Come, lovely and soothing Death,” as well as Sandburg’s own “Finish,” which begins, “Death comes once; let it be easy.”