Biography makes a beginning at probing the mystery of Carl Sandburg




Penelope Niven.

Robert Stewart/Scribner's.

843 pages. $35.

With a shock of dark hair spilling onto his forehead, Charlie Sandburg searched himself "for Jekyll and Hyde streaks." He was introspective, mercurial. The expression in his eyes could change instantaneously from teasing to brooding. Even their color had a chameleonlike quality, becoming blue, green or gray.

At 21, Carl August Sandburg (calling himself Charlie and known as the Terrible Swede) was older than the other students at Lombard Preparatory College. But he was less sure of himself. He was, he wrote later, a searcher filled "with a strong beautiful wanting." As Penelope Niven explains it in her first book, "Carl Sandburg: a Biography," he would become a legend. Yet it would take many years for him to find his authentic voice and self.

Ms. Niven, founder of the Carl Sandburg Oral History Project, researched Sandburg's authentic self for 14 years. The result is this book which takes "a broad, sweeping look at America's favorite poet." Sandburg (1878- 1967) may or may not be America's favorite poet -- Robert Frost was chosen to read for John Kennedy's inauguration. Moreover, when it comes to literary biography, especially this poet's, a broad, sweeping look is merely the beginning. However, Ms. Niven has written an adequate beginning.

Born in Galesburg, Ill., to Swedish immigrants, Carl Sandburg was ashamed of his parents' illiteracy and poverty. He changed his name from Carl to the American-sounding Charles and spelled his surname Sandburg rather than Sandberg. Quitting school at 13, he tried several apprenticeships and worked at numerous jobs. But he said later, "I didn't belong anywhere." When he was 19, he left his hometown and, affected with wanderlust, headed west. At 20, he served in the Spanish-American War.

Returning home, he entered Lombard, where he began writing seriously. His professor, Philip Greene Wright, believed Sandburg had "a God within him." Before that God could emerge, Sandburg was on the road -- estranged from his family. He long had been estranged from his father, although he would (( exalt workingmen, like his father, in his writing. Living in self-imposed exile in New Jersey, he immersed himself in Walt Whitman's poetry. At this time, Ms. Niven speculates, he became a poet. Sandburg put it differently: "I have become a name for always roaming with a hungry heart."

His roaming took him back to the Midwest, where he continued wrestling with divergent drives for self-expression: "I have ten men in me," he said, "and I don't know one of them." Working for the Socialist Democratic Party, he began a lifelong involvement with social issues. He married Paula Steichen, sister of photographer Edward Steichen; through Paula, Ms. Niven contends, Sandburg found himself. Yet given the man's creative drive, his immense output and his intense friendships with several other women, Ms. Niven's point is disputable.

In 1907 he started newspaper work, into which he "poured all my oaths of love, hate and beauty." By 1932, when he left the Chicago Daily News, he had written 13 books, been named Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard, and had worked for nine newspapers and trade journals.

He had stayed with the News and its visionary editor, Henry Justin Smith, for 13 years, longer than he would stay with anything, except for his biography of Lincoln. As a newspaperman, Sandburg worked 16, often 20, hours a day as a reporter, an editor, a columnist, a movie critic and a poet. He wrote poetry even in the newsroom. Poetry, he said, is the dark stuff of life that comes and goes. It functions in a man as air does.

Sandburg's wife, Paula, had called him a "many-sided self." Helga, his daughter, saw him as an extremely complicated man; she would write her memoir and speak of a father who was seldom home. When he was at home, he usually was writing, often in the nude on his balcony, with a towel as a cover. Ms. Niven chooses to play down this side of the poet.

With his shaggy, prematurely white hair, Sandburg created an image of himself as one of the common people. Yet he had a scholar's fascination with folklore, poetics, history. Was he the People's Poet? Or was he a "roamer of the beautiful," as Sandburg described Ezra Pound? Ms. Niven doesn't make this clear.

Sandburg would write nearly 40 books, his supreme achievement being a poetic though inaccurate six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. Poet, journalist, novelist, biographer, historian, folk singer, he would win several Pulitzer Prizes. Even at 85, two years before his death, he called himself a searcher.

"Timesweep," one of his final poems, meditates on a poet's life. Here, Sandburg describes a journey "over land and women, laughter and language. . . I was born in the morning of the world," he says, "in mystery without end . . ." In mystery, too, he died.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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