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This Week in Illinois History: Carl Sandburg named state Poet Laureate (February 28, 1962)

Carl Sandburg in 1955 (Library of Congress)
Al Ravenna
Carl Sandburg in 1955 (Library of Congress)

On February 28, 1962, Illinois poet, author and folk singer Carl Sandburg became Illinois’ Poet Laureate. He was only the second person to hold this appointment.

Sandburg was born to Swedish immigrants in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His father worked for the railroads and Sandburg and his siblings grew up in poverty. At 13, he left school and traveled throughout the Midwest working odd jobs.

When he returned to Galesburg and attended Lombard University, he was encouraged to pursue poetry, but he dropped out before graduating. Sandburg moved to Milwaukee and became involved with the Socialist Party of America. It was there he met his wife, Lilian “Paula” Steichen, and worked for Emil Seidel, the first socialist mayor of a major U.S. city. Sandburg then moved to Chicago and began work as a journalist.

From 1916 to 1920 he published three works of poetry that brought him national acclaim and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He became known as the “Poet of the People” for championing the American worker.

Over the next decade, he published children’s stories, a collection of American folk songs and a two-volume history of Abraham Lincoln’s early life, The Prairie Years. In 1940, Sandburg won another Pulitzer Prize for his four-volume Lincoln follow-up, The War Years. His third Pulitzer, for his complete poetry collection, followed in 1951.

Sandburg spent his final years on a farm in North Carolina with his wife and three children. His 250-acre estate is now a National Historic Site, the first such designation given in honor of an American poet. His childhood home in Galesburg is an Illinois State Historic Site. Galesburg is also home to Carl Sandburg College.

Carl Sandburg passed away in 1967, but his work reminds us that poetry belongs to the people. As he noted in a 1959 recording of poems for children, “Every child, every boy and girl, sometimes has poetry in his head and heart, even though it does not get written.”

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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