Carl Sandburg and the City of Beer
How Milwaukee inspired one of America’s great poets
A new collection acquired by the University of Illinois may change that, revealing Sandburg not only wrote poetry here, but also that Sandburg’s Milwaukee may have in part prompted the style and content of his later Chicago Poems.
Acquired by the University of Illinois’ Rare Book Library in 2009, the collection comprises roughly 20 poems, most written between 1907 and 1912, when Sandburg lived in Milwaukee and eastern Wisconsin. He later published at least 11 of them, some with revisions, along with a handful of other poems from this period. (Poems quoted here are versions printed in Chicago Poems.)
These materials reflect many of the political and aesthetic concerns that became Sandburg’s trademarks. Realistic, often discordant portraits of urban life at the turn of the 20th century are interspersed with the quiet romanticism that characterizes his landscape pieces.
Both threads are visible in “Milwaukee Harbor,” revised to “The Harbor” in Chicago Poems, which sets a narrow cityscape against the immense expanse of Lake Michigan:
Passing through huddled and ugly walls
By doorways where women
Looked from their hunger-deep eyes,
Haunted with shadows of hunger-hands,
Out from the huddled and ugly walls,
I came sudden, at the city’s edge,
On a blue burst of lake,
Long lake waves breaking under the sun
On a spray-flung curve of shore;
And a fluttering storm of gulls,
Masses of great gray wings
And flying white bellies
Veering and wheeling free in the open.
Sandburg was born in 1878 in
Galesburg, Ill., the son of Swedish immigrant parents. He moved to Milwaukee in
1909 after traveling in eastern Wisconsin for two years as an organizer for the
Social Democratic Party.
He worked first as an ad man and reporter, later serving as secretary to Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor. In addition to his deep involvement in Wisconsin politics, Sandburg’s life in Milwaukee reflects his enchantment with his wife Lilian Steichen Sandburg (sister of photographer Edward Steichen), who served as both his muse and adviser, and whose family farm in Menomonee Falls is the site of several of his writings during this period.
For Penelope Niven, author of the first major biography of Sandburg, their romance is crucial in understanding his time in the city. “Milwaukee as a place had enormous personal significance for him. He met his wife there. His first child was born there,” Niven said in a phone interview. “But Sandburg the poet was overshadowed then by Sandburg the politician. He was discouraged about poetry, but his wife immediately recognized and affirmed his talent.”
Niven also argues that Sandburg was fascinated by the land and the “spirit” of places he visited. Images in “Between Two Hills” bring to mind the landscape of Wauwatosa Village, near the Sandburgs’ 1910 address on Hawley Road.
Between two hills
The old town stands.
The houses loom
And the roofs and trees
And the dusk and the dark,
And the damp and the dew
The prayers are said
And the people rest
And the touch of dreams
Is over all.
Despite the gentleness of much of
Sandburg’s poetry in the collection, his three years in the city were
turbulent. He was shaken by the grim lives of working people in industrial
Milwaukee (see for example the bleak lines of “They Will Say”) and the
combination of factionalism within the Social Democratic Party, the defeat of
Seidel at the polls in 1912, and his difficulty getting his writing career off
the ground ultimately pushed him away from the city.
Yet as Sandburg himself said, his Milwaukee period represented a kind of beginning for him (see his 1953 interview with the Milwaukee County Historical Society). It was a turning point in his development as a poet and public figure, and provided him an introduction to domestic life. His poetry celebrates these things, in this collection and elsewhere. It also celebrates the landscape of Milwaukee and eastern Wisconsin, which Sandburg’s poetry renders as intricately as any place he visited.
Although the Sandburgs’ last home in Milwaukee, 3324 N. Cambridge Ave., has not been named a historic landmark, some of his affection for the region has been reciprocated. UW-Milwaukee’s largest dormitory, Sandburg Hall, was constructed and named after the poet in the early 1970s. In addition, when the Steichen family farmhouse’s future was uncertain, the Menomonee Falls Historical Society led an effort to move and preserve it. It now stands awaiting renovations in the Old Falls Village historical park.
There is also much left to be uncovered about Sandburg’s time in the city, from the location of his first home on Hawley Road, to his relationship with famous Milwaukeeans like Congressman Victor Berger and City Planner Charles Whitnall, to contexts for the considerable poetry and prose he wrote here.
The University of Illinois’ new collection can inform these discussions, in addition to providing fuel for a larger conversation about Sandburg’s legacy in Wisconsin.
Nathaniel Preus teaches English and advises student media at the Milwaukee Academy of Science. He can be reached at email@example.com.