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As many of you might remember, before I set out on the Tarbell Trail I was working on a similar book about Carl Sandburg. Given that I've been unable to get back to work on my Tarbell-Albert J. Beveridge article, I've decided to take the advice of Anita and go back to an article I am working on about Tarbell and Carl Sandburg. My working title is "'Iderem' and 'Sholly': Ida M. Tarbell, Carl Sandburg and the Influence of Popular Biography in Lincoln Studies." "Iderem" was the nickname given to Tarbell by William Allen White, and was a play on "Ida M." "Sholly" was the name Sandburg's father called him given that Sandburg's first name was actually Charles and he was known as "Charley".

What I'm wanting to get here are forum member's personal opinion on Sandburg and how his work may have influenced you or not in your own pursuit of Lincoln studies. I asked this question about six years ago on the forum and we had a pretty good discussion. Given that a number of new people are here, I would like to restart it. My article will focus mainly on how Tarbell and Sandburg approached Lincoln biography and how their books were reviewed by the popular mainstream press vs. the academic community. I will also discuss their roles in the Wilma Minor Affair.

The following is from the older thread and was written in response to LincolnMan. It gives my feelings on Sandburg.

I think it depends on which Sandburg you want to see. The Sandburg who wrote The Prairie Years in 1926 was the poet seeking the folk hero that he had been introduced to as a young boy in Galesburg, Illinois. He once told James G. Randall that he had wanted to write a book that he would have wanted to read when he was delivering milk in Galesburg as a boy.

The Sandburg who wrote The War Years was a man chastened by his experiences with Wilma Minor and her spurious letters that the Atlantic Monthly printed, with his imprimatur. He also was influenced by such friends as Paul Angle and Oliver Barrett. He turned more to documentary evidence in these four volumes.

Finally, the Sandburg who combined the six-volume set was a man nearing 80 who had become a celebrity and was more amenable to the help of academic historians who remained in his corner throughout his life. One in particular, Harry E. Pratt, along with his wife Marion Dolores Pratt, received "top billing" in the dedication page of the single-volume distillation. Sandburg called them "a handsome team of Lincoln scholars, who gave time and care to the new manuscript of the Prairie Years, wherefore the author is responsible for possibile inaccuracies or errors." Harry Pratt, from 1926 up to his death in 1956, worked with Sandburg to correct the errors that so many people found offensive.

I argue, however, there are more Sandburgs which one must contend with. There is Sandburg the poet, who used his lyric language to paint word pictures (both poetic and prose-laden) heavily influenced by a love for Walt Whitman. There is the celluloid Sandburg, asked by D.W Griffith to consult on his movie about Lincoln (which Sandburg declined to do). There is the Sandburg who also wrote about Mary Todd Lincoln and other Lincoln-related items and also influenced Ruth Painter Randall's biography of MTL when he told her to write it as a woman.

Finally, there is Sandburg the celebrity. Sandburg's celebrity probably brought a number of people to study Lincoln, especially when he appeared every February 12 telling American citizens and citizens of the world, why they should continue to revere the life of a man who died for the original sin of slavery. Sandburg's celebrity brought him calls to go around the country and talk of Lincoln and what he meant to America. I would argue that from 1939 (when The War Years came out) to his death in 1967, when people thought of Lincoln, they naturally thought of Sandburg. Both men were of the prairie, both were sensitive souls who loved poetry and both used words magically and with great effect.

Some academics disliked Sandburg for a myriad of reasons. One reason would be jealousy. Sandburg received the meed of popular approval and, as I said earlier, became to most people the authority on Lincoln. Much of what he wrote was wrong, although I argue that many of the mistakes he made were insignificant in type, although great in number. Some were questions of interpretation. One of the things I want to do in my book is to comb the six volumes and see just what type of mistakes were made. Sandburg never saw his book as straight-laced history. He was a poet using history as a tool, i.e., to bring alive a man he had wished he knew, and in many ways, did know, because of their ties to the regions where they lived.

I would say that it [the biography] really hasn't fallen out of favor. I said at one point that many people view Sandburg as a relic and not a resource, but I still think if you mention Lincoln and Sandburg, you would get a knowing glance from the person you're speaking to. Many may not read Sandburg today, but many still know who he is.


I would appreciate any and all comments, which will help me get into a better frame of mind on how to approach this.

Best
Rob
Rob,

Carl Sandburg's work on Lincoln was one of the first books I ever read on the President. It made me want to go out and find out more and as much as I could consume.
Quote:Carl Sandburg's work on Lincoln was one of the first books I ever read on the President. It made me want to go out and find out more and as much as I could consume.

GustD45

I'm curious as to why you chose to start with Sandburg instead of the many other biographies out there. Also, did you read all six volumes straight through or did you read the single-volume distillation?

Best
Rob
As someone who went to Middle and High School during the 1990's and the very early 2000's, Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln had no influence on my interest in Lincoln studies. By that time Sandburg's biography was considered outdated and riddled with errors. A multi-volume work of that age with that reputation just didn't appeal to somebody with a limited amount of funds who had enlisted in the Army.

The Lincoln biography that I remember having the highest reputation/acclaim when I was growing up was David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. After I had finished my Army training, got posted to my first duty station, and received my enlistment bonus that was the first biography of Lincoln that I bought.
(01-18-2019 10:48 PM)Rob Wick Wrote: [ -> ]
Quote:Carl Sandburg's work on Lincoln was one of the first books I ever read on the President. It made me want to go out and find out more and as much as I could consume.

GustD45

I'm curious as to why you chose to start with Sandburg instead of the many other biographies out there. Also, did you read all six volumes straight through or did you read the single-volume distillation?

Best
Rob

This was the late 80's and I was just a teenager. At this time I was a complete an utter nerd so I spent most of my time at the Chicago Public Library on weekends. I was actually doing some research on a completely different topic and I ran across the full six-volume set. Over several weekends I read all six volumes so yeah I was hooked. So, in answer to your question I just stumbled on Sandburg.
Quote:As someone who went to Middle and High School during the 1990's and the very early 2000's, Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln had no influence on my interest in Lincoln studies. By that time Sandburg's biography was considered outdated and riddled with errors. A multi-volume work of that age with that reputation just didn't appeal to somebody with a limited amount of funds who had enlisted in the Army.

Steve,

Your point is well-taken, although (you knew there'd be an "although" didn't you?) I think a case can be made that even older biographies, while outdated, can be utilized and even recommended with some certainty as to their benefit. Lucas Morel shows that even Lord Charnwood's 1917 biography can still be read and learned from, and I wouldn't have spent the last five or so years on Ida Tarbell if I didn't think even her really outdated work had merit.

I also find your comment about Donald's biography to be ironic, given that it was published in 1995 and is coming up on its 25th anniversary. Of course, Donald can never now update his book, but I personally don't believe Lincoln scholars will view it as strongly as Benjamin Thomas's 1952 biography of Lincoln is seen. As I've often stated here before, I truly believe Thomas's is the best single-volume biography of Lincoln in existence.

Of course, as you set the parameters of your point, I cannot disagree that you took the correct path. What I would hope, however, is that at some point you give the six volumes a try. While the single volume distillation is more pleasing to what H.L. Mencken called "the professors of Lincolnology" it's the six volumes as Sandburg originally wrote them that is the best example of what he was trying to accomplish.

Quote:This was the late 80's and I was just a teenager. At this time I was a complete an utter nerd so I spent most of my time at the Chicago Public Library on weekends. I was actually doing some research on a completely different topic and I ran across the full six-volume set. Over several weekends I read all six volumes so yeah I was hooked. So, in answer to your question I just stumbled on Sandburg.

GustD45

In addition to the set, I would also recommend that you read Sandburg and Paul Angle's biography of Mary as well as his paean to Oliver Barrett, one of the greatest Lincoln collectors of all time. What I have found to be of greater interest, however, is Sandburg's letters concerning his Lincoln. They are a treasure. Anyone with a few days to kill and who is near the University of Illinois should make a pilgrimage to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

I want to provide everyone with a post I wrote on a blog I used to do. It describes the development of my interest in Sandburg. It was also the genesis for my journal article on the friendship between Sandburg and James G. Randall. As is most things I post here it's a bit long, but I hope you'll all read it.

Best
Rob

I was in an office just off the circulation desk of the main library at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A library staff member had just brought a stack of books I had requested. Included was a small brown volume called The Beleaguered City, Richmond, 1861-1865. In this volume I wanted to see if I could find evidence of a theater which Everton Conger said existed when, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The book itself was nondescript. It had the familiar markings of a library book which had been well-thumbed over the years. After finding no evidence of what I was looking for, I started to put it down. Suddenly, looking at the bookplate, my eyes widened at what was written there.

“From the library of Carl Sandburg”.

It was as if a lightening bolt had struck me. I was holding a book that, at one point, was held by Carl Sandburg. Whether you like Sandburg or not (and many don’t) no fair mind can say that Sandburg wasn’t a player in the field of Lincoln studies. Indeed, given all those who have dedicated their lives to studying the 16th president, Sandburg stands out as the most famous.
The irony of finding a book that had belonged to Sandburg at a university which had been home to the man who had a hearty dislike for amateur historians wasn’t lost on me. It was later that I found out many of Sandburg’s papers are located in the university archives, in the same spot, as it were, with James G. Randall’s. [2019 edit--Sandburg's papers are not in the archives, although a small portion of Randall's are].

But a stranger situation would soon demand my attention and would question just what Randall actually thought of the poet from Galesburg, Ill.

While perusing the shelf of Prairie Archives, my favorite bookstore in Springfield, I came across a volume of Lincoln the Liberal Statesman, a collection of essays written by Randall published in 1947. While it was priced at $45, it also bore Randall’s autograph. “For Myron Fox with great respect and cordial regards. J.G. Randall, April 27, 1950”.
When I got home and looked at what I bought, I saw on the dedication page three words that greatly confused me.

“To Carl Sandburg”.

Randall had devoted this book to the one man I had believed he held responsible for much of the misinformation and bad history written about Lincoln. After all, as Richard Nelson Current wrote in the fourth volume of Lincoln the President, when asked about Sandburg, Randall reportedly said that as a historian he made a good poet.

What was going on here?

In this age of shout television when gracious and vigorous debate has been replaced by verbal garbage, it’s hard for us to realize that two people who are so diametrically opposed could actually put that aside at the end of the day and develop a close friendship. I had forgotten that even Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill were able to put political differences aside and enjoy a drink or two together.
In her book I Ruth, Ruth Randall recalled several times when Sandburg and Randall would get together to talk about politics, the world and, of course, their favorite topic—Lincoln. One time, when both men were in Chicago, Sandburg invited Randall to his home in Michigan. “One memorable evening the two took a long moonlight walk along the shore of Lake Michigan,” Ruth writes, “a thing Carl said he liked to do at the end of the day to rest his eyes and relax. Jim recorded what they talked about in considerable detail. They exchanged opinions on many subjects: Lincoln, literary matters, politics, philosophy. They compared notes on the prolonged drudgery of writing a nonfiction biography.”
She reported that Sandburg told Randall he wanted to write a book on Lincoln that he wished was available when he was driving a milk wagon in Galesburg. He profusely praised Randall’s Civil War and Reconstruction and told Randall the biography Randall was writing would be much better because he had allowed his thoughts to mature over time.
When it came time to review Sandburg’s four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, the American Historical Review assigned the task to Randall. While he praised Sandburg’s “rare feeling for Lincoln, a life absorption in the subject, a burning desire to produce the saga, a Marathon-like endurance over decades of prodigious labor, a poet’s sense of language, a flair for pithy phrasing, a robust personality spiced with the tang of the prairies, and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation” Randall sighed that “historianship in the full sense is lacking.”
Pointing out that Sandburg failed to include footnotes and many times only half-mentioned a source, Randall added that sometimes Sandburg was guilty of “an undiscriminating use of material” which he said “relieves the author of the necessity of checking, rechecking, and testing.” He added that “one would hardly turn to Sandburg’s pages for historical analysis, for sifting and evaluation, for conclusions distilled from masses of evidence, or for the settlement of disputed or doubtful points.”
What one takes from the review, however, is not that Randall felt Sandburg’s work was without worth, but that it could have benefited from what Randall preached throughout his professional life. Sandburg needed to visit the archives and sift through primary manuscript material rather than rely on already published reminisce.
But in the end Randall accepted that “Sandburg did not write for historians but for the general reader” and that “there will be thousands who, in thinking of Lincoln, will inevitably think of Sandburg.”
Randall’s review is in most instances a fair evaluation of Sandburg’s material. I think that my own belief that Randall held Sandburg responsible for amateurish attempts to study Lincoln’s life came from the “good poet” quote but also from Edmund Wilson’s characterization of Sandburg’s work as the worst thing to happen to Lincoln since his assassination. In this sense, I put two and two together and came up with 12.
During Randall’s illness, Sandburg was one of the last people to see Randall. Indeed, the last entry in Randall’s diary was “He [Carl] looks well….Kissed Ruth on leaving and took both my hands.” Three days later, James Randall was dead.
Rob,
That was my answer to your question on how Sandburg's biography may or may not have influenced me in my pursuit of Lincoln studies. I was just relating my own history. I don't think I even heard of Thomas's biography until many years later.
I now read plenty of older works on Lincoln, even making posts about them on this forum. This includes Tarbell's works.
Although, admittedly, I still haven't really utilized Sandburg's biography.
Rob: you already know my good feelings toward CS. He introduced me to the Lincoln world when I was 14 years old. His work was totally captured my interest and led to a lifelong study of Lincoln. Whatever his shortcomings may have been or not as a historian don’t matter to me really. No one has ever written in the beautiful style that he did. And for these reasons I’m grateful and indebted to Mr. Sandburg.
(01-20-2019 07:28 AM)LincolnMan Wrote: [ -> ]Whatever his shortcomings may have been or not as a historian don’t matter to me really. No one has ever written in the beautiful style that he did. And for these reasons I’m grateful and indebted to Mr. Sandburg.

I second what Bill said.
I believe that I first learned about Carl Sandburg the poet in junior high school. The poem was “Fog.” Later, as a teacher of American literature, I taught his poetry to many high school students. He was a marvelous poet, clearly similar in some ways to Walt Whitman. At some early point I knew of his connection to Lincoln, but I didn’t learn until college of the problems that academic historians had with his Lincoln biography. I do think that he wrote about Lincoln for the popular reader, and any evaluation of his biography needs to be made in light of that.
Bill, it's great to hear from you. One of these days we'll have to get the Lincoln Nerds together and rent out Sandburg's house in Harbert.

Steve, I completely understand what you're saying. I would even add that given the vast number of Lincoln resources available, one would find it near impossible to utilize everything.

I wonder if maybe there's a generational thing at play here. Sandburg died in 1967, so anyone born up to 1970 (or maybe even the mid 1970s) would have been far more likely to have heard of him had they expressed interest in Lincoln. As time progresses, we replace memories with things that are more current and relevant to our thoughts. I also wonder about the geographic influences. Myself, Bill, Roger, GustD45, and forum member Joe Di Cola (who met Sandburg in Chicago) are all from or have lived in the Midwest. I went to college in central Illinois where (at least in the Eastern Illinois University history department) the respect for what I call the "Springfield Clique" (Randall, Angle, Thomas, Allan Nevins and to a lesser extent Sandburg) was remembered fondly and in a couple of cases, remembered first-hand. Some of Sandburg's critics regarding his poetry have claimed he was a regionalist poet and unworthy of a national reputation.

Quote: I do think that he wrote about Lincoln for the popular reader, and any evaluation of his biography needs to be made in light of that.

Dave brings up a point that I think is highly relevant here. Do reviewers have a duty in their review of a book to consider whom the author is writing for, or are there a set of standards placed in concrete that all authors are required to follow? One might say of course the reviewer should do that, but what then of those standards we as historians constantly mention? One of the sharpest criticisms from vocational historians against Sandburg was that he eschewed footnotes. Even I, as sympathetic as I am to the avocational historian (given that I am one), understand that objection. It was one I made against James Swanson's book Manhunt, which had footnotes, but ones which were generally worthless, especially in comparison to other popular writers such as David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin. In fact, I am more sympathetic to the notion that Sandburg made numerous mistakes (many of which were corrected in later editions, and given that the Prairie Years went on for about half a million words, understandable) than that there were no citations.

And yet, Sandburg himself never claimed that he was a historian or was writing with the historian's precepts in mind. But does that absolve him? If you would ask a selection of people who read history regularly whether they look at the footnotes of a book when deciding whether or not to make the investment, I would say that a small mnority do, but the vast majority wouldn't care. Most people who buy trade publications are looking for an interesting story and are uninterested in critical reading. I'm not suggesting that they would blindly and carelessly accept false information as a rule, but would be more likely to look over a lack of citations if the story was rousing and held their interest.

Best
Rob
Rob,

You ask if reviewers have a duty in their review of a book to consider whom the author is writing for. I do think reviewers should consider the author's audience. I do know from teaching composition for a long time that any writer who hopes to be read needs to understand his audience. No one writes for everyone. An awareness of his readers will strongly influence not only what a good writer says, but also how he chooses to say it. So...if a writer does think that footnotes or end notes will bore or alienate his popular reader, and chooses to omit them out of consideration for that reader, it hardly seems fair to criticize him for that choice. But it's also fair to recognize this author's effort as not academic. So we come back again to the reader--one who demands such documentation and one who doesn't care.

You mention James Swanson's book. I agree that the notes aren't much, but he is far better, I think, with his discussion of sources. And he's a pretty good writer. Another author, who wrote three enormous volumes on the Civil War, and who gave nary a note, is Shelby Foote. At the end of each volume, Foote briefly discusses his sources, but in no way is this an annotated bibliography. But Foote, who is such a good writer, and stresses that he is a novelist, told such a good story that I didn't care about those omissions.
Dave,

I've been a bit busy at work so I haven't taken the opportunity to respond to your post, which I have to say I generally agree with. The only issue I really have with Foote is that he is too "Lost Cause-y" for my tastes, but no reasonable person can dispute his writing ability and the success he has garnered with it.

My main problem with Swanson is that his picture of the Garrett Farm Patrol as reward-hungry cowards who couldn't take Booth alive is so far off the mark of what they were really doing. Certainly an argument can be made for either storming the tobacco barn or not, but Conger et al did what was prudent, and no one of the Patrol was hurt or killed. The reward is a special issue for me, because every writer who has claimed that the Patrol was only interested in lining their pockets degrades their memory unconscionably and with no evidence.

That said, I agree with your larger point regarding the author and his/her audience, but when you say
Quote:it's also fair to recognize this author's effort as not academic
I wonder who is qualified to make that claim and what do we make of such a judgement? As I'm sure you are aware, there are a number of books written by avocational historians that are respected by vocational historians and are used in their classroom. Also, a small cadre of vocational historians consistently sell in trade outlets, although I would argue they are mainly senior scholars whose attempts to get tenure have long passed, and they can pretty much do whatever they want without fear of professional reprisal (for an interesting account of what happened to James McPherson when Battle Cry of Freedom came out, see "What's The Matter With History" in Drawn With the Sword).

I guess what I wonder is, who are the gatekeepers and by what virtue are they appointed? As I've studied this issue over the years, I seem to lean further toward the idea that east is east, etc. In other words, vocational historians can have their own sandbox and avocational historians can have theirs. Neither is better than the other. Of course, that can very well be considered naive and pollyannish, but maybe its the most logical endpoint. I have the feeling that those who dislike Sandburg will not find much that will change their mind, and the McCullough-Foote-Goodwin fan will continue to ignore the more academic work.

Best
Rob
As a kid in the south in the '60s, we had the six volumes in our house. Since I would read anything I could get my hands on, I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. The poetry of Sandburg is timeless. The last sentences of The War Years will stay with me forever:

"Evergreen carpeted the stone floor of the vaults. On the coffin set in a receptacle of black walnut they arranged flowers carefully and precisely, they poured flowers as symbols, they lavished heaps of fresh flowers as though there could never be enough to tell either their hearts or his.
And the night came with great quiet.
And there was rest.
The prairie years, the war years, were over
."

Sanburg was not a perfect door-keeper. But he opened the door for me.
Hi, Rob—

With regard to my “not academic” quote, I struggled to find the right words. I may have chosen the wrong ones. I think as you probably do—there are both fine and poor vocational and avocational historians. But the “average” (popular? ordinary? typical?) reader who is an enthusiast of history should value a well-written presentation of the historical truth as well as an academic reader.

I think one related issue is credibility. When I was teaching the research paper to high school seniors, I always talked about how one is to know that a source is believable. Footnotes and bibliographies, annoying as they might be, do help to establish a source’s credibility, although a well-documented lie or absurd remark is still just that. But a source’s credibility is also based on what else is out there. How is anyone to judge the truth if he can’t compare an idea with other ideas? The notes and bib can point a serious reader in the right direction. But any reader who wishes to know the historical truth needs to read and read and read, and keep an open mind.

As I have been following the “My Journey on Lincoln’s Assassination” thread, I keep hearing the great Eighteenth Century poet Alexander Pope’s words: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Most have heard this remark. But what else Pope said matters: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring [font of knowledge]/There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/And drinking largely sobers us again.” Pope’s point is that half-baked, not credible, ideas don’t look half-baked and not credible at first—one has to read more to find out.

About your gatekeeper metaphor—honestly I think each of us is on his own here. Eventually, a person must decide for himself the worth of any author. I think Sandburg’s “The War Years” is superior to “The Prairie Years” in that one learns more about Lincoln. But I say this at this point in my life, after all of the other reading I’ve done. I don’t know what I’d have said fifty years ago.

I will acknowledge that I may have wandered a bit off the track in this answer.
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