Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967). By the middle of the 19th century Scandinavian immigrants started arriving through American ports in huge numbers. Among them were Carl Sandburg’s Swedish parents. When Carl was born in 1878 in Illinois, he was in many ways a typical child for this period of mass immigration. The humble cottage where little Carl was raised, is preserved and mirrors how immigrant families lived. The Sandburg family counted nine members, and Carl had to quit school and start working from an early age.
His various temporary jobs and travelling experiences from his days as a hobo in the West, stirred his interest for folk songs and poetry. By working part time as a fireman, he could finally afford to start college studies in his home state. His college years ignited his socialist political views as well as his literary talent. In 1904 while working as a reporter for Chicago Daily News, he published his first poems. The poem "Chicago" from the collection “Chicago Poems” appeared 10 years later. His poetry clearly reflects his commitment to to Chicago and its citizens. Chicago was recognized as the city with "Broad Shoulders", a working class and immigrant city.
Chicago from the Chicago Poems
Carl Sandburg, 1916
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler,
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
ittle soft cities.
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,Bareheaded,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
- Who/what do you think is referred to as "you" in the poem?
- List the names that Chicago is recognized by in the poem.
- In which ways is Chicago brutal?
- Why do a lot of people criticize Chicago?
- How does Sandburg defend his city?
- What is "the painted women under the gas lamp" all about?
- How do the young people reveal that they are proud of their city?
Noun or Adjective
- Look at Carl Sandburg's biography. What makes him a "typical" second-generation immigrant in the late 19th century?
- Sandburg was attached to his home town. Are you proud of yours? Why or why not?
- Where do first-generation immigrants feel that they belong? What about their children?
- America is a nation of immigrants. Does this help newcomers feel more at home? Compare to Norway.
Use the Poetry Vocabulary List to analyze the poem.
- Chicago is personified in many ways in the poem. Give examples.
- The poet compares his favorite city to a dog: "Fierce as a dog...". What do we call this literary device? Which effect do these comparisons have?
- Make a table with two columns. In the first column you list all words with positive connotations and in the second you list words with negative connotations.
- How does Sandburg reveal his commitment to workers and immigrants in 'Chicago'? How do you as a reader respond to Sandburg's message?
- What do we call words that are associated with sounds? How many "sound words" can you find? Give examples.
- Make a simple poem using this "recipe":
- Get ideas from studying "Chicago".
- Use these topics as a basis: your home town, your school and your favorite season.
- Look at the picture. Make similar personifications attached to the topics above.
- There are numerous similes in 'Chicago'. Make similes attached to the topics above.
- Try to pair your topics up with words with positive and negative connotations.
- Use your personifications, similes and words with various connotations to make contrasts.
- Make some repetitions of what you want to emphasise in your poem.
- To conclude, try to sum up what you think is important and provide a title that you think fits what you want to convey.
- Make a travel brochure in e.g. Microsoft Publisher where you promote Chicago as a tourist site. Use information provided on this site: Explore Chicago and Sandburg and 'Chicago' as a basis.