Carl Sandburg’s Labor Day

By Dr. John W. Quinley

Carl Sandburg’s youth paralleled the nation’s journey from an economy focused on agriculture and smaller towns to one centered on massive industrial development and urban growth. Immigrants from Europe supplied much of the required labor for this transition, working long hours in often dangerous conditions for little pay. Big business monopolies operated with little or no regulation and Congress and the courts intervened when labor tried to organize.  

Among the 25 million who immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War and before World War I were Sandburg’s parents. His father was a blacksmith’s helper who worked on steam locomotives with a sledge hammer – 10 hours a day, six days a week, 14 cents per hour. As a boy of 11, Carl cleaned offices and delivered newspapers, and after eighth grade, a severe national economic depression compelled him to work full-time. He worked jobs ranging from delivering milk and milking cows to laboring in a brickyard and icehouse, harvesting wheat, and renting out rowboats. Carl sold stereographs all over the Midwest and beyond and fought fires for a local firehouse that also gave him a place to sleep while he attended college.       

In the early 1900s, Carl was an organizer for the American Socialists Party in Wisconsin, which championed causes of the labor class and the growth of unions. In addition to higher wages and shorter hours for working people, the party supported the prohibition of child labor; protection of the rights of women in the labor force and their ability to vote; a graduated income and property tax; urban renewal; free medical care and school work for the unemployed; state farm insurance; pensions; workingmen’s compensation; and municipal ownership of utilities. With its exponential growth in numbers and political power, the labor movement championed the idea of Labor Day–a holiday that would unify union workers from across the industrial spectrum and highlight the social and economic achievements of American workers.  

Sandburg saw it as his civic duty as a writer and orator to use the right of free speech and expression to promote social justice (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) for all Americans. He pursued this belief in Chicago, reporting on labor issues and continuing to write poetry that chronicled the life of the working class in a direct, sometimes brutal way. He would often employ the vernacular language of the people to describe their struggles, dreams, and strength to overcome hardships and oppression.

In his highly acclaimed poem, Chicago, he describes the “faces of women and children…the marks of wanton hunger.” And also challenges readers to “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” “Proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”

Nearly fifteen years later, Sandburg spoke to the issues of hard times during the Great Depression. In his seminal work, The People, Yes, he consoles “the people of the earth, the family of man” and lifts the hopes of the people who “in the darkness with a great bundle of grief…march in tune and step with the constellation of universal law.” Charlotte journalist and close friend and biographer of Carl Sandburg, Harry Golden, described the work “as a series of psalms which sing the American experience: hardship, humor, fortitude, and–speech… It is affirmative, optimistic; in some places tender, other tough.” The enactment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, such as workman’s compensation and social security, echoed some of Sandburg’s earlier political objectives. 

Sandburg continued to actively pursue his life’s work during his final 22 years in Flat Rock at Connemara, writing one-third of his publications including: Always the Young Strangers (an autobiography of early life); the Complete Poems (for which he won a third Pulitzer Prize); the second edition of the American Song Bag; Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years ( the single 1,000 page volume of Lincoln); Remembrance Rock (his iconic work of historical fiction wrote under contract to MGM Studios); and his last collection of poems, Honey and Salt (which he published at 85 years of age). He said, “The brightest, most lasting happiness I know is that which comes from yearning, striving, struggling, fashioning, this way and that, till a thing is done.” He labored and wrote of ordinary laborers all his life.

Although Sandburg achieved great fame, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, he never abandoned his common roots. In his works and in his personal life he remained true to his moniker, The Poet of the People. At Carl’s memorial service in 1967, President Johnson heralded the poet as “the bard of democracy, the echo of the people. Our conscience and chronicler of truth, and beauty, and purpose…he gave us the truest and most enduring vision of our own greatness.”

John Quinley is a retired college administrator and instructor in American History. He leads house tours at Carl Sandburg National Historic Site in Flat Rock and serves on the board of the Friends of Carl Sandburg, Inc.

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