It was a gorgeous day and we hiked one of their favorite trails, to the Glassy Mountain lookout, so named for the plateau of bare rock at the top with its view to the layered Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
The Sandburg family, Carl and Lillian, their three daughters and two grandchildren, moved to the farm named Connemara in 1945. Sandburg was 67 at the time. He died there in 1967 at the age of 89. Lillian was the farmer, tending her prize-winning goat herd, growing vegetables and fruit for the family table. In 1968 Connemara became a National Park, which it remains today. Also remaining are the goats. And the 11,000 volumes of Sandburg’s library. Books everywhere.
Sandburg was a night owl, retreating to his attic writing room after dinner and writing on into the night. He wrote a third of all his work there at Connemara, revising his earlier six-volume biography of Lincoln down to one more readable volume. He was also a cigar smoker, which led Lillian to install a commercial grade firehose and fire extinguisher outside his writing room.
The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg, celebrated America in his poetry. It was for this reason that then President Lyndon Johnson, eulogizing Sandburg in a memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial in 1967, said that Sandburg was not only “a poet of America, he was America.”
Here’s a bit of Sandburg on America:
“I see America, not in the setting sun of a black night of despair ahead of us, I see America in the crimson light of a rising sun fresh from the burning, creative hand of God. I see great days ahead, great days possible to men and women of will and vision.”
He was also a poet of the working man and of the struggle of black men and women, calling upon America to improve the lot of both. In recognition of the latter he was made a lifetime member of the NAACP in 1965, and cited by then NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins, as the “authentic singer of the American dream.” Sandburg was of a generation that, while they saw and felt the travail of many Americans, yet held fast to what he also saw as America’s unique promise.
I was struck by Sandburg’s celebration of America and the American dream — certainly because we seem so far from that today. Our national mood is far closer to a “black night of despair” than of the “crimson light of a rising sun.”
One wonders, of course, what he would make of things, and of this nation, today? The optimism about America in the post-war era was probably overstated. But today’s sense of despair and denunciation is too. The Civil Rights movement’s leaders like King, Lewis and Wilkins cast a sharp light on America’s failures, but lifted up the nation’s potential and promise, a wise strategy for those seeking change.
Sandburg’s poetry was direct and plain, with a bit of mischief and humor to it. I particularly like this line. “Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.”
Another line for these times. “Be careful with words. Once they are said, they can be only be forgiven, not forgotten.”