American Masters: The Day Carl Sandburg Died

American Masters: The Day Carl Sandburg Died

The Day Carl Sandburg Died debuts tonight as a part of PBS’ American Masters series at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 9 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets. You should check local listings.

The Day Carl Sandburg Died is worshipful toward its subject, who, from the sound of it, lived an enviable life before “succumbing to age” at 89. So why the downer of a title? Although the film tries its best to make it sound as if Sandburg endured years of rejection and frustration before finding “his authentic voice” and becoming a successful writer, he was still in his late 30s when he first published the work that went into Chicago Poems. That may not be the first flush of youth, but it’s not a bad age for any poet to achieve any kind of popular success at all, let alone to be on his way to becoming the best-known poet in the country.

At one point, the narrator says that the young bachelor Sandburg felt he couldn’t get his act together because he hadn’t met the love of his life. Then he met Lilian “Paula” Steichen, the striking 25-year-old sister of the photographer Edward Steichen. Doing her best to maintain the theme of youthful hardship, Sandburg’s biographer, Penelope Niven, tells the camera that this unobtainable beauty wouldn’t give old Carl the time of day. But the narrator doesn’t seem to hear her, because he reports that as soon as Sandburg sent his crush some of the poems and labor pamphlets he’d been writing, she was putty in his hands. (She was impressed with both his artistry and the fact that he was “working for the laboring man.”) They promptly married, and she was still at his side until his death in 1967. Apparently she hadn’t stayed with him all that time just because she was gathering material for a hot tell-all, because this film includes interview footage of Lilian in 1969, still talking about his greatness and keeping the flame alive.

Maybe the title is meant to suggest a link between Sandburg and the subject of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Abraham Lincoln. That’s the sort of thing that can easily backfire. (Gore Vidal, who once summed Sandburg up as “a public performer of the first ranl, a poet of the second rank, and a biographer of awesome badness,” wrote that Sandburg’s accomplishment with the Lincoln books had been “to reduce one of the most interesting and subtle men in world history to a cornball Disneyland waxwork rather like… yes, Carl Sandburg himself.”)

But maybe the title is meant to suggest that when Sandburg died, something besides his mortal body also departed the earth. “The death of John Kennedy” is a phrase that used to be invoked by people who thought that “innocence” or something ended that day in Dallas, and The Day Carl Sandburg Died is full of people who recognize that Sandburg’s popular image was “American” in a way that transcended things such as political partisanship, and who wish that someone could pull that trick off today. (The narrator notes indignantly that during the Red Scare of the McCarthy era, “even the grandfatherly Sandburg” fell under suspicion. Given that the film recounts Sandburg having met Lenin in 1919, then smuggling money and a pamphlet from the Soviet leader into the U.S., the surprise here is just how well his American-troubadour image protected him from anything worse than suspicion.) One of the interview subjects, Studs Terkel, sums up both Sandburg’s place in Terkel’s heart and his own disappointment about the state of the revolutionary dream in America when he suggests that the title of Sandburg’s book-length poem, The People, Yes, be changed to The People, Possibly.

Besides Niven and Sandburg’s daughter Helga, the talking heads include Terkel, Pete Seeger, Geoffrey O’Brien, historian Sean Wilentz, radio playwright Norman Cowin, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and their comments often sound like the dialogue track to A Mighty Wind. Much is made of Sandburg’s ability to appear, in Terkel’s words, “somewhat elegant and rough-hewn at the same time,” and his special status as a “people’s poet.” The film notes, with a hint of a teardrop in its eye, that the poetry itself isn’t as much read as it used to be, and it’s mentioned that late in Sandburg’s career, a famous negative review of his work by William Carlos Williams put a dent in his critical reputation. Arguing for the defense, Evert Villarreal evokes the dreaded “E” word—elitism—and says that if people wanted something new and exciting from poetry, they could get it from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and Williams himself. The implication seems to be: Shouldn’t the people who wanted something old and boring be served, too? The sanest word on the subject comes from Helga Sandburg Crile, who, while acknowledging that the review hurt her father’s feelings, says that anyone has the right to think whatever they like about the poems, and it’s not her job to defend them; it’s not as if they’re going anywhere.

It’s hard to believe now, but the film insists that when first published, poems such as “Chicago” were considered raw and coarse and borderline scandalous. (Sticking up for that one, Terkel takes the “tell it like it is” approach: “But it was the hog butcher to the world,” he says. “It was a stacker of wheat!”) The most exciting parts of the film are those showing people who have been moved by Sandburg’s work, image, and his veneration of the working class, and folded it into the two-fisted, in-your-face stance embodied by so much contemporary Chicago theater. A guy performing Sandburg onstage comes across as about 20 percent poetry, 80 percent slam. He has a combative energy that’s missing from the film’s view of Sandburg himself, although it constantly identifies him as a “rebel” and a “maverick.” (And every time it does so, whoever is doing the identifying sounds a little more deranged.) In a quieter mode, Wilentz gives Sandburg’s work on Lincoln credit for defining the Civil War as a fight to preserve the Union and eradicate slavery, paying no mind to nostalgic lies about the nobility of the Antebellum South.

Seen in old TV interviews and news footage, Sandburg is both folksy and oracular, a hard act to pull off. It’s also an act that hasn’t aged all that well; like other artists who define themselves as the poets of “the people,” he comes across as a lordly man trying to gently set an example for the lesser orders. (Maybe he would seem more engagingly human if he’d done a more thorough job of messing up his personal life. It worked for Woody Guthrie.) Neither has his belief in the value of plainspoken ordinariness. This is a man who composed his children’s book Rootabaga Stories because he wanted his children to have “American” fairy tales, without all those fancy-schmancy princes and princesses.

One problem with The Day Carl Sandburg Died is that it doesn’t seem to realize that nobody thinks of “people’s literature” this way anymore. If there’s a populist strain in publishing now, it’s probably better represented by the Library Of America’s handsome new two-volume hardcover set of old sci-fi pulp novels by the likes of Alfred Bester, Frederick Pohl, and C.M. Kornbluth. The aging Old Leftists and the younger progressives interviewed here see Sandburg as a culturally good example and associate him and his work with the politics of the Wobblies, and the notion that working men and woman could fix everything if they just got together, talked straight, told the dirty politicians to go to hell, and gave the boss a good bust in the snout when he has it coming. They think this is a specifically leftist viewpoint, but put their interviews on Fox News with no identifying context, and you’d think they were talking about why they joined the Tea Party.