Public and Private Poet
WHEN Socrates counseled that the unexamined life was not worth living, he was talking about self-examination. Were he around today, he would have had to make that clear. As biography had become a penalty imposed equally on the eminent and the infamous, it is only the unexamined life that is, in some sense, livable.And what would Socrates make of the "infotainment" notion, which has lowered current public tolerance for unleavened actuality? Starved for the oxygen of fact, biography in our time is all too often a dizzy diversion, whose frenzied prose scuttles from one keyhole to the next. Given the current climate, and the enduring innuendo about Carl Sandburg's extramarital relationships, one might expect that a new biography of the poet would fester into yet another overheated expose. Instead, Penelope Niven's mammoth account of Sandburg's life is about as decorous as it can be and still be a product of the 20th century. Yes, she mentions the role of other women, but true to the tenor of Sandburg's life, she does not let these incidents monopolize the text. Her aim is higher - and more comprehensive. Like many of us, Niven absorbed her initial opinions of Sandburg by cultural osmosis. She embraced the familiar elements of the Sandburg legend, including the conviction that his poetry was justifiably eclipsed long ago. As she admits in her gracefully forthright preface, I knew little of the poet and nothing of the man." Today, 17 years and 843 pages after her first casual visit to Connemara, Sandburg's solitary farm in Flat Rock, N.C., she has produced a book whose research and fair-minded mien target her own premature assumption that Sandburg was too popular to be taken seriously. With a life as full and as complicated as Sandburg's, getting to the point where poetry is primary takes a few hundred pages. After all, Sandburg was close to 40 before he was mentally and financially able to turn his main attention to literature. Indeed, Niven's portrayal of the diversity of his life before public recognition is in some ways the most intriguing section of the book. Having left school in the eighth grade, Sandburg worked odd jobs to help his struggling family. Like many lean-circumstanced prairie boys, he eventually became a teenage hobo. After a stint in the Army, fighting in the Spanish-American War, Sandburg returned to his home town of Galesburg, Ill., working his way through college by moonlighting as a fireman. College nurtured the utopian longings for a better world that would characterize his various endeavors throughout life. Throughout his 20s and 30s, Sandburg found himself zigzagging toward the ideal. He composed and published a little poetry, worked a number of jobs, firmed up his ambition to become both an orator and an author, and tentatively began writing muckraking journalism, an activity that supported him throughout his middle years. He also systematically studied socialism, which is to say, he became a enthusiast of that brand of American pacifism and populism that called itself socialism. And, in 1907 he met his " Wonder-Girl," Lillian Steichen, sister of the famous photographer, Edward Steichen. She was his equal in intellect and idealism. When married the following year, they insisted that the minister omit the word obey from their vows. America remembers Sandburg for poetry and for volumes on Abraham Lincoln, but political writings and activities dominated these endeavors for most of the first half of his life. He did not come into his own as a poet and a journalist until 1914. In these latter enterprises he was outstanding, earning multiple awards. Yet in his earlier years, he typified those American visionaries, who aspired to place the ordinary individual at society's center. Although Niven's biography does not pretend to be a work of literary criticism, she has skillfully stocked her account with selections of Sandburg's verse. The darker textures and sober themes of this work will surprise readers who know Sandburg only for poems like "Chicago," and "The People, Yes." Niven underscores the extent to which Sandburg did not consider himself to be a populist versifier, but a poet deeply rooted in both American and European traditions. Equally enlightening are her comments on h is renowned Lincoln studies. She maintains that for all their research, the Lincoln studies are not so much history as a portrait of Sandburg's inner life interpolated into the personality of the slain president. The matter-of-fact tone with which Niven delivers Sandburg's life should not be mistaken for a lack of candor. Hardly anyone could read these pages and not recognize that the same hefty ego that propelled Sandburg would at times also inexcusably bruise those around him. For many disheartening years, his pride and self-absorption estranged him from his daughter Helga and her children. Feminists will find an engrossing subtext in Sandburg's biography. It appears that the plentifully talented Lillian Steich en, whom he dubbed Paula, subjugated her gifts to his. One cannot help but wonder what the "Wonder-Girl" would have accomplished on her own. Niven leads her readers to the conclusion that Sandburg succeeded and failed by his own standards and those of his peers. Life, he wrote, was all time yes no yes no. He continued to wrestle with doubt, and was beleaguered by the feeling that he had not said all he had to say. "Honey and Salt," the final volume of poems published during his lifetime was, as the title implies, bittersweet. The showman who let himself be repeatedly photographed with celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe, could also write:
Listen and you hear time saying you were silent long before you came to life and you will be silent long after you leave it, why not be a little silent now? Hush yourself, noisy little man...
In the end, what makes this biography so compelling is its balance of the public and the private. Working against the contemporary persuasion that biography is licensed debunking, Niven manages to humanize Sandburg, neither heroizing him, nor supplying him with feet of clay.