by Terry Hogan
Fifty-one years ago Carl Sandburg returned to Galesburg. He had written his autobiography, which included his early years in Galesburg. The book, Always the Young Strangers, was published in 1953. Carl returned to Galesburg, with the publication of the book. He came equipped with a pen and paper to write an article for Life magazine.
In 1953, Carl was no longer a young boy with his entire life ahead of him. He was 75 years old. Parts he didn't know he had were lecturing to him daily. They reminded him that life was getting short. They reminded him of the abuse he meted out to his body in youthful vigor. Being a hobo added color to his literary history. But now in his 70's, he was paying the price. Now the joints hurt. Now the memories come a little harder. The words, with which he has made his living, come out of the crevices of the mind a little slower. They scurry about slower. Perhaps they won't even be prodded to life. At the age of 75, he had to make the effort of making formerly effortless things happen. In short, Sandburg was dealing with the pain and frustration of old age. And he had gone home.
Sandburg wrote the first part of the article in third person. It was not the youthful, cocky "I." It was now "The man". He wrote, "The man has reached 75, and he is looking out at the faces of scores of people who are children and grandchildren of the boys and girls he once played and danced with."* At 75 and with his accomplishments, there was likely not an English teacher who would "mark him down" for ending with a preposition. Such was the success of this white-haired old man, sitting on the stage, looking at young faces of his old home town.
Perhaps he disliked coming home to Galesburg. Galesburg was a world of his youth. It was a past world of his living parents, his loving sister, and the introduction of the mysteries of young ladies. Sandburg wrote, recalling the pretty girls of his Galesburg youth, "" but I knew them in their Springtime Years when a freshness of dawn was on them before time and fate put on the later marks."** Returning to Galesburg would be dulling the clear vision of the past with the clouded vision of the day. It was a potentially saddening action.
Sandburg sat on the stage, looking at the young faces looking at him. Many were likely born in or near Galesburg. Therefore many shared the same prairie soil, the same prairie water, and the same prairie wind that surged through his own body. But they shared a different time, different situations, and different genes. As he prepares to be the speaker, the successful writer, the successful biographer, and the newly-attempted autobiographer, doubt faced the old man: "Now he is expected to speak, read and sing, and he is praying that it will come off well."*
If such a doubt would have occurred in his youth, he wouldn't likely have admitted it to the audience. But now he is old. He is generally comfortable in what he has done. It will stand and be judged by time. It will prevail. Or it will not. But the test will neither be affected nor deterred by acknowledging self-doubt. Like a child "out of the nest," his writings would pass or fail on their own merits.
Perhaps going home to Galesburg was about as challenging as speaking to Congress about Lincoln. Or meeting Jack Kennedy in the White House. Or receiving the Pulitzer Prize (twice). The hometown ties never break. There is still a little boy of Galesburg inside, wanting to be noticed; wanting to do well; and wanting to be recognized as being a success. Not wanting to "trip up" before this audience of children and grandchildren of his former playmates, in his old Galesburg town. The hometown audience is the toughest one.
He spoke of his youth. He spoke of being a barbershop porter in the Union Hotel. (The Union Hotel became the Broadview Hotel, and then it became ashes in one of many Galesburg fires). He spoke of many Galesburg memories. This was his Galesburg of a half a century ago.
He spoke at the Galesburg Central Congregational Church. This was removed from his religious roots. He was raised in Galesburg's First Lutheran Church. He and his family liked their new, young pastor, Carl A. Nyblad. When Pastor Nyblad was accused of being the father of a child out of wedlock, he left the First Church and started the Elim Chapel. Sandburg's parents trusted the pastor and moved to the new chapel. Pastor Nyblad stood trial in Galesburg and was found not guilty. However, in time, Nyblad left Galesburg. He also left some honest Swedes behind, holding the debt to an unfinished chapel. After this, Sandburg's parents attended churches "here and there" with the Swedish Methodist being the most frequent. Sandburg would recall and comment on the Nyblad incident in later life, as well as in his autobiography.
While back home in Galesburg, Carl visited his childhood friend, and cousin, Charlie Krans. Charlie and his wife were still alive, and still living on the old farm. The old barn still stood, but with a little help from its friends. Krans described the barn supports as some poles holding up the east side. He adds, "The wind holds it up on the west."* Mrs. Krans baked a cake for Carl. Life has a photo of Carl cutting the cake in the country kitchen that could have been anybody's grandmother's - The white table cloth; the old oak pendulum kitchen clock on the shelf; and the coffee pot full of Swedish full-strength coffee. The best china was "out" in honor of the famous cousin, come back home.
Much of the Life article is little more than brief snippets of recollections found in Sandburg's autobiography. The book, Always the Young Strangers, is both better written and has more details and recollections of the Galesburg he recalled through a Swedish boy's eyes.
However, the article ends on an old man's note, not a young boy's recollection. The last paragraph of the Life article relates to the large Prairie bolder that marks the location of his parents burial in Galesburg's Linwood Cemetery. "Peace be to your ashes, Old Man, where you were laid there in Linwood Cemetery to be followed later by the Old Woman who said so often, 'There are so many interesting things in life-wonders made by God for us to think about.'"*
Sandburg was to make his last trip to Galesburg, to find his own peace under his own Prairie boulder, sharing this location with his wife, Lillian Paula Steichen. This boulder was named Remembrance Rock, after a less-than successful novel than Sandburg wrote. Remembrance Rock completes the circle of life for the young Swedish boy. He was born in the little Galesburg house. Now he will spend eternity in its back yard.
The Prairie winds will hum to the rock. The Prairie snows will decorate it. The Prairie ice will try to make it into Prairie soil. Nothing lasts forever. But the writings of Carl Sandburg, and his recollections of growing up in Galesburg, will likely make a good run at it.
Going home isn't easy. In 1953, at age 75, Sandburg correctly observed of "the man" sitting on the stage of the Congregational Church in Galesburg,
" he is better known outside of Galesburg. But his ties with the town will always remain."*
I too had to leave Galesburg to appreciate its unique Swedish influence, and the Swedish voice of the American Prairie - Carl Sandburg:
I am the prairie, mother of men, waiting.
They are mine, the threshing crews eating beefsteak, the farmboys driving steers to the railroad pens .
The land and the people hold memories, even among the anthills and the angleworms, among the toads and woodroaches-among gravestone writings rubbed out by the rain-they keep old things that never grow old.***
*Carl Sandburg. 1953. I Went Back to Galesburg. Life Magazine. Feb. 23, 1953.
(Copy on display at Sandburg's birthplace, Galesburg)
**Carl Sandburg, 1953. Always the Young Strangers. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.
***Carl Sandburg. 1918. Prairie, from Cornhuskers. Reprinted in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg (1970).