Carl Sandburg, Karl Marx, and La Cucaracha

I made a field trip yesterday to the U.S. National Park Service-preserved farmhouse and dairy goat farm in Flat Rock, North Carolina where the Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg lived after World War II with his goat-raising wife Lillian (whom he met hanging out with socialists), daughters, and grandchildren until his death at the age of 89 in 1967. As a person who is fascinated by early 20th Century radicalism in the U.S., it piqued my curiosity to learn that Sandburg had been a socialist. Apparently, he more or less gradually downplayed this fact to fit into the U.S. society of letters and remained at heart “Radical Carl.”

Thurgood Marshall spent the night in the house once, and the NAACP honored Sandburg’s lifelong support for African-Americans. Some of the language in his early poems was decidedly offensive in its use of the N word and patronizing references, to my mind at least. But it arguably never evidenced intended disrespect. It would appear that Sandburg recognized for instance, ala Cornel West, that the music of the African-American, both as slave and “freed” worker, represented a means of liberation and dealing with centuries of, needless to say, constant alienation, wicked mass injustice and humiliation, and literal pain. The parallel I would draw is the way that Sandburg coarsely discussed Chicago prostitutes, but also humanized them as real victims and workers with no recourse and constant abuse.

The house is filled with thousands of Sandburg’s books just the way he left them. It is fascinating to be this close to the artifacts of a writer, particularly one I have long appreciated for his Abraham Lincoln biography. It is not my intention in this blog to demonstrate high brow taste or perform a rigid doctrinal analysis of anything. If it disappoints you that I have loved the Lincoln biography since I read it twenty years ago as a searching adult living in the Deep South, I am sorry. (You might not like the fact that for years I carried it with me to second grade classes on Lincoln’s birthday dressed up as a low-budget imitation of the great human either. I gave it up because I was unable to remember all the trivia second graders playing stump-the-dead-president expected of me.)

The park service guide was excellent. She turned off the lights as she politely ushered us out. She invited any other questions. As I was leaving to go look at the goats, I took advantage of the opportunity to ask her if she knew if Sandburg’s collection had any of the works of Karl Marx. She did not know but suggested I check the online archives of the NPS, which I have now done. I am proud to say that Sandburg had not one but four copies of the Communist Manifesto (dated 1888, 1903, 1939, and an undated booklet version), and that these are apparently the only four copies of the Communist Manifesto or any work of Karl Marx in the possession of the NPS.

Before the tour, I had visited the bookstore and bought cheap paperback copies of “Chicago Poems” and “Cornhuskers,” published during the time frame I understood Sandburg had supported Eugene Debs for U.S. President. I thought maybe I could mine the books for indicia of socialism. I was not disappointed. Although much of the poetry is purely aesthetic (and the quality of his poetry in general invited much criticism from critics both during his lifetime and after), some of it is most definitely socialized. I was particularly struck by this poem about Don Macgregor, “Memoir of a Proud Boy.” I love these lines:

He had no mother but Mother Jones
Crying from a jail window of Trinidad:
“All I want is room enough to stand
And shake my fist at the enemies of the human race.”

Well done Brother Carl.

It turns out that a meeting with Macgregor even influenced La Cucaracha, and a verse relating to Pancho Villa, making it into the important folk song collection the folk-singing guitar-strumming Sandburg later assembled into book form. Because of Sandburg, Macgregor now is not forgotten. Well done indeed.

Solidarity,

Brother Francisco

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