Like Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg knew tragedy early on

“Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America…He was America.”

Lyndon B. Johnson




Abraham Lincoln knew tragedy and heartbreak early on in his life. He lost his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln when he was only 9 years old.  Various authors note that the boy Lincoln assisted his father Thomas Lincoln in construction of the coffin for his beloved mother. What a task! I have written how difficult life was for the early pioneers and settlers-and it was. In reading about my favorite Lincoln biographer, I see that Carl Sandburg also knew sorrow as a young boy.  The book Carl Sandburg A Pictorial Biography by Joseph Haas and Gene Lovitz relates what happened to 14 year-old “Charlie” (Carl) Sandburg. At the time, he was working 7 days a week as a milkman. He would supply households with milk to customers on a route for the pay of $12 a month. He would eventually quit the job following the tragedy that had occurred within his family. The authors tell us this account”

“In October 1892, Charlie and his brother Martin were ill for a few days, apparently only with sore throats. Then the two younger boys-Emil, going on seven, and Freddie, only two-were stricken, and when their conditions failed to improve, the costly services of a physician were finally summoned. The diagnosis was diphtheria-a terrible killer at the time-and the doctor told the distraught parents that they could only hope and pray for the boys’ recovery. But Emil and Freddie died, and years later Sandburg remembered how he and Mart tried to conceal their grief when friend visited the house to offer condolences. And, as at his grade school graduation, Sandburg did not have the proper clothes to wear to the double funeral. Mourning clothes are a luxury the poor cannot always afford.”

Sandburg is quoted in the book as saying about the losses:

“Freddie hadn’t lived long enough to get any tangles in my heart…But I missed Emil then, and for years I missed him and had  my wonderings about what a chum and younger brother he would have made. I can see now the beaming smile from a large mouth…”

Besides his mother, Lincoln had lost a brother too (and a sister). I’m not sure if he ever wrote or spoke about those losses directly. He must have thought about them. Maybe Sandburg further identified with Lincoln because of the shared tragedies. Both men went on to live their lives as fully as they could. Both achieved greatness in their own ways and in their times. Both were likely to have been significantly influenced in some way by the tragedies of their early years. May our own tragedies serve not to disable us but to strengthen and mold us into persons who become stronger and wiser. Then the tragedies we experience take on meaning that otherwise we could not have known.


Pencil Sketch of Carl Sandburg by George Haessler (from the B. Nash collection)

Pencil Sketch of Carl Sandburg by George Haessler (from the B. Nash collection)

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