For a few decades, Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America … He was America” seemed almost believable. The young Socialist newspaperman from Illinois had grown up to be a comforting, white-haired bard who assured the nation of its greatness. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: one for the fourth of his five-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, and two for his poetry. He visited both John F. Kennedy and Johnson in the White House. He received honorary degrees from at least 28 universities, and over two thousand people attended his 75th birthday party. His celebrity reached such heights that in 1966 his publishers released a glossy coffee table book of photographs: Sandburg gazing across the family farm, Sandburg meeting foreign ambassadors, Sandburg playing guitar, Sandburg dancing with Marilyn Monroe, Sandburg posing with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Carl Sandburg was once an icon on the order of Mark Twain, but these days he can seem like a mere footnote in American literary history. To critics committed to the heroics of modernist experimentation, Sandburg’s poetry is embarrassingly sentimental, a relic of overwrought populism that reads like a bad imitation of Whitman. It is rarely taught in the academic circles where tastes are made and canons are formed. Even further off the critical radar are Sandburg’s American fairy tales.
In 1922, Sandburg published Rootabaga Stories, and soon followed it up with Rootabaga Pigeons. It’s Rootabaga Stories’ ninetieth anniversary, a milestone that— though the books remain in print—has gone unnoticed, probably because the stories are marketed to children. But these stories aren’t really just for children. They target the entire nation, reimagine it, and give it back to us in startling forms. Rootabaga Country is a shadow-world of America, where characters we’ve never encountered—Dippy the Wisp, Lizzie Lazarus, Blixie Blimber—seem as mythic and familiar as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Johny Henry.
Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are, of course, American folk heroes—men whose strength and vigor supposedly helped build the country. But if the Rootabaga Stories are exercises in nation-building, they also tear the nation apart. Rootabaga Country is governed by absurdity as well as by justice, by tragedy as well as by whimsy. Sandburg may have looked like a comforting old bard in that coffee table book, but here his work is brazen and strange, as tense and fresh as it must have felt to readers ninety years ago.
This is an excerpt from Issue 6 of The Point. To read more, please subscribe!