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.
In the Teens and Twenties, Sandburg steeped himself in national legend, and when he wrote Rootabaga Stories he’d already begun collecting the folksongs that would make up his 1927 collection American Songbag. He tended to end his poetry readings with songs, bringing out his guitar to perform old standards like “Frankie and Albert,” “Jesse James” and “Boll Weevil.” There are no boll weevils in Rootabaga Country, but there is agricultural disaster: a heat wave makes the all the corn on the Huckabuck Family’s farm pop, and they must flee through deepening white drifts. There are cultural disasters, too. In the city, a man convicted of sneezing “in the wrong place before the wrong people” is sentenced to hang. (Sandburg doesn’t use the word “lynching;” he doesn’t have to.)
Indeed, in Rootabaga Country, hardship is never far away. As one character says, after hearing about a woman so confused about whether to take a clock or a looking glass on her trip to find true love that she never leaves home: “It is a strange story. It has a stab in it. It would hurt me if I couldn’t look up at the big white clouds shouldering their shoulders, rolling on the rollers of the big blue sky.” The speaker claims to have escaped the stab, but we don’t believe her. The clouds, like nonsense words, point only at themselves, distracting us from hurt without undoing it.
The spinner of most of the tales in Rootabaga Country is the Potato Face Blind Man, an old-fashioned music physicianer who sits in front of the post office with a beat-up accordion, healing the world with his stories and his songs. He warns against backsliding, as when he tells Blixie Blimber about a man who won’t fix his “slipfoot” and keeps losing what he’s going after—a cautionary tale that prompts Blixie to go home and do her chores—but Potato Face also relishes the more basic pleasures of sound, sharing “the song the mama flummywisters sing when they button loose the winter underwear of the baby flummywisters.” When Potato Face gets lonely, he plays the blues, “the sleepy song of the long wind going up the sleepy valleys,” inventing an existence where he has “time and money to dream about the new wonderful accordions and post offices where everybody that gets a letter and everybody that don’t get a letter stops and remembers the Potato Face Blind Man.”
Potato Face wants a world that doesn’t neglect him and he wears a sign, “I Am Blind Too,” to remind the public of its shortcomings. But he is a generous beggar, accepting charity in receptacles designed for the needs of almsgivers. He has a thimble for tiny dimes, a larger cup for people who enjoy throwing coins at a distance, and a mug with a hole in it, “for the very poor people who wish to give me a nickel and yet get the nickel back.”
Figures like Potato Face reveal Sandburg’s lasting concern for those on the margins of American society. When they show up in his poetry, they sometimes become tokens, actors in a grand historical pageant. But in Rootabaga Country, Sandburg’s vision of populist acceptance is bound up with verbal and imaginative play that saves it from didacticism. The citizens of Rootabaga Country are too restless and complex to reduce to type.
In “The Wooden Indian and the Shaghorn Buffalo,” for example, statues in front of a tobacco store and a haberdashery come alive in the moonlight and ride together to the wilderness. An Irish cop who witnesses the metamorphosis describes it later: “I was sitting on the steps of the cigar store last night watching for burglars. And when I saw the Wooden Indian step down and the Shaghorn Buffalo step out, and the two of them go down Main Street like the wind, I says to myself, marvelish, ‘tis marvelish, ‘tis marvelish.” The policeman’s accent comes out at the moment he expresses his awe, as if to underscore the idea that being an immigrant helps him understand the desire to escape to a freer land.
That restless yearning also drives “The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child.” The buildings want a “free child” who can—in words that echo “America the Beautiful”—“run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea.” But their son, a high-speed train, dies in a crash that also kills his passengers. In desperation, the ornamental sculptures on top of the skyscrapers leap to their death on the street below. The story closes: “One was a tin brass goat. The other was a tin brass goose. And they lay next to each other.” Industrial progress may be designed for a free and expansive nation, but here it falls short. And so, in an odd way, does metaphor: man may have designed those tin brass animals to embellish the tops of his towering buildings, as symbols of power, whimsy or both. But in Rootabaga Country, symbols have wills of their own. They suicide as they break free.
All manner of objects change forms in Rootabaga Country, as in “How Pink Peony Sent Spuds the Ballplayer Up to Pick Four Moons,” where the sportsman climbs trees to bring the woman he loves moons that are caught in the branches. On the ground, each moon takes on a new, ornate identity, becoming “the silver hat full of peach-color pearls, the circle of gold with a blood-color autumn leaf, the brass pansy sprinkled with two rainbows, the Egyptian collar frozen in diamond cobwebs.” At dawn, they shrink into less glamorous adornments: four oranges holding four yellow silk handkerchiefs that, years later, will warm the necks of Spud’s and Peony’s four children. The story is a commentary on the artistic process: you try to capture beauty, but it keeps escaping your grasp. When you finally get a hold of it and try to share it with other people, what started as communication ends up as accessory, providing ornament and comfort without the assurance of permanence.
The citizens of Rootabaga Country are desperate; they long to break out of the confines of their own lives. Rats guide a group of travelers through a snowstorm to found the Village of Liver and Onions. Broken jugs of molasses transport three boys with secret ambitions to a miniature world. Gimme the Ax and his children, tired of a life where “everything is the same as it has always been,” sell all they own, tie their spot cash into a rag bag, and march to the train station to buy a ticket “as far as the railroad rails go and then forty ways farther yet.” Their journey opens the first collection of stories as it opens new lands; after traveling through nations of balloon pickers and pigs with bibs, they reach Rootabaga Country.
If all this sounds like the American frontier, it should. Gimme the Ax is part hobo, part pioneer and part pilgrim—an American hero meant to displace the kings and queens of European fairy tales. In Rootabaga Stories, Sandburg creates a fictional folklore that’s at once surprising and iconic, without lapsing into utopian wish-fulfillment. Instead of a perfect nation, we get a disarming picture of people on the move. Transformation can be scary.
Sandburg’s images are so striking, his cadences so hypnotic, that you can’t help but remember the stories quickly, and soon you feel you must have known them all along. The titles are a joy to read aloud: “How Six Pigeons Came Back to Hatrack the Horse After Many Accidents and Six Telegrams”; “How Henry Hagglyhoagly Played Guitar With His Mittens On”; “Shush Shush, the Big Buff Banty Hen Who Laid an Egg in the Postmaster’s Hat.” When these jangly, nursery rhyme rhythms give way to a more hushed tone, you feel like you’ve been let in on a beautiful secret: “Maybe you will hear the corn fairies going pla-sizzy pla-sizzy-sizzy, softer than an eye wink, softer than a Nebraska baby’s thumb.”
But the secrets aren’t always gentle—as in the best folksongs and tales, darkness lurks close behind the rhythms: Frankie may go to the electric chair for shooting her lover; John Henry will die with a hammer in his hand; Potato Face may stay hungry; Rags Habakuk may sell his lucky blue rats and plunge his family into poverty; your neighbors may disappear; your home may not be your home. These possibilities are what make Rootabaga Country into such a remarkable reflection of America. The stories echo, but they won’t let you settle down.