Carl Sandburg looks out over the city skyline in 1957.
Carl Sandburg was the embodiment of the tough yet tender American. A native of Galesburg, Illinois, Sandburg drove a milk wagon, served in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, worked as a bricklayer, and did stints as a farm laborer and coal shoveler before moving to Chicago in 1912. It was there that he embarked on the writing career that would earn him three Pulitzer Prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a place in the pantheon of America’s literary giants.
In March 1914, Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” (along with several other poems about the city) was published in Harriet Monroe’s magazine Poetry, featuring the famous lines, “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” With this text, Sandburg captured Chicago’s duality, exposing its seamy underbelly of poverty and crime while also celebrating the city’s vibrant energetic growth and endless opportunities. “Chicago” became one of the most popular and most oft-cited poems of the 20th century, and the text’s fifth line—“City of the Big Shoulders”—perfectly summed up Chicagoans’ proud blue collar attitude, then and now, expressed by a man who knew and loved this town in all its grit and glory.
“Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me,” Sandburg once quipped. “They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years.”