Before meeting Margaret Sandburg I was more than a little nervous about talking with the daughter of one of the great American poets of the century. A woman of such an impressive pedigree–not only is Carl her father but also the photographer Edward Steichen is her uncle–would surely be a formidable personality. To my surprise, I found myself speaking into the “good ear” of a soft-spoken, self-deprecating woman in her mid-70s who interjected comments on her nasal drip and calcium imbalance between anecdotes about her remarkable family.
Margaret was passing through Chicago recently on her way home to Asheville, North Carolina, after formally donating the original love letters between her mother, Lilian Steichen, and Carl Sandburg to the University of Illinois in Urbana. The letters trace the six-month courtship between Sandburg and his future wife, a period during which they saw each other only twice. Because of Sandburg’s commitments in Wisconsin as an organizer for the Social-Democratic party and Lilian’s career as a teacher in Princeton, Illinois, they had little opportunity for personal contact. It was through their correspondence that the pair became fully acquainted and ultimately fell in love.
As Margaret points out in her introduction to The Poet and the Dream Girl, a book of these letters that she edited, which the University of Illinois Press has just published, Sandburg never admitted the existence of love letters or love poems he had written. He considered them too private to be discussed. Explaining her reasons for making the letters public, Margaret said, “Well, I happened to read some of Mother’s letters alone, and they were so beautiful. It wasn’t only the beauty of the letters, but, you know, there were such original things. I don’t think you could ever get such a good viewpoint of a socialist meeting as there is in one letter.”
Of the three Sandburg daughters, Margaret has been the one to take charge of the Sandburg collection. “In my study I have three bookcases, and the bottom shelf is filled with folders that have copies of letters written to my father from all kinds of people.” Margaret said she has assumed this role rather than her sisters because “Helga lives in Cleveland–she’s married to a doctor there–and Janet, it’s just not her type of thing.”
As I listened to Margaret, I was reminded of Ben Hecht’s description of Sandburg’s own voice as one “of pauses and undercurrents.” Her voice ebbs and flows, at times receding almost to a whisper, at others surging forward.
The letters reveal the deep love between Steichen and Sandburg as well as their shared dedication to socialism. Steichen’s enthusiastic admiration for Sandburg practically gushes from the page: “I’ve read and read . . . and have thought and thought looking at you in your different aspects together–Lyceum speaker, Poet, S.D.P. organizer, Boy–and it’s to You–this complete many-sided You–that I say in glad worship recognizing in you a glorious achievement and a still more glorious Hope:–Wunderkind! Wunderkind!”
Lilian Steichen was a person of exceptional energy and charm who had advanced ideas for a woman living in the early 1900s. Referring to her mother’s originality, Margaret said, “A lady wrote from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that all she knew about my mother before was that she was married to Carl Sandburg, raised goats, and had three children [laughs]. But then she said, ‘What a wonderful mind–she was 100 years ahead of her time!'”
In spite of her independent spirit, Steichen was utterly dedicated to Sandburg and made him the first priority in her life. “That’s where her love made a difference,” Margaret said. “She wanted to do whatever would help him. He was the same way. I don’t know how they made up their minds about anything [laughs] because they were each so willing for the other to have their way.”
I asked her if Steichen and Sandburg’s relationship continued to be as effusive and admiring as it was during their six-month courtship. “Well, I wasn’t always there, you know,” Margaret said, laughing. “I never heard, never heard, a cross word. Some people can’t believe that. They don’t realize the only thing that disturbed Dad was if he had misplaced something. I can remember back in Elmhurst, in Michigan, and at Connemara, he would call, ‘Paula!’ [Sandburg’s name for his wife]. And you could tell from the tone that there was something deeply wrong. And Mother would say, ‘Coming, Buddy!’ (During the war, you know, that word got to be used more than ‘pal.’) And then she would be able to lay her hand on whatever it was–and I’ve told this story already, but you know I’m just like that only I haven’t got such a good person to find things for me, I haven’t a Paula–then we would see them coming downstairs all smiling. But he wasn’t angry, he was just disturbed. Now there’s a big difference between being angry and being disturbed.”
The Sandburgs preferred rustic environments to city life, living in Elmhurst, Illinois, from 1919 to 1928, and then moving to Harbert, Michigan, when Elmhurst became too developed for their taste. “The Michigan place was so perfect because he [Sandburg] enjoyed getting a tan,” Margaret said, “and he would sit out on that deck there that adjoined the bedroom and study and he’d look like an Indian. He really got a deep tan.” Although very little has changed over the years at the Michigan place, which is still owned by the same family that bought it from the Sandburgs, the Elmhurst home has suffered. “About three years ago we went to Elmhurst,” Margaret said. “Quite changed. Our house, the Elmhurst house, is under a carport, I mean, under a . . .”
“Where people park cars.”
“No, it’s not a garage. It’s a great big cement–”
“A parking lot. Three little words!”
Margaret’s respect for her father is obvious, and she is not afraid to defend him–even when it means challenging such a powerful literary personality as Gore Vidal. Speaking of Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, she said, “By the way, this gives me an opportunity to say something about Mr. Vidal. He’s an out-and-out absolute liar because he says Dad made mistakes in the Lincoln biography. He said Dad had the plan of the White House wrong. Dad lived far back enough so that he knew the man who did the reconstruction. He lived right around here. I know that that’s just not true. Vidal does that. This isn’t the first time Vidal has attacked anybody else. But he doesn’t need to do it, especially someone who is dead and can’t defend himself.”
Margaret said she felt no pressure growing up in an atmosphere of fame. “I guess it’s a matter of adjustment. I don’t know, it always seemed quite ordinary. You know, we weren’t people who made life any different. And I just looked at the people who came through as Dad’s friends.”
“Who came through?”
“[Eugene] Debs came. And the Wisconsin poet Hy Simons. I think you’d probably not recognize the name. He was a minor poet.”
When I asked her who she resembles most, her mother or her father, Margaret answered, “I’m myself.” Then she went on to say, “I think I am more like him, but not in the best qualities. Well, I did have an urge to write poetry, but after seeing his I quit writing. I shouldn’t have done that, but . . .”
Being Carl Sandburg’s daughter would not be an easy fact to ignore, and Margaret admitted she is always aware of it. “I can’t very well help but be,” she said. “But I don’t know that it dominated my life. You live your own life, you know.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Wiegand.