Jul 23, 2021

Carl Sandburg's Two Gay References

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was from Galesburg, 60 miles south of Rock Island, so my teachers loved him.

I didn't.

Although he does look nice naked.

It seems that every English, language arts, writing, and history teacher from third grade through college foisted Sandburg upon us.

Chicago Poems!  Cornhuskers!  Smoke and Steel!  Slabs of the Sunburned West! The People, Yes! 

He was a two-bit Walt Whitman wannabe, with none of Whitman's homoeroticism.

When Sandburg mentions a man, it's only to pair him with a woman.

A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month; to-night they are throwing you kisses.

But mostly he's desperate to tell you how much he likes women.  Over and over and over and over.

Each morning as I move through this river of young-     woman life I feel a wonder about where it is all going, so many with a peach bloom of young years on them and laughter of red lips and memories in their eyes of dances the night before and plays and walks.

This wouldn't be so bad, except that he expects his intended audience to agree.  All beauty is feminine beauty, the Eternal Feminine is everybody's goal in life.

In high school we had to read Always the Young Strangers, maybe because it mentioned Rock Island and Augustana College.  But it's not, as you might suspect, about cruising for late-night pickups.

It's about Sandburg growing up in Galesburg,with no interest in male friendship, just devotion to family, the thrill of the feminine, and heterosexual sex.

He liked to imagine heterosexual sex.  Even when it was between his mother and father:

They were a couple and their coupling was both earthy and sacramental to them. There were at times smiles exchanged between them that at the moment I didn't understand but later read as having the secret meanings of lovers who had pleasured each other last night.

Do heterosexuals usually spend a lot of time imagining their parents having sex?

But the very worst was Rootabaga Stories, American fairy tales with an Edward Lear twist that were foisted on us in 3rd grade.

The titles didn't make sense:
"The Story of Blixie Bimber and the Power of the Gold Buckskin Whincher"
"How the Hat Ashes Shovel Helped Snoo Foo"
"Only the Fire-Born Understand Blue."

And once you got past the title, you got endless hetero-romance between men and women, boys and girls, and gender-polarized inanimate objects.

Except for one weird story about two skyscrapers who decide to have a child together.  Their genders aren't specified, but since they're phallic symbols, I'm going to assume both male.  Sandburg doesn't explain how their child comes about.  Maybe they adopt.

The only gay potential anywhere in Sandburg's work is in his 4-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  In The War Years (1926), he writes that Lincoln's relationship with Joshua Speed had "a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets."

And maybe in the poem "Planked Whitefish," in which a "demon driver" named Horace Wild tells Sandburg about an experience in World War I in Ypres (site of a major battle): a Canadian soldier nailed to a wall with bayonets, his sex organs cut off and shoved into his mouth.  The sight made him a pacifist.

Not exactly a gay-positive image.

See also: Gather the Faces of Men


  1. Did poets of that era regularly associate women with the wild? I thought women were more associated with bounty; you went camping, swimming, naked, with other boys. Puerile imagery was also associated with one's own sex; the ideal was to be uninterested in the opposite sex, until the time came to marry and produce children, and never truly enjoy that act.

    All this repression, of course, created a generation of paraphiliacs.

    I imagine hippie parents went on and on about their kids' conception. They had a habit of doing pop psychology, borderline-incest things like removing every door in the house so that "there are no barriers between us". But that's a bit after this guy.

  2. The photo of the three hot guy would inspired another type of fiction


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