Selected Criticism

Sandburg, Carl (1878–1967)
Shucard, Alan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

As a critic Carl Sandburg once inventoried the "particulars" that make Leaves of Grass "the most peculiar and noteworthy monument amid the work of American literature." First, Sandburg notes, "as to style, . . . it is regarded as the most original book" and "the most sublimely personal creation in American literary art." Second, "It is the most highly praised and the most deeply damned book that ever came from . . . an American writer." Sandburg's third point is that Leaves is "the most intensely personal book in American literature" and, fourth, that the book "packs within its covers . . . the life and thought and feeling of one man." Fifth, Sandburg asserts that no other American poet except Poe has achieved the worldwide stature that Whitman has, nor—Sandburg's sixth point—has any other American book as ardent a following in America. Finally, Sandburg proclaims Leaves of Grass "the most wildly keyed solemn oath that America means something and is going somewhere that has ever been written" (Sandburg iii–iv).

While Sandburg's enumeration is essentially accurate and his introduction to Leaves thoughtfully places Whitman's call to individual and artistic freedom in historical context, his failure to discuss the soul in Whitman's work reflects the tendency of Sandburg the poet to follow Whitman's technique without Whitman's empathetic spirituality. Pearce points out that in Sandburg's Whitman-sounding poems, such as "Chicago" and "The People, Yes," he "lacked Whitman's extraordinarily mobile sensibility" and became a speech maker. While Sandburg became, for a time, a poet of the people, unlike Whitman he merely "registered the people's sentiments and did little to change them" or even to understand them (Pearce 270–271).


Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1991.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Sandburg, Carl. Introduction. Leaves of Grass. By Walt Whitman. New York: Modern Library, 1921. iii–xi.


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