We had one of those experiences recently that had a touch of magic about it. Unexpected pleasures are the best kind.
Near Flatrock, NC., just driving around looking for something to do, we passed a sign that said the home of poet Carl Sandburg was up ahead. It’s a national park, now, so the signs had the brown backgrounds and white lettering. He, his wife, daughters and granddaughter, lived there for nearly 21 years, until his death in 1967. The anniversary of that was just ten days away when we visited, actually.
He’s probably my favorite American writer, and I didn’t know he lived in the South. So we stopped and spent several hours wandering the grounds. It’s a lovely place, full of charm and history and serenity now. The house was built in 1838 and was at one point owned by the treasurer of the Confederate States of America, a slaveholder. Sandburg, a committed socialist and Unionist, was terribly embarrassed by the presence of slave cabins out back, but also believed in preserving historical things. So he had them renovated and painted, and just lived with the moral quandary they represented as he worked on his Lincoln and Civil War books. The house sits on a hill overlooking a pasture and a lake full of fish.
I took the tour of the house, and have a picture of the writing room on the 3rd floor where he wrote big chunks of his Lincoln biography and much of his Civil War history, below. And most of the extensive library of children’s stories he wrote. It’s just as it was when he and his wife lived there, just as it was on the day he died, July 22, 1967.
After he died, his wife of nearly 60 years just lost heart and moved out, giving the land to the Interior Department to make the national park. She and her daughters took just their clothes. If you ever are in the vicinity and want to stop by to touch a piece of literary history, please do.
This is the poet in his own voice, reading a short poem he published in 1918.
5 Replies to “Happy Accident”
I love this. I always thought he did a pretty eloquent job of grappling with moral and social quandaries. Because I’m a bit perverse, I like to visit the homes of writers who lived in the South–either their formative homes from which they fled to live elsewhere, or the homes they made as adults and writers.
I have found that many Southern writers, by birth or accident of location, grapple with a strange Love-Hate relationship for both the region and its inhabitants. It is at once Paradise and a prison of the soul, its people at once given to warm generosity and some of the most brutal permutations of the human condition.
It is a place defined by contradictions and extremes. But what we find to write about is largely determined by what we make of ourselves. It has served, for me, as the perfect Petrie dish of human character, to which everything else must be a comparison, a study of light and shadow in the human spirit. I think writers like Carl also appreciated the power of contradiction and the need to create peace in a place where the evidence of pain was still very much a part of the landscape.
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I think you’re right. His life was study in struggle. His family was an immigrant family, very poor. He grew up seeing the hardest sides of life, and watched how people behaved, failed, grew and endured. He loved the taste and smell of life lived in the raw, and saw it as more real, and more honorable, and unfairly hard, compared with the lives of the rich. He saw them as leeches and cruel men.
But about the time he had his first newspaper job his writing started to change and I think got a lot better. His cadence and his deep compassion for and sense of the common man and woman in the struggles of everyday life were things that really still do appeal to me. He was a poet with dirt under his fingernails.
Thanks for this – I didn’t know any of that. And agreed, the happy surprises are best. No expectations, only bonuses.
If I may ask, why is he your favorite?
That’s a longer answer than would fit here. I had an album of him reading his poems when I was a kid. I guess my parents got it for me, but I don’t remember. I loved it, though. Played it over and over and over. Hundreds of times. It had a lot to do with the sound of his voice, but even more with the cadence and word combinations and the conversational and real feeling of it. I fell in love with writing because of him, because of that voice and those poems. He was quite a celebrity in his day, too. The sort of thing that doesn’t happen for serious intellectuals any more. He grew up poor and talked about real people, hard lives and actual problems of living, which taught me that’s what writers should be thinking about. That’s why I got into journalism, why I spent time as an investigator trying to right wrongs, helping victims of fraud by tracking down the con men and women and getting the money back, or putting the bastards in jail. All because of a poet. 🙂
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