STEICHEN SANDBURG: WOMAN OF A MILLION NAMES
My Wife and Pal, Lilian Steichen Sandburg was the
dedication line in Carl Sandburgs first published
book, Chicago Poems. Carl and Lilians
very souls were dedicated to each other in lifelong creative
union. One symbol of this fact is the Sandburg Hall of
the flourishing Unitarian Universalist Church of Ashville,
North Carolina, where she was a generous contributor.
The following narrative of this romance is abridged from
an unpublished presentation to the Madison Literary Club
in Wisconsin on November 13, 2000.
Faith B. Miracle
December 29, 1907, Carl Sandburg, then calling himself Charles,
checked in at 344 N. Sixth Street in Milwaukee to report
for work as an organizer for the Wisconsin Social-Democratic
Party. On that same day, party member Lilian Steichen, younger
sister of Edward Steichen, was ending her Christmas visit
with her parents near Menomonee Falls and returning to her
teaching position in Princeton, Illinois. She stopped in
at party headquarters to say good-bye to her socialist friends
and met, by chance, the new party organizer. They talked
for a while. She gave him her address in Princeton, and
he promised to send her some samples of his writing. Six
months later they were married in Milwaukee after a spirited
exchange of remarkable letters.
Steichen and her brother Ed in 1886. He is seven and
three Sandburg daughtersMargaret, Janet, and Helgawere
aware over the years of a box of letters treasured by their
mother. The letters are the basis for the first part of
Helgas 1978 book, A Great and Glorious Romance,
which represents her poignant search for identity through
an understanding of her gifted parents and uncle. In 1987
the actual letters were published by University of Illinois
Press under the title, The Poet and the Dream Girl: The
Love Letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg. Edited
and with an introduction by Margaret, this book contains
134 letters written between January and June 1908, while
Lilian was teaching English and expression to high school
students in Illinois and Carl was stumping parts of Wisconsin
on behalf of the Social Democrats.
While the letters are interesting for many reasons, they
essentially tell a love story in language often poetic and
passionate. During this six-month period, Carl and Lilian
were together only twice, and it was through the written
word that they became intimately acquainted. On April 30,
1908, four months after they met, he wrote to her:
Soul of You, all that Sea of Surging Thought and Tinted
Dreams that is you, all the sky of love and earth of beauty
in you, I know from your letters.
the time of their first meeting, Carl had received his formal
education at Lombard College in his hometown, Galesburg,
Illinois. He had held a number of odd jobs, beginning at
age 11 when he worked as a janitor in a real estate office
each morning before school, for which he was paid 25 cents
a week. He delivered papers each day after school, earning
$1 a week. When he was 14, his fathers work hours
were cut in half. Carl had to quit school, and he hired
out to a dairy farmer. That was on the eve of the Panic
of 1893, a period of hard times in the nation. Later Carl
traveled the country in boxcars, finding work where he could,
and served with the Illinois volunteers in the Spanish American
War. It was because of his military service that Lombard
College offered him admittance and free tuition for his
freshman year, in spite of the fact that he was 20 years
old and did not have a high school diploma. He was considered
a special student.
Steichen in 1898 at the age of 15.
in college he played basketball, joined a club, wrote for
the college newspaper, joined the college literary society,
and served as business manager, editor, and a writer for
the college monthly periodical, the Lombard Review.
He studied English, Latin, philosophy, history, drama, and
elocution. After the first year of college he worked as
a fireman to pay his way for three more years. But during
his fourth year he abruptly left school, deciding he didnt
want to graduate.
He did some sales work and found he enjoyed public speaking.
By the time he was approached by the Wisconsin Social Democrats,
he was seriously looking for his niche in life, and his
parents were anxious for him to settle down and find steady
Carls first paid speaking engagement had been in Racine
in 1906, and it was there that he came to the attention
of the Wisconsin Social-Democrats. For his part, Carl was
attracted to them because they seemed more moderate than
the national party. He said Winfield R. Gaylord of Milwaukee
gave him the first information he had about a socialist
movement that was both practical and constructive.
Carl spoke in Manitowoc in the fall of 1907 and in Green
Bay on November 21, 1907. Encouraged by Winfield Gaylord,
Carl moved to Wisconsin in December 1907.
It might be helpful to consider for a moment the 1908 Social-Democratic
Party platform. It included:
ownership of railroads and communications universal
ownership of public utilities progressive
income and inheritance taxes free
textbooks for public schools
were also talking about:
pay and shorter hours for workers retirement
benefits and health insurance a
public health ordinance child
labor laws safety
codes for buildings
Steichen also was the child of immigrant peasant parents.
Jean-Pierre and Marie Steichen had emigrated from Luxembourg
to Hancock, in Michigans Upper Peninsula, in 1880
with their 18-month-old son, Edward. Throughout Lilians
childhood the old country tongue was spoken in the Steichen
home, and she considered English to be an acquired language.
After Jean-Pierres health was broken in the copper
mines, Marie supported her family by operating a millinery
shop in Hancock. Caught up in the spirit of the American
dream, she envisioned great things for her two precocious
children, and she sent Edward at age nine to Pio Nono Catholic
school near Milwaukee. One year later the rest of the family
moved to Milwaukee, and Marie set up her millinery shop
at North Third and West Walnut streets.
One cannot consider the lives of Carl and Lilian without
including part of Edwards story, for his success had
a profound effect on Lilian, and the threeCarl, Lilian,
and Edwardshared a lifetime of mutual love and respect.
and her brother Ed in 1900, before he left for Europe
1894, when he was 15, Edward left school and became a four-year
apprentice at Milwaukees American Fine Art Company,
a lithographic firm. He began to study with Milwaukee artist
Richard Lorenz, who, he said, gave him a solid foundation.
Edward was 16 in 1895 when he bought his first camera. Of
the 50 pictures taken with his first roll of film, only
one turned out. He titled it My Little Sister
and, slightly blurred, it has the look of a painting. In
it Lilian, age 12, is dressed in white, her long black hair
caught at the nape of her neck. She is seated at the fringe-draped
piano, hands in proper form resting on the keys. Among the
many photos on top of the piano is one of Napoleon, a family
Edward had long realized that his younger sister was brilliant
and had encouraged her to be independent, to find her own
destiny. In one letter, commenting on an essay and two poems
she had sent him, he wrote:
have the art and the ability, it is merely a fight for
the recognition of it . . . the greater and better we
do, the harder the battle. I live on that physicallythe
thing we live on does not fluctuate with Wall Street but
within ourselves, be it the belching and bellowing roar
of Pittsburgh . . . or be it the calm and silence of the
snow and moonlight. It lies within usthe beauty
of all theseand it is for us to create and giveand
it is art.
listened, believed, and rebelled against her fathers
insistence that she quit school and work for her mother
in the milliners shop. After making all the arrangements
herself, she went off to Canada for a year to study at Ursuline
convent. In 1900, the year Edward left for Paris, despite
the fact that she had not graduated from high school, she
passed exams enabling her to enter the University of Illinois.
Later she transferred to the University of Chicago and graduated
with a degree in philosophy, honors in English and Latin,
and was one of only two in her class to receive a Phi Beta
Kappa key. Maries hopes for her children were being
realized far beyond her dreams.
Shortly after the turn of the century, and with Edwards
financial assistance, the Steichens bought a small farm
near Menomonee Falls, where Jean-Pierre could raise corn
and potatoes, and where on hot summer nights Lilian and
Marie could sleep in the orchard. Lilian described the area
as flat country, with the Klinger and Keiper farms on either
side, the Zimmers across the road. There were some
patches of woods; mainly, it was pasture land and cultivated
fields. But, she later wrote Carl, theres
the sky and the wide horizon and the open roadabundantly
enough for glad hearts.
feeding her chickens at the Hawley Road house in Milwaukee.
Edward was energized by his adventures in Europe. In 1902
he wrote to a friend:
are trees in the Villa de Medici that are so full of sap
and growth that they have put great iron bands around
them to keep them from burstingI feel that way myself!
That same year
his photograph titled The Black Vase became
the first photograph to be placed in a national collection
of art. It was purchased by the Belgian government and was
hung in the National Gallery in Brussels.
Inspired by Edwards success, Lilian began to take
her own writing seriously. She attended concerts and plays
and became active in Milwaukee politics. Often, she and
Marie were the only women present at the Social Democratic
Lilian became a dedicated worker in the Wisconsin Social-Democratic
Party. She translated socialist pamphlets and articles from
German to English, English to German. In later years, thinking
back to that day in December 1907 when they met, Carl Sandburg
would describe a young woman with midnight black hair
who, he suspected was smarter than he was.
And so we come to the letters. The first is from Lilian,
postmarked Princeton, Illinois. As promised, Carl had sent
her some samples of his writing, and on January 17, 1908,
she wrote: Dear Mr. Sandburg, . . . I have your leaflets
Labor and Politics and A Little Sermon.
Do tell me how you contrive to be a moral philosopher and
a political agitator at one and the same timeand especially
how you contrive to write such Poets English one minute
and the plain vernacular the next. The combination is baffling.
Artist, poet-prophet on the one hand; man of action on the
other. Yours Cordially, Lilian Steichen
That was the beginning. Carl had met his match. Helga tells
us, He was gone, my father, after that, caught in
the web of love . . .
Letters began to fly back and forth between Princeton and
various points in Wisconsin. It is interesting to note,
however, that while Carl kept Lilians letters from
the beginning of the correspondence, Lilian did not keep
Carls early letters.
In a letter dated February 15, 1908, Lilian, the pragmatist,
expressed her feelings about Carls interest in poetry,
and her condescending comments must have been rather unsettling
Mr. Sandburg . . . . It is good to have loved the poets
. . . but its good, too, and better, to grow toward
maturity and move on to greater thingsthe everyday
life of action. I ought to know, being on the eve of maturity,
nearly 25, myself . . . . You ask when I shall be in Milwaukee
again. Our spring vacation lasts from March 25 to April
6. I shall spend it partly in Milwaukee and partly at
home. I told you, didnt I, that my home is in the
country, a little farm, 4 acres, 3 miles from Menomonee
Falls, about 15 miles from Milwaukee. If you should be
in Milwaukee at any time during my vacation, I should
be so glad to see you there or have you come to see us
at the farm.
first of Carls surviving letters is dated February
21, 1908, mailed from Oshkosh.
Miss Steichen . . . . Within the organization I have so
much to learn and to show those who have intelligence
what to do, and to get the hypercritical into constructive
work, and to give cheer to the desperate and rousal to
the stolid . . . . I shall plan to be in Milwaukee the
last days in March and one or two in April, and will hope
to see you then.
February 24, Lilian had had the opportunity to read some
of Carls poems, and she had changed her mind about
poetry. The poemsthe poems you sent are wonderful.
To think I wrote so despairingly of poetry to you . . .
. You discover to me the only poetry that has ever satisfied
me since I learned to think 20th century thoughts.
letters increased in length and number, sometimes two or
more a day, with postscript added to postscript. They discussed
literature. Lilian read the German writersHeine, Hauptmann,
Sudermann. Carls mentor was Walt Whitman. Whitman
was a newspaperman-turned-poet, as Carl was to become, who
learned about people from personal contact as a journalist.
Whitmans beat was Manhattan; Carls was small-town
Wisconsin. Both Carl and Lilian read Robert Louis Stevenson
and Thorstein Veblen (under whom Lilian had studied while
in Chicago). They discussed politics, which they had in
common. They wrote of their respective parents; both had
mothers more gifted than the men they had married in fact,
Carls father, a blacksmith, could only sign an x for
his name. They discovered many similarities in their backgrounds
Sandburg in his forties.
early March she was addressing him Dear Comrade,
then My dear Comrade, urging him to spend a
day at the farm, talking about possible train schedules,
wondering if he can tolerate the simple life on the
farm. As springtime approached, she went for long
walks alonewe can picture the milliners spirited
daughter hatless, rebellious, her rain-muddied skirts sweeping
the tall grass in the fields near town. She thought about
Carl and wrote lettersone more than fifty pages long.
The pragmatist was changing.
On March 7 she wrote:
other evening I came in to supper after a splendid walk
. . . . it had been raining hard all day till late in
the afternoon. The streets were muddy and pools of water
were everywhere. The air was sweet and fresh after the
rain. At sunset the sky had cleared in the west along
the horizonthe rest of the sky was still overcast
with great heavy cloudsslate blue. Through a vista
of arching elms, I saw the western sky aglow! And the
ruts in the road caught the glowburning, intense.
I walked on to the open country! Wind swept, the darkening
slate-blue sky heavy with clouds, and the West a great
lake of burning gold, and always the wind blowing wildly!
I am blown alongthe wind challengesI run hard
returning the challenge . . . . I turn homeward, gay at
heart . . . . I feel glad for the life that is given me
to live. I think of how I shall soon see my brother. I
think of the splendid letter, the last one, from you,
my good comrade, and I think of how I shall see you soon.
passion could not wait for a face-to-face meeting. On March
16 she wrote:
Charles Sandburg, . . . I have been conscious in rare
poignant moments in my life of something very beautiful
deep deep within . . . so finely attuned was that heart
of yours, you caught the fine vibrant note from the depths
and gave it strength and quality. But for you the sweet
small hush yearning upward toward light and utterance
would have subsided back to the dark depths and so died
forever. So glad thanks to youfor Voice, for Life.
This is the Wonder and the Hope.
Steichen Sandburg, about thirty-three years of age,
holding her daughter Janet
visited the farm the end of March. Lilian met him with horse
and buggy at the Brookfield station, and on the way home
they were caught in a wild thunderstorm. For the rest of
their lives they referred to it as their great ride,
the Baptismal rain. The intensity of the wind
and lightning matched the intensity of their feelings, and
they responded to the storm with abandon and celebration.
They were together at the farm for a week, and Edward, home
from Paris for his birthday, spent some time there with
them. Carl and Lilian romped in the woods like children,
took long walks, and planned their future together. It was
during this time that she began calling him Carl, his given
name, and he began calling her Paula, derived from an affectionate
nickname used by her family. After that, Helga tells us,
all his love poems would have the same title: Paula.
It is interesting to read of Lilians influence on
Carls writing. In spite of her concern for her stilted
English, she tactfully began to give him pointers: I believe
I wouldnt say handsome buildings. Id
substitute grand or something of that sort.
Carl took it well. He called her a literary stylist and
a pundit. She continued to criticize and encourage. Years
after they were married, in a letter written from a hospital
in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she was helping Margaret
through a serious illness, Lilian wrote that she would have
plenty of time to carefully go over the manuscript of Carls
second book of Rootabaga stories.
During the spring of 1908 they steadfastly looked to the
future. Together they hoped to change the world, to leave
something of themselves in payment for the happiness they
had found in each other. They talked about the S-S
molecule (Sandburg-Steichen) at the service of humankind.
Carl plotted a book to be written by the two of them to
include some of Lilians paragraphic essays,
with a Steichen photo of the two of them facing the
Carl was drawn to Lake Michigan, which he referred to as
a sea. His letters tell of hikes along the shore, often
at night when the crashing whitecaps were highlighted by
stars and the jagged ridges of pines were black against
the sky. The waves provided a cadence for his steps, and
the beauty of the shoreline with its varying humors,
the lights of Two Rivers or Sheboygan or Manitowoc in the
distance, inspired him. In a letter from Two Rivers, dated
April 19, 1908, 9 p.m., he wrote:
had a 5-mile hikeover sandy hills wild and wind
beaten, and into pine woods along the lake shore. I looked
up at the sky and startlingly near, through the green-black
boughs of a massive pine, I saw a glowing star, a glittering,
melting, concentrated flame seen through this one hole
in the roof of the forest . . . And so good night, my
great heart, like the pines and stars I worshipped with
tonightgood night. I kiss your grand face. It is
a night of grandeursand you are its star. I kiss
you as the last glory of this night of glories. Carl
with daughter Margaret and her monkey, about 1915
began discussing where they might live after their marriage.
On April 21 Carl again wrote from Two Rivers: The
district has so much of natural beauty . . . that was one
of the things that attracted me up here. All nationalities
are represented in it. You will find wilderness unspoiled
in Oconto. You will find civilization at its
best and worst along the Fox Riverblack choking industrialism,
and libraries, concerts, womens clubs and art from
Schuman-Heink to 5 cent vaudeville. All big, pulsing, turbulent,
That same night, after a walk on the dunes, in yet another
letter he wrote:
thousand love-birds, sweet-throated and red-plumed, were
in my Soul . . . . There on ten-thousand branches they
slept as in night-time. You came and they awoke . . .
a dawn burst on thema long night was ended. How
On April 23 she
wrote to him, perhaps with more spontaneity, but with equal
Life and Life!I must look long and long at the stars,
and turn my face to the wind and the rain beating down
hard on me, and listen to the rushing of winds and waves
and the deep rumble of thunder, proud and solemn musicthat
so my Soul may biggen and the Love within have a better
chance to grow as it so yearns to! I feel the Love pounding
and throbbing and pressing and yearning and hammering
against all the walls of my soul!
Carls love poems were not published during his lifetime,
and they arent generally knowneven todayhere
are some lines from one of them:
a million names and a thousand faces,
I looked for you over the earth and under the sky.
I sought you in passing processions
On old multitudinous highways
Where mask and phantom and life go by.
In roaming and roving, from prairie to sea,
From city to wilderness, fighting and praying,
Dusty and wayward, I was the soldier,
Long-sentinelled, pacing the night,
Who heard your voice in the breeze nocturnal,
Who saw in the pine shadows your hair,
Who touched in the flicker of vibrant stars
When I saw you, I knew you as you knew me.
We had known far back in the eons
When hills were dust and the sea a mist.
And toil is a trifle and struggle a glory
With You, and ruin and death but fancies,
Woman of a million names and a thousand faces.
photograph taken by Ed Steichen of Helga, Janet,
Carl, Lilian, and Margaret Sandburg at their home
in the dunes of Lake Michigan
So they planned
their wedding, wondering what warm springtime would do to
two hearts that were mad in chilly March.
On June 13, 1908, they were married. Carl was 30, Lilian 25.
She spent that summer at the farm in Menomonee Falls while
he traveled his district, and they moved to Appleton in the
fall. Carl was involved with Eugene Debss third campaign
for president, traveling more than ever. To fight loneliness,
Lilian studied poultry farming at the Appleton Public Library.
Carl, overworked, exhausted, and discouraged about his writing,
again considered giving up poetry. Again, Lilian encouraged
him to continue. She wrote:
poems are great, Carl. It would be all wrong to give them
up. We must give the Poet every chance! If we can only
assure ourselves leisure for thisyou will arrive.
In June 1909
they moved to Milwaukee and Carl wrote for several Milwaukee
newspapers. Both Lilian and Carl became interested in the
Wisconsin Tuberculosis Society, and Carl traveled to 45
cities in the state on behalf of the fight against TB. At
that time, Kenosha and Richland Center were the cities in
Wisconsin hardest hit by the disease. When the Milwaukee
Socialists took office in the spring of 1910, Carl became
secretary to Mayor Emil Seidel. The Sandburgs moved to a
small house on Hawley Road where Lilian had space to raise
chickens, and her adventures made a September 1910 edition
of The Milwaukee Journal, which reported: Not the
least of Mrs. Sandburgs summer worries were street
car fatalities. Fifteen of her chickens were sacrificed
on the steel rails in front of the house.
It was during this period that Carl decided writing would
be the major focus of his life, and Lilian vowed to create
the environment to make this possible. With typical Steichen
spunk, however, she declared that while he would have the
career and her role would be that of homemaker, they were
to be considered equals. In fact, her role was much more
than that of homemaker. True to her word, Lilian did give
the poet every chance. Her experience raising chickens eventually
led her to an interest in goats, and she became an amateur
geneticist with an international reputation for her prize-winning
Carl died in 1967, age 89. Edward died in 1973, two days
before his 94th birthday. Lilian died in 1976; she was 93.
In Helgas search for the true story of her family
she found love, genius, and pain. In her Uncle Ed she found
romance, sensibility, sweetness, gaiety. In
her mother she found firmness and beauty. As
for her father, she said, like a great wheel, everything
had spun around himhis wants: quiet, food, sleep,
companionship. When he died, the wheel stood still,
and for the family, it was never the same in the world
from A Great and Glorious Romance: The Story of Carl
Sandburg and Lilian Steichen by courtesy of Helga Sandburg
Sandburg and the Steichens: The Wisconsin Years by
Faith B. Miracle, Wisconsin Academy Review (Madison: June,
Steichen: The Master Prints 1895-1914, by Dennis Longwell(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978).
Ever the Winds of Chance, edited by Margaret Sandburg
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
Great and Glorius Romance: The Story of Carl Sandburg and
Lilian Steichen, by Helga Sandburg (New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1978).
Music: A Book of Family Reminiscence and Song, by Helga
Sandburg (New York: The Dial Press, 1963).
Poet and the Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen
and Carl Sandburg, edited by Margaret Sandburg (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1987).
Life in Photography, Edward Steichen (Garden City, NY:
Carl Sandburg: A Biography, by Penolope Niven (New
Yok: Charles Scribenr's Sons, 1991).
A Biography, by Penelope Niven (New York: Clarkson N.
Potter / Publishers, 1997).