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“To My Wife and Pal, Lilian Steichen Sandburg‚” was the dedication line in Carl Sandburg’s first published book, Chicago Poems. Carl and Lilian’s 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 Asheville, 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The following narrative of this romance is abridged from an unpublished presentation to the Madison Literary Club in Wisconsin on November 13, 2000.
On 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.
The three Sandburg daughters—Margaret, Janet, and Helga—were aware over the years of a box of letters treasured by their mother. The letters are the basis for the first part of Helga’s 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:
The 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.
At 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 father’s 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.”
While 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 didn’t 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 employment.
Carl’s 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:
- public ownership of railroads and communications
- universal suffrage
- municipal ownership of public utilities
- progressive income and inheritance taxes
- free textbooks for public schools
They were also talking about:
- higher pay and shorter hours for workers
- retirement benefits and health insurance
- a public health ordinance
- child labor laws
- safety codes for buildings
Lilian Steichen also was the child of immigrant peasant parents. Jean-Pierre and Marie Steichen had emigrated from Luxembourg to Hancock, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in 1880 with their 18-month-old son, Edward. Throughout Lilian’s childhood the old country tongue was spoken in the Steichen home, and she considered English to be an acquired language.
After Jean-Pierre’s 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 Edward’s story, for his success had a profound effect on Lilian, and the three—Carl, Lilian, and Edward—shared a lifetime of mutual love and respect.
In 1894, when he was 15, Edward left school and became a four-year apprentice at Milwaukee’s 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 hero.
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:
You 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 physically—the 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 us—the beauty of all these—and it is for us to create and give—and it is art.
Lilian listened, believed, and rebelled against her father’s insistence that she quit school and work for her mother in the milliner’s 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. Marie’s hopes for her children were being realized far beyond her dreams.
Shortly after the turn of the century, and with Edward’s 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 Zimmer’s across the road. There were some patches of woods; mainly, it was pasture land and cultivated fields. “But,” she later wrote Carl, “there’s the sky and the wide horizon and the open road—abundantly enough for glad hearts.”
Meanwhile, Edward was energized by his adventures in Europe. In 1902 he wrote to a friend:
There 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 bursting—I 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 Edward’s 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 Party meetings.
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 time—and especially how you contrive to write such Poet’s 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 Lilian’s letters from the beginning of the correspondence, Lilian did not keep Carl’s early letters.
In a letter dated February 15, 1908, Lilian, the pragmatist, expressed her feelings about Carl’s interest in poetry, and her condescending comments must have been rather unsettling for him.
Dear Mr. Sandburg . . . . It is good to have loved the poets . . . but it’s good, too, and better, to grow toward maturity and move on to greater things—the 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, didn’t 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.
The first of Carl’s surviving letters is dated February 21, 1908, mailed from Oshkosh.
Dear 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.
By February 24, Lilian had had the opportunity to read some of Carl’s poems, and she had changed her mind about poetry. “The poems—the 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.”
The letters increased in length and number, sometimes two or more a day, with postscript added to postscript. They discussed literature. Lilian read the German writers—Heine, Hauptmann, Sudermann. Carl’s 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. Whitman’s beat was Manhattan; Carl’s 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, Carl’s father, a blacksmith, could only sign an x for his name. They discovered many similarities in their backgrounds and attitudes.
By 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 alone—we can picture the milliner’s spirited daughter hatless, rebellious, her rain-muddied skirts sweeping the tall grass in the fields near town. She thought about Carl and wrote letters—one more than fifty pages long. The pragmatist was changing.
On March 7 she wrote:
The 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 horizon—the rest of the sky was still overcast with great heavy clouds—slate blue. Through a vista of arching elms, I saw the western sky aglow! And the ruts in the road caught the glow—burning, 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 along—the wind challenges—I 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.
But passion could not wait for a face-to-face meeting. On March 16 she wrote:
Dear 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 you—for Voice, for Life. This is the Wonder and the Hope.
Carl 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 Lilian’s influence on Carl’s writing. In spite of her concern for her stilted English, she tactfully began to give him pointers: “I believe I wouldn’t say ‘handsome buildings.’ I’d 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 Carl’s 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 Lilian’s “paragraphic essays,” with a Steichen photo of the two of them “facing the eternities.”
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:
Just had a 5-mile hike—over 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 tonight—good night. I kiss your grand face. It is a night of grandeurs—and you are its star. I kiss you as the last glory of this night of glories. Carl
They 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 River—black choking industrialism, and libraries, concerts, women’s clubs and art from Schuman-Heink to 5 cent vaudeville. All big, pulsing, turbulent, panoramic.”
That same night, after a walk on the dunes, in yet another letter he wrote:
Ten 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 them—a long night was ended. How they sang!
On April 23 she wrote to him, perhaps with more spontaneity, but with equal intensity:
Oh, 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 music—that 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!
Though Carl’s love poems were not published during his lifetime, and they aren’t generally known—even today—here are some lines from one of them:
Woman of 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.
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 Debs’s 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:
The 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 this—you 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. Sandburg’s 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 goat herds.
Carl died in 1967, age 89. Edward died in 1973, two days before his 94th birthday. Lilian died in 1976; she was 93. In Helga’s 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 him—his wants: quiet, food, sleep, companionship. When he died, the wheel stood still,” and for the family, “it was never the same in the world again.”
— By Faith B. Miracle. Photos from A Great and Glorious Romance: The Story of Carl Sandburg and Lilian Steichen by courtesy of Helga Sandburg.
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Longwell, Dennis. Steichen: The Master Prints 1895-1914. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1978.
Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New Yok: Charles Scribenr’s Sons, 1991.
Niven, Penelope. Steichen: A Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Publishers, 1997.
Sandburg, Carl and Margaret Sandburg, ed. Ever the Winds of Chance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Sandburg, Helga. Sweet Music: A Book of Family Reminiscence and Song. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.
Sandburg, Margaret. The Poet and Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen and Carl Sandburg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Steichen, Edward. A Life in Photography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.