Carl Sandburg’s “Radicalism”

This post concerns the extent to which the definition of “radical,” when used in a political context, can be radically pliable.

Carl Sandburg’s plain-spoken, earthy poetry places his work in a line from Walt Whitman’s to that of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers–and on into some of the poetry produced by the Beats. What about his politics?

At the University of Illinois’ Modern American Poetry site, the introduction to a discussion of Sandburg includes this sentence, “That between 1905 and 1920 Carl Sandburg was active in radical politics is beyond dispute.”

Then the piece goes on to quote from Penelope Niven’s biography of Sandburg (p. 136), and I’ve bolded a few items:

“Sandburg’s socialism encompassed both the welfare of society as a whole and the value of the individual life. He found lyrical affirmations of the ‘broadest average of humanity’ in the writings of Whitman, Emerson, William James. He understood the propaganda of the self-help movement in oratory, and tried like his friend Elbert Hubbard to leaven the realities of daily existence in the new industrialized society by encouraging individual initiative. In the platform of the Wisconsin Social-Democratic Party, he found a design for the kind of society he envisioned: reformed government; the elimination of corrupted power; the prohibition of child labor; protection of rights of women in the labor force; the right of literate women to vote; tax reform, including a graduated income and property tax; urban renewal; free medical care and school work for the unemployed; state farm insurance; pensions; workingmen’s compensation; municipal ownership of utilities; higher wages and shorter hours for working people; better living and working conditions for everyone. With the Wisconsin socialists, Sandburg had found a new forum from which to ‘agitate and educate.’ . . .”

Probably few of these specific items qualify as radical today, although you never know. Perhaps free health-care for unemployed person is still considered radical by some. No doubt some people would like utilities to be privately owned, but the public ownership seems more pragmatic and less risky than casting utilities out on the stormy sea of capitalism: witness Enron. And utilities may still purchase “product” from privately held companies, so the capitalist part is still alive and well. At any rate, Sandburg seems to me to have been engaged in centrist politics–by today’s standards.

To take a contrary view, however, one might note that what qualifies as “liberal” or “Leftist” seems to have shifted to the right. If we were to put Obama’s policies over Eisenhower’s on one of those old-fashioned overhead projectors, the policies would probably line up almost exactly. And yet President Obama is routinely labeled “socialist” by some.

“Radical,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “centrist,” “socialist”: the floating signifiers of politics.

Nivens’ book was published in 1993 by the University of Illinois Press.


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