Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years is, for better or worse, the best-selling, most widely read, and most influential book about Lincoln. Edmund Wilson, in Patriotic Gore, writes of how Grant's memoirs used to grace American bookshelves. "The thick pair of volumes of the Personal Memoirs," he wrote, "used to stand, like a solid attestation of the victory of the Union forces, on the selves of every pro-Union home."[1] In my own childhood, several generations after Wilson's, the six slate-colored volumes of Sandburg's Lincoln occupied the same place of honor, celebratory not so much of Union victory as of the uniting of the country under the heroic figure of Lincoln.

The two volumes of The Prairie Years were the publishing event of 1926, and the four volumes of The War Years were an equal success in 1939. The books have been through many editions, including versions of a one-volume edition that Sandburg prepared in 1954. They have also provided the basis for a great many adaptations for various media, including Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1938 and David Wolper's six-part dramatization for television, Sandburg's Lincoln, in 1974, starring Hal Holbrook. Probably more Americans have learned their Lincoln from Sandburg than from any other source.[2]

Sandburg's book has had an enormous impact on popular conceptions of Lincoln. In 1998, seventy-two years after the publication of its first part, it may seem to have aged rather badly: inaccurate factually, grotesquely distended, and lapsing rather too frequently into a dated and forced "prose poetry" that charms less now than over seventy years ago. Page  [End Page 55]

Maybe enough time has passed for us to see The Prairie Years and The War Years in historical perspective, to historicize it against the background of American history between the world wars. Sand-burg began writing The Prairie Years in 1922, less than five years after the World War I Armistice, and he completed The War Years in 1939 as the world was sliding inexorably into the holocaust of World War II; the ambiguity of his title did not escape him. Read as a timeless masterpiece, Sandburg's Lincoln does not hold up; read as a timely response to a series of national crises that recalled the Civil War, the book still carries much of its original power.

I would like to approach a historical reading of Sandburg's Lincoln gradually by first looking at it from three partial perspectives, each of which reveals part of the truth about the book. I do not have thirteen ways of looking at this blackbird, but I do have three: as a biography, an American epic, and an American myth. Then I would also like to look at the book from a fourth perspective, which perhaps engages its historical context more directly: as an American testament, a secular analogy of scripture designed to provide inspiration for Americans as they endured trials that to Sandburg's mind recalled the testing of the Civil War.

Most obviously, Sandburg's Lincoln is a biography of Lincoln. Sandburg himself thought of it as a Lincoln biography, at least most of the time, and that is the way that it has been read for the most part. Yet from the beginning, critics have pointed out that if it is a biography at all, it is a very eccentric and unconventional one. When The War Years appeared, the noted historian Charles Beard praised it as "a noble monument to American literature" but found it distinctly odd as historical biography: "Never yet," he wrote, "has a history or biography like Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years appeared on land or sea. Strict disciples of Gibbon, Macaulay, Ranke, Mommsen, Hegel, or Marx will scarcely know what to do with it."[3] William E. Barton, who had published a life of Lincoln himself the year before The Prairie Years was published, wrote that Sandburg's book "is not history, is not even biography" because of its lack of original research and uncritical use of evidence, but Barton nevertheless thought it was "real literature and a delightful and important contribution to the ever-lengthening shelf of really good books about Lincoln."[4] Milo Milton Quaife, in Page  [End Page 56] the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, was not so generous. In one of the harshest evaluations of the book, he attacked Sandburg's failure to document his sources, his "naive conception of what constitutes evidence," and his "carelessness of statement." He cited nine factual errors in four pages on the Black Hawk War and wondered if the rest of the book was similarly inaccurate. The Prairie Years, he wrote, was nothing but "a hodge podge of miscellaneous information."[5]

Historians have continued to criticize Sandburg's free and easy way with his sources and his failure to identify those sources ever since, not only in The Prairie Years but in The War Years as well. He did provide a list of "Sources and Acknowledgments" at the opening of The War Years, but it is so brief and general as to be almost useless. He does identify many of his sources in the text of the works, and the reader who is reasonably familiar with the Lincoln literature is likely to recognize many of the rest of the sources. Unfortunately, such a reader is likely to recognize such unreliable or even fictional sources as the anonymous Diary of a Public Man and Francis Grierson's Valley of Shadows, which were drawn on as if they were authoritative.

A different, though related, charge against The Prairie Years and The War Years is that they contain too much material that is neither biography nor history but merely rather sentimental poeticizing on Sandburg's part. Quaife was as hard on this aspect of The Prairie Years as he was on the careless scholarship. He was especially scornful of what Sandburg called the "moonlight chapters," sections in which he sketched in the historical context of Lincoln's life by imagining what the moon might have seen at the time. "Whatever else it may be," Quaife snorted, it is "not history." [6] Sandburg's "poetical" interpolations were also the butt of Edmund Wilson's famous attack on the book, first in The New Yorker and then in Patriotic Gore. Wilson found Sandburg's treatment of Lincoln's romance with Ann Rutledge particularly hard to stomach. He cited Sandburg's line, "A trembling took his body and dark waves ran through him sometimes when she spoke so simple a thing as, 'The corn is getting high, isn't it?'" Wilson's comment was, "The corn is getting high indeed!"[7] Page  [End Page 57]

One critical strategy, faced with the uneasy blend of history and poetry in Sandburg's Lincoln, has been to abandon the claim to biographical accuracy and instead see the book as a large-scale national poem, perhaps an American epic. This is the view taken by, among many others, Penelope Niven, author of the massive and authoritative 1991 Carl Sandburg: A Biography."Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years," she writes, "is a vast, epic prose poem, with Lincoln the central figure in the volatile pageant of nineteenth-century American life. A man and a nation simultaneously came of age, for Lincoln grew into manhood as his country faced its own great crisis of character and destiny." [8] It is also essentially the view that Robert W. Johannsen takes in his wonderfully warm and sympathetic 1978 essay on "Sandburg and Lincoln: The Prairie Years." He frames Sandburg as a romantic historian rather than an epic poet, but the two are very similar in Johannsen's formulation. The Prairie Years, he writes, quoting Sandburg approvingly, "was a 'poem of America, the America of humble folk and rough pioneers, of crude settlements ... of the corn lands and broad prairies ... a poem of the human spirit, not Lincoln's spirit only.'"[9]

Sandburg himself saw his book as an American epic as often as he thought of it as a mere biography. In a preface written for The Prairie Years but dropped before publication, he wrote, "The facts and myths of his life are to be an American possession, shared widely over the world, for thousands of years, as the tradition of Knute or Alfred, Laotse or Diogenes, Pericles or Caesar, are kept."[10] And in his "symphonic finish" to The War Years, Sandburg wrote, "Out of the smoke and stench, out of the music and violent dreams of the war, Lincoln stood perhaps taller than any other of the many great heroes. This was in the minds of many. None threw a longer shadow than he. And to him the great hero was The People. He could not say too often that he was merely their instrument."[11] In this and in many similar passages, the figure of Lincoln becomes merged with that of Sandburg's favorite abstraction, The People, and the book becomes a democratic epic celebrating not an individual but a collective hero. Page  [End Page 58]

The oxymoronic term democratic epic foregrounds the weakness of the interpretation of The Prairie Years and The War Years as "epic" in any interestingly complex way. It is true that they are vast and sweeping in scale and national in spirit. The problem with an epic reading of Sandburg, however, is with the nature of the hero. To place The Prairie Years and The War Years in a series that begins with the Iliad and the Odyssey and continues with the Aeneid and Paradise Lost is to connect it with an aristocratic and individualistic tradition that Sandburg sharply critiques in Lincoln. The critique takes the form of a pervasive ambivalence on the subject of Lincoln's heroism, an ambivalence that appears in the conclusion to The War Years quoted earlier; on the one hand, Lincoln "stood perhaps taller than any other of the many great heroes," and on the other, to Lincoln himself, the great hero was "The People." (Niven and Johannsen register this ambivalence also, in Niven's identification of Sandburg's hero as not only Lincoln but also "the nation" and Johannsen's identification of him as both Lincoln and "the human spirit.")

A reading of Sandburg's Lincoln within the epic tradition might end by placing him not in a series with Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas but rather with Blake's Albion, Whitman's Walt, and Joyce's Leopold Bloom, as antiheroic heroes, collective individualists, and bourgeois aristocrats, in other words, within the paradoxical tradition of democratic epic heroes.

The Prairie Years and The War Years have also been read not as biography or as an epic poem but as a mythic text of American popular culture. Placed not in a series that includes Herndon's, Randall's, and David Herbert Donald's biographies of Lincoln or in one that includes the Iliad and the Odyssey, but rather, in a sequence that includes "Rip Van Winkle," Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gone with the Wind, literary works, in other words, that provide or express some of the foundational myths of our culture, myths, in these examples, of gender, race, and the South. [12] The fullest reading of Sandburg's Lincoln from this point of view is perhaps found in Stephen B. Oates's Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths. Oates concludes his survey of Sandburg's work by writing the following:

Sandburg's Lincoln has such irresistible appeal to us [because] he is "a baffling and completely inexplicable" hero who em- Page  [End Page 59] bodies the mystical genius of our nation. He possesses what Americans have always considered their most noble traits—honesty, unpretentiousness, tolerance, hard work, a capacity to forgive, a compassion for the underdog, a clear-sighted vision of right and wrong, a dedication to God and country, and an abiding concern for all.[13]
There is much that is persuasive about Oates's mythic reading of Sandburg's book, as there is about the readings of the book as biography and epic poem. Certainly Sandburg's Lincoln perpetuates a number of myths and stereotypes (and, incidentally, creates a few of its own). But, like the biographical and epic readings, Oates's pop-culture reading raises several questions. First, it seems remarkably innocent on Oates's part to believe that a popular audience would be attracted by such a Sunday School paragon as he describes. He seems to have given us a Lincoln for an audience of Tom Sawyers rather than the Huckleberry Finns that most of us actually are. Some consultation of recent studies of the interaction of readers with popular texts, such as Janice Radway's Reading the Romance, would have considerably complicated and enriched Oates's speculations.[14]

A more important point, however, is not whether readers want the sort of goody-goody Lincoln that Oates describes but rather whether this is the sort of Lincoln that Sandburg presents. And the answer must be a qualified "no." In the light of Oates's caricature of the book, it is interesting that its early reviewers saw it not as mythologizing but as demythologizing, a realistic portrait of a previously sentimentalized man. Harry Hansen, in his review of The Prairie Years in 1926, wrote the following:

Out of the pages of this book emerges no heroic figure, no epic character, no titan towering above puny men. This is the book of the railsplitter, of the country storekeeper, the young lawyer, the frontier advocate, the practical backwoods politician.... The danger to the Lincoln legend was not from those who tried to make him less than he was; it came from those who were erecting him into a god of the new Augustan age of Page  [End Page 60] American commercial expansion. Lincoln was a human being of contradictions, faults and qualities.[15]

"Realism" is, of course, a subjective and time-bound quality, as anyone knows who has watched a presumably realistic film made twenty-five years ago. The Lincoln stereotypes of 1926 against which Sandburg seemed to be rebelling were not the stereotypes of the present, which are more likely to be the ones that Sandburg himself promulgated.

The definitive treatment of Lincoln as myth, at least for the time being, is Merrill D. Peterson's astonishingly exhaustive and perceptive 1994 book Lincoln in American Memory. Peterson adopts a rather static "images of Lincoln" theoretical framework, tracing five images through the voluminous texts, both verbal and nonverbal, in which Lincoln is memorialized: the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, man of the people, first American, and self-made man. [16] This scheme itself might be criticized for its overly simple conception of how audiences receive "images of Lincoln." It is as if idealization or wish fulfillment were the only process by which Americans perceive Lincoln. Other contemporary students of popular culture might see "Lincoln" not as a frozen image but as a site of cultural negotiation, in which cultural consumers construct Lincolns that satisfy multiply determined cultural needs. What seems to be left out of both Oates's and Peterson's formulations is the sort of wry, complex meditation on Lincoln that Charlie Citrine carries out in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. Citrine reflects that Lincoln is the exemplary American hero: "manic-depressive." [17]

Biography, epic, myth: All three ways of looking at Sandburg's Lincoln are partial. Each has a piece of the truth but fails to account for some features of this odd and idiosyncratic book. I would like to end by proposing another way of describing the book, as having what the critic Northrop Frye calls an "encyclopedic form."[18] Encyclopedic literary forms are characterized by their episodic, miscellaneous structures and by their panoramic, comprehensive visions of an entire culture. The principal encyclopedic text of our own culture is the Bible, with its composite structure of separate Page  [End Page 61] books written at different times and in different forms and with its sweeping, comprehensive vision of human life from creation to apocalypse. In modern times, encyclopedic texts tend to be what Frye calls "analogies of revelation," such episodic and yet visionary texts as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts.[19]

The general affiliations of Sandburg's Lincoln with encyclopedic texts are obvious in their loose, serial construction and their attempt to place Lincoln at the center of a vast, sweeping survey of American democratic civilization. In pointing out a few examples of these features, I should make it clear that I am referring to the entire six volumes of The Prairie Years and The War Years, as they were published in 1926 and 1939, and that occasionally I will refer to them separately, because in some ways, The Prairie Years and The War Years are separate works, organized and composed differently. Both are also different from the various abridgments that Sand-burg carved from them in later years. In these shorter versions, Sandburg tamed the wildness of his original text, trimming some of the ecstatic excesses of his American analogy of revelation. I want to look at Sandburg on the loose, in the full wildness of his extraordinary book.

A reading of Sandburg's Lincoln as an encyclopedic text is encouraged by some of Sandburg's own occasional descriptions of his work. In a letter in September 1937, to his friend and editor, Alfred Harcourt, for example, as he was preparing to turn the manuscript of The War Years over to the publisher, Sandburg wrote: "Sometimes I look at this damned vast manuscript and it seems just a memorandum I made for my own use in connection with a long adventure of reading, study and thought aimed at reaching into what actually went on in one terrific crisis—with occasional interpolations of meditations, sometimes musical, having to do with any and all human times."[20] And as early as fifteen years before, when he had just begun work on The Prairie Years, he had already begun to see the book as both a miscellany and an American secular testament: "Sometimes I think the Lincoln book," he wrote Harcourt, "will be a sort of History and Old Testament of the United States, a joke almanac, prayer collect, and compendium of essential facts." [21] Page  [End Page 62]

One of the surprises (and pleasures) of Sandburg's Lincoln is the unexpected twists and turns it takes as it unfolds its leisurely story. Chapter 66 of The Prairie Years, for example, is an account of the life cycle of corn, on no more pretext than that Lincoln passed a corn field on his way to his Springfield office. We hear of the plowing and the planting, the sprouting and the growing of the corn, the tassling, the forming of the ears, and their slow maturation. Then comes the harvest, the shucking, the shelling of the corn, and finally the fallow period of the winter: "Harvest time had come and gone. Afterward came the months when snow blew across the fields, and covered the stumps, and the fields were white and lonely." [22] In the long view, the description of the corn forms part of a metaphoric pattern in the book, but immediately, it is metonymic, included merely because the corn was there.

Similar interpolations are the list of jokes in Chapter 58 that Sandburg says Lincoln "might have told"; the list in Chapter 102 of commonplace cases that Lincoln tried, with no conclusion drawn except that "such were a few of the human causes, disputes, and actions in which Lincoln versed himself thoroughly" and the immensely protracted list of White House petitioners in Chapter 35 of The War Years. [23]

Reviewers noticed this aggregative quality of Lincoln, by which the book seems infinitely prolongable, merely by adding more lists, more random facts. Mark Van Doren wrote that "as Mr. Sandburg goes on he becomes drunk with data, and in true Homeric fashion compiles long lists of things." [24] Another reviewer thought that the book as "full of facts as Jack Horner's pie was full of plums." [25] Milo Milton Quaife said the same thing less tactfully: the book was "a literary grab bag," he wrote, "a hodge podge of miscellaneous information."[26]

The tone and the effect of the book are determined, to a large extent, by its odd combination of a mythologizing impulse and a great proliferation of detail. We think of myths as stark, bare, and timeless, not as embedded in the historical and the circumstantial. But the combination is perfectly consistent with Sandburg's inten- Page  [End Page 63] tion of writing an encyclopedic work, a "History and Old Testament of the United States," and perhaps we should relate Sand-burg's lists not so much to Homer and Little Jack Horner as to the roll calls and genealogies of the Old Testament.

The other feature of Sandburg's Lincoln that is illuminated by seeing the book in the encyclopedic tradition is its characterization of Lincoln. As we have seen, commentators have been sharply divided in their readings of Sandburg's representation of Lincoln. At one extreme is a reader such as Stephen Oates, who sees Sand-burg's Lincoln merely as a stereotype idealized beyond credibility; at the other extreme is one such as Harry Hansen, who thought that Sandburg had described a real person, "a human being of contradictions, faults and qualities." In fact, both Oates and Hansen are right; Sandburg's Lincoln alternates inconsistently between a believable human being and an abstraction, not, perhaps, the Christian saint of Oates's description, but something closer to a nature god, coterminous with the natural world and frequently on the point of dissolving back within it. The Prairie Years is especially thick with references of this sort. The boy Lincoln is compared with a growing stalk of corn:

When he was eleven years old, Abe Lincoln's young body began to change. The juices and glands began to make a long, tall boy out of him.... As he took on more length, they said he was shooting up into the air like green corn in the summer of a good corn-year. So he grew. [27]
The Illinois corn crop furnishes the central symbol for Lincoln's development and his near identity with nature in The Prairie Years. And not only the corn crop: At other times, Lincoln seems to be half tree: "He grew as hickory grows, the torso lengthening and toughening. The sap mounted, the branches spread, leaves came with wind clamor in them."[28]

Such passages are less frequent in The War Years. Lincoln biographers have always had trouble reconciling the Illinois and the Washington Lincoln. Sandburg's solution is to make The Prairie Years a comic pastoral and The War Years a tragedy. He also makes The Prairie Years relatively mythic and The War Years relatively realistic. I say "relatively" because Lincoln has a double nature throughout, oscillating between man and spirit, in line with Sand- Page  [End Page 64] burg's double intention both to depict a real person and a real crisis in American history and at the same time to make of that depiction an "analogy of revelation" of the American civil religion.

That Sandburg intends his Lincoln to be this kind of a secular scripture that would provide a spiritual inspiration for the country as it faced economic collapse and impending war is clear from the narrative of composition that unfolds in his letters. In 1935, for example, he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt: "Having written for ten years now on 'Abraham Lincoln: the War Years,' starting this year on the fourth and final volume, I have my eyes and ears in two eras and can not help drawing parallels. One runs to the effect that you are the best light of democracy that has occupied the White House since Lincoln."[29] Readers of The Prairie Years and The War Years, too, might read with their "eyes and ears in two eras," not only the America of Lincoln's time but the America of Roosevelt's as well. Read in this stereoptical way, Sandburg's Lincoln might reveal to us the passion and the urgency that its first readers sensed in it three quarters of a century ago.Page  [End Page 65]


  1. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 132. return to text
  2. Penelope Niven, Carl Sandburg: A Biography (New York: Scribner's, 1991), 536; Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 389. return to text
  3. Charles Beard, "The Sandburg Lincoln," Virginia Quarterly Review 16 (Winter 1940): 112–16. return to text
  4. William E. Barton, "Review of The Prairie Years,"American Historical Review 31 (July 1926): 809–11. return to text
  5. Milo Milton Quaife, "Review of The Prairie Years," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 13 (September 1926): 287–91. return to text
  6. Ibid. return to text
  7. Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 116. return to text
  8. Niven, Carl Sandburg, 423. return to text
  9. Robert W. Johannsen, "Sandburg and Lincoln: The Prairie Years," in The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 267–84. return to text
  10. Niven, Carl Sandburg, 431. return to text
  11. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939), 4: 387. return to text
  12. William Henry Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 3 vols. (Chicago: Belford and Clarke, 1899); James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4 vols. (New York: Dodd and Mead, 1945–1955). The last volume was completed by Richard Nelson Current. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). return to text
  13. Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man behind the Myths (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 16. return to text
  14. Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984). return to text
  15. Niven, Carl Sandburg, 435. return to text
  16. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory. return to text
  17. Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (New York: Avon, 1975). return to text
  18. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). return to text
  19. Ibid. return to text
  20. Herbert Mitgang, ed., The Letters of Carl Sandburg (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968), 372. return to text
  21. Ibid., 221. return to text
  22. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926), 1:322–24. return to text
  23. See Ibid., 1:228; Ibid., 2:67; Sandburg, War Years, 2:28–66. return to text
  24. Mark Van Doren, "Review of The Prairie Years," Nation (February 10, 1926), 149. return to text
  25. As quoted in Johannsen, "Sandburg and Lincoln," 276. return to text
  26. Quaife, "Review of The Prairie Years," 288. return to text
  27. Sandburg, The Prairie Years, 1:43. return to text
  28. Ibid., 1:54. return to text
  29. Mitgang, The Letters of Carl Sandburg, 318. return to text