I’ll admit I rushed to complete today’s audio piece because I wanted to make note of a birthday anniversary of an important contributor to the American wing of the Modernist movement of the early 20th century. I’m going to get to it in a roundabout way. Have patience, valued reader, I think this abbreviated story is worth your time if you care about the everyday accidents and personal connections that you might find scattered about behind what become large changes.
This story starts with two 19th century American immigrant families. I know a few details, and though I probably don’t know a lot more, but I think I know enough for a story. One family’s breadwinner was a laborer from Sweden. I read today he signed his name with an X, and he worked at various jobs including blacksmith’s assistant in Illinois after arriving. His wife was resourceful and was able to keep the underfunded household going. The other was described as a “peasant family” from the tiny country of Luxembourg. “Peasant” sounds so Bruegel, I don’t know if things were that feudal in Luxembourg in the middle of the 19th century, but that second family emigrated to the midwestern United States like the first one. The husband started out working in a mine until ill health forced him out. Luckily his wife found some income working as a milliner.
What’s important about these two families? Well, so far, nothing — though they raised families, that’s something. The second family already had kids when they arrived, the first one soon had seven kids. We’re going to concentrate on some of the kids. Our first family was the Sandburgs, the second the Steichens. One of the Sandburg children in Illinois called himself Charlie, and over at the Steichens in Wisconsin we had Edward and Lillian who were born in Luxembourg but were now growing up in the US. Charlie, the son of the man who signed his name with an X was passionate about writing. Edward, the son of the miner, was interested in art.
Charlie, our writer, had to leave school to help earn money for the struggling family at age 13. Eventually he volunteered for the army and served in the Spanish American War. Edward worked at the commercial end of art while having ambitions to move into the fine art world. Given those ambitions he took a wild chance by moving over to photography, which in the late 19th century wasn’t yet considered a fine art. How could that acceptance happen?
Edward started taking pictures and working on various ways the composition, lighting and film developing process could alter the images in artistic ways. One of his models for the photographs as he worked on his craft was his younger sister Lillian (see below).
Charlie got a break after the short-run war he was in. A local college gave him a scholarship* as a returning war veteran, and one of his sisters, Mary, was big on education and helped support him. Charlie rushed into doing everything writing he could do there — and while he didn’t graduate, when he left it was to pursue writing and to give talks on the midwestern Chautauqua circuit. Looking to network, he found himself in Wisconsin attending a Socialist party meeting.** It’s there that he met Lillian Steichen. Bam! Charlie fell hard and fast for Lillian. Lillian was perhaps a bit more careful. Charlie told her he was a poet, an artist, and he asked for her address (she was visiting her family, but was teaching in another state). She obliged. That was it, one accidental meeting.
For the next six months Charlie Sandburg wooed Lillian Steichen with letters. Lots of letters. Letters with poetry. Lillian’s letters easily showed her intelligence and wide interests, and she may have felt freer to discuss those things with native-born Charlie in writing because English was her second language and she may not have been as fluent in it speaking casually. And despite Charlie not being a good provider catch, the two fell deeply in sealed-with-a-kiss love. How much did Lillian rev Charlie Sandburg’s poetry engine? We’ll see at the end of this story today.
What about Lillian’s big brother Edward? His art photographs were getting some interest, and he had crossed paths with Alfred Stieglitz, another man who was interested in the Modernist movement to make photography into art. In 1905 the two go in to showing not just their fine art photographs but all kinds of Modernist art in New York City. Edward’s photographs filled Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work. A gallery they set up, the 291 Gallery, shows much new modern art work — not just photographs— and this work is often shown there publicly for the first time in America. How important and primary were Stieglitz and Edward Steichen in Modern art? Even a person who’s not primarily interested in visual arts like me has heard of the famous 1913 Armory Show in NYC, often considered the pioneering event in America’s exposure to Modernism. Well, Stieglitz and Steichen were showing that kind of work and laying the groundwork for that show for a decade before.
Back to Lillian Steichen and Charlie Sandburg. They married in 1908, job prospects for free-verse poets not overly concerning them. Charlie started to go by his birth name Carl, which he’d previously ditched because it seemed too ethnic. He worked for awhile as the PR/Press Secretary for the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee.*** And then he moves on to daily journalism as his day gig in Chicago. Carl, Lillian, and the brother-in-law exchange Modernisms. Carl’s poetry becomes more tightly visual, more show not tell. Later, if by extension photography can be an art, how about movies? Carl Sandburg’s daily journalism includes becoming an early movie critic.
Edward & Lillian Steichen. “My Younger Sister with a Rose Covered Hat.” Carl and Lillian Sandburg. “My Little Sister.” All photos by Edward Steichen. Check out the hats. Was it another happy accident that Steichen’s mom was a milliner?
In 1918, ten years after he married Lillian, Sandburg issued his first collection, Chicago Poems. It wins the Pulitzer prize, helping to bring Modernist poetry to the attention of the public in America. He dedicates the book to “My wife and pal, Lillian Steichen Sandburg.” If you want to read more on Lillian, the couple’s courtship and their life-long marriage, here’s a link to start with. If you want to know more about how Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz’s the 291 Gallery was a beachhead for Modernism in America, you can start here.****
On the anniversary of Edward Steichen’s birth, here’s one of Carl Sandburg’s poems wooing Lillian Steichen, “A Dream Girl,” performed as a song. You can think of it as Sandburg’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” But knowing the art-photography Steichen side, consider the poems final line when you listen below, or read it here. I recorded the song quickly, with just my voice and an acoustic guitar, something that Carl Sandburg would have had handy to him, because Carl Sandburg was also a pioneering folksong revivalist, often dropping a set of acoustic guitar songs into his readings at a time when Pete Seeger wasn’t out of diapers. Oh, and Bob Dylan? Did you know that when Dylan’s poetic songwriting was just taking off that he took it upon himself to seek out Carl Sandburg? Oh, so many stories, let’s get onto the song. Graphical player below, and an alternative highlighted link for those that can’t see that player.
*Charlie, Mary, or someone must have talked Charlie up a bit. Colleges, even then, didn’t usually admit folks who hadn’t attended high school.
**By the turn of the century, democratic socialism was an emergent movement in the US. Despite its suppression in the WWI years there was some chance that it could have developed into a European style mass political party. Even with the Palmer raids and fears of a Soviet style revolution after WWI, US Socialists were able to win governorships, congressional seats, and mayoral races in places in the American Midwest in the first half of the 20th century.
***The history of Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors is fascinating and too-little-known. They were the good-government party in that city, noted for reliably delivering civic improvement and services. How did poet Carl find working in the municipal front lines of progressive politics? See this post from earlier in this Project.
****My own dedication: I found out about the 291 Gallery in a book Strange Bedfellows about the intertangled networks of American Modernism that was given to me by Dave Moore and Linnea Hadaway. Thanks!