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Carl Sandburg and the Steichens
The Wisconsin Years

By Faith B. Miracle
from the Wisconsin Academy Review   1988


Ah, Milwaukee . . . I got my bearings there.
The rest of my life has been the unrolling  
of a scene that started up in Wisconsin.  
 
Carl Sandburg, Historical Messenger
June 1953, Vol. 9, No. 2

On December 29, 1907, Carl Sandburg, then calling himself Charles, checked in at 344 N. Sixth Street in Milwaukee to report on his new job as organizer for the Wisconsin Social-Democratic party. On that same day, party member Lilian Steichen, younger sister of photographer Edward Steichen, was ending her Christmas visit with her parents in Menomonee Falls and returning to her teaching position in Princeton, Illinois. She stopped in at party headquarters to say goodbye to her socialist friends and met, by chance, the new party organizer. They talked for a while. He walked her to the trolley. 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, Helga--were aware over the years of a box of letters treasured by their mother. Two of the daughters have made the contents available for all of us to read, study, and enjoy. A Great and Glorious Romance by Helga Sandburg, the youngest daughter, was published in 1978. his book represents her poignant search for identity through an understanding of her gifted parents and uncle. And now, published in 1987, we have The Poet and the Dream Girl, the love letters of Carl and Lilian. Edited by Margaret Sandburg, the eldest daughter and family archivist, this book contains 135 letters written between January and June 1908, while Lilian was teaching English and expression to high school students in Princeton and Carl was stumping parts of Wisconsin on behalf of the Social-Democrats.

While the letters are interesting for many reasons, they first and foremost 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 & Tinted Dreams t[ha]t is in you, all the sky of love and earth of beauty in you, I know from your letters. (Dream Girl, p. 155)

At the time of their first meeting, Carl had received his formal education at Lombard College in his home town, Galesburg, Illinois. He had worked a number of odd jobs, traveled the country in boxcars, done some writing and public speaking, and was seriously looking for his niche in life. His Swedish immigrant parents were anxious for him to settle down and find steady employment. His 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 "practical and constructive." (Ever the Winds, p. 163) It was Gaylord who convinced him to move to Wisconsin.

Carl's assignment on his new job in 1907 was to work the Lake Shore and Fox Valley districts of the state, recruiting members and support for the party. He made his home in Oshkosh at 248 Wisconsin Avenue, and his territory included Two Rivers, Mishicot, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, New Holstein, Kiel, Plymouth, Fond du Lac, Campbellsport, West Bend, Appleton, Oconto. He traveled most often by train, but a letter to his sister during this period was written "on a sleigh stage crossing Green Bay from Mari[n]ette to Sturgeon Bay." (Great and Glorious, p. 115)

Lilian Steichen also was the child of immigrant peasant parents. Jean-Pierre and Marie Steichen had emigrated from Luxembourg to Hancock, Michigan in 1880 with their eighteen-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. Once, when Carl chided her for writing about "arduous labor" rather than "hard work," she explained that her English was "bookish" because she learned it mostly through reading. (Dream Girl, p. 92)

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 ofthe American dream, she envisioned great things for her two precocious children, and she sent Edward at age nine to Pio Nono 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. A check of city directories reveals that the Steichen family moved several times during their early years in Milwaukee. Later they lived on Water Street, and Edward had a studio there. All of the addresses listed were on the near north side of the city.

An interesting twist of fate was partly responsible for this move to Milwaukee. Edward had turned in an art assignment which was praised by the teachers at Pio Nono, and word reached Marie in Hancock that her son had talent. Weary of the rough mining-town atmosphere which prevailed in Hancock at the time and now convinced Edward could be a great artist, she relocated her family and business so he could study with the best art teachers available. Edward, in fact, had traced the pictures which brought him recognition. Trapped by his own deception, he quickly set about teaching himself to draw and to learn what he could about art. Many years later, Helga, writing about her flamboyant and elegant Uncle Ed, marveled at his success. This immigrant boy, who had sold vegetables on the streets of Hancock as a child, was to rock the international art world at age twenty-two with his departure from conventional photographic style and his perfectionist attention to composition and lighting. Among the Steichen archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings about Edward, carefully collected over the years by Marie. In 1963, thirty years after her death, Edward wrote his autobiography, A Life In Photography, and dedicated it to "my mother...with homage, gratitude, respect, admiration, and love." He felt he owed much of his success to his mother's faith in him.

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. At his ninetieth birthday party, Edward, seated beside Lilian, banged his cane on the floor and said, "I shouldn't be sitting here, Carl should. There are some men who should live forever--Carl was one." (Great and Glorious, p. 314)

Edward was sixteen in 1895 when he bought his first camera. Of the fifty pictures taken with his first roll of film, only one turned out. Today it remains a classic in art photography. It is titled "My Little Sister" and, slightly blurred, has the look of a painting. In it Lilian, age twelve, 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.

In keeping with Marie's ambitions, Edward became a four-year apprentice at Milwaukee's American Fine Art Company, a lithographic firm. He studied with Milwaukee artists Robert Shade and Richard Lorenz who gave him "the real inspiration and a foundation." (Master Prints, p. 12) His fascination for photography took him time after time to the end of the trolley line where he roamed the fields and woods around Milwaukee, creating blurred images of ponds and trees by intentionally moving the camera or putting water on the lens. His photography, which was to become part of the symbolist movement, had the quality of the impressionist paintings of the 1870s and 1880s. In 1900 Edward attended a recital in Milwaukee given by Ignace Paderewski and seized the opportunity to do a lithograph of a great artist. The lithograph was placed in a window of Gimbel's department store and purchased by Mrs. Arthur Robinson, in whose parlor Edward was to have his first solo exhibit of photography. Later that year, at age twenty-one, he sailed for Paris to study art.

Edward had long realized that his younger sister was brilliant and had encouraged her to be independent, to find her own destiny. Lilian listened, believed, and rebelled against life as a milliner's helper. She went off to Canada to study at a Catholic girl's school, and in 1900, the year Edward left for Paris, 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 and honors in English and Latin. Marie's hopes for her children were being realized far beyond her dreams.

Shortly after the turn of the century the Steichens bought a small farm with a "dear little white house" near Menomonee Falls where Jean-Pierre could raise corn and potatoes, and where on hot summernights Lilian and Marie could sleep in the orchard. Lilian described the area as flat country, with the Klinger and Kelper 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 there's the sky and the wide horizon and the Open Road! ... Abundantly enough for glad hearts!" (Dream Girl, p. 26) Today, though development of the general area has crept close, the immediate neighborhood ofthe home at W156-N6767 Pilgrim Road is much as it was when the Steichens lived there.

Meanwhile, Edward was energized by his adventures in Europe. In 1902 he wrote to a friend:

There are trees in the Villa de Medicis 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! (Master Prints, p. 38)

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 hung in the National Gallery in Brussels.

Inspired by Edward's success, Lilian began to write. 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. Among their friends were Victor Berger, Emil Seidel, and Charles Whitnall. The two women stayed with Whitnall during their trips to Milwaukee, and, apparently, he felt deep affection for the Steichens, particularly Lilian. Her letters suggest concern about breaking the news to him when she and Carl decided to marry. As a young man Edward's "greatest aspiration was to paint a Christ" with Whitnall as the model, inspired by Whitnall's sorrowful expression. (Dream Girl, p. 53) The painting was never done. (Whitnall Park, over 600 acres of hills, woods, and gardens, located in Hales Corners just south of Milwaukee, was named for Charles.)

Lilian became a dedicated party worker. 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 would describe a young woman with "midnight black hair" who, he suspected, was smarter than he was. (Winds of Chance, p. xi)

And so we come to the time of the letters. The first is dated January 17, 1908:

Dear Mr. Sandburg, ... 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 ... Yours Cordially, Lilian Steichen (Dream Girl, p. 9)

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. ..." (Great and Glorious, p. 107)

Letters flew back and forth between Princeton and various points in Wisconsin, sometimes two a day, with postscript added to postscript. It seemed neither could say all that was pressing to be said. By February Lilian was thinking of spring break and a possible meeting:

I told you--didn't I?--that my home is in the country--a little farm--four acres--3 miles from Menomonee Falls--about 15 miles from Milwaukee. If you should be in Mil. at any time during my vacation, I should be so glad to see you there or to have you come to see us at the farm. (Dream Girl, p. 11)

They discussed literature in their letters. 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 and eventually Milwaukee. In 1915 Carl was to express his affinity for the working man in his acclaimed Chicago poems. Both Carl and Lilian read Robert Louis Stevenson and Thorstein Veblen (under whom Lilian had studied while in Chicago ). Carl wrote to Lilian, "Anybody that can put it down in black and white 'I--I love Heine !' has mounted far towards the summits of freedom." (Dream Girl, p. 48) They wrote of their respective parents: both had mothers more gifted than the men they had married--in fact, Carl's father, a blacksmith, signed his name with an x. They discovered many similarities in their backgrounds and attitudes.

But passion could not be subdued to wait for a face-to-face meeting. On March 16 Lilian 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. (Dream Girl, p. 35)

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 pent-up 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 hand in hand, 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 Paus'l, an affectionate nickname used by her family. After that, Helga tells us, all his love poems would have the same title: Paula.

Back in Princeton after spring vacation, Lilian went for long walks alone--the milliner's daughter hatless, her rain-muddled skirts sweeping the tall grass in the fields near town. She dreamed of Carl and wrote letters--one more than fifty pages long--and relived the week at the farm. She wrote Carl on April 10:

I see you going up the narrow stairs candle in hand--saying good-night and good-night--your eyes full of love. (Dream Girl, p. 75)

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. (Dream Girl, p. 15)

Carl took it well. He called her a literary stylist and a pundit. When he considered giving up poetry, she protested:

[Y]ou discover to me the only poetry that has ever satisfied me since I learned to think twentieth century thoughts. (Dream Girl, p. 15)

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 go over carefully the manuscript of Carl's second book of Rootabaga stories.

During that 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--the "S-S molecule" at the service of human kind. Carl plotted a book to be written by the two of them to include some of Lilian's "paragraphic essays, with a Steichen print of the two of us facing the eternities...."(Dream Girl, p. 112)

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.

Spring 1908 found Carl and Lilian rapturous in their love, considering where they might live after their marriage. On April 21 he wrote from Two Rivers:

The district has so much of natural beauty, Lilian. 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. ... (Dream Girl, p. 115)

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, in the garden of my under-life. 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. God! how they sang. (Dream Girl, p. 118)

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! (Dream Girl, p. 128)

They planned their wedding, wondering what warm springtime would do to "two hearts that were mad in chilly March." (Dream Girl, p. 229) On June 13, 1908, they were married. Carl was thirty, Lilian, twenty-five. She spent that summer at the farm while he traveled his district, and they moved to Appleton in the fall. Carl was involved in Eugene Debs's campaign for president, traveling more than ever. To fight loneliness--"tears and tears"--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:

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 enuff leisure for this--you will arrive. (Great and Glorious, p. 168)

In June 1909 they moved to Milwaukee and Carl wrote for the Milwaukee newspapers. Both Lilian and Carl became interested in the Wisconsin Tuberculosis Society, and Carl traveled to forty-five cities in the state on behalf of the fight against TB. At that time, Kenosha was the city in Wisconsin hardest hit by the disease. When the 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:

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 June 1911 Margaret was born at what was then Misericordia Hospital. Lilian took the baby to the farm for the summer to enjoy "the full sweep of sky and wide fields and open meadows." (Great and Glorious, p. 186) She and Marie canned fruit from the orchard and vegetables from Jean Pierre's garden. Money was a problem.

In 1912 Carl was offered a job on a Chicago newspaper, and the Sandburgs moved to Illinois. By this time their ardent idealism had been infused with realism, the result of a degree of disillusionment with the political process. Ties with Wisconsin remained strong, however. Helga, reliving her childhood, tells us, ". . . my mother takes my sisters and me up over the Wisconsin border where the lake country begins and where the love of water and sand becomes a part of us." (Great and Glorious, p. 310)

Carl lived to be eighty-nine. Edward and Lilian were both ninety-three when they died. In Helga's search for the true story of her family she found love, genius, pain. In her Uncle Ed she found "romance, sensibility, sweetness, gaiety." In her mother she found "firmness and beauty." As for her father, everything revolved around him, and when he died "the wheel stood still." (Great and Glorious, pp. 314-15)

Now the correspondence which nurtured this extraordinary relationship can find its place in American letters.


Author's note

Libraries provide great opportunities for serendipity. A few years ago during a leisurely ramble amongst the stacks at Madison Public Library, I noticed a book by Helga Sandburg unfamiliar to me. Recalling my past enjoyment of her rich prose, I pulled A Great and Glorious Romance from the shelf and was immediately drawn into the book by the stunning Steichen photos of Carl Sandburg and Lilian Steichen Sandburg on the jacket. While I had known of Sandburg's brief period as secretary to former Milwaukee Mayor Emil Seidel, it was through Helga's moving book about her parents that I came to realize the extent of his Wisconsin connection.

Recently, in a quest for photos to accompany this article, I wrote to Margaret Sandburg and was surprised when she responded immediately and enthusiastically by phone. She expressed appreciation that Wisconsin was acknowledging her father's years here as significant ones and expressed disappointment that this acknowledgement had been somewhat neglected in the past. She said they indeed were "influential and important" years in the development of her father as a person and as a writer. She graciously agreed to share photos from the family collection and put me in touch with Helga, who generously provided the charming photo of Lilian and the chickens.

Margaret is currently at work editing her parents' later letters. The love letters didn't stop when they married, she said. Penelope Niven of Hendersonville, North Carolina, is writing what Margaret considers to be a major biography of Carl Sandburg, to be published in 1990 or 1991. There will be a large section devoted to the Wisconsin years, according to Margaret.

I want to express sincere gratitude to both Margaret and Helga Sandburg for their interest and cooperation.


Miracle, Faith B. "Carl Sandburg and the Steichens: The Wisconsin Years." Wisconsin Academy Review 34.3 (June 1988) 4-10.
Copyright 1988 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
From the collection of the UW Memorial Library: AP W812 A169