In the City of Big Shoulders: the Carl Sandburg home

Posted on January 16, 2014 by Phillip Thompson | 0 comments

The building where we currently live was built in 1912, the year that renowned (and Swedish-American) writer Carl Sandburg moved into the second floor of the home next door (above photo, via the City of Chicago site). His home, 4646 N. Hermitage Ave, was built in 1886 and is currently a historic City Landmark. I must assume that the construction noise coming from our lot wasn’t enough to distract Mr. Sandburg, because it was in that year that he started creating some of his best-known work. Here’s an excerpt from a bio from


The Sandburgs soon moved to Chicago, where Carl became an editorial writer for the Chicago Daily News. Harriet Monroe had just started Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and began publishing Sandburg’s poems, encouraging him to continue writing in the free-verse, Whitman-like style he had cultivated in college. Monroe liked the poems’ homely speech, which distinguished Sandburg from his predecessors. It was during this period that Sandburg was recognized as a member of the Chicago literary renaissance, which included Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters. He established his reputation withChicago Poems (1916), and then Cornhuskers (1918). Soon after the publication of these volumes Sandburg wrote Smoke and Steel (1920), his first prolonged attempt to find beauty in modern industrialism. With these three volumes, Sandburg became known for his free verse poems celebrating industrial and agricultural America, American geography and landscape, and the American common people. – See more at:

One of the poems of this era in Sandburg’s career, “Chicago,” made an impression on the residents, leaving to this day a legacy of the Chicago nickname, “City of Big Shoulders.” I had heard that expression almost since I first arrived in Chicago, and finally looked into the rest of the poem. If I was going to be Carl Sandburg’s neighbor, best to do my research. What strikes me about the poem is that, while the industries he describes may have changed, the attitude he describes seems to linger–Chicagoans not only knowing that the city has a seedy underbelly, and has gritty industries, but reveling in that fact. It calls to mind someone proudly demonstrating an oily machine that works through any condition.


HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.



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