Carl Sandburg’s advice

More than a decade after St. Louis editor William Marion Reedy helped launch Carl Sandburg’s long career as a poet, Sandburg still saw himself as a journalist – and he offered advice to fellow newspapermen. His 1918-1919 series of essays, “Books the newspaperman ought to read,” ran in Pep, the monthly in-house magazine for Scripps’ Newspaper Enterprise Association around the time they hired him to cover World War I and the Russian Revolution.

When Sandburg died in 1967 at age 89, he was considered a likeable poet, folksinger and author of a lengthy Lincoln biography, winning a Pulitzer for both history (1940) and poetry (1919 and 1951). But journalism was a lifelong passion, too.

Sandburg started in journalism in 1904, writing a column, “Inklings and Idlings,” for his hometown daily, the Galesburg (Ill.) Evening Mail. By 1906 he moved to Chicago, where he wrote for the magazines To-Morrow and Lyceumite. In 1907 he went to Milwaukee, where he worked as a reporter for Milwaukee newspapers and as a political organizer.

A 1912 strike by Chicago pressmen shut down the city’s eight daily newspapers. But the Daily Socialist wasn’t struck and it took advantage, changing its name to the Evening World, expanding circulation and hiring more staff, including Sandburg. Although his time there was brief, it helped him get a new start in Chicago newspapering.

Freelancing for the International Socialist Review, Sandburg moved to the Day Book, Scripps’ experimental, ad-free newspaper. It folded in 1917, but William Randolph Hearst’s Evening American hired him. Not long after, the Chicago Daily News brought Sandburg into its newsroom. Writer Dale Fetherling has observed, “It was a reporter’s skill, prodigious work habits, and closeness to life that helped shape Sandburg’s career.”

Sandburg’s news-writing style was like what is seen now as advocacy journalism. He “repeatedly offered a counterpoint to those who would advocate a passive approach in reporting and to those who would let entertaining chatter and diversionary gossip masquerade a worthy content,” said Duane Stoltzfus in Freedom From Advertising: E.W. Scripps’s Chicago Experiment. “Sandburg challenged the industry standard of detached and objective reporting presented in the inverted-pyramid style. His approach required finding the larger meaning in a news story and making that plain.”

In Pep, Sandburg wrote, “The bookworm lives with books: the newspaperman lives with events. The newspaperman is not a bookworm. He is, however, a reader.”

His Ten Readings

Sandburg had ten suggested readings he saw as preparing journalists for their calling:

Henri Barbusse, a French novelist, pacifist and leftist who wrote about World War I.

Sandburg wrote, “In the book written by Barbusse, “Under Fire,” is the humility of the true reporter, the eyewitness whose honesty enables the reader to feel that he sees vividly where the reporter saw vividly….a big feature story written the way newspapermen write the story that has kept head and heart alive for months or years along with a thought: ‘Some day I’ll write this, and when I do – Oh! I’ll make people see it clear and clean in all its ins and outs just the way I see it’.”

Letters and speeches of Abraham Lincoln.

“Newspapermen touch and handle the public mind more closely than any other group of workers, Sandburg wrote. “With the circling of the hands about the dial of a clock newspapermen have it as a job, and a responsibility, to tell the people what is going on in the world. And in a measurably important degree, the people make history on the basis of the purported facts told to them by the newspapers.

“For the man who may be forgetful or indifferent about his responsibilities to the public that buys and reads newspapers [Letters and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln] is tonic.”

Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

The father of free verse, Whitman was a longtime newspaperman, too, working for the Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn’s Daily Times and his own paper, the Long Islander.  Sandburg wrote, “Young reporters and certain romantic oldsters get the habit of thinking there are women in Paris or Vienna or Moscow more wicked and mysterious than any women to be found in Toledo or Des Moines or Pasadena. It is easy to imagine that all Italian lake sunsets are superior to North Dakota prairie sunsets and that the play of dawn colors on the Jungfrau or Mont Blanc must intrinsically have a higher rating in esthetics than the morning lights of the Ozarks or the Rockies. That the people close by, the people in our home . . . are as important and complex and interesting – and worth about as much hate or love or understanding – as any people a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago is the feeling and viewpoint Walt Whitman gives.”

The Bible

“There are not so many high human excitements but one may find the counterparts of them dealt with in the Bible. Like newspapers, the Bible is full of contradictions. It has more prophecies of new things upon the Earth than any other book,” wrote Sandburg, later adding, “The Bible is pre-eminently a reporter’s book, the work of many reporters.”

Friedrich von Bernhardi was a Prussian general who wrote “Germany” and the “Next War” in 1911, advocating a policy of ruthless aggression. “War,” Bernhardi wrote, “is a biological necessity.”

Sandburg wrote, “[This is] a book that might truthfully be called the most terrible confession, creed and code of national conduct that the world has known since Machiavelli. The technique of conquest, the justification of autocratic militarism and the gospel of Prussian culture are voiced here authentically and convincingly:

“The business of war is a business, divine in itself, and as necessary to the world as eating or drinking, or any other work,’ Bernhardi writes. It is an honest book, in the same way that we should call it an honest book if Judas Iscariot had coldly and frankly written out just before the Crucifixion all of his own ambitions, desires and projects. He is worth dipping into, for assurance as to what democracy is not.”

Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

Hugo was a French novelist, essayist, poet, playwright and a 19th century social-justice activist. Sandburg wrote, “Policemen are two kinds, plain harness bulls tickled with the constant honor of a star and a gun, and those who get the savvy of Victor Hugo. As regards newspapermen, the same goes for them. Some are born to write honest human copy, some achieve it, and some are the meal tickets of manicurists. Hugo’s “Les Miserables” has the solemn frenzy of the genus agitator. Never is he sorry for ‘The People.’ His temperament is that of the soldiers in front-line trenches, who write their folks that the war can be won if only the people back home will hold out.”

Henry David Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord River”

Thoreau was an author, poet, naturalist and abolitionist who advocated civil disobedience. Sandburg wrote, “Human units run to a general monotonous shape and color. Monotony kills. When tomorrow is expected to be like yesterday, then it’s good-night to human interest. Thoreau could sit right up to Friend Monotony and make it do tricks.”

The Industrial Relations Report came from the Commission on Industrial Relations created by Congress in 1912 after years of labor upheaval. After 154 days of hearings featuring activists and businessmen, its definitive report was an 11-volume document written by commission head and labor lawyer Frank Walsh. Sandburg wrote, “The combination [of all the recommended reading] would not be the all-around equal of the material which may be mined and smelted from the report. Read the words of dreamers, men who have pictures in their heads of a reorganized industrial world . . . Mother Jones, Sam Gompers, [even] John D. Rockefeller. Here it is in black and white, what they say about getting bread, peace and land for everybody.

“Since newspapers are made for crowds, why shouldn’t this masterly consideration of crowd motives be worth the time of the newspaperman?” he added. “When you are through reading it, you are free to vote for acquittal of Organized Labor, for conviction, or a hung jury.”

Epictetus’ “Enchiridion.”

A 1st century Greek philosopher, Epictetus embraced the “Stoic” point of view, basically endorsing simplicity and concluding that all external events are beyond people’s control, so people should strive to be masters of their own fate when possible, care for others, and accept whatever happens when fate determines otherwise.

Sandburg wrote, “Society editors, political editors, dramatic editors – the whole kit and caboodle of editors on any modern paper – understand precisely the point on the map where Epictetus nails a thumbtack in [stating his philosophy ‘Nothing too much’] . . . In the midst of the contending currents of democracy we must be wise to the other fellow.”

Auguste Rodin’s “Art”

A French sculptor, Rodin was the father of modern sculpture, remembered for his “Gates of Hell” and “The Thinker.” Outside the mainstream and criticized during his life, Rodin saw conflict and suffering as hallmarks of true art.

“Art is anything you do that you don’t have to do in order to get by,” Sandburg wrote, quoting Rodin’s comment that ‘art is dead. The more bombastic a portrait is, the better a client is satisfied’.

“Look over the things [Rodin] did in stone,” Sandburg continued. “Read his comments. Find out whether he shows a new sea-mist light where for us newspapermen the silhouetted human procession goes by.”


In his summary, Sandburg wrote, “The newspaperman in a way is a book-maker. Language is his handy tool. He needs a few good books to live with rather than many to idle with. Ten books, more or less, are enough.”

He continued, “I have been guided by the thought that the essential qualification of the newspaperman is an understanding of the people, a sensing of the mass thought and feeling of humanity and of its flux, whether that flux be regarded as a constantly upward evolution or as a mere shifting, now up and now down.

“Much is required of us newspapermen if we would really understand the people,” added Sandburg, whose 1918 passport application flatly stated, “I am a newspaper man.”

Bill Knight is a journalist in Peoria, Ill. who teaches at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

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