Sunday, September 14, 2008

TDIH: Presidential Medal of Freedom

One of the better decisions of Lyndon Johnson's administration was the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the great American poet Carl Sandburg. On this day in 1964, three years before his death, Carl August Sandburg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution as both poet and historian.

Perhaps my favorite of Sandburg's poems, "To a Poet":
You said I would go alone, I would find my way.
But you were the strongest person I had known.
You were the morning wind, and you were stone.
You said: I know that you will go your own way.

Whatever horse you want to ride is yours.
And night is yours,
And the evening gleams, and day.
I can tell you nothing you have not known.
I said: I go with you; I am your own.
But I went alone.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, first established by executive order in 1945 for war-connected services to the nation, was renamed by another executive order (E.O. 11085) in 1963. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, as it came to be known, was signed into law by President Kennedy as a way of honoring those who have contributed to "the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Sandburg probably would not have introduced himself as either a poet or an historian. He was, first and foremost, a writer. He wrote poems, he wrote prose, and he wrote songs. Yes, songs. Carl Sandburg wrote and performed folk songs. He never served as poet laureate of the United States. He never even served as Consultant in Poetry, an appointed position created in 1937, long before the position of poet laureate existed in the United States. However, Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize, not once, but twice. Entry for Sandburg from the officially listing of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients:
Son of the prairie, he has helped the Nation and the world to comprehend and share in the great affirmation of American life, asserting always, and in the face of disaster no less than triumph, The People.
Sandburg's contributions range from his historically-accurate portrayals of Chicago in poem to his arduous biographical volumes on the life and service of President Abraham Lincoln. His contribution on paper was nearly rivaled by his ideological contribution through his support of the civil rights movement and his monetary support of the NAACP.

Carl Sandburg was born fifteen years after President Lincoln was assassinated, but having never known the power of Lincoln's voice, he could appreciate the power of Lincoln's words. He read everything of Lincoln's he possibly could and became one of the greatest biographers as well as admirers of Lincoln. In an interview with the New York Times in 1964, speaking of his work on the Lincoln biography, Sandburg said, "I was up day and night with Lincoln for years. I couldn’t have picked a better companion." I have felt similarly about two of my research subjects. I suppose this is why I've had hanging on my wall a photo of Carl Sandburg admiring a bust of Abraham Lincoln throughout my college career.

Sandburg was a veteran and a college drop-out. He served his country nobly in the Spanish-American War, like many of his contemporaries such as Ambrose Bierce, he became disillusioned with the traditional political opinion of the time. Though far less extreme in comparison to Bierce, Sandburg was associated with socialists of the day as a member of the Socialist Democratic Party.

Despite their rivalry as American poets, Sandburg and Robert Frost became friends, meeting for the first time in 1954 and staying in touch until Frost's death in 1963. The similarities in their writings may not always be obvious, but the themes at times are nearly identical. What I once considered to be Sandburg's darker version of Frost's "The Road Less Traveled," here is "The Road and the End":
I shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by.
I shall foot it
In the silence of the morning,
See the night slur into dawn,
Hear the slow great winds arise
Where tall trees flank the way
And shoulder toward the sky.

The broken boulders by the road
Shall not commemorate my ruin.
Regret shall be the gravel under foot.
I shall watch for
Slim birds swift of wing
That go where wind and ranks of thunder
Drive the wild processionals of rain.

The dust of the traveled road
Shall touch my hands and face.
Sandburg and Frost are now known as two of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And like Maya Angelou, Frost and Sandburg are connected to presidential history. Frost having been an inspiration to President Kennedy and speaking at his inaugural; Sandburg as Lincoln's biographer, introducing generation after generation to Lincoln's writing and legacy; and, Maya Angelou as a speaker at the inaugural of President Clinton.

I will forever admire Sandburg's sense of history as well as his dedication to it. And I will continue to harbor the belief that on this day in 1964, Lyndon Johnson made one of the better decisions of his presidency.

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