The Making of the Sandburg Collection
How a tireless English professor obtained the library of one of America’s greatest poets.
The discovery of an unpublished poem by the late Carl Sandburg was national news this past January when it was uncovered at the U of I. What many don’t know is the story of friendship and determination that explains how it got to campus in the first place.
A volunteer discovered Sandburg’s lost poem, “A Revolver,” as he indexed more than four tons of books, manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs, and other documents that make up the Sandburg collection at the U of I Archives. So how did the U of I obtain the collection when the revered poet was never even a student here?
The answer: Not easily—and not without lots of foresight.
According to Valerie Hotchkiss, head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the story dates back to 1950, when Bruce Weirick, an English professor at the U of I and a friend of Sandburg’s who had written about him, asked the poet if he wanted his collections stored at the University. Sandburg was interested.
His interest was not entirely a surprise. Aside from his connection with Weirick (who would negotiate terms of the transfer), Sandburg, an Illinois native, had by then spoken on campus several times, and he would later speak at the dedication of Assembly Hall.
Nonetheless, Sandburg’s willingness to turn everything over to the U of I was remarkable enough that when the transfer was being finalized, he was asked about it by a reporter at the Daily Illini.
“Illinois is my native state,” he cried into the phone, according to Hotchkiss. “You don’t think I would give my library to Nebraska or New Jersey or Massachusetts, do you? I have a reverence for the University of Illinois. It represents my native state.”
Initially, not everyone at the U of I was sold on the idea, however. When the proposal emerged to buy the collection for $30,000—a fraction of its market value—some faculty questioned the value of the collection and doubted its research potential. Faced with those opinions, the library recommended against the purchase unless it could be done with private funds.
Undeterred, Professor Weirick collected letters from 75 leading authors, intellectuals, and politicians, says Hotchkiss, including Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Reston, and a former U of I president. Eventually the U of I Foundation offered to pay for the collection, and the faculty agreed.
“And so, because of one indefatigable LAS faculty member, Carl Sandburg’s library and his papers came to the University of Illinois,” Hotchkiss says. “The first shipments came (from his home in Flat Rock, N.C.) in 1956, (in) 150 boxes weighing 8,560 lbs. Many shipments followed, with most of the manuscript material coming after his death in 1967.”
According to the August 1, 1956, Daily Illini, the collection included 3,000 books on Abraham Lincoln (Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940). U of I English professor emeritus George Hendrick, who edited several volumes of Sandburg’s poems, says the newly discovered poem may have been inspired by the Lincoln assassination.
The collection also included original manuscripts of poems (Sandburg’s other two Pulitzer Prizes were for books of poetry, The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg and Cornhuskers) estimated at the time to be worth thousands of dollars. More material was sent by his wife, Lilian, and daughter Margaret.
And the Sandburg collection continues to grow today, as new material comes on the market or is donated to the U of I. In 2012, the library added several letters, a short unpublished story, and the archive of one of Sandburg’s secretaries.
So far in 2013, Hotchkiss adds, the library has acquired letters and manuscripts from Sandburg’s years in Michigan, materials from the archives of his daughter Helga, and documents from William A. Smith, who painted Sandburg’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
By Dave Evensen