The historian and the poet

6 03 2008

Carl Sandburg, left, with James G. Randall, center and Alan Lomax going over the script for a radio program marking the opening of Abraham Lincoln’s papers.

This is the final installment in a series of posts on James G. Randall.

I was in an office just off the circulation desk of the main library at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A library staff member had just brought a stack of books I had requested. Included was a small brown volume called The Beleaguered City, Richmond, 1861-1865. In this volume I wanted to see if I could find evidence of a theater which Everton Conger said existed when, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The book itself was nondescript. It had the familiar markings of a library book which had been well-thumbed over the years. After finding no evidence of what I was looking for, I started to put it down. Suddenly, looking at the bookplate, my eyes widened at what was written there.

“From the library of Carl Sandburg”.

It was as if a lightening bolt had struck me. I was holding a book that, at one point, was held by Carl Sandburg. Whether you like Sandburg or not (and many don’t) no fair mind can say that Sandburg wasn’t a player in the field of Lincoln studies. Indeed, given all those who have dedicated their lives to studying the 16th president, Sandburg stands out as the most famous.
The irony of finding a book that had belonged to Sandburg at a university which had been home to the man who had a hearty dislike for amateur historians wasn’t lost on me. It was later that I found out many of Sandburg’s papers are located in the university archives, in the same spot, as it were, with James G. Randall’s.
But a stranger situation would soon demand my attention and would question just what Randall actually thought of the poet from Galesburg, Ill.

While perusing the shelf of Prairie Archives, my favorite bookstore in Springfield, I came across a volume of Lincoln the Liberal Statesman, a collection of essays written by Randall published in 1947. While it was priced at $45, it also bore Randall’s autograph. “For Myron Fox with great respect and cordial regards. J.G. Randall, April 27, 1950”.
When I got home and looked at what I bought, I saw on the dedication page three words that greatly confused me.

“To Carl Sandburg”.

Randall had devoted this book to the one man I had believed he held responsible for much of the misinformation and bad history written about Lincoln. After all, as Richard Nelson Current wrote in the fourth volume of Lincoln the President, when asked about Sandburg, Randall reportedly said that as a historian he made a good poet.

What was going on here?

In this age of shout television when gracious and vigorous debate has been replaced by verbal garbage, it’s hard for us to realize that two people who are so diametrically opposed could actually put that aside at the end of the day and develop a close friendship. I had forgotten that even Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill were able to put political differences aside and enjoy a drink or two together.
In her book I Ruth, Ruth Randall recalled several times when Sandburg and Randall would get together to talk about politics, the world and, of course, their favorite topic—Lincoln. One time, when both men were in Chicago, Sandburg invited Randall to his home in Michigan. “One memorable evening the two took a long moonlight walk along the shore of Lake Michigan,” Ruth writes, “a thing Carl said he liked to do at the end of the day to rest his eyes and relax. Jim recorded what they talked about in considerable detail. They exchanged opinions on many subjects: Lincoln, literary matters, politics, philosophy. They compared notes on the prolonged drudgery of writing a nonfiction biography.”
She reported that Sandburg told Randall he wanted to write a book on Lincoln that he wished was available when he was driving a milk wagon in Galesburg. He profusely praised Randall’s Civil War and Reconstruction and told Randall the biography Randall was writing would be much better because he had allowed his thoughts to mature over time.
When it came time to review Sandburg’s four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, the American Historical Review assigned the task to Randall. While he praised Sandburg’s “rare feeling for Lincoln, a life absorption in the subject, a burning desire to produce the saga, a Marathon-like endurance over decades of prodigious labor, a poet’s sense of language, a flair for pithy phrasing, a robust personality spiced with the tang of the prairies, and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation” Randall sighed that “historianship in the full sense is lacking.”
Pointing out that Sandburg failed to include footnotes and many times only half-mentioned a source, Randall added that sometimes Sandburg was guilty of “an undiscriminating use of material” which he said “relieves the author of the necessity of checking, rechecking, and testing.” He added that “one would hardly turn to Sandburg’s pages for historical analysis, for sifting and evaluation, for conclusions distilled from masses of evidence, or for the settlement of disputed or doubtful points.”
What one takes from the review, however, is not that Randall felt Sandburg’s work was without worth, but that it could have benefited from what Randall preached throughout his professional life. Sandburg needed to visit the archives and sift through primary manuscript material rather than rely on already published reminisce.
But in the end Randall accepted that “Sandburg did not write for historians but for the general reader” and that “there will be thousands who, in thinking of Lincoln, will inevitably think of Sandburg.”
Randall’s review is in most instances a fair evaluation of Sandburg’s material. I think that my own belief that Randall held Sandburg responsible for amateurish attempts to study Lincoln’s life came from the “good poet” quote but also from Edmund Wilson’s characterization of Sandburg’s work as the worst thing to happen to Lincoln since his assassination. In this sense, I put two and two together and came up with 12.
During Randall’s illness, Sandburg was one of the last people to see Randall. Indeed, the last entry in Randall’s diary was “He [Carl] looks well….Kissed Ruth on leaving and took both my hands.” Three days later, James Randall was dead.

So, how to assess Randall? He, more than anyone of his day and age, brought Lincoln into sharper focus from the perspective of an academic historian, yet he never made Lincoln into a cardboard cutout or sucked the life out of his life as many academics do today. While Randall insisted on prodigious scholarship he also was able to turn a phrase that made his work valuable not only to the serious student of Lincoln but to the general reader.

He stumbled on many occasions, failing to realize the moral necessity of a war on slavery. While much of the criticism leveled against him, especially by black historians, may seem harsh, in most instances it was justified. The Civil War was not just a failure of cooler heads prevailing. While someone who lived during not one but two bloody wars might be forgiven for seeing the ultimate folly in the adventure, there are times when for the betterment of society bloodshed is necessary. To refuse to fight a war where human freedom and liberty are at stake is not only short-sighted, but in the long run is far crueler than the admittedly high human cost it brought.

No serious student of Lincoln’s life can be considered knowledgeable without a deep understanding of Randall. While some of his work is obviously outdated (a hazard which afflicts any historian who wrote several years ago) it still gives us a better understanding not only of Lincoln, but of the war which was fought in his name.




4 responses

7 03 2008
Randal Berry

This was an excellent mini-history on James G. Randall!
Now it makes me want to buy his books and read them, (while I have soooooo many books stacked up to read!)
Thanks for the excellent series on him.
And again, can’t wait for you to write about Conger on here, maybe a “preview” of what your working on?
And if possible, how about Steve Miller writing on here also?

Randal Berry

7 03 2008
Max Daniels

Rob, JUST found your site and it looks outstanding.GREAT to “see” you again, it has been awhile. Am sure I will enjoy reading all the postings, figuring(as always) if you are connected with it, it has got to be top class.
Your Obt.Svt.

8 03 2008
Rob Wick


Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. If you want to start reading his work, I would suggest starting with Lincoln the President or the Civil War and Reconstruction. Both should be easily available via the Internet. Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln, if available, will be expensive, so you might request that through your library (unless you just have tons of money lying around, which in case I’d like to have a chat with you!LOL) .

I have another post that I’m working on now that isn’t related to Conger but after that I plan to start, most likely an introductory post as to who he was and why he is important.

As to Steve blogging here, that would be up to him. From what he tells me he’s been pretty busy so I don’t know about his free time. If you ever have anything you’d like to write about, just let me know and I’ll see if I might be able to fit it in.

Again, thanks for the kind words.


8 03 2008
Rob Wick


It is great to hear from you! I visit Abraham Lincoln Online once in a while and hadn’t seen any postings from you so wasn’t sure what you’d been up to.

Appreciate the kind words. Were you aware that I appeared on the National Geographic Channel last April in a documentary called “The Hunt For Lincoln’s Assassin”. Unfortunately it isn’t available on their web site but if you hadn’t, I would be happy to burn a copy for you.

Again, it’s great to hear from you.


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