Each year, the Galesburg Public Library hosts a community read, encouraging people in the area to read and discuss the same book. This year, thanks to a grant from the Galesburg Community Foundation, we are celebrating Carl Sandburg’s book Always the Young Strangers. I was interested to read it, having heard strong statements about Sandburg and his relationship to his hometown from many people since I moved to Galesburg.
I’ve heard people say that Carl Sandburg was ashamed of Galesburg and did not have good things to say about it. That’s certainly not the impression I got from reading Always the Young Strangers, a warmly nostalgic look back at the Galesburg of his youth, full of fond memories and stories. He acknowledges the restlessness of youth and the conflicted relationships we have with the people and places who influence us in our childhoods:
What came over me in those years 1896 and 1897 wouldn’t be easy to tell. I hated my home town and yet I loved it. And I hated and loved myself about the same as I did the town and the people. I knew then as I know now that it was a pretty good home town to grow up in. I came to see that my trouble was inside myself more than it was in the town and the people. (p. 377)
Sandburg is a powerful writer, able to conjure up vivid images of life in Galesburg in the late 1800s. For example, he writes about doing laundry in Illinois in the winter:
In a blowing wind I pressed wooden clothespins to fasten bedsheets, shirts, drawers, handkerchiefs, stockings, and diapers on the rope clothesline. Often I found the clothes left in the basket had frozen stiff. Coaxing those frozen pieces of cloth to go around the rope for a wooden pin to be fastened over them was a winter sport with a challenge to your wit and numb fingers in Illinois zero weather, with sometimes a wild northwest wind knocking a shirt stiff as a board against your head. (p. 40)
In Chapter Eleven, “Learning a Trade,” he tells of going about Galesburg taking jobs and looking for a trade. He perfectly captures the monotony of one job in this passage, which reads almost like a prose poem:
When I took a job washing bottles in a pop bottling works one summer I didn’t expect to learn a trade. I knew the future in the job was the same as the past. You washed the same kind of bottles in the morning and afternoon today as you would be washing in the morning and afternoon tomorrow, and yesterday had been the same. You could see the used bottles coming in and the washed bottles going out and it was “Here they come” and “There they go” from seven in the morning till six at night. (p. 250)
Sandburg heard the railroad horns all Galesburg residents are familiar with, and economic times were bad when he was growing up. His recollections strike notes that resonate with us in today’s rough economic climate:
There was a note of doom and fate about the big railroad whistle in those Hard Times months. For years we had heard it at seven in the morning, at twelve noon, and at one and six o’clock in the afternoon. Now it blew at eight in the morning and twelve noon only. It was the Hard Times Clock saying, “Be careful, watch your pennies, wait and hope!” (p. 51)
Sandburg speaks with great affection for and admiration of his parents and their lives as Swedish immigrants in America. He also speaks of how Galesburg shaped him: “In those years as a boy in that prairie town I got education in scraps and pieces of many kinds, not knowing that they were part of my education.” (p. 230)
If you are interested in a detailed and intimate picture of life in a small American town in the late 1800s, and especially if you are interested in Galesburg history, I recommend Carl Sandburg’s Always the Young Strangers. You may learn a few things about Galesburg, Carl Sandburg, and yourself.