Friday, September 22, 2006

Between a remembrance rock and a hard place

As you can see from the re-named blog we've made a change to the working title of our documentary from "Carl Sandburg: For The People" to "The Day Carl Sandburg Died". At first glance it may seem unusual but many collective heads have been put together to decide that the context of our documentary needed to change. As fascinating and successful as Sandburg's life was, the structure of the film as a largely biographic sketch has not created interest from funders and broadcasters. The reasons behind the perception that Sandburg's story being less interesting than other notable figures is complex, but undeniably real.

Much of our story will not change dramatically, just the context of our storytelling. Our (on-going) research and existing interviews will contribute effectively to this shift, with many others to be added. Below is a new summary of our project. As a primary vehicle for framing the story will be looking at the interesting topic of Sandburg's credibility and reputation, (which for many academics has never been strong) and how it contrasts with his phenomenal popular success.

The Day Carl Sandburg Died.

For popular icons of the twentieth century, death often leads to an elevation of their work to near-mythic levels. But the day Carl Sandburg died, an unexpected and dramatic slide in critical and public appeal began for the "Poet of The People."

During the last fifty years of his life, this poet, journalist, Lincoln biographer and troubadour was revered and praised as the celebrant of the American experience, capturing both its beauty and grit in his poetry and prose. But since his death, in July of 1967, his status has faded. Sandburg's poems, once taught in schools across America, are spotted much less frequently in textbooks and classrooms. His Lincoln biographies are routinely criticized, and even dismissed by present-day scholars. How could a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, talk-show favorite and the first private citizen to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress suffer such a blow? Have American literary tastes changed so dramatically, or are there other factors responsible? Was his popularity during his lifetime more a curse than a blessing to his literary legacy?

"The Day Carl Sandburg Died" will explore the life and legacy of an American icon. It is a portrait of Sandburg'’s fascinating journey, his controversial work and its criticism. It will investigate the waxing and waning of his popularity and the unexpected renewed interest in his work in recent years from MacArthur fellows and indie-rock musicians alike. It is a critical exploration of what Americans value in our literary and artistic history and how we remember —or forget those who shaped that history.

Critics, authors, historians, celebrities, folk singers, Sandburg's children and grandchildren, and the poet himself, all weigh in on the worth of his millions of published words and the adventure that was his lifetime.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

In these times you have to be an optimist to open your eyes when you wake in the morning. ~ Carl Sandburg

Hello friends,

Our work continues to fund, research, produce and air on national PBS a documentary film that capture the spirit and story of Carl Sandburg's unique life and vision of America.

The long awaited response came from The National Endowment for the Humanities with the bottom line of no funding. But above that bottom line was abundant optimism for the subject, ideas, how our proposal was written and the team assembled. Here are a few quotes from the panel of reviewers:

"The proposal makes a a good case for the 'humanities' relevance of Sandburg's life... I think this biography would have great, broad appeal. It illuminates an important aspect of American culture."

"The team Bonesteel has assembled is the impressive thing about this proposal."

"The music sound bed will add remarkable texture to the story. The diverse range of participants who have agreed to be interviewed is impressive."

"I was please to see that Sandburg's political complexities and his lesser known ties to the world of folk music will be addressed as well, since these might broaden the life, times and contributions to American letters, and I found the treatment included with the proposal compelling."

We continue on seeking funding and may very well apply again to the NEH, NEA and others that have favorably reviewed our plans but have failed to fund us. As many of you know I see this project as a long haul... a tough road that we will cover in good time.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

'Don't forget about Paula'

During virtually every conversation with people who knew the Sandburgs or even people who have only read about them usually the comment comes "Don't forget about Paula".

Lilian Steichen Sandburg or ‘Paula’ was Carl's wife and 'comrade' in the socialist movement when they met. She typed his poems and mailed them into the earliest publications that started his career. She mothered and cared for his children and household while he was traveling from stage to stage or was hunkered down writing volumes of work.

She had homes built and renovated. She withstood his enormous popularity and became a highly respected breeder of goats, winning prizes and making milk while he met with presidents and performed on television.

Everyone who knew her spoke about her much the same way Carl did, that she was an angel of wisdom, competence and companionship.

She, very tangibly, helped make Sandburg the iconic figure he is today and will not be forgotten in our telling of his story.

Friday, February 10, 2006

the marvelous rebellion of man

Carl's poem "Who Am I?" (below) was certainly not intended to express the public awareness of his work here in 2006, but something more significant, the 'elusive captive' of truth. Poetry does not fully explain itself, by its nature it too is elusive.

Some days in this process I look at what I expect, and what others think this project should be and I want to trash the signs (and scripts from the past) that tell me what to do. It's long been my belief and philosphy that how you tell a story should be based (in part) on the character and style of the subject itself. These trace elements of insight and history help to mold and shape the outcome. That is why there are two large piles of books and folders on my desk. Seven different biographies of Sandburg, one of Bob Dylan, original editions of his Lincoln biography... even the texture of the paper and binding say something about the work and period it was written. It is an on-going search for the truth, or as close as you can get to expressing the essential elements of the subject.


My head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of
universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I
reach my hands and play with pebbles of
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty
And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs
reading "Keep Off."

My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive
in the universe.

Carl Sandburg

(From Chicago Poems, In public domain)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Subject matter. Really.

What's this story about ? Really?

It's a question I ask myself quite a bit. I consider all the poems, books, photographs, stories of Sandburg, comments made in passing, by noted critics or by strangers I meet at the coffee shop. I think about the century that has passed and what remains important? Where are the lessons in the lives of others and the past?

Here are some things that bounce back at me. Democracy. Creativity. Study. Music. Reality. Optimism. Fantasy. Expression. Struggle. Truth.

Democracy: His countless writings about politics, socialism, racism, Lincoln, the Wars, American History.
Creativity: His seemingly limitless ability to conjure up a new style, method, subject.
Study: His fascination with details, inovations and exploration of complex subjects.
Music: His passion for collecting, publishing and singing some of Americas most beloved songs.
Reality: His life that was grounded by basic faith in the people.
Optimism: His believing that within those people, is goodness (along with everything else).
Fantasy: He took children's literature to a new place of exaggeration and nonsense...
Expression: As only a poet can, saying things that need to be said.
Struggle: Celebrating the struggle of existence, and not giving in to complacency.
Truth: Always searching... 'Where to? What next?"

I think about these ideas and what we can learn through Sandburg's experience. I think about my early childhood visits to the big white house with goats and books and guitars... and I think about expressing those things forward to the next generation.

My Son, Jonah Bonesteel at the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, Flat Rock, NC

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

New York City Sandburg, and other thoughts

In 1949 Alan Lomax took Carl Sandburg to see Pete Seeger and The Weavers play in New York's Village Vanguard club. Many nights in the late 1950's on the upper east side Sandburg would sing at eclectic impromptu parties held at the house of Terry and Gregory d'Allesio. And it was at the Museum of Modern Art with his brother-in-law Edward Steichen that he would collaborate on the landmark photographic exhibit The Family of Man. Sandburg may have captured Chicago in poems but he knew and loved New York.

In New York we interviewed Terry d'Alessio, Joanna Steichen, and the incomparable Pete Seeger, telling these stories and more for our documentary.

Our flight home from Newark followed the spine of the Appalachian mountains and snaking along the top I could see the Blue Ridge Parkway like a pathway leading us back to Asheville. On my I-pod I listened to an artist who is relatively new to me, a guy named Sujfan Stevens. His latest recording has a song on it that is titled (in part) ...Carl Sandburg came to me in a dream... with this bouncing around my head as the plane bumped and shifted in the winter air I was encouraged that someone like him would find inspiration in Sandburg. The record is beautiful and bizarre, melodic and challenging. Check it out.

After coming home I was listening to XM radio when a song by Pete Seeger's band The Weavers came up called Sinnerman. It was familiar... but not. I was confused. I thought this was a Peter Tosh song... but no, it's a traditional American song brought back in the 1950's by The Weavers and then recorded by The Wailers, and then Peter Tosh.

What does this have to do with Sandburg? We'll, it's just my continual realization that these things are connected. Like Pete Seeger says, "they are links in the chain" and the Peter Tosh version that I knew was made possible (in part) by The Weavers (and no doubt many others) recording it and others collecting the songs in the first place. Like Sandburg's American Songbag.

Photo by Evan Schafer: Director Paul Bonesteel talking with Pete Seeger

Monday, January 09, 2006


I think that while Chicago Poems are great, and all of his poems are great, there's something about The People, Yes where he really knocked himself out. At the time when the country was at war, and he stopped what he was doing and he wrote this great thing for the people, I think that was important.
-Helga Sandburg Crile

It was July 2004, and we had just shot for five days in Marion, Indiana on our last documentary The Great American Quilt Revival (which is airing currently around the country on PBS). It was raining hard as Evan and I drove into Cleveland to sleep for the night. The dark skies and tired eyes played havoc on the driver, but we made it safely to a bed.

The next day was the first interview we conducted on this project, which, even then, had taken years to make happen. It was with Helga Sandburg Crile, Carl and Paula Sandburg's third and only surviving daughter. I started correspondance with her back in 1992 and she was kind to entertain my inquiries and poetry. We arrived at her house to barking and playful dogs, flowers blooming throughout the garden and a welcoming subject.

Here she is discussing her father and uncle, the photographer Edward Steichen.

Helga has been, since an early age, 'Carl Sandburg's daughter'. She enjoyed it, rebelled against it and ultimately became a creative force herself writing many books of poetry, fiction and biography. Sitting and talking with her you can see it in her eyes, hear it in certain words and phrases, bits and samples of her Father's personality.

Her interview was delightful, sentimental, revealing and surprisingly straightforward in her opinions on the life of her Father and where he fits into the 20th century literary history. Reading books that other people have written about him can sometimes separate Sandburg the real person from the character he becomes when you read about him. In moments like this all of that changes. Real people write, real people make history, real people become the characters we read about later. For Helga, we were talking about her dad... And once again a hundred years or more were compressed down to a mere instant.

But, you know, just go back to his Complete Poems. And if you have a child that is able to read, just a little bit, give him The Complete Poems. Don't tell him what he should read, and what poem is right for a child, for heaven's sake. Let the child go.
-Helga Sandburg Crile

And that is why I love what I do.