In today's excerpt--Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago." Sandburg (1878-1967) wrote at a time when Chicago was emerging through geometric population growth as the second largest and most powerful city in the United States. Yet it was a cesspool of pollution and waste from its slaughterhouses and railyards--both located at virtually the center of the city. This very short poem, oft-quoted for its first five lines, deserves a full reading to sense the clash between the enormous pride of achievement and the tragic side-effects of the industrial revolution. Note too the profound influence of Walt Whitman:
Hog Butcher for the World
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
They tell me you are wicked and i believe them, for I have seen
your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have
seen the gunmen kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of
women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this
my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud
to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is
a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage
pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man
Laughing as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under
his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-
naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker,
Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler
to the Nation.
Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, Dover, 1994, pp. 1-2.