This is an interpretation of the poem "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg.



Is there really an American dream? Or is the idea of rising from the ashes just an illusion? In the poem, “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg illustrates the rugged atmosphere of the strong city. Being disillusioned of the American Dream is a huge idea included in the Modernist Era of literature. Being written in the early 1900’s, the poem was written in the height of the modernist era and includes many of the characteristics that express that type of writing.  Through Sandburg’s use of personification, showing things as they are, disillusionment of the American Dream, and beauty in spite of the brokenness, the modernist type of writing is very apparent.

Throughout the poem, Sandburg helps the reader connect more with the city itself by making it become human-like. Having the traits of a person, it seems like it has a mind, a heart, and a personality. One way he gives the city, Chicago, a personality, is he explains it as “wicked,” “crooked,” and “brutal” (6-8). Having these personality traits is only possible if the object is a human, so saying the city has these qualities shows that it is living, breathing, and thinking. He also gives Chicago a human-like representation by giving it tendencies of a person. Sandburg portrays the city in great detail: “Under the smoke, udust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth, / Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs” (18-19). He shows the city as being a man laughing. This shows that the city speaks for itself. Though it is inanimate, it can speak volumes. Through personification, Sandburg helps the city of Chicago come to life.

Sandburg, through his passion for the city of Chicago, shows that the American Dream is an illusion in a very unique way in his poem. In the last line, he shows that the city has pride in the common jobs that it holds: “Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling, laughter of the youth, half naked, proud to be Hog butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler to the Nation” (22). With the way Sandburg portrays the pride of these jobs, he stresses the importance of the working class. Without getting your hands dirty and breaking a sweat, life would not flow easily and many everyday tasks would be impossible. This is virtually the opposite of the American Dream which showed that people should try to become more than their simple working class jobs, but in Sandburg’s poem, he expresses that they are proud to be working class. Moving up in their status doesn’t seem necessary. The men that work as hog butchers, tool makers, stackers of wheat, players with railroads, and freight train handlers are happy where they’re at.

Another way Sandburg shows modernist styling is through the way he shows the beauty of a broken city. After explaining the impurities the city has, he brings back the city’s glory by displaying the beautiful parts of the city. In line 10, Sandburg challenges any skeptics: “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Expressing that the city is singing with a lifted head, coarse, alive, cunning, and strong shows that it still has traits to be impressed with. With the presentation that the city is strong and alive, it explains that the city is able to stay intact and running through the trials and hardships as well as the times of success and ease. He also shows the strength of the city by comparing it to a “[f]ierce dog with tongue lapping for action” (12). With this comparison, it shows that Chicago is still thirsting for action and a chance to work and become a stronger city. Standing united as a city and being okay with where they’re at further expresses the modern type of writing.
As well, Sandburg does a good job of displaying things as they are instead of romanticising the city to make it seem better than it is. One example of this is in line 6 when it says “for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.” He also shows the city’s imperfections in line 7: “Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” The last way he shows the weaknesses within Chicago is in line 8 where he says: “On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.” By saying these things, he’s not disguising the fact that there are problems within the city, but he takes it as a part of what Chicago is. He still continues to show great pride in his city, even with the negative sides of what it is and has become.
Carl Sandburg has a passion for the city of Chicago, and that was clearly displayed in his poem. By using the modernist literature style, Sandburg was able to portray his love for the city without covering up the rough edges of what the city really is. Through Sandberg’s use of personification, the city of Chicago was given a personality, which made it easier to connect with and understand. He also emphasised on the fact that the American Dream is just an illusion, which showed that being happy with where you’re at is okay. Sandburg also showed that there were still some positive tendencies within the city, even with the struggles and imperfections it has. Explaining the city as it is without dressing it up also helped show his sincerity with the subject, while he showed even the worst parts of the city and was still proud of it. Sandburg’s perspective on life is a rare, but very valuable view. It cherishes the small things and doesn’t give up on something just because it has a few bad habits and scratches.

Works Cited

Sandburg, Carl. “Chicago.” Elements of literature literature of the United States, with Literature of the Americas. Austin, [Tex.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2000. Print.

Submitted: June 06, 2012

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