“I am the People, the Mob” by Carl Sandburg was published in 1916 as part of his collection of poetry entitled Chicago Poems. This poem provides almost certain foreknowledge of the poet’s later support for the Civil Rights Movement, as it speaks of his belief in the power of the common masses.
About the poet:
Carl August Sandburg was an American poet, writer, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. The most famous among all the volumes of his collected verse are Chicago Poems (published in the year 1916), Cornhuskers (published in the year 1918), and Smoke and Steel (published in the year 1920).
Sandburg was born in a three-room cottage on 6th January 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois. His parents were Clara Mathilda (whose maiden name was Anderson) and August Sandberg, both of Swedish ancestry. He adopted the nickname “Charles” or “Charlie” in elementary school. It was also around the same time that he and his two oldest siblings changed the spelling of their last name to “Sandburg.”
Sandburg began his writing career as a journalist for the Chicago Daily News. Later, he wrote poetry, history, biographies, novels, children’s literature, and film reviews. He also collected and edited books of ballads and folklore.
In 1919 Sandburg won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry entitled Corn Huskers. He won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for History for The War Years, the second volume of his biography of Abraham Lincoln. He also won the second Poetry Pulitzer in 1951 for the anthology of his poems entitled Complete Poems. He even received a Grammy Award in 1959 for Best Performance – Documentary Or Spoken Word (Other Than Comedy) for his recording of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the New York Philharmonic.
Sandburg was a great advocate of the Civil Rights Movement and was the first white man to be honored by the NAACP with their Silver Plaque Award, which thus proclaimed him to be a “major prophet of civil rights in our time.”
Sandburg died of natural causes on 22nd July 1967, and his ashes were interred under “Remembrance Rock,” a granite boulder located behind the house in which he was born in Galesburg, Illinois.
I am the People, the Mob: Setting
This poem is set in an abstract landscape that can be equated with the America of the early 20th century. In this landscape, the common people are rearing up to regain control at the hands of their corrupt governors.
I am the People, the Mob: Summary
The poem consists of 15 long lines in total. These lines are not divided into stanzas. However, they are divided into meaningful segments here to make the poem easier to follow and understand.
Lines 1 – 3:
“I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.”
In this stanza, the poet declares that he is speaking on behalf of the common people as their representative. Then he asks his readers whether they know that it is because of common people that all the work in this world is done because it is common people who are responsible for inventing new things and engaging in hard labor to produce man’s clothes his food.
Lines 4 – 5:
“I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the
Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.”
In this stanza, the poet says that he, as the common people, has watched every single event in the past unfolding before his eyes. From among the common people, great heroes like Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln have arisen, and those other extraordinary men like them will arise again.
Lines 6 – 10:
“I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms
pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything
but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember.
In this stanza, in the voice of the masses, the poet says that he is like a large open field that can easily bear the burden of being plowed by heavy implements, of having destructive storms blow by it, and of having its very vitality sucked out of it. Every hardship short of death is faced y the common people, and they lose everything they have achieved. Despite all this, they do not hold on to the past and are willing to move beyond it to a new day. The masses do cry out in protest at times, and sometimes they fight and shed their blood, but in the end, every defeat is forgotten.
Lines 11 – 15:
“When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of
yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—
then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any
a fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.”
In this stanza, the poet qualifies what he had said about forgetting in the previous stanza. He says that the masses forget everything except the lessons they have learned from past mistakes. They make it a point to isolate the powerful men who have robbed them and tricked them and to make sure that these men can never take advantage of them again. As a result, no one can mock the masses or look down upon them. The masses will take power into their own hands.
Other than I am the People, the Mob: Summary can also refer to the Analysis, Central Idea, and Theme of I am the People, the Mob for a better understanding.