Professor Wai Chee Dimock
English 436: Global Cities
5 October 2016
“To-morrow There Is No Funeral”: Meditations on Death in Carl Sandburg’s Poetry
Carl Sandburg’s collection Chicago Poems is, unsurprisingly, an exploration of the city he called home. Chicago serves as the setting that Sandburg uses, through descriptions of the working class and inner-city life, to meditate on mortality. The poems chronicle the daily struggles of the workers and immigrants who comprised much of Chicago’s population in the early twentieth century, and the plainspoken language and short length of most poems tease out the nuance of this mortality; on the one hand the lives of Sandburg’s subjects seemed destined for an infinite cycle of menial labor, but on the other hand their lives could be snatched away in an instant, seemingly at random. Death is an always-present theme, but serves no obvious and constant purpose. In poems like “Graceland” and “The Right to Grief,” death highlights the disparities between the wealthy and the working class, and in “Anna Imroth” death is disturbingly trivialized. In all three death is juxtaposed with life. But what meaning is there to be gleaned from these poems about death? How is Sandburg asking the reader to understand death, to process death? Ultimately the death as depicted “Graceland,” “The Right to Grief,” and “Anna Imroth” is not hopeful for anyone: mourning is a luxury reserved for the upper class, but the grim realities of everyday working-class life, which preclude mourning, make death easier to accept.
“Graceland” is more subtle and less moralistic than most poems in the collection; it isn’t immediately obvious what Sandburg is trying to teach the reader. Part of this subtlety comes from the structure: there are two halves that seemingly stand alone, and after an initial reading it isn’t clear how they fit together. They are different in content and form, and although the structural implication is that the first stanza can be a lens for understanding the second stanza there isn’t obvious common ground joining the two. The most concrete connection between the stanzas is money. Money and death define what we know about the dead man in the first stanza, indeed the first two lines of the poem, “Tomb of a millionaire, / A multi-millionaire, ladies and gentlemen” address these two characteristics and nothing else. (9) And money and death play contradictory roles: the millionaire used his “written will” to set aside “The usury of twenty-five thousand dollars / For upkeep and flowers / To keep fresh the memory of the dead,” in other words the memory of himself. (9) The millionaire is using usury money to try and keep himself alive, and money seems to present the key to living in the second stanza of the poem, albeit under very different circumstances. There’s a striking parallel in the first lines of both stanzas, as “(A hundred cash girls want nickels to go to the movies to-night” introduces money as being central the cash girls’ identities and desires. (9) And it can be said that money serves a similar purpose for the cash girls as it does for the dead millionaire; it allows them live more fully with new clothes or a trip to the movies.
The dead millionaire uses money to try and stay alive, the cash girls need money to live fully, but ultimately neither one is satisfied. Sandburg sets up the desire for “sweetness of remembrance” even as he never fulfills it. (9) There are no family members who come to the tomb and no friends to reminisce about the dead millionaire, who remains just as anonymous as the cash girls. There is no hint that the millionaire’s money is doing any good. There is no existential hope, just as there is none for the cash girls. We see their attempt to live fully but never see their desires realized, and Sandburg leaves us with a sort of spiritual emptiness: “And when she pulls on her stockings in the morning she is reckless / about God and the newspapers and the police, and the talk of her / home town or the name people call her.” (10) There is no hope for the cash girls while they live and so the only implied hope might come in the form of a peaceful and celebrated death. But the only model of death that Sandburg presents is equally bleak.
“The Right to Grief” also sets up a comparison between a millionaire and a member of the working class, although in this poem it is between two subjects who are both dead. Once again money plays a central role, as money has a very practical effect on the families’ respective abilities to formally mourn their children. The stockyard hunky has to pay a week’s wages just to put his dead three-year-old daughter in a coffin, but from the very beginning of the poem Sandburg challenges the idea that having more money somehow solves death: “Take your fill of intimate remorse, perfumed sorrow, / Over the dead child of a millionaire. / And the pity of Death refusing any check on the bank / Which the millionaire might order his secretary to scratch off.” (10) The tone here is much more forceful than in “Graceland;” gone are Sandburg’s subtle questions about death, and in their place is a challenge not so much about who has the right to grieve, as the poem’s title might suggest, but rather what it means to grieve.
A first reading might suggest that Sandburg is advocating grieving for the daughter of the stockyard hunky for moral reasons: her family can barely afford her funeral, and Sandburg is implying that if he doesn’t grieve for this child then no one will. But it’s more complicated than simply being a question of morals. Sandburg is placing higher value on a grief that is productive and practical (and perhaps even opportunistic). To grieve for the millionaire’s child is less morally pure, but it is also existentially risky: if money (so central to the millionaire’s identity) can’t provide solace from death, then what can? By contrast, Sandburg’s grief for the hunky’s daughter is practical, since no one else is grieving for her. And in the case of the hunky’s daughter, death does not give rise to the existential crisis of the millionaire’s child. Instead, death serves a purpose even as it is cause for mourning. The hunky and his family “are glad [the daughter] is gone for the rest of the family now will have more / to eat and wear,” and accordingly death is referred to in its “majesty.” (11) Sandburg “[feels his] throat choke about this,” but instead of ending the poem on this sadness, Sandburg gives himself and the reader an out. (11) He ends with the hunky going back to his job, and the last two lines of the poem, rather than elevating the grief of the dead child, situate it in the larger context of the hunky’s harsh daily reality. This may not be a hopeful view of death, but it gives the reader something else to think about, something other than the empty grief of the daughter’s death.
“Anna Imroth” also recounts the death of a working person situated in the context of a harsh daily reality. The poem is mostly about Anna—the presentation of her corpse and the reaction of her family. But the focus on Anna is undermined by the context in which she died. The poem narrates, in the same oddly detached tone used for the rest of the poem, that Anna is the only factory girl who didn’t escape the fire: “But all of the others got down and they are safe and this is the only / one of the factory girls who wasn’t lucky in making the jump / when the fire broke.” (14) The use of “but,” here is particularly interesting. Mourning Anna’s death is not inherently mutually exclusive with appreciating that the other factory girls escaped with their lives, but Sandburg sets them in opposition to each other, as though the safety of the other factory girls negates the gravity of Anna’s death. This rhetoric and tone is jarring after “The Right to Grief,” in which Sandburg expressed deep sympathy for a working family who had lost their child. That sympathy is gone from “Anna Imroth,” and it is not altogether clear whether Sandburg is using the poem’s voice as a means of personal expression or as a social commentary.
My guess is that this is not Sandburg’s voice. Sandburg uses these poems as a means of exploring human mortality, and both “Graceland” and “The Right to Grief” show Sandburg’s nuanced approach to understanding that mortality, through questions about money’s power to affect the way people live and die, and the purpose of grief. The last line of “Anna Imroth,” “It is the hand of God and the lack of fire escapes,” is a flippant platitude in comparison. (14) Perhaps it is Sandburg’s imitation of the indifferent upper class, who don’t care enough about the death of another laborer to bother parsing out whether the death was fate or circumstance. Or perhaps it is simply pragmatic: to understand the death of one factory girl in a fire through the lens of all the other factory girls that survived provides a way for us to move on with our lives, not unlike the stockyard hunky who doesn’t get a day off after his daughter’s death.
“Graceland,” “The Right to Grief,” and “Anna Imroth” all offer bleak explorations of death, there is little hope to be found in the poems. It is the unforgiving realities of working-class life that seem to provide the only solace, by accepting death and pressing quickly onwards. So what place does this view of death hold in a collection of poems concerned with human mortality? It is tempting to try and extrapolate a lesson or moral, some grain of wisdom to hold onto in the face of such a difficult topic. But what would the lesson be? Press forever onwards like the working class is forced to do? Sandburg shows us too many of the hardships of being a laborer to assume that was his message. Indulge in the luxury of mourning and grief after the fashion of the millionaires? Sandburg provides no existential answers to their prayers. On the surface these poems seem simple and unsubtle, a bunch of canned anecdotes written to teach a lesson. But it’s impossible to trace what that lesson is from one poem to the next. Like all the best art Sandburg’s poems offer us no easy answers, instead he challenges us with profound and difficult questions.