Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tribute to a faithful toiler

“I have always felt that a woman has the right to treat the subject of her age with ambiguity until, perhaps, she passes into the realm of over ninety. Then it is better she be candid with herself and with the world.” Carl Sandburg

On Nov. 24, 1918 as Americans fought in the War to End All Wars, the not-yet-Lincoln-biographer Carl Sandburg was away from home as a war correspondent. That Sunday at 6 a.m., his wife, Lillian, whom he called Paula, gave birth to a baby girl, rather than the boy the couple had expected. When Paula wrote to her husband, she described a little girl “as colorful and clamorous as you could wish,” according to the account in Penelope Niven’s Carl Sandburg: A Biography.

That colorful, clamorous daughter, Helga, a brilliant writer herself, will celebrate her ninetieth birthday tomorrow and she has earned the right to be as ambiguous or as candid about her age as she wishes.

So why am I writing about Helga Sandburg in my Lincoln blog? I could give you a top ten, with reasons such as “I admire her.” “She inspires me.” “She’s spunky.” Those would all be right, and I’d have no trouble finding many more. The most significant, however, is that I think Lincoln buffs and Lincoln scholars alike can learn from Helga.

What Helga can teach us

“Learn what?” you ask. There are several things.

One of my friends who is a Lincoln scholar is a PK – Preacher’s Kid. There are certain things all preachers’ kids have in common – a bond of sorts, things they’ve lived through. I wonder, as I meet Lincoln scholars and read their work, if there isn’t also a bond for LK – Lincoln Kids – sons and daughters of Lincoln scholars. The bond is in things such as listening to Mom or Dad talk about Lincoln for hours with more passion in their eyes than at almost any other time – or watching as the piles of books and papers grow deeper and deeper in the library – or wondering when the parent will ever pull away from the computer – or having to plan vacations around visits to Lincoln sites, libraries or archives.

In “…Where Love Begins,” Helga’s autobiographical account of the Sandburg family, Lincoln scholars and their families can see how, even more than eighty years after his first Lincoln volume was published, there are still some constants in what it’s like to be a Lincoln scholar or an LK.

This book, one of more than a dozen by this soon-to-be nonagenarian, keeps readers engaged anyway, because Helga’s a fun writer and it’s a great read. But for those of us with an interest in Lincoln, she paints a familiar picture of both the beginning and the end of the creative process. "I am four. A flame has lighted my father. The household feels it,” Helga wrote. The time was the summer of 1923 and the flame, of course, was Lincoln.

She also shares her Uncle Edward Steichen’s account of Carl’s visit after the final review of proofs of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. Her uncle, the gifted photographer, saw the Lincoln biographer as if through a camera lens, and captured a peace writers have only as one project ends and another is not yet begun:

“My uncle says, ‘Carl sat at the breakfast table that morning with a serene and relaxed look, a look that brought to mind Gardner’s beautiful photographs the day after the Civil war surrender. This is the only picture of Lincoln in existence which shows a real smile, a tired smile of relief, a smile of infinite warmth and tenderness.’”

Read all about it

Have you wondered what it was like for Sandburg to be obsessed with Lincoln for so long, or what it was like to live in the presence of one so obsessed? Do you wonder how Sandburg’s creative and research process was different from your own – or the same? Did you know Helga and her sisters were often “faithful toilers” working in many ways behind the scenes to contribute to his life’s work?

If so, you must read Helga’s book. And, if you’re so inclined, it might be a really nice time to stop and say, “Thanks, Helga. Have a great birthday!” I’ll be glad to send her any birthday wishes you leave in the comments at the end of this blog.

Happy birthday, Helga!

Helga, thanks for writing about your father, telling your own stories and, especially, for your own voice, formed in the echoes of the prairie-town boy and the rhythms of the trains near his boyhood home. You're the youngest 90-year-old I've ever known. Have a wonderful day.

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