The Tale of Two Perspectives
Many extremely different cultures have been examined across the United States of America for as long as it has existed. Because the country is so large and spread far and wide, it is impossible for there to be only one culture and therefore just one singular way to identify as an American. There have been very many interpretations and perspectives on what it means to be an American. However, many authors have attempted through their writing to express what it means to be an American and how to identify as an American. Through literature, both Carl Sandburg and Jean Toomer contributed to the growth of American identity through their own appreciations of different aspects of that identity, together creating an ultimate definition of an American. Carl Sandburg emphasized a whole American identity while Jean Toomer emphasized a cultural American identity.
Carl Sandburg can be seen throughout many of his works to not necessarily encourage any particular American identity in the form of what a person looks like or where they come from (Maas). Sandburg seemed to actually value the way of life of the general American. This general life included working and laboring to build a better life for yourself. This perspective is most likely due to Sandburg’s own experiences throughout his life. He was born in a small, rural house and started working as a very young boy, laboring so that he may create a better life for himself. This perspective of laboring for a better life is obviously represented in his poem “Chicago.” The very first lines of the poem, Sandburg is naming off different occupations, stating “Hog Butcher for the World,/ Tool Maker, Stack of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;” (Sandburg 773). By having the list of the different occupations, which are more often than not essential to every day American life, Sandburg is showing his appreciation for labor and those who do it. He is acknowledging the identity of American workers, and expressing that to be American is to work for yourself and work towards the ever attractive American Dream.
While Sandburg shows his specific appreciation for laboring in the poem “Chicago,” he is specifically referring to the city of Chicago. Chicago is often seen as the heart of the United States, as it is a top commerce location and many different people from many different walks of life will flock there. Sandburg is aware of this as he writes “Chicago.” He shows pride in the city that has become the home of so many people of different standings, pasts, and social statuses. He states in his poem, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so/ proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning” (Sandburg 773). In these two lines, he is stating that because of the many people who live and work in Chicago, there is no other city like it. He is understanding that though everyone in the city may have separate identities, they are one in the same in that they are proud to be where they are, and they are moving on stronger than they were before. With these lines, Sandburg is emphasizing that American identity is not where someone may come from or what they may be, but rather how proud they are to be what they are.
Carl Sandburg is seen to show an appreciation for the strength of American people who are able to push through their hardships and come out stronger on the other side. This sentiment is obvious in his poem when says, “Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,/ Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,/ Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,/ Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,/ Laughing!” (Sandburg 774). Through these lines, Sandburg is stating that through every burden a man may face in Chicago, he is able to laugh. Laughing in the face of danger is a common trope seen throughout hardships of history. Sandburg sees the legitimacy in this sentiment, as many people in Chicago have a rough go at it, but are able to survive and come out stronger than they were. This ability to be strong in the face of hardship is one of the major cornerstones of American life, as believed by Carl Sandburg. He is showing that he believes that in order to be an American, you have to be willing to come out of hardships as a stronger and better person. He believes that American identity includes facing hardships head on, and being stronger because of it.
Jean Toomer, though he often wrote about the South including in “Cane” and his excerpt from it “Georgia Dusk,” he only visited the South twice and was not raised in a rural setting, but in white neighborhoods where he was mostly passing as white (Ramsey). With this in mind, it is interesting that Toomer wrote about the South. However, it can be assumed that because he originally grew up in white American neighborhoods, he aspired to experience and understand the culture of African Americans. This want to appreciate this culture can be seen in “Georgia Dusk” as Toomer attempts to identify with African Americans in the South. Toomer’s appreciation for the culture can be seen in “Georgia Dusk” when Toomer says, “Race memories of king and caravan,/ High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,/ Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp” (Toomer 969). These lines show vivid imagery of the old culture of African Americans before coming to America. By acknowledging this older culture, with some of it still living on in later generations, Toomer is expressing the importance of owning a culture within America. He is showing a belief that in order for one to be an American, they must know their culture and embrace it.
Jean Toomer shows a similar interpretation of labor in America to Carl Sandburg, as he acknowledges laboring. Toomer states, “The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,/ And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,/ Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill/ Their early promise of a bumper crop” (Toomer 969). In these lines, Toomer is acknowledging how working will affect those in America. However, Toomer ties in how working affects the culture that he focuses on. While the men are working, he states that, “Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,/ Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…/ Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane/ Is caroling a vesper to the stars” (Toomer 969). Toomer is expressing that the people are able to incorporate their beloved culture into their very much American laboring. Toomer seems to be emphasizing how versatile America is when it comes to culture, as people are able to work while still observing and expressing their culture. This shows a pride in that culture, as Toomer seems to emphasize. Toomer is focusing on an American identity that shows pride in the culture that one subscribes to. To Toomer, without this pride, one would not be worthy of calling themselves an American, as they would not have any identity to begin with.
Carl Sandburg and Jean Toomer through their individual focuses on American identity are able to encompass what it means to be an American. Sandburg touches on the wholeness of American identity and how being American means working for a better life and being proud of how much stronger you can get. Meanwhile, Toomer focuses in “Georgia Dusk” on the cultural aspect of being American. He shows a belief that being an American means holding on to an original culture and carrying it through to America instead of abandoning it in order to assimilate as an American. He also focuses on the idea that one must have pride in their own culture and have that strong identity with that culture. Through both of these focuses, a more encompassing, yet still specific, definition of American identity can be made.
Considering the two perspectives of Carl Sandburg and Jean Toomer, the combined and ultimate definition of American identity would be an identity associated with working hard, having any culture one would like, and having pride in both of those. Since these two authors have penned their respective works, America and Americans have changed drastically. However, both of their perspectives and the combined definition are still able to be held true, though with some societal challenges. The meaning of American has been lost within the last few decades with many social and economic strains. However, this idea of American identity may soon be rediscovered as time marches on. As people begin to regain their sense of pride in who they are, where they come from, and what they believe, the perspectives of both Carl Sandburg and Jean Toomer may soon be rediscovered and reimplemented as the standards of living within the American identity.
Maas, David F. “Using Gs Extension Al Devices to Explore Carl Sandburg’s Poetry.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 62, no. 4, Oct. 2005, pp. 411–419. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=18596409&site=ehost-live.
Ramsey, William M. “Jean Toomer’s Eternal South.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 74–89. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/slj.2003.0038.
Sandburg, Carl. “Chicago.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature: 1865 to Present, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp 773-774.
Toomer, Jean. “Georgia Dusk.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature: 1865 to Present, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp 968-969.