Carl Sandburg Stops Making Sense

The Chicago poet’s overlooked adventures in linguistic anarchy.
Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories. Original Illustrations by Paul Killebrew.Original illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Nonsense is for everyone. It falls off the tongues of all speakers of all languages everywhere, from Hugo Ball in Switzerland to Aimé Césaire in Martinique to SpongeBob SquarePants in Bikini Bottom. True, nonsense words and sentences can’t make arguments or walk through A-ergo-B lessons, but this is part of nonsense’s reason for existence: anti-logic (“breaking the oppressor’s language,” says Césaire). It is a parody of language, a burlesque, and yet it still deeply resonates, not with specific emotions or ideas, but with the uncanniness of a life-altering dream.

The indisputable masters of nonsense are children. Without a lifetime of words to slough off, children remain mostly immune to language’s rules and so give us the Dada-est Dada-isms. But as each day passes, children around the world are sacrificing their verbal freedom for a language that may never be as exciting as their natural blathering.

It makes sense that those writers who have tried to unlock the world of nonsense are most often considered, somewhat dismissively, as writers of children’s literature: Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Alastair Reid, Dr. Seuss, and so on. These writers know that children don’t need traditional language to get excited by literature. Carl Sandburg, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and biographer of the quite sensible Abraham Lincoln, remains one of the great unrecognized writers of nonsense. Rootabaga Stories, Sandburg’s widely read but critically ignored collection of abstruse stories, is most often—but maybe dismissively—considered children’s lit. Sandburg, on the other hand, considered his so-called Rootabaga country for readers “5 to 105 years of age.”

“The Rootabaga stories were,” Sandburg wrote, “. . . attempts to catch fantasy, accents, pulses, eye flashes, inconceivably rapid and perfect gestures, sudden pantomimic moments, drawls and drolleries, gazings and musings—authoritative poetic instants—knowing that if the whir of them were caught quickly and simply enough in words, the result would be a child lore interesting to child and grown-up.”

Nonsense has come to connote a style of nursery rhymes, little comic vignettes, or limerick-y sketches; it is not primarily a genre but a device. It functions in two primary ways: by defying logic with paradox and confusion (“the red brick is blue”) or with semantics, ignoring fundamental grammar rules such as subject-object relationship. Sandburg’s stories fall into the former category—they explore anti-logic rather than anti-grammar. Sentences look like sentences, but they read like something else altogether. The book’s opening sentences, from the story, “How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country,” read:

Gimme the Ax lived in a house where everything is the same as it always was. “The chimney sits on top of the house and lets the smoke out,” said Gimme the Ax. “The doorknobs open the doors. The windows are always either open or shut. We are always either upstairs or downstairs in this house. Everything is the same as it always was.” So he decided to let his children name themselves.

Here, Sandburg begins a new mythology of language’s genesis.

Sandburg refers to children as “anarchs of language and speech.” Instead of using children’s literature as a tool for moral didacticism—something nonsense can never really achieve—he creates an experience to deconstruct narrative—a goal for which nonsense is well-suited. The very term “rootabaga,” a respelling of the root vegetable's name, is Sandburg’s announcement that he intends to ignore proper language and convey his ideas through something else.

In his life, Sandburg finished three collections of stories about the Rootabaga country—Rootabaga Stories, Rootabaga Pigeons, and the rare Potato Face. Sandburg had read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and was familiar with the classic fables, but he had no interest in stuffing European tropes into an America mythology. “I wanted something more in the American lingo,” Sandburg told Karl Detzer in a profile. “I was tired of princes and princesses and I sought the American equivalent of elves and gnomes.”

His motivations recall another cult children’s writer, Heinrich Hoffman, author of the violent book of juvenilia Struwwelpeter, who had grown tired of “stupid stories, beginning and ending with admonitions like ‘the good child must be truthful.’” Sandburg didn’t have any interest in allowing moral lessons to dictate his stories. Conclusions in general are kind of a joke in Rootabaga stories. One story ends: “And so—if you ever come across a gold buckskin whincher [an object that is never really described, except to say that you can wear it around your neck], be careful. It’s got a power. It’ll make you fall head over heels in love with the next man you meet with an X in his name.”

What makes the Rootabaga stories more than Edward Learian jingles and Rimbaudian indeterminacy for kids is how Sandburg brings the looseness of nonsense thinking to all aspects of the tales: plots fail to develop, characters’ actions have no meaning, conflicts have no resolutions. Characters have names such as Hatrack the Horse, Fire the Goat, and Flim the Goose; the sometime narrator, Potato Face Blind Man, doesn’t seem to be blind at all. There is both a character named Red Slippers and a pair of actual red slippers, but you can barely be sure which is which. Names can also be phrases: Any Ice Today, Gimme the Ax, Ax Me No Questions. In general, Sandburg relishes in naming all things; it’s one of his skills, and with it he constructs full-bodied narrative nonsense.

Like Frank Baum’s Oz, Sandburg’s Rootabaga land of myth is the Midwest—small towns, farms, attitude, Midwest slang. “If you have ever watched the little corn begin to march across the black lands,” Sandburg writes, “and then slowly change to big corn and go marching on from the little corn moon of summer to the big corn harvest moon of autumn, then you must have guessed who it is that helps the corn come along.” To answer this, he crafts a new myth about the corn fairies, “who sing soft songs that go pla-sizzy pla-sizzy-sizzy, and each song is softer than an eye wink, softer than a Nebraska baby’s thumb.”

Potato Face Blind Man defines the world’s parameters as “Kansas, to Kokomo, to Canada, to Kankakee, to Kalamazoo, to Kamchatka, to the Chattahoochee,” as if the Midwest were the reference point for the larger world. The Village of Liver-and-Onions, the metropolitan center, is across the Shampoo River from the Village of Cream Puffs, which “looks like a little hat you could wear on the end of your thumb to keep the rain off your thumb.” Sandburg’s characters use corn-fed slang such as “we done it” and “got the blues”—a sort of nonsense jargon.

Using the international language of nonsense, Sandburg probes the international myth, what Joseph Campbell would call the monomyth, one of the earliest forms of accreting local dialect and culture. African folklore, Taoist tales, Zen koans, and Hawaiian myths all use the absurd to provide cause-and-effect answers to mysteries that people cannot, otherwise, understand. Instead of attempting to provide answers, though, Sandburg answers nonsense with nonsense. The story titles have this mythlike explanatory quality: “How the Animals Lost Their Tails and Got Them Back Traveling from Philadelphia to Medicine Hat” or “How the Hat Ashes Shovel Helped Snoo Foo” or “How Gimme the Ax Found Out About the Zigzag Railroad and Who Made It Zigzag.” Yet reading a Rootabaga story to get an answer is clearly beside the point.

What is the point, then, of Rootabaga country? It is a land built from a language with (almost) no rules, so it is a land of opportunity, a truly American utopia. There, the stammers that ruin proper speech have the chance to become characters. Adults have the chance to unlearn the language that has created their fears and problems, to take in words with a beginner’s mind. Children get a chance to ignore adult logic and see the holes in dogmatism of all systems, especially the velvet prison of words. After all, they will be getting plenty of comedy, tragedy, and romance in their lives, but without absurdity, growing up would just be an endless search for the right word.

Originally Published: January 13th, 2010

Ross Simonini is the interviews editor for the Believer. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, and Stop Smiling, among other places. He is one half of the band New Villager.

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  1. January 14, 2010
     Barry Cunningham

    Fun books. Thank you for reviewing.
    For a while last year my wife and I were reading to each other from Rootabaga Country and Rootabaga Pigeons before going to sleep. A delightfully silly way for us homeyglomeys to retire.

  2. January 15, 2010
     Brian Denton

    Rootabaga Stories is available in full-view
    on Google Books. I'm reading it right
    now. Great stuff. Equally interesting
    article. Bravo.

  3. January 17, 2010
     Beverly Seaton

    Thanks for the lovely article--I dimly recall some of the stories. Sandburg's words remind me of Howard R. Garis' Uncle Wiggly Stories like this one ("Uncle Wiggly Learns to Dance"): "And in the next story, if the moving picture doesn't run so fast that it jumps out of the window and scares our cat, so she falls into the milk bottle, I'll tell you about Uncle Wiggly and the Snow Plow."

    Not to really compare Garis to Sandburg, but the same spirit is found in the Uncle Wiggly books.

    One might wonder how I can quote Garis; in fact, I still have some of the books which belonged to my youngest aunt, who was born in 1912.

  4. January 26, 2010
     MaryEllen Letarte

    Thank you for that Rootabaga thought. My Uncle Wiggly and I were remembering Sandburg's poems from Carl Sandburg's Selected Poems published by Gramercy Books in 1992. It's filled with short poems of giant proportions.

  5. January 28, 2010

    I send you huge thanks from Europe. Nonsense was unfortunately always underrated in the so-to-called "earnest" literature. And it was a cultural fail to oversee the power and intensity of nonsense in poetry. Kurt Schwitters said once: "I feel sorry for nonsense because up to now it so rarely was an object of the artistic process" And Daniil Kharms said once: "I'm interested only in nonsense". Schwitters, Kharms and many other discovered the huge possibilities of this form of libertation from pathetic banality of sense. I'm glad, Carl Sandburg was a great contribution to this international attitude.

  6. January 29, 2010

    Awesome! I studied "The Rootabaga Stories" in a recent Graduate Creative Writing class! So neat to see someone write an article about it.

  7. January 30, 2010
     Jeffrey Beebe

    Thanks for a wonderful article. Carl Sandburg is overlooked by our great country in the way that Thoreau also is overlooked. They saw the beauty in the American life and were not afraid to speak out for the fight against those who profit by destruction of that beauty.
    The wonderful rhythms and repeats of the Rag Doll and Broom Handle marriage story by Sandburg are my favorite nonsense sounds. He was a great recognizer of the value of the nonsense we have in our folk music. "Horse Named Bill" is an example.

  8. February 1, 2010

    Found your site via Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish." Just wanted to say I like what I've read so far and will continue to follow you!

  9. February 10, 2010
     Pat Rabby

    EE Cummings used some of the same
    logical illogic in his "Fairy Tales." "The Girl
    Named I" is a good example.

    Now to find "The Rootabaga Stories" and

  10. February 22, 2010

    My first exposure to Sandburg was sadly not until college, but I have loved him ever since. Being a recent graduate I continue to explore Sandburg and his wonderful ways with words. I hope to use his poetry in my classroom someday. The "Rootabaga" stories would be perfect I think. A great way for students to explore the English language and all it has to offer. They can know they don't always have to follow the rules. Thanks Ross for the article.

  11. March 16, 2010

    Hmmm,,, anti-logic seems delish,,, yet
    insanity tempts one to come to look, and
    seeing might make you blind.

    GIGGLE,,, that was fun. Ummm,,, seriously
    though, I enjoyed your article. I think we
    all would be a lot more creative if we let go
    of bounderies, rules, and expected ends.
    Although, I do think we should also be
    careful not to forget to where we would like
    to end, or succeed. Uh, wait,,, does that
    make sense??