Delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial September 17 1967
Secretary Udall, Mrs. Sandburg, our beloved Chief Justice and Mrs. Warren, Members of the United States Senate, Dean Sayre, Mr. Van Doren, Mr. MacLeish, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls:
I am both honored and saddened by the opportunity to join today with Carl Sandburg’s friends in celebrating that vital, exuberant, wise, and generous man.
This is the right place for thinking about Carl Sandburg. To him–and to me–Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of our national aspirations, the nearest that any man has come to summing up the American experience in himself.
Sandburg loved to come here, to what he once called “the fog-swept Lincoln Memorial, white as a blond woman’s arm.”
I have no pretensions as a literary critic, but I think Carl Sandburg belongs in a very special category among poets, along with Walt Whitman.
“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem …. Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night.”
And like Whitman, Sandburg seemed to have his finger on the American pulse. He seemed able to give voice to the whole range of America’s hopes and America’s hates. He seemed able to communicate, above all, the restless energy that has vitalized, stimulated, and–on occasion–degraded the history of our Nation.
He could give you the savage emotions of a lynch mob. He could just as well express, with affection and insight, the courage, and the impatience, even the braggadocio, that spurred our amazing development.
He said in “Good Morning America”:
“We are afraid; what are we afraid of? We are afraid of nothing much, nothing at all, nothing in the shape of god, man or beast, we can eat any ashes offered us, we can step out before the fact of the Fact of Death and look it in the eye and laugh, ‘You are the beginning or the end of something, I’ll gamble with you, I’ll take a chance.'”
And only those of us who have spent almost a lifetime in the pressure chamber of politics could possibly appreciate the humor and the insight of his “Money, Politics, Love and Glory”:
“Who put up that cage?
Who hung it up with bars, doors?
Why do those on the inside want to get out?
Why do those outside want to get in?
What is this crying inside and out all the time?
What is this endless, useless beating of baffled wings at these bars, doors, this cage?”
At the end of a long day, with the phones all ringing and the world in disarray, those words have a very special impact for some of us.
Well, Carl Sandburg is gone. He is pan of the earth that he celebrated in Illinois and Kentucky and North Carolina. He is part of the American earth.
What will live on forever though is his faith–his faith in the individual human beings whom we impersonally call “Americans.”
He knew that always in America “the strong men keep coming on.”
So let us respect his wishes and “ring no bell at all” to mourn his death. But surely we must, as he asked us, “sing one song” in memory of this strong singer of ours.
I will miss him; we will all miss him. There will not be one like him again.
Read more at the American Presidency Project