Credit: Courtesy of American Memory
Carl Sandburg's 1916 "Chicago" is one of the best known works of 20th century American literature. Included in countless anthologies, this poem made famous the description of Chicago as "City of the Big Shoulders," celebrating its role at the time as the industrial capital of the United States.
In this lesson students will look at Sandburg's poem in a literary, historical, and biographical context. By first examining primary photographs, maps, and other documents that depict Chicago at the turn of the century, students will anticipate Sandburg's description of and attitudes towards the city. They will then read a short biography of the poet to make further predictions about the poem. Finally students will read the poem and identify the ways in which Sandburg uses literary techniques such as personification and apostrophe to make vivid the Chicago he knew. At the end of the lesson, students will bring all these strands together by using "Chicago" as a model for writing original pieces about places that are important to them.
As Sandburg describes it in his poem, the Chicago of 1900 was "stormy, husky, [and] brawling": a financial, agricultural, manufacturing, and transportation hub for the nation. (The short Edison film clip listed below that shows the downtown street corner of State and Madison in 1897, dubbed it "the busiest corner in the world," illustrates this well.) This poem is a celebration of an urbanization that was fueled by industrialism and inventions like electric lights and new modes of transportation. It is also a realistic look at a city growing so fast that its population at this time was doubling every 20 years.
"Chicago" might be taught in several different contexts. In a literature course it might be read simply to illustrate the literary technique of "personification," or it might be studied as part of a survey of American poetry. For students of history, it might be used to illustrate one perspective on urbanization and industrialization before the first World War. The poem might also be used to frame or to contrast with other related literature such as The Jungle or Sister Carrie.
To begin the lesson, encourage students to think about what they might already know (or can guess) about Chicago at the turn of the 19th century. What might it have had in common with other big American cities at this time? What facts do they know about world and national events that would be important? What technological changes were affecting the way people lived, worked, moved around, and spent their free time? As a class you might briefly create a word web of associations, facts, images, and ideas that come to mind when imagining this time and place.
Next invite students to view as many of the following primary documents as you choose in order to build their historical knowledge of the time and place. This can be done by having students work alone or in pairs at computers; by printing the photos and hanging them on a classroom wall; or by creating "stations" in the classroom with 3-4 photos at each that students can rotate through.
You may choose from ten photographs of Chicago from between about 1900 and 1925, many taken by staff photographers of the Chicago Daily News; documentary films shot by Thomas Edison that show "the busiest corner in the world" in downtown Chicago as well as animals on their way to the slaughterhouse; interactive maps that show industrial and population growth in Chicago at this time; and a short, accessible opinion piece by a New Yorker written for Harper's Magazine in 1892 about the vitality of Chicago.
After students have viewed the various primary documents, all of which are accessible via the LaunchPad, place each one in a different part of the classroom (or at a different computer terminal), and invite students to choose one document with which they will work more closely. Give students this PDF and move to a seat near their chosen document, then work with others who have chosen the same image to answer the questions on the worksheet.
Have students share their responses with the class as a whole.
Print out or have students cut and paste the Sandburg biography at the Academy of American Poets into a word processing document. As they read this biography have them highlight (using the word processing highlighter tool or their own highlighters) those details in the text that they think might give hints about the poem they are about to read--either because it reveals a point of view Sandburg might have had about Chicago, or because it says something about the style or content of his poetry. When they have finished, have students read these lines or phrases aloud. Then ask, "What can we predict about the poem "Chicago" both from the photographs we have just seen and what we now know about Carl Sandburg's background, style, and point of view?" Make a list on the board.
Supply each student with a copy of "Chicago," available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets, and read it aloud as students follow along. As you read, have students highlight any word or line that in any way echoes anything they may have predicted in the two previous activities. For instance, a description of Chicago as "stormy, husky, brawling" might sound like something they wrote when likening Chicago to a person in the first activity; descriptions of railroads and stockyards might remind them of some of the photographs they saw; and the joyful way he describes the city might echo the words of the biography about Sandburg's "attempt to find beauty in modern industrialism."
Ask students if they can identify any literary techniques Sandburg uses to bring the city alive. Introduce the ideas of "personification" and "apostrophe" (see the glossary at the Academy of American Poets for definitions) if they do not mention these. Then have students work in partners to go through the poem finding as many examples of each as they can. Ask them to write a "P" over the places where Sandburg has personified Chicago and an "A" over those where he has used apostrophe. Have students share their findings by having them first call out examples of personification and then examples of apostrophe. How well do these work? How would the poem be different if there was neither personification nor apostrophe? (Students should note that the poem as it is could not exist since so much of it can be described as one or the other.) What attitude does the speaker seem to have about the city—is he proud of it, or defensive? What lines show this? Finally, have students reflect on how well their characterization of Chicago matches the characterizations they made themselves when they described the city as a person in Activity 1.
Have students write their own pieces (poetry or prose) that bring to life a place they know and love. To do this, have students choose a place they know well, feel great affection for, and of which they have vivid mental images. These might be big places—a city, or even a whole country—or might be small places like one's neighborhood or street.
Then ask students, "If this place were a person, what kind of person would he or she be? What noticeable physical characteristics would this person have? How would he or she act? What would this person wear and do?" Have them write answers.
Next tell students that, as in "Chicago," they are going to take on and refute some of the negative things that might be said about this place. Have them write down any criticisms they may have heard about their place, then have them write the response they might give to these criticisms. (One way to do this might be to have them fill in two lines that start the same way, "They tell me you are_________________, and I___________________." ) For students who need additional support, you might model this by describing your school or some other place all your students will know. Refer students to lines 6-9 of "Chicago" to observe how Sandburg does this.
Finally, have students use this writing as a rough draft to create a poem or short descriptive essay that celebrates a place they know and love. They should accompany this writing with their own "primary document" that shows something important about that place as it is now—either one available at an online resource or an item (such as a photograph) that they themselves own or created. For example, they might find or create a map, photograph, video, or written editorial or essay about the place at the turn of the 20th century.
Interested students might go on to examine Carl Sandburg's work as part of the long American tradition of capturing in literature and song something of the plain speech and heroic spirit of the ordinary American. The Academy of American Poet's website has a short description of Sandburg's role as a singer and songwriter, and contains links to the work of similar American singer-songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan who may have been inspired by Sandburg. Have students choose a song by one of these 20th-century singers and show its similarities to Sandburg's work.
Students of history might wish to widen their investigation of attitudes toward and depictions of the American city by comparing Sandburg's poem to other works of art or literature created at the same time. For example, the New York Ashcan School of artists famously depicted New York City life with brutal but loving realism, while T.S. Eliot's 1922 poem "The Waste Land" envisions London as a sterile, soulless place.
For more information about Sandburg and the other Modernist poets, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets, Modern American Poetry, and the EDSITEment curriculum unit Introduction to Modernist Poetry.
2-3 class periods