Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 17, 2012

Artists break through prairie, establish ground in Galesburg

Born in Galesburg, Ill., writers and artists Carl Sandburg and Dorothea Tanning explored new ground in the prairie and beyond. For English Professor Robin Metz, Galesburg started out as a pulse for ideas then became a magnet for writers and artists. What draws them to this small town?

Prairie foundation for artists

Since the town and Knox College founders were abolitionists, Metz said they founded Galesburg in an “almost Utopian way.”

“Most towns are founded for reasons of commerce. This town was founded for these high ideals and then commerce grew around it,” Metz said.

With the college promoting intellectual debate and the railroad going through Galesburg, this laid the foundation for artists like Sandburg. Born in Galesburg in 1878, Sandburg worked at an opera house in his youth, listening to artists and poets who passed through.

“The railroad allowed for continuous commerce not only of material goods but also of ideas,” Metz said.

During his time at Lombard College (closed due to the Great Depression), Sandburg developed his writing skills. While at Lombard, he attended a writer’s workshop, which might have been the first workshop ever held, with professor Philip Green Wright — who later helped him publish his first book.

By rail, Galesburg had an influx of multinational immigrant people such as the Irish, Italians, Mexicans and Swedes. Both Sandburg and Tanning were of Swedish descent. Tanning’s father knew Sandburg through ethnic ties, and after being introduced to Tanning, Sandburg gave her advice on art.

Working at the old Galesburg Public Library, a two-story building that covered a block, “the library was for her, what the opera house or the auditorium was for Sandburg, just this way to get information from the outside world,” Metz said.

Outside of their birthplace, Tanning and Sandburg brought Galesburg to the masses. According to a March 27 article in The New York Times, Tanning’s four-line poem was selected as part of the Poetry in Motion program sponsored by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Poetry Society of America. Displayed for all New York City commuters to see, memorize and connect with, Tanning’s poem “Graduation,” about graduating from Galesburg high school, was recently featured all across the New York subway system.

“I’m just so touched that we put it up there at her birthplace last year and now New York City learned from us and put it on their subways and all their metro cars,” Metz said, about “Graduation.”

Metz said Galesburg created writers and artists and then began to draw them. Authors Edgar Lee Masters, Eugene Field and Jack Finney all went to Knox.

Knox has held a long history and tradition of literary endeavors, including Catch, formerly the Siwasher, the longest continuously published journal in the nation.

“It would be a very unusual college or university, including in the Ivy League, that can match this story of continuous commitment to literary arts, to investigative journalism, etcetera” Metz said.

Journalists and Knox alumni S.S. McClure 1882 and former editor-in-chief of The New York Times John Huston Finley 1887 later forged connections between Galesburg and major cities. To further these connections, Metz spoke about the possibility of Knox and Galesburg becoming the site of the Midwest Writers and Artists Hall of Fame.

“The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is very interested in linking up with us if we wanted to do that,” Metz said.

With Iowa City, Iowa being named an international literary city, Metz said the plan would be for Chicago to link with Galesburg and Iowa City due to a “natural linkage” of all three cities along Interstate 80.

Tension for working-class artists

However, in a working-class town, some residents of Galesburg today are hesitant to support the arts. Metz said what writers or artists need in their early days is a sense that their work matters, and that was true for Sandburg in his childhood. Sandburg’s father discouraged his creative endeavors while his mother encouraged them, buying Sandburg an encyclopedia to read.

“Even though it’s true that writers can pop up anywhere … [Galesburg] gave support for these activities as being of value to human communities,” Metz said. “If you’re not in a community that values your effort, it’s very easy to become discouraged and just fall silent.”

The tension that Sandburg felt with his working-class father about the arts being impractical is the same tension artists feel today in Galesburg. Despite being of historical value, Sandburg’s beloved three-story opera house on Broad Street, near the Public Square, is now voiceless and abandoned.

He went back home

Even with the tension, Metz said that international writers, musicians, theatre companies and artists who come to Galesburg are surprised by its “lively atmosphere about the arts [and] they’re thrilled about it … they like to come back.”

The influences Sandburg and Tanning had on other artists is still felt. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian poet during the Cold War era, met Sandburg as a young writer in Russia and later came to Galesburg to visit Sandburg’s birthplace home.

“He was so impressed by him that he felt that he owed his whole poetry career to Sandburg so he wanted to come pay homage at his gravesite,” Metz said.

Despite being known as the definer of Chicago, Sandburg spent much of his life in rural areas. Spending his life’s last years in Chicago and North Carolina, Sandburg was “fundamentally a country boy,” returning to Galesburg to be buried, beneath his beloved prairie, at his boyhood home.

Sheena Leano

Tags:  Galesburg Prairie

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