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The Poet of the People Sings of Freedom: Carl Sandburg on Transcending the Pride and Vanity that Paralyze Social Justice

How to protect yourself from the “misuse and violation of the sacred portions of your personality.”

Carl Sandburg (January 6, 1878–July 22, 1967) left school at the age of thirteen to labor as a milk-wagon driver, then went on to win not one, not two, but three Pulitzer Prizes and to compose verses so beloved he would be remembered as “the Poet of the People.” During the years he spent working for a Chicago newspaper in his thirties, he wrote with passion and lucidity about how economic inequality unsteadies society into disharmony and conflict, about immigration, about poverty, about civil rights. On the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, after completing his Pulitzer-winning biography of the slain President, Sandburg became the first private citizen to deliver a speech before a Joint Session of Congress, which he concluded with the eternally timely observation that “wherever there is freedom there have been those who fought and sacrificed for it.”

Carl Sandburg performing folk songs after a poetry reading. (National Park Service)

Sandburg places the subject of freedom and the toil for it at the center of his contribution to This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the wonderful series envisioned by the courageous broadcaster Ed Murrow in the 1950s and resumed by NPR half a century later, inviting “thoughtful men and women in all walks of life” — nurses and artists, athletes and politicians, composers and construction workers — to convey the animating ethos of their lives and their beliefs, those atomic units of personhood we assemble by our own free will, in compact essays, each part manifesto and part contemplative practice.

Sandburg begins his by beholding the slippery line between the universal and the commonplace, along which the premise of the question sends any answerer:

I believe in getting up in the morning with a serene mind and a heart holding many hopes. And so large a number of my fellow worms in the dust believe the same that there is no use putting stress on it.

In consonance with Bertrand Russell’s exquisite quip about our self-concern amid a vast and impartial universe — “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism… All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” — Sandburg adds:

I can remember many years ago, a beautiful woman in Santa Fe saying, “I don’t see how anybody can study astronomy and have ambition enough to get up in the morning.” She was putting a comic twist on what an insignificant speck of animate stardust each of us is amid cotillions of billion-year constellations.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
Part of the Milky Way, from Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical art painted in the era of Carl Sandburg’s birth. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Half a century and myriad discoveries before physicist Brian Greene so poetically insisted that our humbling insignificance is the very wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives, Sandburg considers how this cosmic antidote to human hubris protects us from our own most perilous tendency:

I believe in humility, though my confession and exposition of the humility I believe in would run into an old fashioned two- or three-hour sermon. Also I believe in pride, knowing well that the deadliest of the seven deadly sins is named as pride. I believe in a pride that prays ever for an awareness of that borderline where, unless watchful of yourself, you cross over into arrogance, into vanity, into mirror gazing, into misuse and violation of the sacred portions of your personality.

A young Charlie (Carl) Sandburg poses at his Confirmation photo. (National Park Service)

Only when misplaced pride and personal self-importance fall away, he intimates, can we really begin to rise to the task of freedom:

I believe in platitudes, when they serve, especially that battered and hard-worn antique, “Eternal vigilance is the pride of liberty.” Hand in hand with freedom goes responsibility. I believe that free men over the world cherish the earth as cradle and tomb… I believe freedom comes the hard way — by ceaseless groping, toil, struggle — even by fiery trial and agony.

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly invigorating This I Believe with James Baldwin, writing in the same epoch, on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit two other stirring and saning contributions to the collection: Leonard Bernstein on how art fortifies our mutual dignity and Thomas Mann on living with time.

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Two Friends: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony’s Entwined Paths as Pioneers of Freedom, Justice, and Equality

The story of two uncommonly courageous people who met in their twenties and spent the rest of their lives determined “to help each other, so one day all people could have rights.”

Two Friends: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony’s Entwined Paths as Pioneers of Freedom, Justice, and Equality

“How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?” Audre Lorde asked while traveling in a divided world a generation after the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Another generation earlier — an interval imperceptible on the timescales of our evolutionary history — these rights were reserved for only one class of human family members: white men.

That a civilization was able to broaden the legal aperture of civic agency and human dignity so dramatically in so short a time was the triumph of two parallel and consanguine movements: women’s suffrage and abolition, propelled by a small, unrelenting tribe of pioneers in the middle of the nineteenth century. The most active and ardent of them were women — women like Susan B. Anthony and Julia Ward Howe, who spoke and wrote and rallied unrelentingly for human rights and civic agency; women like astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell, who swung open the gates to women’s education in science and whose lovely lifelong friendship with Frederick Douglass was an honor to both; women who, in the aftermath of the Civil War, diverted their suffrage efforts from securing the vote for themselves to securing the vote for African Americans — parallel efforts for which Margaret Fuller had furnished the catalytic spark with her insistence that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” (In a disquieting recompense for these women’s efforts, the right to vote was extended to black men half a century before it was extended to women of any ethnicity.)

In the city of Rochester in upstate New York there stands — or, rather, sits — a bronze sculpture depicting two of these courageous champions of freedom having tea: Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), whose neighboring braveries blossomed into a real friendship after both moved to Rochester around the same time in their late twenties. It was in Rochester that Anthony voted in a presidential election, well aware she was going to be arrested for it; it was in Rochester that Douglass launched his epoch-making abolitionist newspaper (which he titled the North Star, in homage to the central role of astronomy in the Underground Railroad).

Inspired by the sculpture and the beautiful camaraderie behind it, Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass (public library) by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, tells the story of these two pioneering lives entwined in friendship through an imaginary evening of tea and cake.

We see each of them transcend the givens of their condition: Susan, excluded from formal education on account of her gender, educates herself in the founding ideals of her country and is galled by the hypocrisy of proclaiming the rights to live free and to vote, but denying those rights to more than half; Frederick, enslaved, teaches himself to read and write, then learns about the same ideals and is galled by the same hypocrisy of exclusion.

We see Frederick clad in his “gentleman’s jacket, vest, and tie,” and Susan in “a kind of pants called ‘bloomers,'” which she prefers over the cumbersome skirts that make it “hard to get things done.”

Both of them teach themselves to give speeches on justice and equality, both of them deliver those speeches before audiences to the applause of some and the vocal dismay of others, until the two eventually meet in Rochester and promise “to help each other, so one day all people could have rights.”

And so they do: We see them discuss their ideas and their plans over tea and cake and warm conspiratorial smiles.

So many speeches to give.
So many articles to write.
So many minds to change.

Couple Two Friends with a wondrous celebration of the rebels who won women political power, illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, then savor other picture-book biographies of cultural heroes, pioneers, and visionaries: John Lewis, Keith Haring, Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

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All Human Beings: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Reimagined as a Soulful Serenade to Diversity and Dignity by Composer Max Richter

A celebration “of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Leo Tolstoy wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in the stirring correspondence that would unspool over four decades until Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. By then, Gandhi had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times, including days before his death. That year, the Nobel Committee awarded all other disciplines except the Peace Prize, for which they found “no suitable living candidate.”

On December 10, 1948 — the day of the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm — the United Nations General Assembly gathered in Paris to adopt the most visionary, idealistic, and poetic document ever composed: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A pioneering effort to standardize the raising of conscience, kindness, and reason above self-interest and the hunger for power, it was the culmination of two years of systematic refinement by a global drafting committee of eight men from five continents, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884–November 7, 1962), with her floral dresses and her “spine as stiff as the steel girder of a skyscraper.”

eleanorroosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt (Library of Congress)

Roosevelt’s nomination as a U.N. delegate had had to pass through the United States Senate for approval, where she suspected certain conservative Senators would disapprove — “because of my attitude toward social problems,” she later reflected, “and especially youth problems.” But her nomination was heartily approved — only one Senator voted against her, citing her troublesome devotion to racial equality.

Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at the opening of the Washington labor canteen. (Library of Congress)

Shortly before her U.N. nomination and shortly after the end of WWII, Roosevelt — another indefensible blind spot in the Nobel Commission’s dispensation of the Peace Prize — had lost her husband. In the thick of her bereavement, she wrote in her daybook:

When you have lived for a long time in close contact with the loss and grief which today pervades the world, any personal sorrow seems to be lost in the general sadness of humanity.

She coped by pouring her indefatigable energy into drafting this buoyant document aimed at protecting human beings from the sorrows they inflict upon one another. Later, she would look back on her life with the unwavering conviction that “in the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” Now, she was tasked with creating the blueprint for bold action toward justice, contoured with bravely stated words.

She insisted that the document be adopted as a declaration rather than as a treaty, hoping this would confer upon it the inspiriting power to do for the world what the Declaration of Independence had done for her homeland. And so it did: Despite the abiding challenge of our species — the unhandsome fact that there is no universal utopia and that all utopias are built on someone’s subjugation-bent back — the document that emerged became a beacon of justice for generations to come, founded upon the conviction that a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” radiating Maya Angelou’s stunning lyric insistence that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt with the English text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Translated into more than 500 languages, making it the world’s most translated document, the UDHR went on to shape myriad national and international laws, inspire the constitutions of various newborn countries, and furnish the legal definitions of “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights.” Buried into the language of the document is also a landmark unsexing of man as the universal pronoun (though it would take many more decades to seep into culture) — the trailblazing Indian activist, writer, and feminist Hansa Jivraj Mehta suggested replacing “all men are equal” with “all are equal.”

Today, as we come to see ourselves as Angelou saw us — creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — some of the articles in the declaration read both as chilling indictments of where we have fallen short and as a defiantly aspirational blueprint for where we can and must go as we rise to our highest human potential.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Two generations after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, composer Max Richter honors its legacy and reimagines its spirit for a world more diverse and equitable than even the document’s idealistic creators imagined. (I have noted elsewhere that even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility; but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens.)

In a stunning piece titled “All Human Beings,” part of his record Voices — a soulful sonic landscape of thought and feeling, powerfully transportive yet grounding, a decade in the making — Richter builds a sonic bower of piano, violin, soprano, and choir around a 1949 recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading the UDHR. It begins with Roosevelt’s voice, then passes the generational and cultural baton to Kiki Layne, who continues reading in English before morphing into a crowdsourced choral reading in multiple languages by human beings all over the world.

Max Richter (Photograph: Mike Terry)

Richter reflects on the project:

I like the idea of a piece of music as a place to think, and it is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something that offers us a way forward. Although it isn’t a perfect document, the declaration does represent an inspiring vision for the possibility of better and kinder world.

Breathing another layer of life into Richter’s masterpiece is this cinematic adaptation by artist Yulia Mahr:

Complement with a timeless, increasingly timely vision for how to heal an ailing and divided world from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto — another visionary document composed seven years after the UDHR — then revisit Richter’s previous masterpiece, Three Worlds, bringing Virginia Woolf’s most beloved works to sonic life.

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The Storm, the Rainbow, and the Soul: Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature

“In the hollow… I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy.”

The Storm, the Rainbow, and the Soul: Coleridge on the Interplay of Terror and Transcendence in Nature and Human Nature

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her tiny, tremendous masterpiece The Living Mountain. A couple of mountain ranges south, a century and a half earlier, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) captured the power of that interpenetration in a stunning letter, later included in The Complete Essays, Lectures & Letters of S. T. Coleridge (public library).

The letter, composed three days before his twenty-eighth birthday, begins with a terrifying, transcendent encounter with the grandeur of nature and ends with a humbling encounter with human nature — with the grandeur of the human spirit, its the capacity for dignity and generosity no matter one’s material circumstances.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nearly a century before the young Van Gogh contemplated the enchantment of storms in nature and human nature while living in poverty in the Hague, the young Coleridge writes to his closest friend from the English Lake District on October 18, 1800:

Our mountains northward end in the mountain Carrock — one huge, steep, enormous bulk of stones, desolately variegated with the heath plant; at its foot runs the river Calder, and a narrow vale between it and the mountain Bowscale, so narrow, that in its greatest width it is not more than a furlong. But that narrow vale is so green, so beautiful, there are moods in which a man might weep to look at it. On this mountain Carrock, at the summit of which are the remains of a vast Druid circle of stones, I was wandering, when a thick cloud came on, and wrapped me in such darkness that I could not see ten yards before me, and with the cloud a storm of wind and hail, the like of which I had never before seen and felt. At the very summit is a cone of stones, built by the shepherds, and called the Carrock Man. Such cones are on the tops of almost all our mountains, and they are all called men. At the bottom of the Carrock Man I seated myself for shelter, but the wind became so fearful and tyrannous, that I was apprehensive some of the stones might topple down upon me, so I groped my way farther down and came to three rocks, placed on this wise 1 / 3 \ 2 each one supported by the other like a child’s house of cards, and in the hollow and screen which they made I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and “eternal link” of energy.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. Available as a print and face mask.

In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s near-death experience in a Norwegian fjord, Coleridge recounts nature’s sudden turn of temper — a turn from terror to transcendence, which then leads him to an unexpected encounter with the most transcendent qualities of human nature:

The darkness vanished as by enchantment; far off, far, far off to the south, the mountains of Glaramara and Great Gable and their family appeared distinct, in deepest, sablest blue. I rose, and behind me was a rainbow bright as the brightest. I descended by the side of a torrent, and passed, or rather crawled (for I was forced to descend on all fours), by many a naked waterfall, till, fatigued and hungry (and with a finger almost broken, and which remains swelled to the size of two fingers), I reached the narrow vale, and the single house nestled in ash and sycamores. I entered to claim the universal hospitality of this country; but instead of the life and comfort usual in these lonely houses, I saw dirt, and every appearance of misery — a pale woman sitting by a peat fire. I asked her for bread and milk, and she sent a small child to fetch it, but did not rise herself. I eat very heartily of the black, sour bread, and drank a bowl of milk, and asked her to permit me to pay her. “Nay,” says she, “we are not so scant as that — you are right welcome.”

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