The Day Carl Sandburg Died

Filmmaker Paul Bonesteel grew up in Flat Rock.

Filmmaker Paul Bonesteel grew up in Flat Rock.

There was a time when everybody knew who Carl Sandburg was. America’s beloved “poet of the people,” he was also a novelist, journalist, foreign correspondent, historian, biographer, musicologist, raconteur, singer, and author of the Rootabaga stories, American fairy tales for children. He was the world’s first multi-media star.

Born in Illinois, in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg wandered the country’s roads before he settled in Chicago. From World War I through the 1960s he was the tireless voice of the nation’s workers, its “hog butchers, tool makers, and stackers of wheat.”

Devout socialist and passionate civil rights ally, he was the hero of the downtrodden. Although labeled an “eternal hobo” for his love of traveling, he was blissfully married for nearly six decades and raised three daughters. He won two Pulitzer prizes for poetry and another for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, the longest biography ever written in the English language.

In time Carl Sandburg was everywhere—giving lectures, advising U.S. presidents, appearing on TV. With his craggy Nordic features and a shock of hair that looked as if a snow goose had squatted on his head, Sandburg was so recognizable he became a national icon.

On July 22, 1967, at his estate in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he’d lived for the previous twenty years and published a third of his writings, Carl Sandburg died. He was age 89. Elitist poetry critics had already begun to dismiss Sandburg’s earthy free verse in favor of the weightier styles of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Soon after Sandburg’s death, he was all but forgotten. As the fog in Chicago had once come “on little cat feet,” so it seemed his influence would fade away.

Flash forward about 40 years. The same national crises that Sandburg lived through—foreign wars, labor unrest, economic downturns, and troubled race relations—are facing America anew. Many people who remembered Sandburg felt the time was right for him to speak again. The best way to reinvigorate Sandburg’s legacy, to make him relevant to today’s world, was through the power of film. An extraordinary subject like Sandburg would need a filmmaker who was pretty extraordinary himself. Enter Paul Bonesteel.

PEOPLE-Carl_Sandburg-by_Dana_Steichen_AlphaAs a boy growing up in Flat Rock in the 1970s, Paul was a frequent visitor to the Sandburg home. Known as Connemara, the home and its 264 acres had become a National Historic Site, which included a museum filled with Sandburg memorabilia. Paul felt a deep connection to the spirit of the great man who had lived there. Since he first started fooling around with a Super 8 camera, Paul says, “I knew I would one day make a film about Carl Sandburg.” It took a while.

n 2005, with a thriving production company in downtown Asheville and many completed projects under his belt—including two award-winning documentaries, The Mystery of George Masa (2002) and The Great American Quilt Revival (2005)—Paul began to tackle his Sandburg project.

He named it The Day Carl Sandburg Died. “The title makes that day a delineation point between Sandburg’s life and everything else after,” Paul explained. Alas, funding for independent films, once abundant, suddenly dried up. “What should have been a two-year project took six years, ” Paul says, “because we couldn’t get the grants we needed.”

Paul is now at that exhilarating stage in the filmmaking process where he’s showing his labor of love to audiences. The premiere of The Day Carl Sandburg Died at the Flat Rock Playhouse on July 26 is especially significant for him. It’s only a few miles away from his childhood home where his parents still live.

Paul need have no qualms about how his work will be received. The Day Carl Sandburg Died is a magnificent film, the showpiece of a storyteller who has both the steely eyes of a reporter and the flourishes of a magician. The film is a wondrous tapestry, seamlessly weaving the myriad threads of Sandburg’s life, framing them in his single most unwavering characteristic—his love of America. “Sandburg believed that when times are rough,” Paul says, “the assassination of a President or a stock market crash, there are root holes in the nourishing earth—we can make society work because we are Americans.”

Paul’s goal for his feature-length documentary was to encourage “people to view today’s world through Sandburg’s life—as a sort of lens—to remember his times, and to think differently about the things that are going on today.” Mission accomplished, Paul. The Day Carl Sandburg Died is one of those rare films that touch you on so many levels, you can’t stop thinking about it.

To match Sandburg’s variety of expressions, Paul pulled out a full bag of film tricks: archival footage, wildly inventive animation, live poetry performances and many interviews with family, friends, scholars and other poets. Providing the connective tissue is commentary by Sandburg biographer, Penelope Niven from Winston-Salem. A glorious soundtrack combines folk songs and Zoe Keating’s haunting cello to create an emotional underlay.

While in Paul Bonesteel’s spartan office, I asked him a few questions…

What would Sandburg be doing if he were alive today? Oh, he’d have the most popular blog on the internet! He’d be a regular on all the TV news shows.

Is there a new Carl Sandburg? Garrison Keillor comes closest.His populism and the way he reaches out continually week after week, singing songs, creating a mythic world that has resonance. He touches people in a similar way to Sandburg—in the poetic spirit and celebration of America.

Does Paul Bonesteel share any qualities with Sandburg? Ah, perhaps his appreciation of the sliver of moonlight that casts a different hue on everything. There is a ‘glimmer of sparkling’ in the unknown and the mystical in life that Sandburg wrote about and used poetry to touch. On my best days I try to go there.

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