Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Carl Sandburg as per Brenda Ueland

Can you imagine, in your wildest, dizziest thoughts, being a friend of Carl Sandburg and having him in your house?
by Charlie Leck

I’ve recently been on a Brenda Ueland binge. Her three published works have grabbed my attention and I keep working them over and I read various sections of them over and over again.

Ueland, a Minneapolis woman, was a blogger before we knew the word. She wrote every day. For a while she had a regular column in two of the Minneapolis newspapers. From the spirit and vitality of her writing, I am led to believe she is the kind of person I would have enjoyed as a friend. Though I had one, far too brief conversation with her back in the mid-seventies, I hadn’t read anything she’d written and I wasn’t aware of the fire and force, the grit, guts and humor, or the sparkle and spunk she possessed in aplenty.

And what a lovely, engaging writer she was. When you read Brenda Ueland, it is as if she is in the room with you. Her essays come alive with genuineness and sensibility. She invades you, for those moments, and drags you off with her to interesting places and to meet extraordinary people – people she actually knows and with whom she is a friend – Robert Penn Warren and her day of swimming with him; Eddie and Roy Shipstead, the founders of the Ice Follies; Paul Robeson and her very intimate interview of him; John S. Pillsbury of the Pillsbury Company; Countess Marja Smorczewska (just Mary to Brenda).

Susan Allen Troth, a professor at Macalester College said it awfully well of Ueland in the following:

“What one reads Brend Ueland for, in the end, is not just what she says or even how she says it, but for the stimulation of her company. She makes one want to get to know her, to observe her, and to learn from her something about how to live a full, rich and exciting life… And she is eager to tell us.” (1)

Ueland, for instance, writes of some of her friends and some of the people she knew well as if we all might have known them and associated with them. In one essay, for instance (again), she writes of having Carl Sandberg in her home.

“Later we drive to our house, and going around Lake Calhoun – “Can’t we stop a minute? The gunmetal sky,” he says. There it is. It is true – the pools of water on the ice reflect the sky, gunmetal and watery pink. And the lights at twilight are big rectangles. He looks across the lake for a long time. In dead silence.”

Sandberg communicated with Brenda regularly and during the time he was working on his six volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. One letter informed her: “I have reached 2 o’clock in the afternoon of Lincoln’s last day…”

She stopped one day to visit him in Illinois.

“Then I was in his house on Lake Michigan. I was driving home from New York and all Europe had fallen. England was holding off the Germans alone.

“August, 1940. I drive along the desolate highway from Chicago to his house and find it at last, in the soaking rain. A warm, lovely, familiar house high in the wooded dunes above the booming shore of Lake Michigan. There is his wife, two daughters, a girl to help, a little dog like a fox, two great cats on the upstairs bed in the sun. They went up to a high attic, an aerie, to find him. At dinner, the soft roar of Lake Michigan. Rain on the windows.”

“…He has a wonderful voice and I always think of Isaiah. And once I heard him swear and it is like thunder and music and wild as a pirate’s.”

“…But these few things tell nothing, nothing about him. He is a great man.”

What makes Ueland’s introduction of us to these people so charming, is that these presentations are so genuine and nonchalant (off the cuff). It is as if we are with her in her living room when Sandberg booms out about the slowness of America to go to England’s side in the war against the Nazi maniac, his voice shaking the house by its very timbers.

I won’t write of her again for a while. I’m about to receive her autobiography and that will make for wonderful reading, I am sure, and I may have to blog just a little bit about that sometime in the next month or so.


(1) In a foreword to Strength to Your Sword Arm by Brenda Ueland [Holy Cow Press, Duluth, Minnesota, 1993]

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