Louisville, Kentucky 1954 – Carl Sandburg sat in the white Adirondack chair on our wrap-around front porch. I was too young to know more about him than he was a famous writer, and he wrote “Fog,” which I could recite as a ten-year-old. My older sisters were more aware of his work. We sat at his feet as he read to us.
His thinning white hair stood from his pale scalp like slender feathers, playing in the summer sun. He wore a white shirt that hung loose from his skeletal frame. When he smiled, his whole mouth opened and spread across his face, hinged from ear to ear. He reminded me, as a boy, of the comedian, Joey Brown, who could fit a baseball inside his mouth.
He was a gentle man, but when he spoke, it was with a certain authority. Words came from his mouth as long, slow syllables. His rich, mellow voice trembled slightly, hanging onto certain words, accenting them with importance. There was a musical cadence to his speech. He punctuated sentences with silence, waiting for the words to take hold in space. His open collar exposed a pronounced Adam’s apple, which moved up and down his stalk-like neck…syllable by syllable.
When he finished reading to us, he removed several pages of white note paper from a folder. They contained handwritten words, scratched out in liquid black ink. I couldn’t make them out. There were lines and arrows and underlines, with other words scribbled along the sides. He signed the pages and handed them to my oldest sister. “I am dedicating this to you,” he said.
I later learned that those pen-scratched words composed the “Prologue” to the book The Family of Man. It was a collection of an era of photography, inscribed “The greatest photographic exhibition of all time,” edited by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. The museum published it the following year, in 1955. My sister treasured those handwritten pages, and we all treasure the memory.
In the years since my childhood, when I see a fog bank covering the water and landscape, I often think of Carl Sandburg’s Fog, coming “on little cat feet…looking over harbor and city, on silent haunches.” When I visit Chicago, I think of his Chicago, “Hog Butcher for the world…Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat…City of the Big Shoulders.” I can hear his voice uttering the words, slowly, syllable by syllable. And, when I read the Prologue to The Family of Man, I see him, sitting there, with a boy at his feet, as he speaks with a measured cadence:
“The first cry of a newborn baby in Chicago or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, “I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the family.”
It comes to me now, looking back. It all makes sense.
A writer’s voice and words have an inherent telepathy, replaying a memory, only with permanence. The uttered words once scribbled down with liquid black ink on paper later become a gift, in the future, for all to read. They live on, in time, from one place to another, one person to the next, indefinitely.