By Lauren Stepp
When it comes to 20th-century literary romances rooted in Western North Carolina, few garner attention. There is, of course, the fiery marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and the ill-fated affair between theatre designer Aline Bernstein and novelist Thomas Wolfe. Fairy tales gone astray, these messy entanglements are still whispered about by natives and visitors alike.
But one love story—one free from scandal and mistrust—has long evaded local vernacular. It begins in December 1907 at the Wisconsin Social-Democratic party headquarters in Milwaukee with a thin and unkempt man named Charles Sandburg and a blue-eyed woman named Lilian Steichen. A 30-year-old political organizer and poet, Sandburg was instantly intrigued by Steichen, an English teacher in Illinois, sister of prolific photographer Edward Steichen and precocious feminist.
The two exchanged addresses that evening, in effect starting a six-month, epistolary courtship. Their letters were pragmatic at first, a cerebral banter about political and social philosophy. It is interesting to note that in a letter dated February 15, 1908, Steichen dismisses poetry altogether, suggesting that Sandburg “grow toward maturity and move on to greater things.” Her comments came just eight years before Sandburg published his first book, Chicago Poems.
But by February 24, Steichen had renounced her despairing beliefs about poetry. The letters shifted in tone as well. They became more personal, more descriptive and more frequent. The lovers sent multiple letters per day, some discussing their respective parents and others the literary likes of Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson. No longer terse, many communications reached lengths of 50 pages.
In a letter dated March 7, 1908, Steichen details a sunset walk on her family’s farm near Menomonee Falls, WI. She details the smoldering horizon, the “western sky aglow” like a “great lake of burning gold,” and how she looks forward to Sandburg’s visit later that month. Steichen writes, “I think of the splendid letter, the last one, from you, my good comrade, and I think of how I shall see you soon.”
At the end of March, Steichen met Sandburg at the Brookfield Rail Station with a horse and buggy. The trip back to the family farm was awash with rain and lightning. They called it their “great ride,” though maybe the greatest ride was yet to come. In June 1908, the two would marry and adopt the names Carl and Paula. Carl would write abundantly, using language to capture the Chicago race riot, imaginary friends he called “Corn Fairies” and everything in between. Paula would raise dairy goats, first in Michigan and later on Connemara, their rural estate in Flat Rock. They would both keep writing letters too.
“They wrote prolifically to each other,” says Sarah Perschall, chief of visitor services and administration at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock. “After their marriage, they continued to write when Sandburg was away for work, but the foundation of their relationship was heavily influenced by those ‘courtship’ letters.”
The love story ends on July 22, 1967, at Connemara. Just after 9 a.m., the poet, biographer, journalist and editor—a man of a thousand words—would utter his last one: Paula.
To learn more about Carl and Paula Sandburg, visit nps.gov/carl.