Carl Sandburg Makes a Confession

Well, I didn’t get a pumpkin to carve and, the weather excepting, there is no sign of Halloween around the house. As a German, I did not grow up with the custom; before they realized how to make a killing by marketing this un-holy day, something that did not happen until the 1990s, my country(wo)men skipped the dressing up, parading, and trick-or-treating and went straight to the cemetery to remember the dead, November 1 being a national holiday. Halloween struck me as an odd mixture of carnival (when Germans do put on costumes to make a spectacle of themselves) and the feast of St. Martins (when, on November 11, their children light lanterns and go caroling from door to door begging for candy); except that, rather than symbolically splitting St. Martin’s mantle in the spirit of charity, some folks in Hollywood decided it was high time to slice open a few random souls in the spirit of Friday, the 13th.

At any rate, donning fanciful guises, stepping into the crowd to be gawked at or approaching the public in hopes of a swift, sweet and easy pay-off is not just a Halloween tradition. It pretty much sums up the advertising racket. On this day, 31 October, in 1939, American poet Carl Sandburg went so far as to assume the role of a quiz show panelist to spread the word about his latest work.

Mind you, that show was Information, Please, the most longhair or highbrow of all the popular quiz programs on the air. As I argued in a previous entry in the broadcastellan journal, Information, Please had an ingenious formula that attracted both to the erudite and the illiterate, since questions were sent in by the audience for the express purpose of stumping the so-called experts. The regular (and rather generously remunerated) panelists—Franklin P. Adams, John Kieran, and Oscar Levant (all pictured above)—were joined by a special guest expert, a noted author, film director, explorer, politician or actor. Would the public succeed in cutting those luminaries down to size? Would these articulate, gifted celebrities falter behind the microphone? That, along with the ensuing banter, accounted for the appeal and success of the program.

The people? No, Mr. Sandburg did not seem to mind them. Indeed, he was so eager to present himself as one of the commoners that the first question posed to him by master of ceremonies Clifton Fadiman, the literary critic of the New Yorker, extracted somewhat of a confession: “What notorious living American author was thrown out on account of his ignorance of arithmetic when he tried to break into the West Point Military Academy?” “Should I answer ‘me’ or give my name?” the poet inquired and, when encouraged to recount the incident, affirmed that he was indeed the “notorious” one, his attempt to enter West Point having been foiled some forty years earlier, back in 1899.

A little while later in the program, Sandburg is again given a question relating to his own life when asked whether he knew of a poem (a word used loosely, since even advertising slogans were deemed acceptable as answers) featuring a description or mere mention of fog. “Little ridiculous,” Sandburg chuckled with a note of embarrassment in his voice. After all, he was being prompted to recall one of his own works describing just such a weather condition (“Fog”):

The fog comes
on little cat feet. 

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Again, the author let listeners in on a secret: it had taken him just “about five minutes” to compose those lines—yet, to his professed astonishment, they were not only the best known in all his works, but practically the only ones the general public could recall.

While managing to mention John Wilkes Booth in one of their answers, another nod to Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, panelists did rather poorly that night, failing to recall how the regretful Miss Otis met her death or from which ports Gulliver embarked on his travels, and struggling to come up with five flowers with “masculine names,” Mr. Sandburg advancing “frankincense.” I gather this bit of silliness might have been a relief to its author, considering that there weren’t as many occasions to plant a pun in a serious (and eventually Pulitzer Prize-winning) history than there are opportunities to plant a plug for such a tome in a quiz program.

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