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Carl Sandburg

I Am the People, the Mob

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


“I Am the People, the Mob,” by American poet Carl Sandburg, was first published as part of Sandburg’s 1916 collection Chicago Poems. Sandburg’s first major publication, Chicago Poems, established his spot at the forefront of American social realism. Much of the industrial, agricultural, and socialist ideas presented in Chicago Poems reappeared in his later collections Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920).

Sandburg came from a poor, working-class family, and many of his works are informed by this experience. “I Am the People, the Mob” speaks from a common American perspective using common American vernacular, but does not eschew the use of literary techniques and devices for poetic effect. The poem occupies the voice of a collective working class and speaks to the power of such a group. Sandburg’s use of free verse forms and his emphasis on American life has resulted in his poetry being compared to Walt Whitman’s.

Poet Biography

Carl Sandburg was born January 6, 1878, in a three-room cottage in Galesburg, Illinois. He was the second of seven children. Sandburg’s family was poor, and so at the age of 13 he left school to work as a milk wagon driver. He held many odd jobs—such as a farm laborer, a hotel servant, and a coal heaver—before he volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War at the age of 20.

Though Sandburg never saw battle, he was stationed in Puerto Rico with the 6th Illinois Infantry. When the war ended in August 1898, Sandburg briefly attended West Point military academy before dropping out due to failing mathematics and grammar exams. Sandburg returned home to Galesburg and attended Lombard College until 1903, leaving without a degree. He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and began work for a newspaper there. Shortly afterward, he worked as an organizer for the Wisconsin Social Democratic Party—the Wisconsin branch of the Socialist Party of America—and served as secretary for socialist Milwaukee mayor Emil Seidel between 1910 and 1912.

In 1913, Sandburg moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he wrote for the Chicago Daily News. Though Sandburg wrote and published poetry as early as 1904, it was not until he moved to Chicago and published his 1916 collection Chicago Poems that he was recognized as a significant poet. “I Am the People, the Mob” appeared as part of this 1916 collection, but in a section entitled “Other Days 1900-1910” that included works written prior to his move to Chicago. Nevertheless, the poem shares the social realism that has come to define Chicago Poems, as well as Sandburg’s later Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Cornhuskers (1918).

Sandburg had an unparalleled literary career as a poet, children’s book author, biographer, journalist, and editor. He is also noted as a collector of American folk songs. His best-remembered nonfiction works are likely his 1919 book-length essay on the Chicago race riots and his monumental, six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln (completed in 1939), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. His Lincoln biography is widely regarded as one of the most influential books on Lincoln.

Sandburg continued to write until 1967 when he died of natural causes at the age of 89. His ashes are interred under a granite boulder behind his birth home in Illinois.

Poem Text

I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.

Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?

I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.

I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.

The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

Sandburg, Carl. “I Am the People, the Mob.” 1916. Poetry Foundation.


Carl Sandburg’s “I Am the People, the Mob” is perhaps best understood as consisting of three different sections. The first section, Lines 1-4, establishes the speaker’s identity and articulates the idea of the mob in the concrete, human realm. The speaker identifies as “the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass” (Line 1), and states they are responsible for “all the great work of the world” (Line 2). The third line individuates the kind of people who make up this mass, while Line 4 states they are “witnesses [of] history” and names “Napoleon” and “Lincoln” as people who “come from” the mob.

The second section, Lines 5-6, zooms out a bit from the previous section’s emphasis on the concrete and becomes more abstract and metaphorical, though still rooted in the human practice of agriculture. The speaker states that they are also the “seed ground,” and “a prairie that will stand for much plowing” (Line 5). The poem then becomes more abstract as the speaker states that “the best part of me I sucked out and wasted” and that “[e]verything but Death comes to me and makes me work” (Line 5). This section also introduces a motif of memory and forgetting that is picked up in the third section.

The third section, Lines 7-8, synthesizes the concerns and ideas in the previous two sections, but shifts to the future tense. The speaker’s tone, too, becomes prophetic. In Line 7, the speaker describes what will happen when “the People, learn to remember” and “use the lessons of yesterday” before describing a number of mistreatments the people have experienced. Line 8 closes the poem with a near-repetition of the first line and states “[t]he mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive” when “[t]he People, learn to remember” (Line 7).