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Labor Day: ‘Building, Breaking, Rebuilding’

September 4, 2023
Labor Day: ‘Building, Breaking, Rebuilding’
The Chicago-based Mather & Company printers produced this colorful poster to be hung in factories and offices in 1923. (Photo by Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

Perhaps the most famous lines Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) ever wrote were from this 1914 poem, “Chicago,” describing the city where he lived in the 1910s. The toughness of commerce and vitality of labor in Chicago are inseparable from the city’s fuller character—the joyful and the unseemly aspects alike.

Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women
    under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman
    kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children
    I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and
    I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and
    coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger
    set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against
    the wilderness,
   Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart
   of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be
   Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and
   Freight Handler to the Nation.

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) was awarded Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry (twice) and for his multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln.