The Poet and the Sailor: The Story of My Friendship with Carl Sandburg


Two friends, a lifetime of letters, and an intimate look at a literary icon

Carl Sandburg first encountered Kenneth Dodson through a letter written at sea during World War II. Though Dodson wrote the letter to his wife, Letha, Sandburg read it in tears and told her, "I've got to meet this man." Composed primarily of their correspondence that continued until Sandburg's death in 1967, The Poet and the Sailor is a chronicle of the deep friendship that followed. Ranging over ...

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Two friends, a lifetime of letters, and an intimate look at a literary icon

Carl Sandburg first encountered Kenneth Dodson through a letter written at sea during World War II. Though Dodson wrote the letter to his wife, Letha, Sandburg read it in tears and told her, "I've got to meet this man." Composed primarily of their correspondence that continued until Sandburg's death in 1967, The Poet and the Sailor is a chronicle of the deep friendship that followed. Ranging over anything they found important, from writing to health and humor, the letters are arranged by Richard Dodson and are accompanied by a foreword from Sandburg's noted biographer, Penelope Niven.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The correspondence between Sandburg and Dodson suggests a considerable amount about Sandburg's literary instincts, about how the older writer responsibly tutored the younger, and about Sandburg's great human warmth. Even without the Sandburg connection, the Dodson letters are of great value, because they are the reflections of a bright, self-taught, sincere, and faithful man."
--Philip R. Yannella, author of The Other Carl Sandburg

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252031274
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 6/25/2007
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Poet and the Sailor

The Story of My Friendship with Carl Sandburg
By Kenneth Dodson


Copyright © 2007 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03127-4

Chapter One

The Beginning of the Friendship

* * *


Dear Mrs. Dodson:

The enclosed is the carbon of a letter written to your husband. I would like to be sending you and the little one the books mentioned here, just out of admiration and affection for the family of yours.

Sincerely yours, Carl Sandburg

P.S. Lieutenant Dodson's sister told me that some of his letters have been published in newspapers in the Northwest. I should like to see these or copies of parts of other letters, if that is at all practicable.

* * *

Harbert, Michigan October 30, 1944 Dear Lieutenant Dodson:

A Los Angeles friend, the wife of a Naval officer, let me have four typed pages which have been copied from letters of yours. I found them extraordinarily vivid, the larger part of them unforgettable. I found myself using parts of them in a novel I am doing which, after publication in book form, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will make into a screen play. I would like your permission to quote somewhere between 200 to 300 words. I would go over anything so used with Navy men to make sure that in matters of identity and information there would be nothing used improperly. To say that I would expect to pay for the use of such material is to grope around for words trying to say something that can't be said. Such words as yours are beyond price, but since this is a commercial enterprise, I would not care to profit by use of your material without paying for it. I would expect to give you salutations up front in a preface along with a statement of my opinion that the body of your letters should have some sort of permanent form where they are accessible. Out of what you write arises something like a definition of the terribly undefinable word "Patriot."

I shall write to Mrs. Dodson at the Seattle address given to me by your sister, Miss Ellen Dodson in Los Angeles, and shall send to her my six volume set, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: THE PRAIRIE YEARS and THE WAR YEARS, along with copies of THE PEOPLE, YES, HOME FRONT MEMO, and (for the "Pipsqueak"), ROOTABAGA STORIES. The sending of these books is just a sort of salutation to you as a fighting Navy man and a rare personality. If there should be any reason why you should hesitate about having these quotations from your letters used, I shall understand. However, you should know that it has been good to meet you through these letters of yours and to know that there are Americans in the South Pacific with your range, sensitivity, vision, and hope.

Faithfully yours, Carl Sandburg

* * *

This was the beginning of our friendship.

* * *

Seattle, Washington November 30, 1944

Dear Mr. Sandburg:

We want you to know we received your books. I just cannot tell you how happy we are to have them. Your sets on Lincoln are a wonderful addition to our library. I am so proud of them and I know Mr. Dodson will cherish them, too. I wish all Americans could read your Home Front Memo. It is a book that is so acceptable to our hearts and minds these days. I have not finished The People, Yes, but have enjoyed it thus far. Richard Kenneth is most proud of his Rootabaga Stories and even brags to his little pals that Carl Sandburg sent it to him.

Letters are beginning to come again from my husband but he has not received any mail since October 12th. It seems his ship has been scurrying around the Pacific like a dog after a bone and their mail has been two jumps behind them all the time. He surely will be getting his mail soon and will be answering your letter. As a whole, they have been doing a splendid job of getting mail to and from the men in the service.

It will be such a happy day when our men can come home. All this will pass. It cannot last forever. Some morning we will wake up from this nightmare with the early morning sun shining in through the windows and know that once again we are turning our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.

As my husband writes: "Much as I long for you and for home, I feel reconciled, if not happy, to be out here as long as it is necessary, if I can in a small way do my part to finish this job up properly and fast. I know everything won't be perfect. I do not ask for that. The world will never be the same after the war. It never is. But love and life and everlasting Truth are the same. So I look forward to settling down to a life at home to raise our children and see that they have a decent start in life-to the happiness of being close to my family-to the deep pleasure of making things grow and being on my knees with dirt under my nails, planting tulip bulbs in the fall and setting out pansies in the spring ...

"The powers that be have lifted some of the censorship restrictions. So I can say that besides running all around the Solomon Islands, crawling around on Guadalcanal, and Manus in the Admiralty Islands, we were in at the first landing in the Philippine Islands at Leyte. The old place looked about the same. Before the war we used to go there on the old SS SHELTON and the last time in the older WEST CUSSETA. Each operation we have been in has been very different. The system is one thing-the experience another. I cannot talk in detail about most of it.

"Since I last wrote we have been attacked several times by Jap planes, threaded our way through enemy mine fields, been shot at by shore batteries and, on one occasion-at Saipan, returned the compliment and silenced the enemy guns.

"It will be some time before I can eat crab again. At Leyte a dead Jap floated slowly along our ship's side. He was very stocky, dressed in khaki shorts and floating, as all dead men do, with the seat of his pants up and legs and head dangling. His back and the sides of his belly were all cut up and then, as I looked, a big black crab crawled around his belly. The crab was eating him! If you think of anything nice about this war except a quick and successful conclusion, I don't know what it would be.

"These Jap dive bombers have lots of guts. As I watch them, I usually wonder at the courage it takes to fly down through a hail of fire. Sometimes they get away and sometimes they don't. Some of their planes are beautiful and fly very fast ..."

We want to thank you again for your books. It was very good of you to send them to us. We do appreciate them.

May we all pray and work together for peace throughout the world.

Sincerely yours, Mrs. Kenneth Dodson

* * *

USS PIERCE Western Pacific Dec. 27, 1944

Dear Mr. Sandburg:

From my wife's letters I learn that you were kind enough to write to me. A span of about ten days' mail has been missing for weeks and your letter is probably among it. When it reaches me, I will answer it as promptly as our movements permit.

Letha also tells me that in answer to a loud thump on our front porch she found your kind and thoughtful gift of books to us. I don't quite know how to thank you. They will be prized and cared for in our home.

This will prove a rather stupid letter, because I don't quite know what happened. I wrote a letter to my wife last spring. She showed parts of it to her family and mine. Next thing, the relatives started making copies. The neighborhood editor wanted to print it. At the time I felt I should refuse him. There was no violation of censorship involved. However, we are not allowed to make statements or to write anything for public consumption without checking first with the nearest public relations officer.

My sister Amy, R.N., showed a copy to her doctor, and I believe that through friends, my sister Ellen showed or sent a copy to you.

I was just writing a letter to my wife, one of thousands, for I have spent twenty years at sea. My wife and I are very much in love. We are also very good friends. And I was expressing to one person on earth who is closest to me just how I felt. That's all.

If there was anything in that letter of value also to a man like you, you are most welcome to use the material. I would be greatly honored. It's not just because you are Carl Sandburg, known to all. It's because you are Carl Sandburg, who feels for and so understands the human critter, that I feel honored. I'm sure that you or your publishers will check with local Naval Public Relations. Kwajalein is long past now. There have been so many more beaches since. But for many, there was an end to all earthly experience at Kwajalein, as at so many other places, contemporary or historic.

To the men who die, a small engagement is no different from one of the world's famous battles. They contribute their most sacred personal possession.

Here I go again. You know, we get so involved in tactics and the precise performance of our duty. But to my way of thinking, it is Joe from Brooklyn and Jim from Petaluma who are really doing the job. And when the guns are roaring and I'm trying to go coolly about my work, I always find a few seconds to pray for those boys.

You may be interested to learn a little bit about me. My father came from Easton, Maryland. As a little boy, he remembered watching my grandfather read the paper in the gas-lit hall when Lincoln was shot. My father was a pioneer missionary for thirty years in Angola, Africa, where I was born. The materials for the house came from Germany and an American flag flew from the roof.

My mother is of Scottish ancestry. That's where I get the Kenneth MacKenzie in front of my name. Mother and Dad were very much in love and had eight children. I'm number six, so I never argue against large families. Father died six years ago at the age of eighty-one. Last time I was visiting home with my wife, I caught Dad smooching Mother behind the kitchen door. They were sweethearts.

I've lived one year in Africa, seven in England, and the rest on the West Coast or out at sea. I was restless and ornery at seventeen, and against my parents' wishes, I went to sea in the Merchant Marine, working up in eighteen years from deck boy to captain of my own ship. I was in the Naval Reserve, and two years ago went on active duty in the Navy. At present I am a navigator on an assault transport. We have a pretty complicated job here, specializing in enemy real estate with a marine view.

I've been several times around the world and spent thirteen years as officer and captain sailing to the Orient from Seattle, Manchuria, China, Japan, the Philippines, the Indies, the Pacific Islands. Regular Cook's tour.

But if you want me to get enthusiastic, just ask me about my wife, Oletha McCorkle Dodson, and our little boy (when he's good), my son (when he's naughty), pipsqueak Dickie Dodson. They are the ones I live for and sweat for out here in this loveless, eggless portion of the world.

How did I get started on all this? What did you ever do to me? I'm just lonesome, and you have a kind face, so I sit here talking with my pen.

It is likely I'd have been more of a success in life if I hadn't spent so much of it in dreaming and thinking about things that don't concern my job. But I can grow beautiful tulips and make a sick tomato plant sit up and make a salad. I can tell kids stories, fix a little boy's kite or mend a broken gate. Old ladies and children love me. I was never much of a hand with the ladies but for nearly ten years I have been very happily married to the lady of my dreams.

There are a lot of fellows just like me and a lot more who have more on the ball or who are nicer fellows to know. We have over five hundred men in our crew, most of them quite young. No two are quite alike. Every one has his points, his faults and his troubles. We will not all live to see the end of this struggle, but most of us will go back home someday. I like to think that we will be better citizens for this experience. After all, we are just earning the right to be Americans. But if you tell that to someone on the street at home, it will probably be a letdown.

Before we got into the war, I was running to Japan and China. I came home all fired up about the Japs and people thought I was crazy. After I'd been out here a while in the war, I seemed to lose all perspective-couldn't see the woods for the trees. The hatred, the dying, and the futility of any lasting peace just about got me. And the loneliness; that's the worst. When you lie awake at night, tired as you are, longing for the arms of your loved one. And you just grit your teeth and slug it out.

But more recently something has happened to me. Life, just my life, doesn't seem so important. Sure, I want to live. I have everything to live for. But I feel that just the struggling for the things you believe in does something to you. This is the face of knowing that there is little clear white and black, but a light gray against a dark gray. But as long as men struggle unselfishly for the things they believe in, there is hope for this world. You don't have to be noble-just an average man doing your part. Very few will ever know the difference. But you know inside yourself and I know.

We buried a young marine at sea off Saipan-one of many. The last thing he said was, "I don't want to die." But he did die. He was still warm when I put my arms around him, lashing iron bars to his canvas shroud. It was the only thing I could do for him. And as I had my arms around his body, it seemed as if we had some fellowship together. He had paid the price for freedom I hope I won't be asked to pay. He seemed so lonely there. So much lonelier than I.

But the ageless rain falls and returns to the sky. And new little plants push up through the dead leaf mold. And life goes on. Please pardon the outburst and please do write.

Sincerely, Kenneth M. Dodson

* * *

1944 of World War II was the year of mail foul-ups in the South Pacific. To us sweating characters in khakis, dungarees, and jungle greens, desperate for sleep, war weary, scratching our "jungle rot," it seemed the mail would never reach us. That vast panorama of coral atolls, reefs, and volcanic islands, all surrounded by water tinted from light green in the shallows to deep blue in the depths, was peppered with thousands of zigzagging ships, some in tremendous formations, some fearfully alone.

All the time, somewhere there was an inching, a blasting, and a crawling westward. Navy task forces, ships, and planes of many types surrounded Japanese-held islands and forced entry into uncharted lagoons studded with coral. Everywhere the ubiquitous landing craft of the amphibious forces gunned their diesel engines, dropping ramps on enemy beaches, landing marines or infantrymen. Then they landed ammunition, tanks, artillery, gasoline, medical supplies, food, and water. These craft returned alongside with a single cargo-if one might use that term: the uncomplaining wounded. Aboard ship, skilled and dedicated surgeons did everything possible to save lives and heal wounds.


Excerpted from The Poet and the Sailor by Kenneth Dodson Copyright © 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Penelope Niven....................ix
1. The Beginning of the Friendship....................1
2. At War....................9
3. After World War II....................42
4. Retirement from the U.S. Navy....................68
5. Getting Down to Serious Writing....................84
6. Carl Sandburg's First Visit to the Dodsons....................108
7. Writing Becomes a Top Priority....................114
8. Correspondence January 1950 to October 1951....................121
9. Carl Sandburg's Second Visit to the Dodsons....................161
10. The Book Is Finished and Published....................165
11. Carl Sandburg's Performance at the Opera House, Seattle....................182
12. Carl Sandburg's Aging and Death, 1967....................189
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