As a kid growing up in the 1970s, Paul Bonesteel ’87 saw many variations to the American fabric woven through his television set. Watergate hearings. News footage from Vietnam. Scooby Doo. MASH.
“There was a lot on Captain Kangaroo that was pretty challenging to the mind,” he says.
Such influences helped set Bonesteel, now a documenary filmmaker, on the path to seek out the American experience. And his new film traces the life of a man Bonesteel says was seen “as American as it gets.”
The Day Carl Sandburg Died examines Sandburg’s popularity in the
1940s and 1950s and his disappearance from it in later years when academics deemed his work as simple and of no use. The film spends time dealing with the legacy of the writer’s early works and his identification as a “radical.” It has premiered at film festivals and special events around the country this year. On Tuesday, it will premiere in Flat Rock, N.C., where Sandburg moved to in 1945.
Bonesteel, who grew up close to the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site, says he had wanted to make the film for more than 20 years. “I felt like the time had come to reintroduce Sandburg and his work to a modern audience,” he says, adding that contemporary issues like immigration, trade and war show that the writer still resonates in 2011. “The Sandburg of 1915 was faced with a lot of the same things as we are now if you tune into the world.”
While researching and making the film for the past six years, Bonesteel says he came to appreciate Sandburg on two fronts. The first is what he calls the author’s “phenomenally diverse creative powers,” which yielded work as a poet, children’s author, biographer and journalist.
The second is how dangerous it was for a journalist like the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner to write radical, anti-establishment material in pre-World War I America. Bonesteel tells of an interview late in Sandburg’s life after he’d become mainstream when he was asked if he was still anti-establishment. Sandburg pronounced he would always be “with the rebels.”
The film marks Bonesteel’s eighth full-length feature documentary, a genre in which he says he feels entirely comfortable. “I can enjoy a fictional movie,” he says, “but when it comes to how I want to engage the world, it seems to be right to grounded in realism.”