A Fine Frenzy

A review of Intruders in Paradise, by John Sanford University of Illinois Press, Chicago & Urbana, 1997, ISBN: 0-252-02343-9, $36.95.


The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.7-17


A prophet never honored at home. American provincialism expressed as the uncritical admiration of things foreign. Simple ignorance. Or, more likely, a simple logic: an anti-capitalist American writer living through the entire century in the world’s greatest capitalist country must, of necessity, be ignored; the “hidden hand” that regulates culture as well as economy ensures that it be so. It’s to be expected that a truly radical writer would get no recognition for his artistry. And it’s to be expected that the writer realize this to be so. And yet every writer writes to be read. What choice has such a writer? Resistance turns to posturing, coopted into advertising. Ridicule, such is the logic of capital, soon turns into notoriety, turns into capital. Only a boycott, the refusal to consume threatens capital, but for a writer a boycott of the corrupted media in the form of principled rebellion only ensures further marginalization. Capital willingly ignores those radical voices it cannot compromise.  A writer needs the audience, an audience large enough to sustain the production of the writing, and a writer needs a publisher.

The silence that accompanied the recent death of Meridel Le Sueur, silence from the Left more shameful than the expected silence from the official media, however,  drives me to seek some honor for John Sanford, to break through the academic provincialism, to shine some light, clarity, upon his work to inform readers on the left about the work of an American original radical writer. John Sanford. Nearly unknown after having written some twenty books of merit. A writer whose accumulated work is as great as Proust’s. And yet who knows in the way the writings of so many hundreds of lesser talents are known?

Capital obscures and threatens to destroy every value by turning it to money. Sanford’s work can’t be turned; that’s its saving grace. It’s also the cause of the obscurity that necessitates every reviewer write a preface that mixes defense with despair seasoned with the realization of defeat. Sanford will never receive the recognition he deserves until the whole culture, and the economy that sustains it, has fundamentally changed. And if it is changed for the better, Sanford’s novels and “histories” are essential texts to bring it about.

Sanford is a novelist with a poet’s eye; it’s his ability to give to the “airy nothing” of history “a local habitation and a name” that threatens official power. Nothing threatens power more. Intruders In Paradise is a chronicle from the beginning of recorded American history to the present of the heroes and villains not usually recorded in our literature, or if recorded distorted to serve power. Sanford serves people. He gives us the story of those unsung: Frank Wills, discoverer of the Watergate burglars; and he gives us the concise story of the heroics little understood and appreciated even by admirers: Sandino, Toissaint Louverture, Paul Robeson, Castro. And he gives us the stories in need of revision, stories past and present that we need to know in order to understand why they’ve been told so falsely until now: stories of John Kennedy’s arrogance, Jesse Helms’ meanness, Roy Cohn’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s treachery, Reagan’s duplicity, Clarence Thomas’ stupidity. And sometimes he offers up American icons as influential as persons but too often overlooked or under scrutinized: Disney and his rodent, Mickey, Mount Rushmore as told by Big Stick Roosevelt, the Statue of Liberty, its lamp extinguished or shining only for the wealthy.

Sanford is the master of the revealing details that allow the venal to expose themselves by their own words and deeds. A couple months ago I read an item in the Wall Street Journal that Sanford would appreciate: Al Gore misses the tie vote that could have stopped further destruction of wilderness areas. Why did this man who would be the environmental president not stop the roads into paradise? He was in New York raising money for his presidential election campaign.

About an hour from where I live is a better example of the destruction of paradise that Sanford would have turned to art and hence made memorable. The Union Carbide Company (of Bophal infamy) sixty nine years ago hired men to dig a tunnel through a mountain alongside the New River in West Virginia. The rock was nearly pure silica. Hundreds, probably over a thousand, miners died of silicosis. The West Virginia head of the Department of Mines, Robert Lambie, initially criticized the company for ignoring safety and putting profit ahead of people. But when legal action was brought against the company, he changed his testimony, explaining that he had received false information; inexplicably, the company was now an exemplary employer. A few days after his testimony, he moved into a plush office in Charleston working for the mine owners. Another story. Another villain. And hundreds of stories about this disaster never told. In 1941, one writer tried, Hubert Skidmore, but Union Carbide threatened to sue the publisher. Doubleday backed down, and Union Carbide destroyed the printing plates and bought up all the unsold copies of his novel Hawk’s Nest.

It’s a wonder that we know anything at all of the real history of our country. We get “airy nothing” or we get trash. Once and awhile, though, we get the labor of a real poet who sees the truth and has the skill to make it into art. And we have a publisher with the courage to make this art public. And for what little we do get, we should all be grateful. And we should celebrate. And this work of John Sanford shows us not only the paradise of what once was but who the intruders were and how they have been able to succeed. And there is no way to stop them without this knowledge. Intruders in Paradise is essential reading, essential to our very survival.