In Plain View
Maggie, a Love Story by John Sanford
1993, Barricade Books: 61 Fourth Ave. NYC 10003
ISBN: 0-942637-97-6, $22.00
Dr. Williams replied (he always replied): to him, a letter was an extension of the writer, like his hand, and it was not to be ignored)....
A Correspondence: William Carlos Williams, John Sanford
Santa Barbara, Oyster Press, 1984 (47)
Beginnings are always significant: “In the beginning was the word, etc.” This much is obvious. What may not be obvious to even the careful reader is the significance of the beginning of John Sanford's Love Story with Marguerite Roberts, Maggie, a romance lasting over fifty years. Sanford names names: “The Dedham trial, Judge Webster Thayer presiding...”.
The key event of Sanford’s book and his life, the pivot about which Sanford’s world revolved, no, it is the hinge that is more like the spine of a book but is also a door opening from the lighted room of the first half of their life together, a room lit and warm from the presence of the beloved, from that room to this: the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Blacklist and the resulting darkness, together.
Sanford and Roberts were both called before this tribunal. Both were condemned, not for their activities, certainly not for their acts being “un-American”. They were condemned for their refusal to betray friendships, to inform, fink, to name names. The Dedham trial (and the judge is named as all judges need be) is the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti; Sanford provides the names of the jurors who pulled the switch of the electric chair, that dimmed the lights of the city, which is our city: “two thousand volts of electricity put an end to them—but not to their beliefs.” The dark, again, together.
The HUAC persecution, the resulting abandonment by those they believed were friends, the banishment from productive work, the government's betrayal of essential decency that underlies our beliefs about democracy, forced Roberts into a strangeness: she became an outsider, in effect a Jew alien to the country she never considered other than home. And she became, with Sanford, a rebel. To John, Maggie: “You'd do anything to get me off the Blacklist, but the bastards run this world, not you.” But Sanford can, anyway he wants, run this book. As a rebel. And just as he and Maggie were brought even closer together in the shared truth, which is also a shared wound, of America, Sanford’s writing joins us to him and Maggie and to this country they both loved so much they refused the lie and they refused the half-lie of false testimony. Sanford's writing is too honest to be successful. For over sixty years the reviewers have misunderstood his honesty (never having believed that “in the beginning was the word”) because they are unfamiliar with it. It is so rare. And wonderful.
As he relates, the “freedom road” is a “toll-road”; there is no free-way, especially in Los Angeles, Hollywood where Maggie worked, or anywhere. But through his writing, Sanford’s early traditional novels or his later historical novels / poems / documentaries (there is no established form for what he does; like any great artist he forces his own form until followers continue it, then it is named, but “In the beginning....”) he joins love with honesty, and the resulting “way” is an intimate joining of life and art, never free, a revelation rather of living within the tension between life and art, which few others, perhaps none, have expressed better. And what other tension is so significant?
Maggie is his life-long love; Maggie, his life-long love story. What other writer has loved more? Love sustains the writing. How many writers can honestly say that?
Sanford has his influences, obviously. William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain the most important. And because of Sanford we are more able to read other significant writers: Eduardo Galeano, Haniel Long, Paul Metcalf, Michael Butor, and the young master, David Romtvedt, his Crossing Wyoming.
How does Sanford succeed, succeed not only in establishing himself as a major writer but also in condemning himself to a relative obscurity And what is the measure, relative to what? awards, book sales, the loyalty of a publisher keeping books in print, name recognition at least among young writers. What it is has eluded Sanford. Why that is would involve a major critique of our culture industry. There is no doubt, by whatever measure, that Sanford is a master of the writer’s craft. With an economy learned from Williams, he can establish the bond of a loving relationship with a single short sentence: “But when you leave a room, you empty it.” The poet’s knowledge infuses this book as it does all of Sanford’s: the alliteration of “you could not endure it that some dire day she’d die.” (This stumbling line leading to the ending line of the page, the word “dread” rhyming with “fled”, “fled to other mysteries” only demonstrates what any knowledgeable reader hardly needs demonstrating: Sanford has command of all the elements that make up the writer’s craft.)
And Sanford has something other than this craft, something infinitely more rare. What he said about the baseball player, Ty Cobb, referred to as the terror of the base-lines can also be said about him: “he did in plain view what others sought to disguise.” Sanford seems not capable of lying, nor the half lie. He seems to long ago have known that to start with denial is to end with nothing but dying. Sanford presents the one occasion where he denied the love that sustained him, when he confused, momentarily, life and literature, placing his writing above the relationship that sustained it.
Maggie: “It's a bad time for me too. Winters [his The Winters of That Country] is only a book....”
Sanford: Only a book.
And he, preoccupied with thinking about his writing, into the lesser part of himself, preoccupied not with writing but with the thinking about the writing, instead of with Maggie’s depression about an upcoming operation she must undergo, instead of extending his love to her while driving through a forest “struck and killed a fawn.”
His account of what had “begun with only a book and ended with a lovely life lying beside the road” is as honestly portrayed as any self disclosure that is so important to the writer could be portrayed. And what the scene throws in relief is the essential tension Sanford lived his life within and offers as a model for writers, especially writers but also for any reader: life is not, or need not, be in opposition to writing. They are not opposites or even contraries. Instead of dualism he offers a kind of triadic relationship that overcomes what appears to be opposition. And the third term in the relationship is love.
William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain, says of the Puritans who hounded Thomas Morton and the revelers about his maypole (and by extension of those who hounded those suspected of “un-American activities”):
But spiritless, thus without grounds on which to rest their judgments of this world, fearing to touch its bounties, a fissure takes place for the natural mouth--and everything’s perverse to them.
Sanford has lived through nearly the whole of the bloodiest century in all of history. We desperately need his story which is everything that is not perverse. Sanford offers us the essence of the marriage. It is the marriage of Maggie and John but it is also that of life and literature. And more importantly he gives us the record of a success. I don’t know anything like it in all of our literature. If we have not the good fortune to experience anything like it in the way we live our lives, we at least should take the occasion to experience it our reading. And from that, who knows, maybe the loving life will open to us like a book, allowing the light to linger in our rooms.