“in some ways”

The People From Heaven by John Sanford, 1995, U. of Illinois Pr., $14.95 ISBN: 0-252-06491-7


“...in some ways the most important book of fiction published here in the last twenty years”: William Carlos Williams upon the publication of John Sanford’s The People From Heaven, 1943.

Few others shared Williams’ enthusiasm for Sanford’s fiction; few knew how to read fiction. Perhaps it was the political blacklisting (Eliot Weinberger: “anti-communism has driven us all crazy” or something to that effect in an essay in Sulfur). Perhaps it just takes time, like the time it has taken for Meridel Le Sueur (born in 1900 but still alive and five years older than Sanford) to be re-discovered, and like her to be seen as an innovator and a formalist rather than a realist or a political writer, political— the worst label that can be attached to a writer in this country.

For A Man Without Shoes, the sixteen seasons of the next four years were all of them winter. During that period, the book was submitted to some thirty publishers, and thirty times it was declined. No rejection, however, was predicated on the political cast of the book: the grounds given, though they varied in detail, were always literary, always they smelled of the lamp. (1982 introduction, Black Sparrow edition)

I know little about American fiction, but I know enough to realize that Sanford is a better writer than most who were praised when he was still being reviewed in major literary magazines, better than those praised now in the magazines major or minor. He is such a good writer, that to me the degree to which he is unrecognized is the measure by which we judge not only commercial publishing (the purveyors of obscenities like the writings of Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell) but the small presses scene as well.

I got re-married last month, October. Several of my writer friends sent books as presents. The one I’ve enjoyed most is the one Sanford sent, a copy of his A Man Without Shoes published in 1951. Sanford published the book himself after it was rejected too many times, this after he had had a successful publishing history. (Those who believe in progress, the small presses as but step-stones to the big, take note.) It was this book by Black Sparrow Press, in a different version, re-released with a short introduction by Sanford tipped in, that was my first introduction to the work of the man who has become my favorite writer of American fiction. Sanford may never be recognized as the master stylist of American fiction: established critics hate to admit they were once stupid; young ones don’t know who he is let alone have an opinion about him. But he is my master of American fiction. And here is one illustration why.


Reading A Man Without Shoes now is to witness the birth of Sanford’s later style, a style that needs be seen as a radical departure in how fiction treats history. It can be argued that all fiction is history: even meta-fiction from Laurence Sterne to Kathy Acker is a variant of “Once upon a time.” But the beginning of non-fiction fiction or fact-as-fiction, the novels of Paul Metcalf, Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl, Eduardo Galeno’s Masks of Fire, Michelle Butor’s later works, William Vollman’s The Ice Shirt, even the novelistic histories of Capote and Mailer, can be traced to this twice-neglected masterpiece. (In ‘51 the boxes of un-sold books accumulated in Sanford’s basement; in ‘82 Black Sparrow sold what they did on their reputation not Sanford’s.) Sanford’s later works, A More Goodly Country, subtitled “A Personal History of America” [1975], View From This Wilderness, subtitled “American Literature as History” [1977], To Feed Their Hopes [1980], The Winters of That Country [1984]) are masterful weavings of the materials of history into poetry. No one but Sanford has redeemed our history with such love of these materials, with such a sure sense of what exactly does matter, and with such sure command of the language to ensure that the form in-forms our present time by re-forming the past. And it begins in 1943:

By then, you’d begun your fifth novel, A Man Without Shoes, and when a death in the family drew you East again at the close of the War, you took the manuscript with you for submission.(Maggie, A Love Story, NY: Barricade, 1993)

Fathers and sons. And heroes. This (for they are one thing) is at the core of Sanford’s work. A young boy, Dan, the hero of this novel.

The main spread of his development was political, and while he never did a signal deed or spoke in smoking words, what force he possessed was outward, and in his efforts to transcend himself, to the extent that he succeeded, he no longer struck me as ordinary. (His introduction to the Black Sparrow edition).

His father has returned home to his wife and son: “...the boy saw the hack-driver, his shirt sown with blood and his nose hidden under a blood-logged bandage.” He had encountered a union organizer, and it was with words (“I’m not against the rich. I’m in favor of the poor.”) that the driver was won over. The fight came later, the two men having something to prove to themselves and each other, not to battle for an ideology. And the boy? The boy sees his dad and more, as more: “[Like a soldier, you thought, like a soldier in the stories Mom read you out of A Boy’s History of America.]”

The story of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, the British General undone by Form, undone by the un-orthodox, unique style that was America, is woven through the account of the man’s telling of his own battle. And the woman: “The woman smiled. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘who won?’ And this section of the novel, “HEROES,” it ends:

[When the soldiers get bloody, they put on bandages, so if a man has a bandage, he’s a soldier even if he’s your father, and if he’s your own father, then he’s the best solder in the whole world: he wins all the fights.]

And the next section of the novel is HEARING AND VISION. As it must be. For the heroics, rather the establishment of the hero, the way heroics is established in our lives, when it is, is through the voice, when vision is made possible through the sound of words. The heroics of Sanford’s writing is the word made flesh. And that way is only through the voice. To hear is to see clearly. To see clearly is to read with an appreciation of what it means to be a writer. And the writer who can do that, and here is the place where it begins for him, to transform history into the present lives of his characters (and into ours), that writer has announced the way out of the dilemma each writer works within. And to our sad luck it was an annunciation within a room, a room with a view to be sure, but the windows were sealed against the sound.

At the same time, a year before the publication of the novel a poet as alive to the sound of words as Sanford and as impressed with the need for heroics, convinced that the dead words on the page needed liberated if we were to be, was disclaiming on “that verse which print bred”:

What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination. For the breath has a double meaning which latin had not yet lost. (Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”)

The projective novel? Not absolutely so, but the seeds. They are here. It begins here. Once upon this time “in some ways.”