What Happened?

Review: We Have A Little Sister, Marguerite: the Midwest Years, biography and autobiography, by John Sanford, published by Capra Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-88496-399-3, $25.00. [Capra Press, PO Box 2068, Santa Barbara CA 93120]. 


More than fifty years ago, 1943, William Carlos Williams, then a respected poet and subsequently the most influential American poet of the twentieth century, wrote of one of John Sanford’s novels: “in some ways the most important book of fiction published here in the last twenty years.” What happened? From the critics and reviewers, nothing. Or consider this, from the critic and Williams’ biographer Paul Mariani: “Sanford deserves to be more widely known than he is, for he himself has made a kind of literary history with a trilogy as achieved and as ambitious as the writing of Dos Passos, MacLeish, and Robert Penn Warren.”Again, what happened? Again, nothing. Why isn’t Sanford as well known as these writers and the writers he was often favorably compared to: Hemingway, Faulkner, and his friend Nathanael West? Why does every review of Sanford’s work now have to be prefaced with an explanation about how neglected he is, what a master of American prose he has been for over half a century, how little known he is even within the American Academy let alone with the public at large? What happened? I think it was love, uncompromising in its total commitment.

 In 1951 Sanford’s love for America brought ruin onto him and his wife, Marguerite Roberts, Hollywood’s most successful screenwriter of the time, when they refused to testify and betray their friends before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A few years later this love of country also set him on the path to write histories with the art of fiction and fictions that are histories, the trilogy referred to above by Mariani. The trilogy, A More Goodly Country, an artistic achievement but ignored even by those who saw the worth of William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, on which it is modeled and by those who heap praise on Eduardo Galeno’s Masks of Fire, work that could have been modeled on Sanford’s, received almost no notice, critical or popular. As if to set the record straight about his life and the betrayal his country had made against the principles it was founded upon, in the eighties his art turned to more personally inward, weaving the story of the land into his and his wife’s. Sanford has written autobiography with the same intensity of purpose, the revelation of the total truth, that provoked Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Another critic, Garrett White writes: “His critically acclaimed autobiography, subtitled Scenes from the Life of an American Jew, is indisputably one of the most beautifully written and revealing biographies in American literature.” Few cared. Sanford had been undone by the love of the truth.

After the death of his wife in 1985, his love for her kept him from doggedly writing the great American novel, which he more than any other American writer is capable of. Instead of following this myth, as much of a distortion of reality as the great American dream, Sanford turned to writing the story of Marguerite Roberts.

The latest of his two biographies are about the truth of his relationship with Maggie, his wife of over fifty years. No other writer has given so much to a marriage, for no other writer has recorded how much a marriage has given to him. In this age of sanctimonious mouthing about Family Values, the record of such devotion is an inspiration to anyone who believes love possible let alone realizable over more than a half century.

Sanford’s first book about his wife was published in 1994, Maggie: A Love Story. What happened? It should have been a publishing event of the first order, but for an industry that thinks Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell are writers, it hardly brought notice to Sanford. He has published another volume in the story, however, this book: We Have A Little Sister, Marguerite: the Midwest Years. Perhaps this book will bring Sanford the recognition he has never been granted but for so long deserved. And here is but one reason why.

The book is as masterfully written as any he has done. Sanford has the gift of presenting in a fashion that is as close to cinema as is possible in writing the multifaceted way speech and thought interact between characters and how a writer, a great writer, lays down clues that work at the reader’s consciousness until it is the reader, seemingly, who discovers the connections that make of the novel a unified whole, a human story that is also an artistic creation. Of course, later, the reader understands that it was the writer, after all, who has told the story, but during the reading of it, it is the reader who seems to create the tale. Here is an example.

Marguerite is being wooed by Leonard, a man of little imagination and less understanding of people other than the southern aristocracy that his family once belonged to. She had asked him to take her to Denver, a two hour drive from Greeley, to see a summer stock performance of Anna Christie. Marguerite is observing the landscape when Leonard speaks: “What do you know about O’Neill?”  And the scene shifts from the author’s descriptive narrative to a dialogue that not only captures the tension between the man of small mind and little ambition and the woman coming slowly to an understanding not only of him and his limitations but also of the promise of her own future as a writer, a screen writer, master of dialogue:

“Turn the car around, Leonard,” she said.

“What’re you talking about? We’re only a couple miles from Denver.”

“I want to go back to Greeley.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“The way you put that question.”

“What question, for God’s sake?”

“The one about O’Neill.”

“I only asked what you knew about him.”

“I didn’t like your tone. As if, what would I know.”

At the end of the discussion, Leonard asks her about the ending of an O’Neill play that she had read and she says that “The play ended with a question.”

This scene, like so many in Sanford’s story, operates like the a type of objective correlative embodying the manifold of tensions, as well as the hopes and dreams and projected realities, of this relationship, which is also a relationship with the writer himself. Only after finishing the book, do we see clearly this importance of the scene, the complexity of any real scene. It is this complexity that is the writer’s reality: Sanford never shirks his duty to present it. And the measure of his success at being true to that reality is the measure by which he needs to be measured as the master of the writer’s craft that he is. And, unfortunately for him, even the critics have lost the ability to measure anything except through their particular ideology. So, what happens to Sanford?


Perhaps this book will be recognized, if not for the quality of the writing then for its themes, the respectful portrayal of a working family who embodies all the values politicians extoll others to live by and never do so themselves: honesty, hard work, self-sacrifice, respect for the dignity of labor, respect not based upon the accident of birth but the quality of personal achievement. Perhaps the feminists will see in this book a rare portrayal of the strong women of the west, women like Marguerite and her sisters, a woman like her mother, women who endured the greatest hardships and who have but rarely been even recognized let alone lovingly portrayed. Perhaps they will see in Marguerite a pioneer who after extricating herself from a failed marriage set out on her own with nothing but bus fare to become one of Hollywood’s most successful writers. We have the myth of Horatio Alger used to justify all sorts of attacks upon the poor, but here is a story of real success that never denies the strength and power that the poor embody.

And what if nothing happens? What if no one recognizes the genius of this writer and the unique contribution he has made to American letters? What if he gets no life-time achievement awards, honors, accolades? Given the state of our culture, there is no reason to suppose that he will. What will happen is that at age 91 he will do what he did every other time his work was published and not understood and appreciated: he will continue writing. Meridel Le Sueur, another writer too little appreciated, and one five years older than Sanford, says that “Survival is a form of resistance.” Sanford is a survivor, and his resistance to the cheap goods that stand for our culture is not only to his credit but to ours as well. What happens is that because of his refusal to write badly, those who appreciate quality writing have been inspired, given hope that not everyone has given up on writing, given up on this country, given up on themselves. To the degree that we honor this writer we honor the best in ourselves.