History as Our Story
The second fly-leaf of The Winters of That Country lists John Sanford's other books: 9 “novels and other fictions” dating from 1933 to 1976, and also 4 works published from 1975 to 1984, one of which is The Winters of That Country, that are called “interpretations of American history.” To appreciate one of the reasons for Sanford’s importance, two observations about this list are necessary: 1) his recent work can be seen as a new direction, one that not only repudiates his past “fictions” but also repudiates the activity of fictionalizing experience; and, 2) these new works are misfits, neither fictions, nor history, nor poetry but in fact all of these, a new category forced upon us because of the inadequacy of previous categories to contain this type of writing.
The Winters of That Country does have its predecessors. The most recognizable one is William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. Sanford’s art is also steeped in the materials of history, in its documents, its codified forms—but Sanford’s subtitle should also be noted: “Tales of the man made seasons.” Williams is authorial; he writes, even when he “only” allows his documents to speak, from the present to throw light upon our past. As Williams said, “In these studies I have sought to re-name the things seen (my emphasis), now lost on a chaos of borrowed titles....” What Sanford does is something similar in that he obviously respects the material base of history but he is less text-bound and is more open to the oral nature of the living voice of history—hence, “tales” and the emphasis on making by man (man? Sanford is not so insensitive as to use the word uncritically. He has also produced a volume of historical narratives of women's voices). Sanford allows the materials to speak to the present; Williams’ “light” by which he arranges, orders, the chaos of the past becomes Sanford's “sound” that will be the imperative to change the present.
Sanford demonstrated in his conventional novel (somewhat conventional since even here he prefigures the workings of writers who intersperse their narrative with historical texts) The Man Without Shoes that he was a master at depicting the voices of the New York pre-World War I Jewish ghetto. But in this book Sanford demonstrates his mastery of presenting the historical voice as it informs the historical report—the style merges with the sense to re-live that historical unity, a possible reason for Sanford's dedication: “To a more perfect Union” though other unions suggest themselves: poetry / prose, history / fiction, speaking / writing. Sanford gives us the story of America from the Viking penetration to the Vietnam War in a series of short narrations that speak from out of a consistent narrator's voice, and it is a voice of passion, of love, that bends to the materials to allow those materials to re-present their historical moment: “On the Waters of Darkness” has also the quality of the Norse sagas; “I Didn't Mean to Kill My Boy” has of it the suggestion of the dime-novel, frontier myth building style as it recounts Mike Fink’s life into legend; and through to the end where “The War That Was Fought in Your Home” Sanford through a lyrical condensation that mocks the television image expresses the voyeuristic quality, the essential obscenity, of the Vietnam War as it was brought home as competition for other safe, abstract entertainments to a nation of passive consumers.
Because of this stylistic ease that Sanford manifests, The Winters of That Country is seductively easy to read, but the book becomes increasingly problematic since the comfort of the style continually confronts the content—the many previously untold stories that Sanford gives us—and the text itself continually resists categorization, capture, into any genre. Sanford gives us an epic without a hero, a narration whose narrator only appears once as part of the text and only referred to in the second person, “You had dangerous thoughts...,” a prose work that is often verse; and a long poem that is built primarily on prose forms. The reader can ignore this context that Sanford's work provokes; but, to do so is a refusal to recognize the real radical challenge Sanford is making to our literature. To tell the real story is to necessarily place that story in opposition to the forms that have already domesticated that story. Sanford is more easily appreciated if approached through the Russian Formalists or better through the work of Mikhal Bakhtin and Valentin Volosinov. It is a study of Sanford in relation to the dialogical quality of a prose form aware of itself as essentially “multi-voicedness” that will finally reveal his work in its profound importance. Until that study we need to at least learn a certain familiarity with this man's art, and a careful reading of The Winters of That Country is a good beginning