"Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich . . . it would have been all right."
-- John Brown, 1859
John Sanford published in nine decades, a remarkable feat for anyone, but particularly remarkable for someone who came to his profession relatively late in life. Sanford's first published piece appeared in the expatriate little magazine Tambour in 1929, when he was 25 years old, and his first book was not released until 1933, when he was 28.
Little Preparation for a Career in Writing
All the more remarkable is how little formal preparation Sanford had for his career as a writer. He was a poor student in school. He did not graduate from Manhattan's DeWitt Clinton High,--where his main extracurricular activity was cutting classes,--when he failed English his last semester. Sanford spent a year at Lafayette College, where he unsuccessfully attempted to write for the student newspaper. This tenure was followed by the shortest of stints at Northwestern and Lehigh, where he lasted just two weeks. Afterward, he needed a fraudulent diploma obtained by bribing a state official to gain admission to Fordham Law School, but he dropped out after less than a month. Finally, the next term, Sanford returned to Fordham, where he completed his law degree. He then joined his father's legal practice. However, it was during his law studies that Sanford chanced to meet a childhood friend on a New Jersey golf course; this 1925 meeting would forever change Sanford's path in life. To Sanford's astonishment, the friend--Nathan Weinstein, who was now going by the name of Nathanael West--announced that he was writing a book. Suddenly, the wayward and goal-less Sanford knew he wanted to write one too.
Sanford renewed his friendship with West, often accompanying him on walks through New York City and listening to West discourse on art and literature. It was West who introduced Sanford to an enduring model: an obscure short story writer named Ernest Hemingway. Sanford helped read proof on West's first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. And, Sanford shared a hunting cabin with West one summer in the Adirondacks, where West worked on Miss Lonelyhearts and Sanford his first novel, The Water Wheel. Later, West induced Sanford to exchange his given name, Julian Shapiro, for the name of the principle character in The Water Wheel. That decision Sanford would come to rue.
While not as self-consciously lean as Hemingway's or West's writing, Sanford's prose has an unembellished spareness that clearly shows his friend's influence. Early on, James Joyce's influence could be seen in Sanford's eschewing of apostrophes in contractions. Later, Joyce's inspiration endured in Sanford's continuing quest for arresting and unconventional expressions. Sanford rarely used simile; rather, he preferred the directness and power of metaphor. He used nouns as verbs, verbs as nouns. Often his prose has poetic elements, such as multiple interior rhymes. Sanford's work is marked by a constant striving for innovation.
A Second Career at Sixty-three
Sanford's remaining influence was William Carlos Williams, whose book of historical vignettes, In the American Grain, Sanford read in the mid-1920s. The concept of history as literature took root in Sanford early. From the outset of his career, Sanford salted his works of fiction with historical interludes. These episodes were often a source of contention with publishers and cost him contracts. For example, Seventy Times Seven did not appear in England, because Sanford refused to remove historical material.
In all, Sanford published eight novels, which showed increasing strain with the bounds of fiction, as the books became more and more dominated by teachers and preachers, who delivered sermons and lectures to Sanford's readers. Finally, in 1967, with the publication of The $300 Man, Sanford had exhausted the novel form as a medium. At the suggestion of his wife, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, Sanford embarked on what would become his second career, at the age of 63.
Three years in the writing, A More Goodly Country established Sanford's mature narrative voice, or rather voices. Consisting entirely of vignettes about historical events and figures, this book allowed Sanford to explore history by means of fable, parable and brief dramatic monologue. Sanford brought history to life through magnificent flights of imagination. However, so unconventional was the book that it would take another three years and over 200 rejections before Sanford could find a publisher.
With the issuing of A More Goodly Country in 1975, Sanford's second career, as a nonfiction writer, was underway. There would follow eighteen more volumes of history, memoir and autobiography. It is remarkable that twelve of these books were published after Sanford reached the age of 80. At an age when most writers are retired or dead, Sanford was hitting his literary stride. And he continued to write until just a month before his death, when deteriorating eyesight made writing impossible. He died in March 2003, leaving three unpublished works.
The Finest Unread Author Writing in English
Despite the beauty of Sanford's writing, and the gravity and pertinence of his themes, Sanford remains mostly unknown and almost entirely unread. His books have been issued only in small editions, and only one has gone into a second printing. Early on, Sanford's work was published by the premier houses of the day. But Sanford quarreled with editors and publishers, and he refused to compromise.
As a result of Sanford's intractability, his publishers would each decide in turn that Sanford was more trouble than he was worth: one book was enough. Thus, they had little investment in his work. They did not promote his books, because Sanford would never be a member of their stable. Un-promoted, his books did not sell. And the chore of publishing Sanford would be passed on to another house. If Sanford had intentionally tried to sabotage his career, he could have done no more damage than he did by being rash and intransigent.
It was not until 1977, when Sanford had been writing for over 40 years, that the Capra Press followed Adirondack Stories with View from this Wilderness, thus becoming the first of his publishers to issue a second Sanford volume. And it was not until 1984 that Black Sparrow Press began what would be the longest run of Sanford titles from a single publisher, six in all. However, by the 1980s, Sanford was an old man, whose work was of interest only to small, art-house publishers. His chances of wider success had expired.
In addition to his quarrelsome ways with publishers, Sanford's lack of success must necessarily also be traced to the content of his books. From the start, one can see Sanford's obsession with the darker side of American history. In The Water Wheel, there is an episode musing on Philip Nolan, the Man without a Country. In Seventy Times Seven, there is a historical poetic interlude depicting man's inhumanity since America's earliest days. From that book onward, the harshness of Sanford's examination of the inequities in American history would only become more strident.
Literature as a Weapon
In 1936, Paramount had hired Sanford as a screenwriter. In late 1939, he joined the Hollywood cell of the Communist Party. The works that followed Sanford's political awakening became progressively more leftist. In a period when many American communists were reassessing their party membership, any doubts Sanford may have had only served to increase the fervor of his dedication to the cause. Even the Communists condemned 1943's The People from Heaven as too radical. The following A Man Without Shoes and The Land that Touches Mine are even more deeply political works, which criticized the American social and economic system as fundamentally unfair. This hard-line stance would eventually force Sanford to self-publish A Man Without Shoes.
Even in his later non-fiction historical books, Sanford's devotion to progressive causes remained intense. To read The Winters of that Country, a blistering indictment of America, is to find oneself denounced for having profited from centuries of injustice; the book is an accusation aimed at all Americans. Even Sanford's peerless prose could induce few readers to endure such a withering rebuke of the values in which they were raised to believe. Sanford must have known that these works would find little acceptance with the general reading public, who seek diversion, not chastisement. But he could not dim his ire, or the fire of his dream.
One historical figure to whom Sanford repeatedly returned is John Brown, the abolitionist whose assault on the armory at Harper's Ferry led to his execution. Sanford oft repeated Brown's statement: "Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich. . . it would have been all right." One could also apply that idea to Sanford's work: had he so written in behalf of the rich, he might have sold well and perhaps been a household name. Instead, Sanford chose to risk all in a quixotic attempt to right the wrongs of society. He sacrificed potential success to his cause. He wrote not to entertain the public, but to condemn it. He wrote to goad Americans to abandon complacency and to right society's wrongs.
The Luxury to Write What He Pleased
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, John Sanford met fellow screenwriter Marguerite Roberts at Paramount Studios. The couple would wed two years later, and Roberts would go on to become one of the most successful and highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood, including twelve straight years under contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After Sanford's year-long tenure at Paramount was up, he had a brief stint at M-G-M. Following that, he would be gainfully employed only once more, when he co-wrote Clark Gable and Carol Lombard's Honky-Tonk with Roberts. For the rest of his life, Sanford would be supported by his wife's earnings.
Thus, Sanford experienced a rare luxury among professional writers: the luxury to write what he pleased, without consideration of economic consequences. Sanford was not compelled to sell books to put food on the table. He did not have to seek out other writing assignments to pay the bills. Sanford did not do book tours, did not attend signings, did not make public appearances or give lectures. He left the selling of his works to others, as if he believed that to curry the favor of readers would taint his work.
Unlike many writers of his stature, Sanford did not review books, did not write articles for magazines, did not have to interrupt the process of writing books that did not sell, so that he could make a living. In fact, aside from several pieces in literary little magazines at the outset of his career, and during a brief editorship of Black & White/The Clipper in 1940-41, Sanford hardly published in periodicals at all.
On the one hand, this lack of economic necessity freed Sanford to pursue his art wherever the muse took him. Without this freedom, his life's work would not exist in its current form. On the other hand, one wonders what Sanford would have produced, if he had been forced by economics to temper his indignation and recast his reforming vision, so that his books would sell.
If he had needed to write to make money, would Sanford have been capable of writing for the popular audience, and what would have been the result? Would his missteps have been fewer? Would he have muted the excesses of politics that flawed his later fiction? Would he still have achieved the high splendor of his style under these mundane constraints? Certainly, he would have had to write more and differently to earn a living. But, could he have achieved the mass appeal that always eluded him? One wonders whether economic necessity would have improved Sanford's art, or merely blunted his talent.
Nonetheless, despite its excesses and imperfections, John Sanford's writing has achieved a sustained beauty and passion that is rarely seen. Even his less fully realized works have passages of brilliance that commend them. And, in those works where style and content felicitously meet, Sanford is revealed as a master of his craft; his writing sparkles with the clean lines of a gem.
Although nearly unknown to the wider reading public, Sanford's work evokes fervor in critics and academics, as well as an almost fanatical devotion from a small cadre of collectors. It is, in particular, for these people this bibliography is written.