I read about John Sanford probably 40 years ago, remembering that he had been highly praised, and had it in the back of my mind to explore it further, but when I went to to do so, could find very little on him, not surprising as this was well before the Internet came into being. Not helping my quest any was the fact that a guy named John Sandford had written a boatload of very popular books, and, when the Internet did arrive, his was the only name that came up in searches. Still having it on my mind as time went on, I gradually gave up, but must have retained it because, a few weeks ago, having come across a book I hadn’t known existed by Marion Meade called Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney. I immediately took it home and while reading it, was perusing a glossary of people mentioned and the name “John Sanford” immediately caught my eye. The rest is history, but I never cease to be amazed at how things can connect years apart if you just keep reading.
The People from Heaven was published in 1943, and, although this is said of many works, it was truly ahead of its time, the principal reason it never gained traction with the critics, much less the public. As with most original works of art, the book was doomed to failure by critics who couldn’t categorize it, failing to recognize something truly path breaking had been produced.
At the time, the poet Carl Sandburg lauded the book, and poet William Carlos Williams, an early champion, publishing several of Sanford’s stories in Contact, said it’s “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.”
The title was taken from the cry of celebration purported uttered by the indigenous peoples hailing the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans to their shores, “Come, come to see the people from Heaven!” And how’d that work out for them?
The plot, without spoiling it, centers around Eli Bishop, a propertied white man and chief racist, an American Indian father and son, an independent-minded prostitute, a Jewish refugee from czarist pogroms, and the hero, an itinerant Black woman locally referred to as “America Smith,” who strikes a blow for freedom in her own way.
It stridently portrays and condemns in no uncertain terms racism toward the Negro long before the Civil Rights movement, the Jew a decade before the holocaust, and the Native American which had really never been addressed until the sixties. While containing all the elements of modernism and radicalism, it didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of previous works labeled as such, works like Tobacco Road, Bottom Dogs, Uncle Tom’s Children, Freedom Road, U.S.A.: a trilogy.
Speaking of William Carlos Williams, he is a possible influence based on his use of historical documents in his book In the American Grain, except that Sanford employs it as verse and interwoven with the narrative, consisting of nine poetic commentaries depicting episodes of persecution and oppression ranging from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Another direct inspiration is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (see my earlier entry regarding that book) for the brief but candid brief biographies of the characters Sanford employs.
Other works it brings to mind would be Our Town, Winesburg, Ohio, even some elements of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially as its setting is in the same general area of New York, and for it’s portrait of small town life in that same time period. It captures the immediacy of the time period more than anything I’ve ever read.
Born Julian Shapiro, in Harlem, Sanford was a childhood friend of Nathanael West (born Weinstein), to whom the book was dedicated, and who suggested his friend also change his name, and he became John Sanford from then on. Ironically, the Communist Party, of which Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, condemned his book as too far- left. He and his wife, both screenwriters, were blacklisted in the 50s witch hunts, setbacks from which they (as many) never fully recovered. Sanford lived until he was 98, authored 24 books, including a 5-volume autobiography, half of which were written after the age of 80, he wrote right up until the month before he died.
A noteworthy feature of the book is his employment of colloquialisms, obsolete words, poetic descriptions, and some just laugh-out expressions , so impressive I felt it necessary to list a few so you could get a better feel for the book:
“I’m like a bear-steak…the more you chew me, the bigger I get”
“I’m a three-cornered liar if she wasn’t prettier dead than a live woman sleeping”
“He don’t eat enough to keep a snow-bird alive.”
“He brought the [dollar] bill out of his pocket as if it were a strip of adhesive-tape plastered to his thigh.’
“…you couldn’t drive a prune into me with a mallet.”
“feeling kind of loppy,” ”
“the breeze made fingers in my hair”
“Leaves were flippant in an infrequent wind…”
“…and fireflies were moving stop-lights in the accumulating gloom.”
“Now there’s a prayer that weighs a pound and a half!…”
“sweat like a stone crock”
“…a spiral of fly-paper drilled the smoke-marbled air.”
“I don’t get any more sunshine than a clam.”
“…so bow-legged he couldn’t stop a hog in a hallway.”
“Heads turned like electric fans…”
“…but he stuck around like a fly at a butchering-bee…”
“…either we just run down a pole-cat, or else somebody in this car needs a bath.”
“She pays her rent as regular as you change your drawers, and that’s once a month.”
‘…he ain’t got no more to say about where he’s going than a dish of ice-cream at the Poor Home.”
Be warned the book contains several harrowing passages, one describing Jewish girls being shot from trees; America Smith’s account of her birth and rape; and one of the verse inserts describing the Jesuit Brébeuf’s torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois.
It is a magnificent book, one for which at least two reads are necessary to get the full import, which I suspect will be even more pleasurable the second time around. I’ll let you know.