By Volume 4, a project that began as a wholly individualistic and thoroughly engaging account of the making of a writer, has long since picked up mass and weight from the social and political context, becoming a personal chronicle of the unmaking of a nation. Author John Sanford's phrase for the spirit of the time in which he lives is "the color of the air," dramatically conveyed by occasional vignettes of the events and personalities that forever altered the American destiny.
While the author remains the primary perceiver in these books, they soon cease to be self-centered in any ordinary sense. Though referring to oneself in the second person as "you" can be a risky literary device, it effectively creates an instant bond between reader and writer. Eventually even the distinction between singular and plural blurs, reinforcing the sense of participation in a shared odyssey. The six years recalled in this book chart the loss of innocence; not just Sanford's, but America's. Here the autobiographical form expands to become a subtle synecdoche in which the lives of Sanford and his wife Marguerite Roberts stand in for the general experience.
The opening pages are an astounding collage of prose, verse and direct quotation, an incendiary blend of language re-creating the scene at Los Alamos, N.M., in the summer of 1945 on the day the prototype of the atomic bomb was exploded. "The blast was heard in Albuquerque half the state away, and it was seen there too--seen!--by a blind girl, who cried: What was that? . . .
None of those great ones ever said
that what she'd seen without sight
was bright too on Mars and Venus;
they never informed her
of the bizarre behavior of animals,
crazed horses, speechless birds,
dogs that shivered as if freezing
though mercury stood at 100;
they never described to her
the quarter-mile crater in the sand.
she was never given to understand
that, white once, it was green now
a quarter-mile bowl of emerald glass."
The images increasing in potency, the passage describes the scientists' triumphant snake dance through their improvised quarters--singing, cheering, back-slapping, as "they made their way (in protective shoes) to where a heap of ash lay in a green glass bowl . . . thinking of the glaze they mean to put upon Japan." In these four searingly terse pages, the bomb is replicated and dropped upon its target; the survivors speak of its unearthly magnificence; the bombardier on the Enola Gay is quoted as he flies away to safety, mistaking the shock waves for anti-aircraft fire--"The sons-of-bitches are shooting at us."
The "color of the air" indelibly established, Sanford shifts to the intimate conversational tone that distinguishes the body of the book. In the short, definitive scenes that characterize his recent work, he recaptures the precise texture of daily life--two writers in the optimistic postwar years; Marguerite productive and happy at MGM; the author himself creating the uncompromising novels that would earn unstinting praise but little else. Tempered by the passage of time, the bitter disappointments of that era are described here with surprisingly gentle irony. The emphasis is kept firmly upon the satisfactions of a superb marriage and the joys of rural living.
During the period covered by this book, the Sanfords lived on a small ranch in Encino, raising the race horses Marguerite had loved since girlhood, delighting in their surroundings and in each other. The author's association with the Communist Party is discussed candidly; his efforts to reconcile his maverick individualism with the party line lends a special tension to the prose. Unlike many memoirs of this anguished period, this one remains free of apology, rationalization or self-justification.
His convictions formed by history and experience, Sanford continues to be committed long after it was safe to do so. Fury finds its way into these pages only when the insidious hysteria affects Marguerite's career, and even then, more is made of her integrity and resilience than of his rage. Throughout these six tortured and turbulent years, "A Walk in the Fire" remains an idyllic love story in which love of family, love of work and love of country illuminate and enlarge the central attachment between the Sanfords.
Though the quartet is unified by style, form and subject, the individual volumes have the narrative power to be read independently of one another. Together, they are a monumental social history of the century; separately they place a supremely responsive observer both within and at a remove from his decade. In each case, the writer's depth of field and unwavering value system create reverberations far beyond the usual limits of a single consciousness. Lyrical and often elegiac in the historical segments, fierce in commentary, Sanford's style is Protean, constantly reinvented to suit his theme.
Here he is in the front row at the House Committee hearings in Los Angeles in September, 1951, just before his wife is to take the stand. "And still you were trying to descry in the Committee and its Counsel a reason for their elevation. What explained them?, you wondered--what? And now slowly grew the realization that they represented the people because they were representative: They'd been chosen not because they were representative: They'd been chosen not because they were different, but because they were the same. These six, you thought, they'd been put forward by their similars, their fungible selves. Each was any other, the many were as one, and seeking past them through the flag, the wall, the far ranges of fancy, you saw an entire nation of Potters and Doyles and Jacksons, multitudes with their vacancy, their airless minds, their low and lucrative aims. . . ."
A bit further along in this segment, as the author and his wife are driving home, the "you" becomes Marguerite Roberts, asking "Did I do all right"? For a moment, Sanford cannot answer--"not because I had nothing to say. It was because I had nothing to say it with. . . . The best I can do is this: If I'd never seen you before, if I'd just happened by and heard you, I'd've asked you to be my wife." "A Walk in the Fire" stops in 1951, but does not end there. There will be a fifth volume, tracing the process by which the annealing private walk became a headlong public rush toward the bleak and trackless ethical wilderness in which we find ourselves now. No one in American letters is better qualified to transform that rigorous tour into the literary adventure of a lifetime.
You gave them nothing, and they paid in kind. There were no badges of honor for you, no cordons, ribbons, wreaths of laurel. From then on, you were without a country, a wanderer within it, an internal outcast. You'd worked yourself loose, like some minor component of a giant machine, a shim, a grommet, a superfluous spring, and the ground by its shaking , you made a small sound for a while and then fell silent, as if you'd worn away. "What do you think you are--a martyr?" you heard your friends say.
How could he have thought you'd so suppose when you'd never felt the thorn, never endured the nail? He knew, as you did, that you'd merely chanced on your hill of skulls and pondered on the purpose of the pyre. How, a martyr, when you were your own victim?--you'd chosen the stake, you'd lit the fire. "I think you're a damned fool!," he said, and in the ways of the world, you were, but did he deeply believe his words, or did he simply say them, having found them in his mouth? Why his anger?, you sometimes wondered. What harm had you done him in giving none but yourself away? What made him mock you? What did he note in a Simple Simon cap, what could he not bear to see and hear? Or was he seeing and hearing himself, was he on the stand instead of you, was he giving you away?
--From "A Walk in the Fire: Scenes From the Life of an American Jew, Vol. 4."