In his 99th year, John Sanford was such a singular writer that it’s somehow unsurprising that, when death came quietly for him Thursday morning, even it could not quite end his extraordinary career.
Sanford published 24 books: nine novels, five genre-defying works he called “creative interpretations of history” and 10 volumes of autobiography and memoirs, including the five-book sequence, “Scenes From the Life of an American Jew.” More than half his books were completed after he turned 80. The most recent, “A Palace of Silver,” which appeared just this month, was a meditative memoir on the life he and his wife of more than 50 years -- the late screenwriter Marguerite Roberts -- lived after they were blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
According to his literary executor, Jack Mearns, the author left three unpublished books “all written in the last four years. Last summer, he finished the one called ‘A Dinner of Herbs’ [see excerpts], which comprises vignettes about the women he knew. There’s a book about his father, ‘A Citizen of No Mean City,’ and another, ‘Little Sister Spoken For’ about the first five years of his marriage to Maggie.
“John also had recently completed a major story called ‘Judas and Inquiry,’ which is about Martin Berkeley, the informer who named more than 150 names [including the Sanfords] before the committee in the 1951 hearings. To the end of his life, John wanted to figure out what was going on in the mind of someone who informed,” said Mearns, a professor of psychology at Cal State Fullerton.
Sanford, who was born Julian Shapiro in Harlem and trained as a lawyer, may have been the most neglected of serious 20th century American writers. His books are a stunning fusion of formal experimentation and supple, lyric prose. There is nothing like them anywhere in American letters. Though he sometimes was compared to the young John Dos Passos, Sanford’s work was so original that it confounded critics and their categories -- probably to his professional detriment.
His life’s long arc was supported by four pillars: radical politics, radical aesthetics, his mother’s early death and his 51-year marriage to Roberts. Carefree son of an indulgent lawyer, Sanford was inspired to take up writing -- and change his name -- by his boyhood friend Nate Weinstein, who would go on to find his own place in the world of letters as Nathanael West. In the 1930s, they came to Hollywood from New York together.
There, in 1936 he met Marguerite Roberts, then one of MGM’s most successful and highly paid contract screenwriters. Her first screenplay was directed in 1933 by Raoul Walsh, her last in 1971 by Henry Hathaway. The last film she wrote before she was blacklisted was “Ivanhoe,” which she refused to see because a frightened MGM removed her credit. Ironically, she broke her exile in 1969 with “True Grit,” which won John Wayne, a proponent of the black lists, his only Oscar.
In 1938, she and Sanford married. A year later, he joined the Communist Party; she followed him soon after -- more as a matter of convenience than conviction; his new comrades believed the presence of a nonparty member at their gatherings was a security risk.
Theirs was an unusual marriage: She provided the money and unwavering encouragement for his literary writing; he cooked and cleaned, wrote and negotiated her contracts. It was during the early years that Sanford produced what many consider his masterpiece, “The People From Heaven.” It is a book of extraordinary power, set in 1943 in Warrensburg, N.Y., where a white shopkeeper initiates a wave of racist terror during which he rapes a black woman -- America Smith -- and beats a Native American nearly to death and announces his intention to drive out the town’s only Jew. He is stopped only when the black woman draws a gun and kills him.
William Carlos Williams called the novel “the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years.” Carl Sandburg considered it “a sacred book, majestic in its rebukes.... “
Sanford’s party comrades disagreed. One of the party’s cultural leaders denounced the novel as “antisocial.” Sanford’s retort was to recall the old C.P. slogan that art is a weapon. “If that book isn’t a weapon,” he said, “I never saw one.”
To University of Michigan English professor Alan Wald, who selected “The People From Heaven” for inclusion in the University of Illinois Press’ ongoing series, “The Radical Novel Reconsidered,” the exchange typified the interplay of art and politics in Sanford’s work. “His was not a textbook Marxism but a Marxism of a general character,” Wald wrote in an introduction to the book. “In his literary work, it was an identification with the underdog against the oppressor, not a Marxism dictated by the U.S. Communist Party.”
“John was an extremely angry person,” Wald said Thursday. “When that anger was channeled into hatred of oppression it was very productive. On the other hand, his profound hatred of informers was undying and a little harsh. He could never imagine that some of them were trapped into what they did.”
Maggie Sanford left the party in 1947. John Sanford never did. “He never repudiated anything important about Communism,” said Wald. “He consolidated his political convictions in the 1930s and held on to them for the rest of his life.”
As a writer, Wald said, “the important thing about John was that he was extraordinarily original. The stylistic freshness of certain of his projects is simply exceptional. The way in which he treated the interplay of historical and personal events in his work is unparalleled and utterly unique.”
Mearns, Sanford’s executor, is hopeful of finding a publisher who will put the author’s works, now mostly out of print, back on the shelves. “My big fear,” he said, “lies in the fact that few writers have their reputations made after they die -- Herman Melville and John’s friend Nathanael West are rare exceptions. I hope John will find a wider audience.”
That’s a thing devoutly to be wished. As Sanford himself once said, “My books did not fail -- they just didn’t sell.”