"If words won't, nothing will," the Boss said. "There's nothing in the world like words. The trick, though, is to pick the good ones."
JOHN SANFORD has had the knack of picking the good words for 50 years. Since his novel The Water Wheel (1933), he has published eight fictional works, several of them highly praised by the critics. William Rose Ben,et called Seventy Times Seven (1939) a work "distinguished by a genuinely poetic gift," and The People From Heaven (1943), which William Carlos Williams regarded as "in some ways the most important book of fiction published here in the last 20 years," was acclaimed by Carl Sandburg as "a sacred book, majestic in its rebukes of those who violate the breath and origin of humanity."
In A Man Without Shoes--meant as a sequel to The People From Heaven--Sanford goes from the level of craft to art. However, the rightward move of major publishers during the McCarthy years forced Sanford to take his manuscript to the late Saul Marks of Los Angeles, whom he regarded as the leading typographer and letterpress printer in North America. Marks, operating the small Plantin Press, accepted it and produced a book so strikingly handsome it begs to be read. It is fetchingly composed on quality paper with sewn signatures and quarter-bound in buckram, easy to open and keep open, unlike the glup of cardboard and glue enclosing the thinnest paper ever seen in public characteristic of so many commercial books nowadays. Sanford was so depressed by the hostile political climate in 1951 when the book emerged, however, that he put the entire printing into storage where it remained until Black Sparrow Press decided to publish it recently--30 years after its birth.
Shoes is the story of the rites of passage of one Dan Johnson in the America of the three decades 1909-1938. Born in New York City to be one of the shoeless, Dan ripens through questioning to defiance, "I mean to complain till I get my shoes or lose my feet." His hack- driver father and gentle mother, marvellously drawn, nurture the growing boy, teach him decency, and try to prepare him for life in an ambiguous time and place. A life where teachers and employers cheat and the underdogs squirm beneath the feet of the topdogs. And where blacks and Jews have it even worse.
After working unavailingly for the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti, Dan travels to California and Florida where he encounters sex, fists, and jail. Returning to New York, he finds work at an employment agency and a wife. But as he discovers America--Sanford garnishes the main plot line with sunny digressions developed from American history and from the applications of job seekers at the employment agency--Dan finds that the sometime love and goodness he meets fail to mitigate the terrible distress permeating Depression-era America. The story ends with Dan deciding not to join the Loyalist cause in Spain but to continue the good fight here at home.
In delineating Dan, Sanford's plot surges along without sag or slack. The prose is a lyrical love affair with words and their arrangement: compared to many writers today, his brilliance is a lantern on a dark lawn of lightning-bugs. His characters are superbly rendered: Dan's friend, Julie Pollard, was "every Negro that started out with big beautiful brown eyes and wound up with a broken back." And here is Dan, that ordinary man wanting to be Lincoln, explaining the class system under capitalism to his wife. "The ruling-class, or bourgeoisie, or bushwa, as us kids used to say, owns all the factories, mines, land, banks, railroads, and utilities. The working- class or proletary-rat, owns an old fish-rod, a phonograph with a dented horn, a dinner-pail, and itself. In between these two classes are the farmers, knife-grinders, tap-dancers, candy- butchers, and employment-agents, but it's the top and bottom that make the class-sandwich: the filling is only something to bite through. Do you follow?"
Since the mid-'70s, Sanford has shucked fiction for idiosyncratic nonfiction marvelous to read and mull. Taking his titles from William Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, he has published a trilogy on American history: A More Goodly Country (1975), View From This Wilderness (1977), and To Feed Their Hopes (1980). They reflect history as it is lived rather than academicized, roving delightfully among Jefferson, Kate Chopin, Lincoln, and Ernest Hemingway ("He'd be big, fast, tough and dumb, like America, and he'd last till his dying day--and before he went he'd take his limit of unicorns, German browns, and you") and hundreds of others. His lively erudition, rollicking humor, and vignette-laced form--recalling Dos Passos' U.S.A. and William Carlos Williams' In The American Grain--instruct as they entertain. Books unique in our literature, they begin by shaking hands and end by exalting.
Though it is doubtful that Sanford will return to the fine fiction that reaches its zenith with Shoes, it hardly matters. Everything he has written has integrity, wholeness, and that secret of his art--as Turgenev said it was of his--love. On past form, whatever the 78-year young Sanford out in Santa Barbara writes in future will continue to embrace these qualities.