March 8, 2003  Los Angeles Times
Regarding Media
Sanford's originality came through to the end

by Tim Rutten:

In his 99th year, John Sanford was such a singular writer that it's
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
"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
The most recent, "A Palace of Silver," which appeared just this month,
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unpublished books "all written in the last four years.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
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
first five years of his marriage to Maggie.

"John also had recently completed a major story called 'Judas and
which is about Martin Berkeley, the informer who named more than 150
[including the Sanfords] before the committee in the 1951 hearings. To
end of his life, John wanted to figure out what was going on in the mind
someone who informed," said Mearns, a professor of psychology at Cal

Sanford, who was born Julian Shapiro in Harlem and trained as a lawyer,
have been the most neglected of serious 20th century American writers.
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
original that it confounded critics and their categories -- probably to
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
up writing -- and change his name -- by his boyhood friend Nate
who would go on to find his own place in the world of letters as
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
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
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
conviction; his new comrades believed the presence of a nonparty member
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
white shopkeeper initiates a wave of racist terror during which he rapes
black woman -- America Smith -- and beats a Native American nearly to
and announces his intention to drive out the town's only Jew. He is
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
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
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
Communist Party."

"John was an extremely angry person," Wald said Thursday. "When that
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

Maggie Sanford left the party in 1947. John Sanford never did. "He never 
repudiated anything important about Communism," said Wald. "He
his political convictions in the 1930s and held on to them for the rest
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


Mearns, Sanford's executor, is hopeful of finding a publisher who will
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
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."

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