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The People from Heaven / John Sanford

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 TownWinesburg, 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.”

“faunching,”

“feeling kind of loppy,” ”

snuzzling”

“meeching”

“extravasate”

“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.

 

3 Poems / Tom Evans

Poem on a Flower

My flower was laden with dew,
so pink, so moist, and open;
Like lips that are parted in two,
her center, her tongue, was golden.

And crossed by green blades of grass,
formed in a triumphal arch;
Through which some great man could pass,
or some great army march.

The Anvil

Forging the malleable soul,
glint of future,
bellowing past;
Stoking the white hot coal,
’til it rings of truth
at last.

While the heart brings forth life,
red and rife.

The Journey

Longer days may be
when summer comes around,
but the little boy must journey
and has not reached the town.
When he is all grown
where will he be found?

The way is full of turnings
the stars have still not shown,
through winter’s blast
and summer’s burning
will he remain alone-
and never find his home?

“Hope Springs” / a poem by Tom Evans

A day in early March,

the melting snow running in rivulets

down a gully along Reist Street,

(next to the cemetery),

the steam rising off wet portions of the road

as the sun evaporated the water.

A harbinger of spring, it was a sight

we awaited each year after the landlocked winter.

Walking to church, we

lingered as long as we could,

almost expecting a tadpole to

emerge from the pebbled, silty bottom.

(Even if it meant being late for church

we wouldn’t have wanted to miss that.)

It was spring wasn’t it,

the street finally bared dry,

errant green shoots along the

bank ready to unfold,

a crocus poking up here and there-

anything could happen.

The water clear and cold,

scent of wet cement, wormy soil,

and warmth in the air-

anything seemed possible.

But it wasn’t to be, and turning away,

we began the wait for next year.

Confessions of a Neophyte / Stories by Tom Evans

FYI to anyone interested, I wanted to announce that I have gone the self-publishing route, using Kindle Direct Publishing. The above-titled collection contains 6 stories, 2 or 3 of which I’ve already posted here. My intention is to add more to the collection as they arrive. Disclaimer: there is a nominal fee of $1, but I’d be glad to send anyone free review copies if they’d like one. Just let me know. And if by a miracle anyone should actually decide to purchase a copy I’d appreciate it if you’d leave some comments or rate the book, as this will help move it up the ranks, and, believe me, it’ll need all the help it can get to do so. I’m still not sure how this all works but I believe you can find it if you search Amazon or Kindle under the title or author. If I find a more direct way to provide access I will post what I presume will be some sort of link here. The formatting isn’t that great but until I can get that figured out it looks much better in landscape. As always, thanks in advance for your response, etc. etc.

this link will show you a preview of the book: https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B01M98NKOK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9Y5-xbD56BR5C

“Blues for Mississippi John Hurt” / a poem by Tom Evans

John Hurt walked down a dusty track

with a knapsack on his back;

Taking his time, whistling and singing,

he warn’t in no hurry.

He would pause, set down a spell,

to have a smoke and ruminate.

 

John took hisself some time off,

he was gone for a month or so.

It was good to be out in the open air, he felt,

kicking up the dust, listening to the insects humming.

He welcomed the breeze, he doffed his hat

to the liquid gold sun, to the railroad men,

in awe under the iron-blue sky.

 

He mopped his brow, rejoiced and continued on.

 

He thought about the boys back home, of the women,

yet nothing beat being out here alone:

‘A man’s got to roam, to roam,’

Got to walk his troubles away,

Got to keep walking down that lonesome road,

Till it takes him far away.’

©Tom Evans, 2016

“Bottles and Books” / A Story by Tom Evans

The young man began working in the college library that fall. Arriving early for work on his first day, he went upstairs and checked out the literature section, as was his custom in libraries and they were all there. First, the Americans: Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne. Next, the Russians: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol. Not one of their books were missing, either, they were all there. Others he would discover later. To change things up a bit, he settled for a book about T.S. Eliot, The Invisible Poet, by Hugh Kenner. So began his career as a reference librarian.

One particular day the young man began to inhabit the bodies of the patrons he served. A young woman came to the desk and spoke to him and he realized it was himself speaking. An older man came to the desk and began writing on a piece of paper and the young man realized it was his own handwriting. One patron paused at the desk to peruse a book he had just borrowed and the young man realized it was he reading the book, and further, he had written the book. It was as if no one else had spoken, written, or read a word that day.

Well, the day had a very musical quality about it. Yes, it was like a great piece of music, a vast symphony to which he was waltzing with several beautiful partners. There was warmth and sound and touch and taste all around and he was a fibre woven through a beautifully wrought tapestry.

Until he ended up in a bar where his attendance record was perfect. His composure was gone as he walked in out of the cold. He began to regain it little by little as he looked at all the bottles lined up behind the bar. No one is going anywhere tonight, he thought. There is plenty to drink and even some food should I want it and everyone is here and no one is going anywhere. He took comfort in this, in the beautiful bottles with their brightly colored labels, in looking out the steamed up windows of the bar, where he could just see the billowing snow, and the cars crawling through the snow furrowed streets.

The jukebox was playing a favorite song, one he’d often played over and over himself, the archetypal rock ballad, with its maudlin lyrics backed by ass-kicking music. Many thoughts came to him, some from the sad past, some about the null future, mostly impinged upon by those of the horrible present. His head began to ache and that familiar scared, nauseous feeling swept over him…the golden girl from the west who turned out to be unfeeling and unfaithful…

The old man sitting next to him was rambling on about the old days, waving his cigar like a conductor a baton, how this very ground upon which the bar stood, all the way to the University, was open field, where he and his friends had played every day as kids. He didn’t seem sad about it, strangely. I know you, old man, with all your talk of bachelorhood and lechery, you must be lonely in your old age, though you would never admit it. You’ve told me this story many times, but you have a good heart and I suppose I can humor you and make the usual replies…his father, of his death and how he hadn’t been there when he died, through unforgiveable willfulness…

He saw a man with a beautiful face sitting at the bar, it was the face of a long-lost friend, a brother, a lover. He realized he had known this face all his life (even longer), yet it had no name unless he remembered it. Of course when the face spotted him and asked what he was staring at the young man was devastated because he didn’t know the face at all, it could be anyone…his abusive childhood, the foster homes prior to that, who were his parents…

He looked around the bar and saw the collage of faces and bottles. Books have titles, bottles have labels, people have faces. Bottles and books, he thought ruefully, I know bottles and books. He left soon after that, and, out in the cold night, drunk and in tears, he noticed how bright the sky had become, a false dawn. He promised to do better, to somehow put his life (such as it was) back together, and made his way to where he slept.

A year later, after things began to work themselves out (as they will), the young man was walking home from work late one autumn evening, and when he saw his sky-blue house nestled in the leaves in the distance, he thought, with a start: They haven’t found me out yet? When I began paying my bills again I thought they must. I am a well-oiled cog in the system, able to survive at last, and a lot of energy emanates from my little house.

What he really thought was: Is this my house, is this my life?

 

THE END

©Tom Evans 2016