The Burden of History in John Sanford’s “Make My Bed in Hell” and “The Land that Touches Mine”

September 22, 2021   •   By Jack Mearns

TODAY AMERICANS ARE grappling with the legacy of the nation’s past — reexamining the stories they have been told and have told themselves that form the foundational beliefs on which the country stands. The growing movements of critical race theory and decolonizing American history debunk the nation’s anodyne myths of a united people fulfilling their manifest destiny to spread democracy across North America and the world. Like doctors examining a gangrenous leg, Americans of conscience are trying to distinguish what can be saved from what is so rotten it must be excised to preserve the rest.


Two reissued novels by John Sanford (1904–2003) are especially poised to resonate with the current struggle over American identity: 1939’s Make My Bed in Hell and 1953’s The Land that Touches Mine. Both novels portray the burden of US history on individuals and their relationships with others and their community. Both books contend that no American — certainly no American of European heritage — is free of the stain of the original sins of conquest and enslavement that established the nation. Beyond their provocative themes, these novels also showcase Sanford’s writing at its best, as he combines multiple narrative voices with prose that won favorable comparisons to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.


From the start of his career, Sanford was a novelist obsessed with history. His fiction asserts that the present is never separate from the events, both personal and national, that birthed it. In his novels, Sanford interleaves historical passages within the contemporary plot. In Make My Bed in Hell, this takes the form of 20 pages of blank verse depicting national violence, mostly against indigenous peoples. In The Land that Touches Mine, Sanford introduces each chapter with a brief poem depicting wrongs committed in the national interest, starting with the Pilgrims’ drawing “savage blood” in their first hour ashore.


Sanford wrote at a time when the nation’s history was largely the province of boosterism. His books were gauntlets flung in the face of this traditional, wholesome view of America; not surprisingly, his radical reappraisal of the nation failed to win him readership. As Sanford said of a later book, A More Goodly Country, a volume entirely comprising personal interpretations of American history, “It was, and it is, an unrelenting and accusatory book. No one who values his country can find its charges easy to bear — and yet I value my country too, and the book was written only to make it better.” These words aptly apply, as well, to his reissued novels.


For those Americans deeply indoctrinated in the national mythos, such unrelenting accusations were anathema. Yet, throughout his career Sanford refused to temper the vehemence of his reforming vision, even if it meant alienating publishers and all but the most intrepid readers. Sanford’s intransigence led him to become, according to The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, “perhaps the most outstanding neglected novelist” in America. With the republication of Sanford’s long-out-of-print fiction, the reading public can finally rectify this neglect.


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John Sanford was born Julian Shapiro in 1904 in Harlem, New York, to a father who had immigrated from Russia and a mother raised in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. By Sanford’s birth, the family had prospered thanks to his father’s successful legal career. But financial setbacks and his mother’s death when Sanford was 10 unsettled the remainder of his childhood.


Eventually, Sanford decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, enrolling in law school. But a chance encounter with an acquaintance from his Harlem youth forever altered the course of Sanford’s life, when the man — born Nathan Weinstein, now calling himself Nathanael West — told Sanford, “I’m writing a book.” The idea of writing a book became the polestar guiding Sanford’s life. West’s influence on Sanford was profound, as West tutored his new acolyte in art and literature. In 1931, the two rented a hunting cabin in the Adirondacks for the summer, where West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts and Sanford labored on his first book, The Water Wheel (1933; reissued 2020 by Tough Poets).


Sanford’s next novel was 1935’s The Old Man’s Place (reissued 2021 by Brash Books), the first of three set in a fictionalized Warrensburg, New York, a hamlet near the rented lodge. The Old Man’s Place is the polar opposite of The Water Wheel — its plot thick with bloody mayhem, its prose lean. Though the book was written with sales in mind, The Old Man’s Place begins Sanford’s process of boring into the American psyche to find the violence lurking beneath the nation’s pastoral surface. In the words of New York Times reviewer John Chamberlain, Sanford successfully captures “the occasional flaring of brutality of the American character.”


The Old Man’s Place’s gritty realism brought Sanford to the attention of Hollywood: Paramount offered him a screenwriting contract. Sanford arrived in Los Angeles in 1936 in the depths of the Great Depression amid labor unrest across the country, including the screenwriters’ drive to unionize. His tenure at Paramount lasted only a year and produced no script that made it to the screen. However, there he met Marguerite Roberts, an up-and-coming-screenwriter; the two would marry in 1938.


Sanford had begun his third novel in New York but completed it in Los Angeles. It was originally titled Seventy Times Seven (1939; reissued 2021 by Brash Books as Make My Bed in Hell). Its protagonist is Aaron Platt, a Warrensburg farmer who survived a brutal childhood. The novel begins one bitter winter morning, when Platt finds footprints in the snow leading to his barn. There he discovers a man freezing to death in a horse stall, but Platt is unmoved by the intruder’s plight.


Sanford weaves together multiple narrative voices: Platt’s matter-of-fact description of present events, the intruder’s delirious memories of his past, and testimony from an inquest about whether to charge Platt over his failure to render aid. We learn the intruder is Tom Paulhan, Platt’s childhood nemesis. While Platt has broken his back trying to eke a living out of the rocky fields he has inherited, Paulhan has lived the carefree life of a vagabond. Paulhan has abandoned his wife — the woman of Platt’s dreams — who has become the town whore. When called upon to explain his callous indifference to Paulhan’s plight, Platt decries the unfairness of “him playing and me working”; Paulhan “had everything I ever wanted, and look what he went and done with it.” Why should Platt not let Paulhan die?


Read simply as a small-town clash between rivals, Make My Bed in Hell is finely crafted and compelling. However, Sanford brings the narrative to a higher plane by inserting late in the book a blank verse historical passage, mostly depicting violence against the indigenous populace. This roots the farmer’s willful neglect in the ravages Europeans have inflicted on the continent since their first arrival, spoiling a pristine, idyllic wilderness. The burden of the past is inescapable: the denizens of Warrensburg are “knee deep in history” in the blood that “fill[s] the open sewer of America.” Sanford suggests Warrensburg’s small-town folk are doomed to live out the legacy not only of their own fathers but of the generations of plunderers and enslavers from which white America has descended.


When Make My Bed in Hell appeared, some reviewers were revolted by its brutality. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “An unusual book with some pieces of brilliant writing, but also with some of the most bestial and flamboyantly crude passages ever encountered on the printed page, exceeding Celine and Faulkner in depravity and language. […] A ruthless, repellant book.” Other reviewers lauded Make My Bed in Hell, despite its harrowing nature. The Los Angeles Times expressed particular appreciation for the historic section: “[Sanford] tried to get the whole of America into a brief, fast book of less than 200 pages, and those pages terse. […] Sanford has injected the drama of spilled blood that made America […] [in] a long blank-verse section of tremendous power.” The New York Times wrote: “The prose is fresh and energetic, the story-telling superb, and the writing comes out raw and terrifying as an exposed nerve. […] This novel stands high as a piece of realistic writing […] [with] stylistic variety that few authors now writing can manage.”


In his Warrensburg books, Sanford instinctively grasped that the best way to address national themes was through an intimate and unflinching focus on life at the local level, confirming his mentor William Carlos Williams’s adage: “The local is the only thing that is universal.” This exploration of the broad scope of America through minute examination of a particular locale or incident became a defining aspect of Sanford’s career.


While writing Make My Bed in Hell, Sanford joined the Communist Party. English literature professor Alan Wald notes that Sanford was not a deep thinker politically: “His was not a textbook Marxism, but a Marxism of a general character […] an identification with an underdog against the oppressor.” The humanism — outrage about the abused and disadvantaged — that attracted Sanford to the Party is on display in Make My Bed in Hell. However, Make My Bed in Hell remains free of the explicit communist ideology that would make his subsequent novels more overtly political, sometimes at the expense of their success as fiction.


In 1943, Harcourt, Brace published the final installment of the Warrensburg trilogy, The People from Heaven (reissued 1995 by University of Illinois). In this novel, Sanford introduces each chapter with historical verse that lays bare the evils of racial hatred transported to America’s shores — including Columbus’s voyage, the importation of enslaved Africans by the Dutch, and Europeans’ persecution of native peoples. The novel’s contemporary narrative is also rife with racism, as a mute Black woman arrives, is raped, and then kills her white assailant.


The year 1943 saw a wave of racial unrest in America, including race riots across the country. In this precarious racial climate, even the Communist Party attempted to suppress The People from Heaven, seeing it as a too-radical call to violence in response to violence. They branded the book “anti-social,” fearing it would inspire Blacks to revolt — a premature uprising doomed to failure. Sanford rebuffed all calls to tone down his inflammatory work.


Sanford’s follow-up was A Man without Shoes (1951; available as an ebook), the most panoramic of his fiction. In it, Sanford strove both to tell the story of all Americans through the life of one man and to depict the entirety of the nation through its history and geography. Despite many sublime passages, ultimately A Man without Shoes stumbles as a novel, as Sanford’s politics overwhelm the narrative. He uses his characters to harangue the reader, including pages of the protagonist’s recounting the lectures on Marxist economics he attends. Still, Harcourt offered to publish A Man without Shoes, if Sanford would moderate its radical politics; he refused.


While A Man without Shoes was being rejected by publisher after publisher in New York, Sanford undertook a new novel. Initially titled The Bandage, it had its origin when Sanford gave a ride to a hitchhiking soldier whose hand was swaddled in gauze. Afterward, Sanford wondered: what if the bandage was a sham, the soldier was a deserter? The Land that Touches Mine (1953; reissued 2021 by Tough Poets) portrays deserter Stan Clarke’s flight — from the law, from his own conscience, and from the burden of the nation’s history.


Continuing his theme from Make My Bed in Hell, Sanford portrays Clarke as compelled to desert by America’s shameful past: “This country is heavy laden with its own ruination. […] It’s sick and sore all over, it’s dead in some spots and dying in the rest, and it ought to be wheezing its last in some ditch instead of bellowing about a liberty it gives only to the rich and the son of a bitch.” Will Clarke permit himself to slip across the border to freedom in Mexico? Or will he remain, even if remaining costs him his liberty? Sanford writes: “The harpoons of history were in him to stay. No place on earth, neither here nor at a distance, offered escape, and to seek it further, by a mile or by miles in the thousands, would be to flee fire only to freeze.”


Clarke is a history teacher fired for questioning the benign national myth extolled by the mainstream — “the same lies that other liars taught me.” It is no stretch to see Sanford’s identification with Clarke while A Man without Shoes was repeatedly turned down by the publishing establishment over its unrelenting dissent from American orthodoxy. Another fascinating aspect of The Land that Touches Mine is how acutely it anticipates the author’s own crisis over whether to repudiate the country that would soon banish him.


In 1951, Sanford and Roberts were subpoenaed by the House Committee on un-American Activities. Both refused to name names and were blacklisted. The blacklist had little practical effect on Sanford as a novelist. However, Roberts had just signed a five-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making her one of Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters. MGM reluctantly annulled the deal, barring Roberts from her beloved profession. Fearing that their passports would imminently be seized, the Sanfords departed for Europe, where Roberts sought scriptwriting work in England. However, while other expatriate Americans got assignments, it soon became clear Roberts was being blackballed. Dispirited, the couple returned the US to endure a 10-year internment in what Sanford described as a three-thousand-mile prison without walls.


Though not explicitly autobiographical, The Land that Touches Mine is Sanford’s most personal novel. Its protagonist grapples with extreme self-examination: “You have to pick away at yourself till you find the thread that unravels you.” Sanford symbolizes abrading the superficial layers of the self in the soldier’s removing the bandage that conceals his true identity: “He stripped [it] away quickly, dropping whorling yards of it on the floor before his hand came wholly exposed.”


Ultimately, The Land that Touches Mine examines the fictional selves that people create. In his peeling away Stan Clarke, one can also imagine the author’s fathoming how valid was his own transformation from New York Jew Julian Shapiro into Californian John Sanford. Likewise, if idealized “America” is sheared away, what of substance will be left beneath that fabrication?


Heightening Land’s meditation on identity, Sanford splits the narrative voice between the dominant third-person depiction of Clarke’s present and portraying his past with italicized flashbacks, set off by brackets, in the second person — you. Sanford would later use the second person to great effect as the narrative voice of his autobiography, evoking the sense that beneath the self we present to the world is another we conceal — perhaps even from ourselves — who is not “I” but “you.”


One positive outcome of the dolorous Europe sojourn was that The Land that Touches Mine was accepted by British publisher Jonathan Cape. Tom Dardis reports that Cape believed Land “rivalled Hemingway and Faulkner in its command of narrative technique and beauty of language”; later, Cape “dared” Doubleday to publish the book in the United States. When The Land that Touches Mine came out, The New York Times lauded the book’s “muscular and economic prose,” stating that “John Sanford makes a powerful bid for top billing in current fiction [with this] poetic, tragically intense tale.” In the United Kingdom, The New Statesman likened the book to William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The Irish Times wrote: “One is swept away by the emotional and imaginative accuracy of [the] prose. […] [Sanford’s] dialogue has a cutting edge and a flash of poetry’s gunpowder. What a pleasure it is to encounter a writer who is born to his trade and handles words as though they are fresh and new!”


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When the blacklist ended, Sanford would publish two more novels, before embarking on writing nonfiction after Roberts speculated about what his novels would be like “without the novel.” In an explosion of creativity, Sanford animated scores of famous and lesser-known historical folk in verse, vignette, and parable. These personal interpretations of American history span from 1975’s A More Goodly Country to 1997’s Intruders in Paradise. Historian Eric Foner argued, “Sanford possesses qualities unusual even among [professional historians]: an eye for the telling detail or incident that opens up an entire world of meaning, an ability to plumb the inner thoughts and emotions of figures in the past and a genuine concern for society’s outcasts and underdogs.”


Despite toiling in obscurity, Sanford maintained the fierceness of his creative vision and continued writing until shortly before his death at age 98 in 2003. He won a PEN award for the first installment of his superb five-volume autobiography, Scenes from the Life of an American Jew (available from Godine), as well as the Los Angeles Times’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Just before his death, the L.A. Times called Sanford “an authentic hero of American letters.”


Across his 24-book career, Sanford probed the inescapable shadow cast by America’s history of injustice. From Make My Bed in Hell to The Land that Touches Mine, we see the arc of Sanford’s wrestling with America’s bitter legacy. As an author with “the harpoons of history […] in him to stay,” Sanford was decades ahead of his time. With the reissue of his classic fiction, current readers can draw inspiration from Sanford’s blistering examination of the outrages of America’s past.


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If you’re interested in reading more about John Sanford, then you might also like Speaking in an Empty Room: The Selected Letters of John Sanford (Tough Poets, 2021).


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Jack Mearns is a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton. He authored John Sanford: An Annotated Bibliography (Oak Knoll, 2008).