Essay/Commentary

Wrestling with America

John Sanford in his home office in Montecito, CA. Circa 1995

Wrestling with America in John Sanford’s The Land that Touches Mine

By Jack Mearns

America appears to be as deeply divided today as it has ever been in at least the last 70 years. Across the political spectrum there is a crisis of mistrust regarding elected officials and government in general. The social climate is suffused with animosity, and a growing segment of the populace seems convinced that success has become a zero-sum game, in which another’s gain can only come at one’s own loss. Asserting individual will, regardless of the harm it may do to others, is now viewed by many as the purest expression of freedom; inconvenience, let alone self-sacrifice, is for suckers. Americans’ identities, as perhaps never before, hinge on magnifying negligible differences and ignoring vast areas of commonality. In today’s manifestation of McCarthyism—cancel culture—ideas are treacherous, and those with opinions that do not conform to some Orwellian right-think must be silenced, shamed and deprived of their livelihoods. Large segments of the citizenry have lost faith that America can offer them a brighter future. The sense of America as a unifying credo is in tatters. In response, some yearn to abandon the country and seek refuge in a more hospitable nation. For Americans racked by such manifold disenchantment and alienation—whether they are literally or only figuratively eyeing the exits—John Sanford’s 1953 novel, The Land that Touches Mine, may provide a surprisingly incisive touchstone in these troubled times.

Surprising because, on the surface, The Land that Touches Mine could be discounted as an artifact. It is a proletarian novel, written—well past the days when such novels were in vogue—in the wake of World War Two and published under the cloud of the McCarthy era Blacklist. Its author remained an unrepentant Communist, whose vision of a Soviet-style egalitarian society was undimmed by revelations of Stalinist purges that led many contemporaries to renounce the Party. Even until his death at age 98 in 2003, Sanford held fast to his lament that America’s ascendancy has been tarnished by the inequities between rich and poor, between the ruling class and the ruled. But only one who genuinely subscribed to the promise of America could deplore so deeply the country’s failure to fulfill its covenant with its citizens.

In The Land that Touches Mine, Stan Clarke—an Army deserter—grapples with profound ambivalence about America. On the one hand, Clarke embraces the ideal of America. On the other hand, he feels abashed by how far America has fallen short of its founding principles, and by the weight of cruelty America has unleashed on the unfortunate in the name of progress. In Clarke’s eyes, America’s moral failure has diminished the nation of his birth:

The wonder of the world, they called us, the blazing blinding wonder, but are we the wonder now or only a photograph of the sun? No square mile we began with is missing, no river, no plain, no inch of coast-line, no fine word we spoke kneeling alone or standing before all, and what we had was fruitful, and it multiplied—the square miles, the rivers, the words, the riches—and in time we came to own the earth and all that the earth contained, and still hungering much, we lost much more, for what are we profited if we gain the whole world and lose its people? Vaster now than ever, stronger, flashier, louder, even so we’ve dwindled in their eyes, and they say, “Beware of those who started with slogans and ended with ads. Beware of those conceived in liberty and dedicated to dividends. Beware of Christers bearing merchandise.”

Clarke is caught in a dilemma: he cannot surrender himself to serving an America he has no faith in; yet neither can he abandon it.

The Land that Touches Mine had its origin during World War Two, when Sanford gave a lift to a hitchhiking soldier whose hand was swaddled in bandages. Afterward, Sanford wondered: what if that bandage was a sham; what if that soldier was a deserter? This brief encounter seeded Land, which follows Stan Clarke’s journey, on the run from both the law and his own conscience. The second source of the novel was a newspaper story Sanford had come across about orphaned brothers who were pitted against each other in a footrace, the winner of which would be adopted. By giving Stan Clarke this backstory, Sanford made The Land that Touches Mine a tale about a deserter who, on a personal level, had been deserted himself—first by his mother, then his father, and finally his brother. On a broader level, Clarke feels deserted by his homeland.

The choice of an orphan protagonist echoes Sanford’s own childhood. As the first-born, he was doted on by his mother. However, after an extended illness his mother died when Sanford was ten years old. Afterward, his mother’s relatives battled his father for the boy’s loyalty and affection. This family conflict left Sanford feeling estranged and homeless. It is also telling that Sanford made Clarke a defrocked teacher of history, as Sanford had a lifelong fascination with the subject. One of the few possessions he retained from childhood was a gift from his mother, R. S. Ewing’s 1903 children’s book, Patriotic America. Sanford would grow up to be an author consumed with history. Starting with his first book, 1933’s The Water Wheel, Sanford wove historical interludes into his novels. Over time, these historical elements dominated his writing. 

The Land that Touches Mine begins with a free verse passage about the Pilgrims’ spilling “savage blood” on the beach during their first hour ashore. That fundamental, internecine competition adumbrates Clarke’s being pitted against his brother in their race for adoption. Sanford roots this brother-versus-brother contest in the American grain. As the adoptive father—who will take just one boy home—puts it,

So when I say I’m leaving the choice to you, I mean you both want what only one of you can have, a situation that this life specializes in, and to put it as plain as I can, one of you simply has to beat the other out of it. It’s brother against brother for real this time, but what’s the history of all the world if not brother against brother under different names? The strong ones win from the weak, the smart from the foolish, the losers are always brothers. I hate to teach you such a terrible lesson, but it’s only what I found out myself through bitter experience…. Here’s how another winner and another loser will be added to the list.

Clarke is haunted by the disappearance of his brother, who never stopped running after losing the race. And since that day, Stan Clarke also has never stopped running.

In The Land that Touches Mine, we find Stan on the run from the war. Is he running out of fear—exemplified by his bandaged hand, a white badge of cowardice–or based on principle? He yearns to break free from the burden of a shameful history–both his own and the nation’s. Clarke hates what America has come to represent: “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 ultimately permit himself to slip across the border to freedom in Mexico? Or will he stay, 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.”

Expatriation was also a preoccupation in Sanford’s writing from the beginning. In The Water Wheel, the protagonist flees New York for England, vowing never to come back. He thinks, “Christ, how I hate this country.  Im going to leave it some day. Im sick of it, the people, the ways, the noise. I hate it. I mean the cities. Ill blow one of these days. I feel it coming on. Ive felt it for months.” He envies Philip Nolan, the Man without a Country, whose expulsion for cursing America Sanford dramatized in a lengthy pastiche. But The Water Wheel’s protagonist finds he cannot stay away from his motherland; he returns.

In addition to the precedents The Land that Touches Mine builds on in the author’s youth, it is fascinating how the novel, written in the late 1940s, before the Blacklist, would so accurately presage the author’s own crisis over whether to repudiate the America that banished him. Just as Stan Clarke is fired from his teaching job for propounding a version of history that questions the benign national myth extolled by the mainstream, Sanford found himself shunned for his vehement dissent from American orthodoxy. But, like The Water Wheel’s protagonist, Sanford could not turn his back on America despite its pernicious legacy. If Sanford was to better this country, he would have to do so from within it.

In addition to history, landscape and climate dominate The Land that Touches Mine. Sanford imprisons Clarke’s psychic stasis in a straitjacket of environment; the combination paralyzes him. In a foreshadowing of 2020, when weather-driven disasters imperil Americans on an unprecedented scale, Clarke finds himself in the purgatorial desert town of El Centro—”where God gets His spare parts for hell.” He arrives during its Hundred Days, the months-long summer stretch when the thermometer daily tops 100 degrees. The oppressive heat is like a malign figure of authority, as described by the war widow whose life becomes entwined with Clarke’s, Eugenia Bell:

We get ready to fry by shedding our clothes. First your slip goes, then your brassiere, then your drawers and stockings, then your jewelry, the junk and the wedding-ring, and finally even your hairpins and your make-up, and you go about in sandals and the sheerest dress you own, and nothing else. For a couple of days , you try and remember not to stand between a man and the sun, but with your blood thinned out to a kind of gas, you’re light in the head, and it’s just too much work to worry, and then you don’t care any more where you stand, and you stand where you happen to be standing, and if any bastard’s horny enough to look through you, you let him look and cook to an ash. It’s a free show for a hundred days, but that’s all it is, is a show, because if any hot-ike ever laid a hand on you, you’d ram a nail-file in his eye. You sweat when you move, you sweat when you sit still, you sweat when you sleep, when you eat, when you only breathe in and breathe out, and to have a man put himself against you, to have him kiss you and lay with you, even only to think about it, it’s enough to make you think you ran out of sweat, and you were starting to sweat blood.

The palpable heat is an inescapable hand that restrains and manhandles the characters. Coincidentally, today El Centro has the dubious distinction of being the U.S. city worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with the highest per capita incidence of COVID-19 infections.

Though Sanford had never been to El Centro himself, he absorbed the town’s climate from tales told him by his wife, the screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, who lived there briefly after leaving home in Colorado. Sanford had met Roberts at Paramount Studios—both of them having made exceptional journeys to arrive in the glamorous oasis of Depression-era Hollywood. Paramount had brought Sanford from his native New York City on the basis of his second novel, The Old Man’s Place, a gritty, violent tale that drew favorable comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell and James M. Cain. On the book’s dust jacket, Sanford had described his aim as to create a novel “as American as [Mathew] Brady’s pictures.”

Sanford’s tenure as a scriptwriter at Paramount was undistinguished. He received no screen credits and was let go after his contract year was up. However, his union with “Maggie” Roberts, whom he would marry two years later, lasted over fifty years. Roberts would soon become one of the industry’s highest paid screenwriters at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, penning scripts for the studio’s A-list stars. She was also Sanford’s staunchest patron. Through Roberts’ generosity, Sanford was freed from the constraint most authors face: having to sell books to make a living. He was able to write whatever he pleased.

During the late ’30s, Sanford was recruited to join the Hollywood wing of the Communist Party. Soon, the Sanfords’ social life was dominated by this affiliation—gatherings at members’ houses, trips to the beach. But Party officials told Sanford that his wife, as an outsider, was a threat: she would either have to join or else be excluded from Party events. Though apolitical, Roberts chose to join. “I want to be with you,” Sanford recalled her saying. Sanford did not stop her—much to his later regret—because, if he truly believed in the Cause, shouldn’t he risk everything for it, including his own wife? Even though Roberts shortly broke with the Party—disenchanted with the petty greed and squabbles of the comrades—her brief membership would cost her dearly when the Blacklist was imposed.

For his C.P. membership card, Sanford picked the nom de guerre Starry Vere, the captain from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. The choice reveals Sanford’s affinity for a Vere-like intransigence. Vere says of his duty to condemn the beloved sailor Billy: “However pitilessly that law may operate, we nevertheless adhere to it and administer it…let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool…private conscience should…yield to that imperial one.” When world events led many comrades to break ranks—like Stalin’s purges or the Hitler-Stalin pact—Sanford redoubled his dedication to the Party. Even through personal humiliations—like being demoted to the Party’s housewives’ group, because he was not a working screenwriter—Sanford remained loyal.

Sanford’s third book, Seventy Times Seven, was already under way by the time he joined the Party. As a consequence, its themes are more ethical than political. In the novel, one winter morning a man finds that the rival of his youth has crawled into his barn for shelter and is now freezing to death. The man lets the rival die. The book plumbs the question of how much responsibility one has for one’s fellow man. And it roots the protagonist’s callous neglect not only in the personal history shared by the two men but also in the history of the United States. For it is in the brutal national legacy that Sanford finds the ultimate source of Americans’ individual cruelty.

In Seventy Times Seven, Sanford achieved what would become his signature style, interspersing amidst his fiction episodes from American history. He would later refer to these pieces as giving the color of the air, the context in which the narrative plays out. In Sanford’s next two books, his preoccupation with history blended with his politics, with incendiary results. Even the Communist Party found 1943’s The People from Heaven too revolutionary. They tried to suppress the novel, fearing it would incite a premature racial revolt. And 1951’s A Man without Shoes was so radical that Sanford was forced to print it himself. It was only by a stroke of luck that The Land that Touches Mine was published.

The search for a publisher for The Land that Touches Mine is intimately tied to Sanford’s fruitless quest to place A Man without ShoesShoes had initially been accepted by Reynal and Hitchcock. However, following World War Two, the book no longer fit the house’s conservative drift. Sanford shopped Land and Shoes around New York until they were both accepted by Appleton-Century in 1950 on his second submission there. But his rejoicing would be short-lived when, days later, the Korean War broke out and the publisher could no longer expect a readership for one book that espoused Marxist economics and another about a turncoat. Appleton voided the contract.

In 1951, Sanford and Roberts were subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Los Angeles. In this U.S. incarnation of the Moscow show-trial, political apostates were compelled to admit their crime—holding beliefs that the Constitution guaranteed their right to profess. Sanford took the Fifth Amendment when asked about his affiliations. Roberts asserted that she was not currently a member of the Communist Party but took the Fifth when asked if she had ever been. Both refused to name names. Both were blacklisted. For Sanford, the Blacklist had no practical effect. But for Roberts the consequences were immense. She had just signed a five-year deal with M-G-M. Reluctantly, the studio let her go. After more than ten years as a contract writer at Metro, Roberts would spend the next ten years unable to ply her craft, until she was hired by Columbia in 1961.

Following the Sanfords’ blacklisting, they immediately left for Europe, fearing their passports would be confiscated if they delayed. The couple joylessly toured the Continent and then took an apartment in London, where Maggie attempted to find film work through expatriated Party members from Hollywood. Soon it became clear that, while other American screenwriters got assignments, Roberts was being blackballed. Dejected, the Sanfords returned to the States, where they endured a decade of dire internal exile, in what Sanford has described as a 3,000-mile prison without walls.

There was one positive result of the Europe trip, though. Sanford had brought with him the manuscript of The Land that Touches Mine, which he submitted to Jonathan Cape. Sanford recalled Mr. Cape, himself, telling him, “We’ll do your book, my boy!” Days later, the head of Doubleday saw Land on Cape’s desk, and Cape persuaded him to issue the novel in the United States. Land remains the only Sanford title published outside the U.S., as well as the only one to go into a second printing.

Over eight decades, John Sanford published books he hoped would spur America to become a more perfect union. Along the way, he exhausted the novel as a medium. More and more had his fiction turned to teachers and preachers as surrogates to hector readers with lectures and sermons. Finally in 1967, at the age of 63, Sanford embarked on his second career, as a writer of non-fiction. It was in this work that he found his true voice, or rather voices, in which he could instruct by fable, by parable, by brief dramatic monologue. Sanford penned a quartet of personal interpretations of American history, followed by his superb five-volume autobiography, Scenes from the Life of an American Jew. In these books, Sanford wove himself into the fabric of the country.

Beyond its obsession with history and politics, Sanford’s writing is noteworthy because of its dynamic beauty. Sanford rarely used simile. Rather, he preferred the directness and power of metaphor. Hardly a page goes by without the reader’s being arrested by an unconventional combination of words that amplifies the evocativeness of a figure: “swirling sleaves of steam,” with its repeated sibilance, is from The Color of the Air. In The People from Heaven, we find a character pointing “the black accusation of a gun.” The free range Sanford gave himself in his use of language is dazzling.

Still, Sanford’s work is accessible. He wrote directly and without convolution. There is a pure brilliance to Sanford’s writing; it sparkles with the clean lines of a gem. It is with such beauty that the narrative of The Land that Touches Mine begins:

On the steep instep of the Santa Lucia Range, between California 1 and the Pacific, lay an abandoned farm, of which all that remained was a wracked and rotten hay-barn, a sway-backed cave-in long peeled bare by chloride fog and the wind: whatever else had once been wood nailed foursquare with the world stood knee-high now in mounds of gangrened punk. The fields had been redeemed by sage, and the volunteer grain still grown by the rains yielded to the meadow-mouse and the vole and such other vermin as had survived the stalks of sparrow-hawks and Swainsons. Always the iodine savor of kelp rose and rolled in from the swash-buckling surf, and with it often came the thin dim cry (pinwheel! pinwheel!) of gulls.

John Sanford’s The Land that Touches Mine captures both a specific place and time in mid-20th century California and the broader scope of American history. It shows how the present, personal moment can inextricably entwine with the nation’s past. In our current deeply divided times, Land should reverberate with those who believe in the prospects of America but find themselves disenchanted with the nation that is their home. 

The foment and uncertainty that the United States grapples with today are not new. Rather they are the fruition of a tumultuous past. The Land that Touches Mine engages America’s unsavory history with the dilemma: do I abandon the country, or do I persevere in an attempt to make it a better place to live? Land wrestles with these themes beautifully, powerfully. Ultimately Sanford—the harsh critic who defied efforts by both right and left to muzzle him—harbors hope that, through dedication to community and mutuality, America’s promise can be fulfilled. In this way, The Land that Touches Mine remains relevant nearly 70 years after its publication; it deserves to be read again.

Note.: The Land that Touches Mine is, unfortunately, out of print. However, many of John Sanford’s books can be bought. These include his first novel, The Water Wheel, which was republished by Tough Poets in 2020. The People from Heaven is available in the University of Illinois’s Radical Novel Reconsidered series. Sanford’s five-volume autobiography and his most searing historical book, The Winters of that Country, are sold by Godine. In the coming months, Tough Poets will publish a selection of Sanford’s letters entitled Speaking in an Empty Room. Finally, three Sanford volumes are available as e-books in the Bloomsbury Reader: the novel A Man without Shoes and two memoirs, Maggie: A Love Story and A Palace of Silver, published shortly before his death

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For more information about John Sanford’s life and work, visit his webpage: http://psych.fullerton.edu/jmearns/sanford.htm.

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

First edition Cover, Doubleday, 1953

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