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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 143-147


By Scott Russell Sanders

North Point Press, 2006.

336 pages, cloth, $24.00

by Robert L. Root, Jr.

In The Country of Language Scott Russell Sanders declares, "I enter the country of language not to escape the chancy world that precedes and surrounds all language, but to ponder that world, to hold up portions of it for examination, to decipher its patterns and celebrate its wonders." It's as succinct a mission statement for an essayist—and, for that matter, for the role of the essayist in general—as any I know, and it encapsulates the defining characteristics of Sanders's own essays: the conscientiousness of his exploration of his life and his world, his insistence on reaching as thorough an understanding of his subject as he can, the integrity of the conclusions he reaches, and the revelations they produce about the forces at play on him and his family and his environment. The honesty of his essays and the urgency of their probing have only increased over the years.

As a memoir, his new book, A Private History of Awe, in some ways coalesces material gathered in collections beginning with The Paradise of Bombs (1987) and running through The Force of Spirit (2000). Characters and incidents familiar to readers of such essays as "The Inheritance of Tools," "At Play in the Paradise of Bombs," "Cloud Crossing," "The Men We Carry in Our Minds," "Under the Influence," "Reasons of the Body," "After the Flood," "Wayland," and "Buckeye," to name the most frequently anthologized examples, reemerge in this major narrative with all their threads of connection established, rather than implied, and still fresh in the telling, as if they hadn't been recounted before. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is its ability to be equally engaging and enriching for both first-time readers and long-time fans.

That this should be the case arises from Sanders's tendency to grow as well as to age. This aspect of his writing has been apparent in the titles and subtitles of his books from early on: the somewhat grandiose title Secrets of the Universe counterbalanced by its humble subtitle, Scenes from the Journey Home; the deceptively domestic combination of Staying Put and its subtitle, Making a Home in a Restless World; the rich implications of the title Writing from the Center. Two more recent collections, Hunting for Hope: A Father's Journeys and The Force of Spirit, were remarkable not merely for how well he was able to continue exploring the meaning of commonplace events—an essayist's subject matter, happily, can be anything and everything he or she thinks, feels, experiences, or encounters, and the prime requisite is the ability to stay simultaneously alive and alert—but how insistent he has become at expanding his comprehension, of both his life and his universe, ever more deeply. In Hunting for Hope (1998), a book somewhat closer to an organic whole than his other collections, he wrestles with the challenge thrown out by his son, that his complaints about the contemporary world leave no room for his children to have hope about their future. Sanders has always had a moral or ethical dimension to his writing; here he pushes beyond reflection and retrospection into the realm of moral philosophy.

The Country of Language (1999), a short book for Milkweed's splendid Credo series—really a long multi-segment essay, a combination of memoir and manifesto—seems in some ways a rehearsal for A Private History of Awe. "The lessons I live by have come to me piecemeal, unexpectedly," Sanders tells us, claiming that, rather than "a philosophy" or "a tidy system of ideas," they are "more like a grab bag of stories, each one capturing a moment of insight when some heart's truth came home to me." He writes that he "can't fully separate the insights from the experiences that gave rise to them. . . . My beliefs are rooted in ordinary, earthy life." As credos go, The Country of Language is particularly perceptive and forthright. Writing, Sanders tells us, is his "slow, stubborn way of asking questions, tracing the contours of feelings, thinking about what moves and troubles" him; more significantly, he is certain "that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe all art is a hedge against loss."

That sense of loss is central to his use of the word "awe" in A Private History of Awe. The tone for the book is set in the prologue with an opening passage recounting the repetition of an essential moment in the author's life. In each a man cradles a baby while a thunderstorm rages above them; the first time Sanders is the infant, held by his father; the second time he is the father, holding his daughter; the third time he is a grandfather carrying his granddaughter. The deliberate repetition of the scene, one Sanders himself has made ritualistic in his own family, suggests how strongly he values continuity and connection, but it helps explains the origins of his sense of awe. Sanders explains, "My wonder has always been clouded by fear. The word that comes closest to embracing the dread as well as the reverence, the shadow side as well as the light, is awe. The passages in my life that evoke this rapturous, fearful, bewildering emotion seem to me the ones worth recalling."

The memoir that follows is largely a chronological rendering of the trajectory of the author's life from that moment of being shown the storm by his father to the moment when he presented another storm to his infant daughter. It takes him from his birth in Memphis and his childhood and adolescence in Ohio through his education in Rhode Island, at Brown University, and in England, at Cambridge, concluding in Bloomington, Indiana, where he has taught at Indiana University for virtually the whole of his career. But the book is not simply a narrative of the artist as a young man. It is also simultaneously a tracing of the author's intellectual, political, and above all spiritual growth.

In addition to the influences of family, Sanders's worldview has been affected by a host of issues central to American life and culture in the middle of the twentieth century. The issues that were on our minds in the 1950s and the 1960s—civil rights and racial segregation, the cold war and all its permutations (the missile crisis in Cuba, the buildup of nuclear weapons, the space race, the military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam), the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the antiwar movement, the women's movement—all surface as issues in Sanders's consciousness, making him question his values and try to reconcile one set of values with another—the teachings of conservative Christian churches with the findings of scientists, the advancement of technology with the preservation of the environment, the temptations of biology with the demands of conscience. Again and again in this book moments arise that bring back to readers of a certain age the passion and turbulence that such events generated when those readers lived through them. For other readers such moments will raise awareness of how a string of external events can affect the development of an internal perspective—Sanders is no polemicist rearguing old debates but rather a curious observer trying to understand the context in which his powerful feelings arose, the conflicts they engendered in him, and the consequences of those moments on the person he increasingly became.

Interwoven with the personal and social history of the few decades of Sanders's life covered in the primary narrative are moments from two other narratives that take place decades after the principal chronology has ended. In her late eighties Sanders's once fierce, energetic, decisive mother has entered into a period of slow terminal decline, where her physical and mental powers are vanishing, until she is barely an unresponsive shell; at the same time Sanders's granddaughter, Elizabeth, whom he tends one day a week, comes into the world and begins rapidly developing her body and her mind. The juxtaposition of these two circumstances bring into sharp relief those moments of fear and wonder, of dread and reverence, that produce the bewildering sense of awe that motivates Sanders' reflections. In addition, each of four main sections of the book is identified with one of the four elements of life: fire, air, water, and earth. In the end the book has been an effort to sort out the primary elements of a life and to understand how they cohere.

Vivian Gornick, herself one of our most accomplished essayists and memoirists, has declared, "For me, a memoir is satisfying only when I feel myself in the presence of a 'a slowly clarifying persona': that is, a narrator fashioned out of the raw material of a writer's own undisguised being whose raison d'être is self-discovery, not self-presentation." She wants a narrator "who reflects rather than recounts" and "who approaches (even if not necessarily arriving at) the wisdom of the self that, in a memoir, provides the texture necessary to make a work of literature." For me, A Private History of Awe is satisfying in just that way.

Sanders calls the book "my history of openings," moments of awakening, in which he achieves "passages of clear vision [which] occur only now and then, yet . . . give meaning to every hour." As Patricia Hampl has observed about memoirs, "You give me your story; I get mine." A fully realized memoir, such as Sanders has written, cannot help but reverberate in an attentive reader, setting off the vibrations of a sympathetic tuning that arises not so much from close identification with the narrator as from universality of human experience. Sanders is clearly more probing, more searching, more observant about the common events of living than most of us are, but he claims "nothing exotic about such awakenings" as his memoir recreates. He writes, "I am convinced they come to each of us, whatever our age or circumstances, whatever our beliefs about ultimate things. The enlightenment I wish to describe is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention." For the reader who travels with Sanders through his private history of awe, it will be.

Robert L. Root, Jr. is the interviews/roundtable editor of Fourth Genre and author of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale and E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. With Michael Steinberg, he edited The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, now in its fourth edition. He is also the editor of and contributor to Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place.

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