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Toronto Globe and Mail, 8 July 2006

A Private History of Awe
By Scott Russell Sanders
North Point Press,
320 pages, $33.75


Late in the narrative of A Private History of Awe, the author returns to the United States from study abroad. It is the end of the 1960s. “Everything seemed bloated,” he reports. “Not only the waistlines, but also cars, highways, billboards, office buildings, houses.” Bloated is exactly the word for it, and today, 40 years later, the life of the world’s biggest democracy is stuffed to the bursting point. Elsewhere he refers to it as an “all-you-can-eat culture.”

Yet Scott Russell Sanders’s spiritual autobiography is not bitter, pitying or mocking. Rather, it is sharp and sweet, and it opens the heart. Not an incident in it—with the exception of his modest antiwar work in England—would have been reported on the news. There is not even a tale of spiritual athletics to tell. The memoir is an effort to record a life lived persistently in pursuit of “the holy shimmer at the heart of things.”

The book’s title is accurate, and the writer takes it seriously. Meeting the holy means feeling awe, a wonder mixed equally with fear. He reports it first from the moment when his father took him as a babe in arms to meet a thunderstorm. And the whole narrative of this bright young middle-American boy growing up through the turbulent 1950s and ‘60s is framed by awe. Sanders repeatedly steps out of the story to describe twin present realities: the rising of his baby granddaughter and the decline of his aged mother. This motif again and again prevents the narrative from cloying and refocuses the reader on the double nature of awe, its joy and its terror.

Then too, the history is indeed a private one. In a time when heroism has become just another form of product branding, it is very refreshing to read a tale of small, family-scale deeds. Great incidents are the loss of a dog, a father’s rescuing the children from bees, meeting a girl in science camp whom he will later write, love and marry. Sanders records exactly the right words of Martin Luther King, but gives equal weight to a saying of baseball pitcher Satchel Paige.

What is the pleasure of reading such a private history of such a powerful word? For one thing, Sanders writes with a poet’s precision. He gets things right. The long story of courting his wife is a wonderful thing to read. The moment of his decision to become a conscientious objector is sealed not by any resounding quotation, but by his description of a flying swallow dipping its beak in a stream. His account of turning from the study of physics to the study of literature makes as clear a delineation of the reasons for reading and writing as I have known.

What’s more, the intimacy of the history evokes memory in the reader. “The enlightenment I wish to describe,” Sanders writes in his prologue, “is ordinary, earthy, within reach of anyone who pays attention.” Sanders is like us, and his memories reawaken our own images, our own insights, our own losses, our own passage through that harrowing time in which two Kennedys, King and so many young people were murdered.

One strain that runs through much of the book is the writer’s effort to have an honest relationship to work, to find a way to make a living without dishonour. This was a chief preoccupation of many people growing up in the 1960s, and it is often suggested that it was fruitless and naive. Not by Sanders. One may object that few people can, like Sanders, spend their whole career as a professor of English in a public university in the American Midwest. But the content of the career is not the point. Through much of the book, he moves toward the personal choice of that career, as a way to keep near to and to pass on to others his openings into awe.

As a young teacher during the early 1970s, Sanders looked for particular kinds of books to read with his students. “I had searched for stories,” he writes, “in which a husband and wife love each other deeply, feel grateful toward their parents, look forward to becoming parents themselves, and then welcome into their marriage a child who arrives like an emissary straight from glory land.” It is no accident that his wife was pregnant with their first child at the time.

He had little luck finding such novels, though it was easy to find tales of unhappiness, despair, dysfunction, absurdity. He settled for books “whose authors clearly loved the world in spite of its darkness.” It would be a good reading list for anyone to have to imagine for themselves. For me, it would include Thornton Wilder, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry and the essayist John Brinckerhoff Jackson. It would also include Scott Russell Sanders, particularly this private history of awe.

As plain and straightforward as the book reads, it must have been by no means easy to write. It is very difficult to write cleanly about things so near to one’s heart and to give to the plain incidents of a life their genuine weight. Sanders’s gift is to write simply about what many of us are simply so hungry to hear.

William Bryant Logan is the author of Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. A practising arborist, he teaches tree identification at the New York Botanical Garden.

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