*Sanders, Scott Russell
Sanders, Scott Russell
Scott Russell Sanders began his career as a literary critic (publishing a book on D.H.Lawrence in 1973) and as a writer of fiction, including science fiction, but since the early 19805 when his essays began appearing regularly in the North American Review and especially since the publication of his second book of essays, The Paradise of Bombs, which won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction when it appeared in 1987, he has focused his attention on the personal essay. Between 1987 and 1995 he published three more collections of essays, and his first, In Limestone Country (1985), was reissued.
In addition to his many personal essays, Sanders has also written widely on the form of the essay. In his prefaces and essays on writing—e.g. “The Singular First Person” (1988), “Speaking a Word for Nature” (1991), “The Writer in the University” (1995), and “Writing from the Center” (1995)—he has turned his skills as a literary critic on bimself and his form, gaining, as a result, a reputation as one of America’s foremost theoreticians of the essay.
Sanders continues to publish essays in the North American Review and other literary quarterlies—e.g. the Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Sewanee Review. He has also published in large circulation magazines such as Harper’s and appeared twice (1987, 1993) in The Best American Essays yearly anthology. He also takes seriously his responsibility, as a teacher and writer, to the academic and writing communities, and has published position pieces in the organs of the Association of Departments of English and the Associated Writing Programs.
If Sanders can be said to have a central topic, it is place. His titles and subtitles regularly testify to this preoccupation. In Limestone Country collects 13 pieces on life around the southern Indiana quarries that have produced the stone for many of America’s most famous buildings, including the Pentagon and the Empire State Building. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World (1993) and Wrtting from the Center (1995) focus on the geography—spiritual, emotional, and artistic—of the American Midwest.
Even the expansively titled Secrets of the Universe (1991) returns to the center with its subtitle—Scenes from the Journey Home. “Every work of literature,” he has written, “is the drawing of a charmed circle, since we can write about only a piece of the world” (“Speaking a Word for Nature”).
Sanders’ concerns with place, landscape, and home have led logically to a passionate commitment to nature writing. Several of his essays have appeared in magazines associated with the environmental movement (Orion, Parabola, and the Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar). He has also edited the writings of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon (1986) and written about his life (1984). His nature writing is scientifically informed—he began his university education studying physics, though he later switched to literature—but always accessible to the general reader. He has characterized his project as an attempt to explore the connections between writing and landscape, and the writer and his or her locale. His work can be seen as part of the reemergence of nature writing in America, and he has expressed his admiration in many ways for the work of contemporaries such as Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Robert Finch, Terry Tempest Williams, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gretel Ehrlich, Richard Nelson, and John Haines.
Besides environmentalism, Sanders’ political concerns include the struggles for justice, women’s rights, and peace. He usually writes on these larger issues by connecting them to a personal experience such as serving jury duty (“Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” 1987), growing up on an Ohio arsenal (“At Play in the Paradise of Bombs,” 1987), discussing feminism with a female friend (“The Men We Carry in Our Minds,” 1987), or traveling to the Soviet Union (“Living Souls,” 1991).
Though he has written movingly about many public issues, his work has achieved perhaps its most powerful effects when he has confronted dark themes that are at once more private and universal—death, love, and the tangle of guilt and shame within families. His most anthologized essays deal with his father’s death (“The Inheritance of Tools,” 1986) and his father’s drinking (“Under the Influence,” 1989). In these essays, Sanders’ careful, polished style becomes infused with the details of memory and the energy of emotion, and they open up into the full and dramatic honesty he believes to be the province of the essay. His intention as an essayist is to “pay my respects to a minor passage of history in an out-ofthe-way place” and “speak directly out of my life into the lives of others” (“The Singular First Person”).
In search of such directness, Sanders writes in a familiar, accessible style. Yet, as befits someone who began as and remains a fiction writer, his essays are full of scene, narration, and dialogue. He wears humor lightly, reveals himself with self-deprecation, and often achieves immediacy by means of the present tense and precise imagery: “Ticktock. The judge assures us that we should be finished in five days, just in time for Christmas. The real jurors exchange forlorn glances. Here I sit, number thirteen, nobody looks my way. Knowing I am stuck here for the duration, I perk up, blink my eyes. Like the bear going over the mountain, I might as well see what I can see” (“Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair”).
Sanders, who has taught literature at Indiana University since 1971, also displays in his essays the wide reading of an English professor. An awareness of audience, however, helps him vary the ways in which he employs his allusions. In pieces addressed to fellow academics and writers, he may mention Theodor W. Adorno, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man (for instance in “The Writer in the University”), and two of his four collections of essays have included endnotes; but when writing for a wider audience, as he usually does, Sanders explains his allusions, keeps them biblical, or confines himself to the unpacking of clichés—“Solid as a rock, we say. Build your foundations upon stone, we say. But of course the rocks are not fixed” (“Digging Limestone,” 1985).
Sanders has described his texts as expeditions, the sniffings of a hunting dog, and an amateur’s raids into the realms of experts, but, finally, somewhat less figuratively, as “essays, by which I mean they are experiments in making sense of things, and…personal, by which I mean the voice speaking is the nearest I can come to my own voice” (introduction to The Paradise of Bombs).
Born 26 October 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee. Studied at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, B.A. in English, 1967; Cambridge University, 1967–71, Ph.D., 1971.
Married Ruth Ann McClure, 1967: one daughter and one son. Literary editor, Cambridge Review, 1969–71. Taught English at Indiana University, Bloomington, from 1971.
Awards: several fellowships; Penrod Award, for In Limestone Country, 1986; Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, for The Paradise of Bombs, 1987;
American Library Association Award, for Bad Man Ballad, 1987; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, 1988.
Essays and Related Prose
ln Limestone Country, 1985
The Paradise of Bombs, 1987
Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home, 1991
Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, 1993
Writing from the Center, 1995
Other writings: three novels (Terrarium, 1985; Bad Man Ballad, 1986; The Engineer of Beasts, 1988), short stories, children’s books, D.H.Lawrence: The World of the Major Novels (1973), and a fictional account of the life of John James Audubon (Wonders Hidden, 1984).
Stafford, Kim R., “In Short: The Paradise of Bombs,” New York Times Book Review, 24 May 1987:13
Stuttaford, Genevieve, “Nonfiction: Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home by Scott Russell Sanders,” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 44 (October 1991):74
Stuttaford, Genevieve, “Nonfiction: Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders,”
Publishers Weekly 242, no. 34 (August 1995):54
Walzer, Kevin, “Staying Put: The Invisible Landscape of Scott Russell Sanders’s Nonfiction,” Journal of Kentucky Studies 11 (September 1994):117–25
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