John Sanford's The People From Heaven

A Book Review by Louis Proyect

June 9, 2003


John Sanford, The People From Heaven, U. of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1995; ISBN: 0-252-06491-7. 232 pages.

When I discovered the bitterly sardonic novels of Nathaniel West in the early 1960s, I never would have suspected that he was a Communist. Like most people coming of age during the waning days of the witch-hunt, I assumed that Communism and experimental literature were mutually exclusive. The general perception was that people like Mike Gold issued marching orders to the party's writers through the pages of The Daily Worker in the 1930s and 40s and that if you were not prepared to crank out one-dimensional "proletarian novels," you would get drummed out of the party.

Largely through the efforts of Alan Wald, this view -- like many others about the CPUSA framed within the cold war paradigm -- is being challenged today. Under the auspices of the Radical Novel Reconsidered (RNR) series edited by Wald and published by the U. of Illinois, we have a chance to examine the works of a number of authors who defy easy stereotypes.

Released in 1995 as part of the RNR series, John Sanford's The People From Heaven incorporates the same kind of restless experimentalism found in the novels of his close friend and fellow Jew Nathaniel West, to whom the novel is dedicated. Sanford, who was born Julian Shapiro, died in March 2003 at the age of 99. In an obituary that appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Wald commented that as a writer, "the important thing about John was that he was extraordinarily original. The stylistic freshness of certain of his projects is simply exceptional. The way in which he treated the interplay of historical and personal events in his work is unparalleled and utterly unique."

The People From Heaven gets its title from the novel's epigraph in which Sanford makes ironic use of Christopher Columbus's words to Luis de Santangel, a forcibly converted Jew who financed his expedition:

"...And the others went running from house to house and to the neighboring villages, with loud cries of 'Come! come to see the people from Heaven!'"

Although Columbus's "discovery" has been thoroughly debunked by radical scholars inspired by indigenous struggles, Sanford was way ahead of his time with respect to the victims of European colonization. Written in 1942 at the height of the popular front, The People From Heaven views American civilization in far less benign terms than one might expect from a Communist Party (CP) writer, whose party was doing everything it could at the time to blur the lines between Communism and Jeffersonian democracy. Written from the perspective of an American Indian father and son and a black woman defending themselves from racist whites in a Adirondack village, the novel evokes Malcolm X's bitter observation: "We did not land on the Plymouth Rock. The Plymouth Rock landed on us."

Just after arriving in Warrensburg, New York, America Smith tries to take shelter against a cold spring rain in a general store, whose proprietor greets her with "You want anything, nigger?" Denied a room in a local boarding house, she eventually ends up at the home of the local preacher Dan Hunter who takes her in as an act of Christian charity. In a dramatic dialog between the two, she explains why she has little use for his religion despite his kindness.

"Is praying begging?" Hunter said.

"It's not even as good. I've seen beggars get a handout."

"But never a prayer answered?"

"My people were praying before yours ever showed them how, but God's deaf. He's blind too, or He wouldn't need me to tell Him we're sick of eating dirt. And He's got no hands, or He'd touch me like He touches you. But worse than all that, when you see pictures of Him, you realize He's white! No wonder He can't hear the black race. He can smell it, but He can't hear it!"

"Sometimes He can't hear the white, either."

"What's the good of Him, then? He's busted. Your Indians would beat Him, and if He still didn't work, they'd throw Him away. Not the white man, though: he's like a cow; he never spits anything out."

The Indians in The People From Heaven certainly would beat the white man's god if given the chance. At the local schoolhouse, a young Abenaki Indian named Aben Vroom is called upon to identify the cause of the civil war. In the course of replying correctly to the teacher that it was caused by a States Rights challenge to the Union, he is taunted mercilessly by fellow students. They call out, "Dopey Apekaki," "Aben, the dog-eater," Aben, the half-breed," "Aben is a red-skin son-of-an-Indian-bitch."

In a singular act of defiance, he tells the ringleader Marvin Piper that if he doesn't shut up, he'd do the same thing to him that Crazy Horse did to Custer. When the two boys fight, Aben makes good on his promise and slices off a piece of the other boy's scalp with a pocket-knife. To Sanford, Aben Vroom is like an "Ogallala poised over a fallen Custer."

In a parallel confrontation, Aben's father Bigelow takes on the town bully and racist Eli Bishop, who has raped America Smith and terrorized local residents who oppose him. Including the preacher Dan Hunter, the town's only Jew Abe Novinsky and Smith herself, they were "fighting four hundred years of retreat and headlong dying to repossess." Bishop, who wins the fight, challenges his multiracial enemies to parade through the streets of Warrensburg. He says it will include the beaten Bigelow, his "boy-bastard Aben, the nigger-woman," and the "Jew son-of-a-bitch." Seconds later, America Smith takes out a Colt revolver and stops Bishop's "last syllable at his teeth."

The People From Heaven alternates between brutal confrontations such as these and meditative passages often written in verse reflecting on the "four hundred years" alluded to above. Essentially, the novel is an unstinting attempt to root out the original sin of white racism. For Sanford, the conquerors starting with Columbus constitute a rogue's gallery with few redeeming qualities.

The story of Pokahontas gets an alternative telling from Sanford. Celebrated in a million American classrooms for rescuing British colonist John Smith in 1607 from death at the hands of her Powhatan tribe, she wonders if it was worth it:

. . . Bid Pokahontas bring two little Baskets, and I wil give her beads to make her a chaine.

A gift? Not the longest Indian summer's day!
You gave steel for nothing, but that was all;
for all the rest we paid through the nose.
You gave something little for something large,
and if you ever got the dirty end of the stick,
it was because you were looking the other way.
You gave sweat-shop cotton for pounded corn;
you offered us words and bargained for women;
your beads came cheap: the price was Virginia!

Analogous to the newsreels in John Dos Passos's "USA," these poems serve to connect the characters in The People From Heaven to the larger tapestry of American history.

But Sanford's ambition to stretch the conventions of the novel and break through to a deeper reality about American society was not exhausted with this device. He also stretches the linguistic boundaries of how characters think to themselves and speak to others. Using the speech of everyday life, but reconfigured in unexpected ways, they can achieve a searing incantatory quality. Momentarily before Eli Bishop rapes America Smith, she explains what the color black means to her.

"I thought that no man would go barefoot if his only shoes were black. I thought that he would drink black tea and black coffee, and that if he was hungry he would eat black bread and blacker meat. I thought that he would listen to a preacher in a black suit and take his hat off to a nun's black gown. I thought that he would read black print, and write with a black pencil, and put his white mouth on the black mouth of a telephone. I thought that he would want black earth above all other kinds of earth. I thought that he would never wash but what the water darkened, nor ever build a fire but what it ended in black ash. I thought that when night came, he would sleep in a black room, and I thought that when death came, black horses would pull a black hearse to a black grave. I thought that he would laugh himself black in the face at a comedian in burnt cork but when, I thought, when would the black tragedy of being black without burnt cork bleed his heart white?"

John Sanford's bitterly hallucinatory prose will remind one of more recent literature, including that of black nationalists such as Amiri Baraka. In face of the Communist Party's cultivation of patriotic themes during the popular front, it should come as no big surprise that members of the party in Los Angeles judged a draft of the work ultra left and even Black Nationalist. Wald cites Sanford's claim that a party literary committee urged him to eliminate what was tantamount to a premature armed revolt against whites. Before the end of the 1950s, Robert F. Williams and his followers in Monroe, North Carolina would confront the Ku Klux Klan with Molotov cocktails, machine guns and dynamite. While Sanford might have been a little premature, he seemed to have a better feel for the impending showdown than his comrades.

Despite the party's hostility to Sanford's work, he not only remained a member but also refused to change a word. Certainly the Communist Party had strong ideas about how a novelist should write and what he or she should write about. But Sanford and so many others in its ranks found their own way to express themselves and remain members. Indeed, this sort of tension marked the party in the explicitly political arena as well. As recent scholars like Mark Naison have pointed out, branches of the CP would often find their own way to the masses in the process of disregarding diktats from Moscow or from headquarters in New York City. By studying and trying to apply the more successful CP efforts in the 1930s and '40s, the left of today would undoubtedly benefit. By the same token, we should hail Alan Wald's efforts in reacquainting a new generation of readers and scholars with the work of John Sanford and others like him. As the crisis of American capitalism deepens, we will be challenged to create a new radical culture to accompany our revolutionary activism. John Sanford's novels will be a good place to start.

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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published June 9, 2003
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