The Writings of John Sanford

The Writings of

John Sanford

(1904 - 2003)

author young photo author old photo

Little Preparation

John Sanford had little formal preparation for becoming a writer. He was a lackluster student, who failed English in high school. His college career was dismal. Only when he began attending law school did he find some direction. His plan was to get his law degree and join his father's New York law practice, focusing on the burgeoning fields of construction and real estate.

However, during his studies at Fordham Law, Sanford had a chance encounter on a New Jersey golf course with a childhood acquaintance named Nathan Weinstein, who was now going by the name of Nathanael West. West told Sanford he was writing a book; this announcement was a revelation to Sanford, who became West's frequent companion.

Early Strivings

Sanford read proof several times with West on his first book, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. He also later rented a hunting cabin in the Adirondacks where West worked on his second novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, while Sanford worked on his first, The Water Wheel. It was also largely due to West's example and urging that Sanford took as a pen name that of The Water Wheel's protagonist, when he published his second novel, The Old Man's Place.

Inspired by West, Sanford tried his hand at writing short stories. His first pieces appeared in Harold Salemson's Paris literary magazine, Tambour, in 1929 and 1930. Other pieces followed in The New Review, Pagany and the prestigious Contact, which was edited by West and Williams.

Sanford's first novel appeared in 1933. The Water Wheel was published by the obscure Dragon Press, which had also published Williams's The Knife of the Times. Sanford's second novel was a departure from the autobiographical nature of his first. The Old Man's Place was the first of three novels set in the Adirondack mountains of New York. He used this setting to explore the violence at the heart of the American psyche, a theme that would dominate Sanford's work for the remainder of his career.

While The Old Man's Place received good reviews, it appeared in the depths of the Depression and did not sell well. However, it was on the basis of this book that Paramount Studios offered Sanford a contract as a screenwriter. Sanford moved to Hollywood in 1936.

Novels as Weapons

Sanford lasted only one year as a screenwriter at Paramount. However, two major influences entered Sanford's life during his tenure. First, in a hallway in Paramount's writers' building, Sanford met his wife, Marguerite Roberts, who would go on to become one of the highest paid screenwriters in the business. Roberts' success enabled Sanford to focus on writing novels, without concern for bringing in an income.

Second, Sanford became a member of the Communist Party. One can see in Sanford's novels an increasing preoccupation with America's mistreatment of minorities and the poor and working classes. These preoccupations made it difficult for Sanford to find publishers for his work. In fact, he was forced to self-publish 1951's A Man Without Shoes, after having the book rejected more than 30 times.

The Blacklist

Sanford and Roberts were called before the McCarthy HUAC hearings in Los Angeles in 1951. Both refused to name names and were blacklisted. The blacklisting had little direct impact on Sanford's work, but Roberts was barred from the profession she loved. Sanford found himself unable to write while his beloved wife was suffering through enforced idleness.

When the Blacklist finally ended and Roberts was allowed to return to work at Columbia, Sanford began writing again. His Every Island Fled Away displays the bitter bleakness of the Blacklist years.

The novel had become increasingly inadequate for Sanford's intentions as a writer. More and more, Sanford's novels became lectures or sermons delivered to the captive audience of the reader. By the time The $300 Man appeared in 1967, Sanford had exhausted the novel form; he was 63 years old.

A Second Career

Sanford's next book, A More Goodly Country would be a vast departure from his previous work. And it would embark him on a second career as a non-fiction writer. Sanford had punctuated most of his fiction with historical vignettes, in which he used American history to give the context or climate for the narrative. A More Goodly Country comprises only historical pieces. Three years in the writing, it took another three years, and 231 rejections, before Sanford found a publisher. When A More Goodly Country appeared, Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times called it a masterpiece.

Three more books of creative interpretations of history appeared before Sanford embarked on his monumental five-volume autobiography, subtitled, Scenes from the Life of an American Jew. PEN gave the first book, The Color of the Air Sanford's only literary award.

Active to the End

Sanford wrote up until one month before his death, focusing on memoirs, which allowed him to reminisce about his beloved wife, Maggie, and their life together. His last book, A Palace of Silver covers the years following her death -- the loneliness, the physical decline. Rare is it to have a document about aging written by someone who is truly old.

In 1998, the Los Angeles Times gave Sanford its Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement. During his later years, Sanford was variously described as the "most unjustly neglected major writer in America" and "America's greatest unread writer." Just before Sanford's death, the Los Angeles Times called him "an authentic hero of American letters."

In all, Sanford published 24 books during his lifetime, and left three unpublished memoirs at the time of his death. Most of his books are out of print, although some continue to be available.


John Sanford covers in great detail his association with Nathanael West in the second volume of his autobiography. In the fourth volume, he describes his struggles trying to find a publisher for A Man Without Shoes:

waters cover photo

The Waters of DarknessBlack Sparrow Press1986in print

walk cover photo

A Walk in the FireBlack Sparrow Press1989in print


Cutting Edge Books has issued a revised and updated second edition of Jack Mearns's descriptive analysis of John Sanford's work, John Sanford: An Annotated Bibliography.

bibliography cover photo

Order on Amazon.

Follow the links below for brief descriptions of John Sanford's books:


By Category

Return to the John Sanford Homepage

Go to the John Sanford Biography Page

Go to the Marguerite Roberts Filmography Page

Text & photos copyright © Jack Mearns, 2003-2022. All rights reserved.

rev. 4/6/22