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John Sanford (1904 – March 5, 2003) was an American author. Born Julian Lawrence Shapiro in Harlem, New York City, he was a childhood friend of author Nathanael West. Young Julian studied law at Fordham University, but when West told him that he was writing a book, Julian decided that was what he wanted to do with his life.

He had stories published in European literary journals, and in 1933 wrote his first novel, The Water Wheel. When he published his second novel, following West's example, Julian Shapiro changed his name to John Sanford because of his concerns that anti-Semitism would hurt sales of a book by an author with a Jewish name.

In 1936, Sanford signed a writing contract with Paramount Pictures. It was there that he met fellow writer Marguerite Roberts, and the two married two years later. They collaborated on the film Honky Tonk in 1941. Soon afterwards, Sanford was offered a writing contract by MGM, but Roberts urged him to reject the contract and concentrate on writing books, which he did.

Sanford was a member of the Communist Party, and his wife, Roberts, accompanied him to a few Party meetings, but she never devoted herself to the cause, although she did join the Party. This cost the couple in the 1950s, when they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Roberts spent ten years on the Hollywood blacklist. Ironically, in 1969 Roberts wrote True Grit, starring anti-Communist actor John Wayne. Wayne's biographer noted that Wayne called Roberts' work "the best script I have ever read."

In 1964, Sanford wrote the novel Every Island Fled Away, but it was The People From Heaven which has been called by some his master work. The story of a racist in a small town who rapes an African American woman, beats a Native American and tries to drive the only Jew out of town, it was attacked by Sanford's fellow Communists as "antisocial", but Sanford's early role model William Carlos Williams called it "the most important book published here in the last 20 years."

Sanford eventually turned from fiction to write history and autobiography. But his works were distinctive, in that they tended to be made up of small vignettes that dramatized history, bringing it alive. His A More Goodly Country, a history of the United States, consists of more than 200 vignettes as seen through the eyes of such participants as Leif Ericson, Christopher Columbus, Henry David Thoreau, Pocahontas, Stephen Crane, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. It took him three years to complete. It was turned down by 247 publishers, before finally being published. It was dedicated to Williams.

Marguerite Roberts died in 1989, and the last few years of Sanford's life were largely dedicated to writing about his relationship with his wife. Despite failing eyesight, he continued to write until a month before his death at the age of 98.

Sanford published eight novels, five works he called "creative interpretations of history" and 10 volumes of autobiography and memoirs, including the five-book sequence, Scenes From the Life of an American Jew. Four more unpublished works were discovered among his effects.

An abbreviated Bibliography

  • The Color of the Air: Scenes From the Life of an American Jew
  • Adirondack Stories
  • Every Island Fled Away
  • Intruders in Paradise
  • Maggie: A Love Story
  • A More Goodly Country: A Personal History of America
  • The People From Heaven
  • A Very Good Land to Fall With
  • The View From Mt. Morris: A Harlem Boyhood
  • A Walk In The Fire
  • The Water Wheel
  • The Waters of Darkness
  • The Winters of that Country: Tales of the Man-made Seasons
  • To Feed Their Hopes: A Book of American Women
  • View From this Wilderness: American Literature as History

An excerpt from Sanford's Pearl Harbor segment of A More Goodly Country:

This time, the air was stiff with sound, and if God had chosen to speak, He'd've found no room for His radiant waves among the waves already there. Adore and be still! He might've said, but only other planets would've heard. The earth was listening to recipes, to longing sung and played, to the scores made in games; it was also listening to the traffic of ciphered signals to and from Japan, but that was merely noise behind eulogies of oleo, spiels for gasoline. There was wind in the east, and coming on the wind was rain, but no sign of these could be seen as yet -- the sky was still clear, and it might stay fine all day.

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