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The Color of the Air

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

John Sanford, who was born Jacob Shapiro and later renamed Julian by his mother, grew up in New York City, earned a law degree, and then turned to writing. From 1933 to 1967, he produced eight novels, from The Water Wheel (1933) to The $300 Man (1967). Blacklisted as a result of his McCarthy era dissent, he at last turned to historical vignettes: A More Goodly Country (1975), View from This Wilderness (1977), To Feed Their Hopes (1980), and The Winters of That Country (1984).

At eighty-one, Sanford has published the first volume of an autobiography that is unusual for several reasons. First, it is unusual because it is written in the second person. It is surprising that this technique does not get in the way of the reader; after a few pages, it does not seem awkward, and in fact it may have the result of placing the reader within the narrative. Probably the most effective use of this technique comes in the accounts of Julian’s childhood, where the adult Julian seems to be speaking to the child Julian, as well as to the reader empathizing with the child: “You were six years old, and on the morrow, at your birthday party, you’d be crowned king of the kindergarten, and you’d rule your subjects, children too, all through the long, the endless reign of a summer’s afternoon.”

The structure of the book is also unusual. It is written in 171 scenes of varying length, some with subdivisions or inserted letters, some primarily descriptive, some primarily introspective, some mostly dialogue. Interspersed throughout the book are fifteen additional excerpts from previously published historical works by Sanford.

It is also perhaps curious that a book subtitled Scenes from the Life of an American Jew is attributed to John Sanford, rather than Julian Shapiro, the name by which the author is addressed throughout the work. Admittedly, like his friend Nat Weinstein (Nathanael West), Shapiro found it expedient to use an anglicized pen name, and from the dedication to his parents, Harriet and Philip Shapiro, to the final biographical summary, the identification of John Sanford with Julian Shapiro is clear. One of the major themes of the autobiography is the writer’s gradual realization of the existence of anti-Semitism, not only in the oppressive Russian society from which his family had fled but also in supposedly democratic America. Thus, Julian re-creates the time, at Easter, when he and his ailing mother, soon to die, are turned away from an Atlantic City hotel because they are Jewish. Only late at night do they find a shabby hotel that will admit them; it is run by a Jew. Ten years later, when he is at Fordham Law School, Julian is attracted by a blonde girl named Ursula. When they go for a walk together, he asks her whether it would make any difference if he were Jewish. “All the difference in the world,” she replies, and in three years together in classes, she never speaks to him again, despite his constant awareness of her.

Yet Julian’s own experience with Jewish traditions is less than pleasant. During the eleven months of mourning for his mother, the ten-year-old boy is never told why he wears no shoes, why his clothes are torn, what is the meaning of the words he says. The grief period which surely is intended to ease the living becomes for him a time when he is separated from his friends and therefore denied solace for the loss of his mother. Before his religious lessons early in the morning, Julian is forbidden to eat, and therefore he associates them with hunger rather than with religious emotion; furthermore, the elders he sees at his shul are so dirty that he feels revulsion toward them. Thus, he is confused by the difference between adult abstractions and the facts presented to him by his innocent eyes.

The dominant theme in the autobiography, however, is the conflict between love and the loss of love, which may come through death or through human rejection. All the major personages in the book are related in some way to this...

(The entire section is 1,704 words.)