(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Sanford published nearly two dozen books over a period of more than sixty years. Intruders in Paradise is his fifth volume in an ongoing meditation on American history, and it is social history in the best democratic tradition.

The book is broken up into seven sections of unequal length, each titled “Scenes of the National Life.” Each section begins with a half-dozen to a dozen miniature essays (never longer than a few paragraphs); the section then continues with five to ten longer prose portraits (each from two to ten pages): brief biographies, short prose dialogues, and longer descriptions of important people, places, and events in American history. There are over 120 of these prose pieces in the volume; together, they add up to a truly multicultural view of American social history. Sanford’s perspective on America—and he has a number of pieces on Latin America here as well—is from the bottom up, from the view of common and forgotten people who have helped change history.

The first section opens with thirteen snapshots of history, from a paragraph on a slate headstone in the Newport, Rhode Island, cemetery and a two-dozen-line poem on “Two Hundred Girls in a Caramel Factory” to a short description of a famous Dorothea Lange photograph of Depression migrants. The six longer pieces that follow in this section include three pages on Valverde (“Judas in Peru”), the Dominican friar who absolved Francisco Pizarro in his slaughter of Incan peasants in the sixteenth century; “The First Knee on Canada,” a five- page prose dialogue on seventeenth century Jesuit explorers in Canada; “The Black Napoleon,” a two-page portrait of Toussaint-Louverture, who led a late eighteenth century slave rebellion in Haiti; three pages on Tobias Lear, the black personal assistant to George Washington; “The Framers in Philadelphia” (four pages) on James Madison and the other fifty-five delegates to the constitutional convention; and “Fling Away Ambition,” a closing three pages on Aaron Burr. The shakers and movers are here as well as the people below them: Daniel Shays (of Shays’s Rebellion) overshadows Madison, the faithful Tobias Lear outshines Washington, and the former slave Toussaint-Louverture proves more noble than the treacherous Aaron Burr.

The remaining six “Scenes of the National Life” have a similar structure, fragmentary and yet united by Sanford’s progressive perspective on American history. There are portraits of American revolutionary leaders here: Emiliano Zapata (from Mexico), Augusto César Sandino (Nicaragua), and José Martí and Fidel Castro (Cuba). There are a good number of pieces about women, especially those forgotten by history (Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, for example, and the wives of John Brown, Andrew Jackson, and John Charles Fremont), but also those who violated historical convention (Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, two early twentieth century writers who were gay). There are also stories about outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lee Harvey Oswald to the soldiers at My Lai, Vietnam. There are also poignant pictures of those who made a dent on history but never received their due: Matthew Henson, the black man who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1909, or Frank Wills, the guard at the Watergate complex who discovered the 1972 break-in. These are the people whom Sanford most admires, people who made a difference: Henson, Wills, the immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, labor leader Eugene Debs, socialist writer John Reed.

It is not only people, famous, infamous, or unknown, whom Sanford describes. He also writes about important American places (Gettysburg, for example) and objects (Sutter’s Mill, Sequoia giganteum). Sanford often personifies these places or writes about them from the first-person point of view to make the history more immediate: “Full Within of Dead Men’s Bones” personifies the experience of the American battleship Maine, which blew up in Havana harbor in 1898, while “A Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” is written from the perspective of Saint Peter refusing admission to Senator Jesse Helms for his multiple offenses.

There is a further, and even more immediate, personalizing of the history here. Increasingly, within and between these prose vignettes, Sanford records dialogues with “Maggie,” his wife of more than fifty years, who died in 1989. Maggie was probably the reader and editor of many of these pieces, and Sanford imagines her opinions of them in the dialogues. These short conversations also give Sanford the opportunity to comment on his own prose and to describe his relationship to his subjects. At the end of the piece...

(The entire section is 1917 words.)