Reviews of SRS Books
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 143-147
A PRIVATE HISTORY OF AWE
By Scott Russell Sanders
North Point Press, 2006.
336 pages, cloth, $24.00
by Robert L. Root, Jr.
As a memoir, his new book, A Private History of Awe, in some
ways coalesces material gathered in collections beginning with The
Paradise of Bombs (1987) and running through The Force of Spirit
(2000). Characters and incidents familiar to readers of such essays
as "The Inheritance of Tools," "At Play in the Paradise
of Bombs," "Cloud Crossing," "The Men We Carry in
Our Minds," "Under the Influence," "Reasons of the
Body," "After the Flood," "Wayland," and "Buckeye,"
to name the most frequently anthologized examples, reemerge in this
major narrative with all their threads of connection established, rather
than implied, and still fresh in the telling, as if they hadn't been
recounted before. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is its ability
to be equally engaging and enriching for both first-time readers and
That this should be the case arises from Sanders's tendency to grow
as well as to age. This aspect of his writing has been apparent in the
titles and subtitles of his books from early on: the somewhat grandiose
title Secrets of the Universe counterbalanced by its humble
subtitle, Scenes from the Journey Home; the deceptively domestic
combination of Staying Put and its subtitle, Making a Home
in a Restless World; the rich implications of the title Writing
from the Center. Two more recent collections, Hunting for Hope:
A Father's Journeys and The Force of Spirit, were remarkable
not merely for how well he was able to continue exploring the meaning
of commonplace events—an essayist's subject matter, happily, can
be anything and everything he or she thinks, feels, experiences, or
encounters, and the prime requisite is the ability to stay simultaneously
alive and alert—but how insistent he has become at expanding his
comprehension, of both his life and his universe, ever more deeply.
In Hunting for Hope (1998), a book somewhat closer to an organic
whole than his other collections, he wrestles with the challenge thrown
out by his son, that his complaints about the contemporary world leave
no room for his children to have hope about their future. Sanders has
always had a moral or ethical dimension to his writing; here he pushes
beyond reflection and retrospection into the realm of moral philosophy.
The Country of Language (1999), a short book for Milkweed's
splendid Credo series—really a long multi-segment essay, a combination
of memoir and manifesto—seems in some ways a rehearsal for A
Private History of Awe. "The lessons I live by have come to
me piecemeal, unexpectedly," Sanders tells us, claiming that, rather
than "a philosophy" or "a tidy system of ideas,"
they are "more like a grab bag of stories, each one capturing a
moment of insight when some heart's truth came home to me." He
writes that he "can't fully separate the insights from the experiences
that gave rise to them. . . . My beliefs are rooted in ordinary, earthy
life." As credos go, The Country of Language is particularly
perceptive and forthright. Writing, Sanders tells us, is his "slow,
stubborn way of asking questions, tracing the contours of feelings,
thinking about what moves and troubles" him; more significantly,
he is certain "that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire
to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe all art is a
hedge against loss."
That sense of loss is central to his use of the word "awe"
in A Private History of Awe. The tone for the book is set in
the prologue with an opening passage recounting the repetition of an
essential moment in the author's life. In each a man cradles a baby
while a thunderstorm rages above them; the first time Sanders is the
infant, held by his father; the second time he is the father, holding
his daughter; the third time he is a grandfather carrying his granddaughter.
The deliberate repetition of the scene, one Sanders himself has made
ritualistic in his own family, suggests how strongly he values continuity
and connection, but it helps explains the origins of his sense of awe.
Sanders explains, "My wonder has always been clouded by fear. The
word that comes closest to embracing the dread as well as the reverence,
the shadow side as well as the light, is awe. The passages in my life
that evoke this rapturous, fearful, bewildering emotion seem to me the
ones worth recalling."
The memoir that follows is largely a chronological rendering of the
trajectory of the author's life from that moment of being shown the
storm by his father to the moment when he presented another storm to
his infant daughter. It takes him from his birth in Memphis and his
childhood and adolescence in Ohio through his education in Rhode Island,
at Brown University, and in England, at Cambridge, concluding in Bloomington,
Indiana, where he has taught at Indiana University for virtually the
whole of his career. But the book is not simply a narrative of the artist
as a young man. It is also simultaneously a tracing of the author's
intellectual, political, and above all spiritual growth.
In addition to the influences of family, Sanders's worldview has been
affected by a host of issues central to American life and culture in
the middle of the twentieth century. The issues that were on our minds
in the 1950s and the 1960s—civil rights and racial segregation,
the cold war and all its permutations (the missile crisis in Cuba, the
buildup of nuclear weapons, the space race, the military conflicts in
Korea and Vietnam), the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and
Martin Luther King Jr., the antiwar movement, the women's movement—all
surface as issues in Sanders's consciousness, making him question his
values and try to reconcile one set of values with another—the
teachings of conservative Christian churches with the findings of scientists,
the advancement of technology with the preservation of the environment,
the temptations of biology with the demands of conscience. Again and
again in this book moments arise that bring back to readers of a certain
age the passion and turbulence that such events generated when those
readers lived through them. For other readers such moments will raise
awareness of how a string of external events can affect the development
of an internal perspective—Sanders is no polemicist rearguing
old debates but rather a curious observer trying to understand the context
in which his powerful feelings arose, the conflicts they engendered
in him, and the consequences of those moments on the person he increasingly
Interwoven with the personal and social history of the few decades
of Sanders's life covered in the primary narrative are moments from
two other narratives that take place decades after the principal chronology
has ended. In her late eighties Sanders's once fierce, energetic, decisive
mother has entered into a period of slow terminal decline, where her
physical and mental powers are vanishing, until she is barely an unresponsive
shell; at the same time Sanders's granddaughter, Elizabeth, whom he
tends one day a week, comes into the world and begins rapidly developing
her body and her mind. The juxtaposition of these two circumstances
bring into sharp relief those moments of fear and wonder, of dread and
reverence, that produce the bewildering sense of awe that motivates
Sanders' reflections. In addition, each of four main sections of the
book is identified with one of the four elements of life: fire, air,
water, and earth. In the end the book has been an effort to sort out
the primary elements of a life and to understand how they cohere.
Vivian Gornick, herself one of our most accomplished essayists and
memoirists, has declared, "For me, a memoir is satisfying only
when I feel myself in the presence of a 'a slowly clarifying persona':
that is, a narrator fashioned out of the raw material of a writer's
own undisguised being whose raison d'être is self-discovery, not
self-presentation." She wants a narrator "who reflects rather
than recounts" and "who approaches (even if not necessarily
arriving at) the wisdom of the self that, in a memoir, provides the
texture necessary to make a work of literature." For me, A
Private History of Awe is satisfying in just that way.
Sanders calls the book "my history of openings," moments
of awakening, in which he achieves "passages of clear vision [which]
occur only now and then, yet . . . give meaning to every hour."
As Patricia Hampl has observed about memoirs, "You give me your
story; I get mine." A fully realized memoir, such as Sanders has
written, cannot help but reverberate in an attentive reader, setting
off the vibrations of a sympathetic tuning that arises not so much from
close identification with the narrator as from universality of human
experience. Sanders is clearly more probing, more searching, more observant
about the common events of living than most of us are, but he claims
"nothing exotic about such awakenings" as his memoir recreates.
He writes, "I am convinced they come to each of us, whatever our
age or circumstances, whatever our beliefs about ultimate things. The
enlightenment I wish to describe is ordinary, earthy, within reach of
anyone who pays attention." For the reader who travels with Sanders
through his private history of awe, it will be.
Robert L. Root, Jr. is the interviews/roundtable editor of Fourth Genre and author of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer's Tale and E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. With Michael Steinberg, he edited The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, now in its fourth edition. He is also the editor of and contributor to Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place.
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