Scott Russell Sanders read on our campus last night. He is a stunning writer. Not avant garde or flashy or ironic in the ways that so many essayists are today. (Yes, I’m looking at you, John D’Agata and David Sedaris, and your books that I love.) Instead, he writes with an honest and earnest voice that I find compelling in ways that I’ve always hoped to emulate. Maybe it’s the midwesterner in me. The longing for substance. It’s what we hope for, all the while doubting our own authenticity. But here’s a guy who is authentic. Hard to explain why.
I first encountered SRS’s essays as a freshman at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. Jeb Beck’s class. What a great teacher. In the first month of the semester, Jeb assigned two of Sander’s essays about his father. We first read “The Inheritance of Tools,” in which Sanders explores the legacies of patience and quiet pride in worksmanship he took away from his father:
The saw I use belonged to him, as did my level and both of my squares, and all four tools had belonged to his father. The blade of the saw is the bluish color of gun barrels, and the maple handle, dark from the sweat of hands, is inscribed with curving leaf designs. The level is a shaft of walnut two feet long, edged with brass and pierced by three round windows in which air bubbles float in oil-filled tubes of glass. The middle window serves for testing whether a surface is horizontal, the others for testing whether it is plumb or vertical. My grandfather used to carry this level on the gun rack behind the seat in his pickup, and when I rode with him I would turn around to watch the bubbles dance. The larger of the two squares is called a framing square, a flat steel elbow so beat up and tarnished you can barely make out the rows of numbers that show how to figure the cuts on rafters. The smaller one is called a try square, for marking right angles, with a blued steel blade for the shank and a brass-faced block of cherry for the head. I was taught early on that a saw is not to be used apart from a square: “If you’re going to cut a piece of wood,” my father insisted, “you owe it to the tree to cut it straight.”
It’s a beautiful essay. It resonated with me. I had also lost a father and had always struggled with what, if anything, I might have inherited from him. But it wasn’t until we read “Under the Influence” that Sanders really made his mark on me. Here’s the essay’s opening few lines:
My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food–compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living. That is how the story ends for my father, age sixty-four, heart bursting, body cooling, slumped and forsaken on the linoleum of my brother’s trailer. The story continues for my brother, my sister, my mother, and me, and will continue as long as memory holds.”
This essay, too, resonated with me. My father was, too, was an alcoholic. But my memories were of a different sort than Sanders’. His father died close to retirement age, with his son already a grown man with a family of his own. However, my father died before his thirtieth birthday, while I was only four. I don’t have the vivid detail of Sanders’ descriptions and reflections. But here’s the kicker. I didn’t realize until well after I’d finished both essays that each essay had been written by the same man. I was shocked. It was the first time I had encountered what seemed to be such contradicting viewpoints in the same person. Of course now, my understanding of the two essays has evolved and become much more personally complex. Maybe I’ll elaborate on those readings in another post.
For now, I simply wanted to honor the man whose voice is present with me (somewhere) every time I sit down to write an essay. I’ve always wanted to meet him. And to let him know that what he’s doing, what he’s done, has made a huge impact on a single life. And to say thank you.