Scott Russell Sanders -- a Modern, Midwestern Transcendentalist
His evolving life and vision
Scott Russell Sanders is one of the most distinguished authors of creative and environmentalist fiction, nonfiction, and poetry of the contemporary Midwest alive today. His many publications include novels, such as The Invisible Company, Bad Man Ballad, Terrarium, and the Engineer of Beasts, as well as books for children. His writings have appeared regularly in such literary trade publications and journals as the Georgia Review and Orion, as well as the environmentalist publication Audubon, and numerous anthologies. He is not merely a great writer, however. Sanders is also a great thinker who seeks to connect saving the individual soul, saving the environment, and seeking a quality spiritual live through the medium of creative works and prose. He is, in many ways, a kind of modern, Midwestern Transcendentalist along the lines of Thoreau and Emerson. He seeks to connect writing to nature, and a love of nature to a more holistic and spiritual vision of world peace and a better-quality American life for the next generation.
Despite Sander's Southern origins and his numerous international and national awards and fellowships from such respected bodies such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Lilly Endowment, Sanders has chosen to remain in Indiana for most of his adult and teaching life. (Indiana University Creative Writing Program, 2001) The "Hoosier Connection" has informed almost all of Scott Russell Sander's mature works of prose. Sanders has made Indiana, specifically Bloomington, Indiana his home since 1971. "Deeply influenced by his surroundings, the landscape of Southwestern Indiana is a constant inspiration for his writing." (Our Land, Our Literature -- Scott Russell Sanders, 2002)
Sanders was born in 1945 in Memphis, Tennessee, and moved to Ohio with his family as a child. He was exposed to many contrasting environments in his childhood, from the farm in Tennessee where he was born to a military arsenal in Ohio, to Rhode Island and finally to Cambridge University in England -- yet he always returned to Indiana, where he remains with his wife, who is also a professor at Indiana University, where he is one of the luminaries of the school's graduate program in writing. (Our Land, Our Literature -- Scott Russell Sanders, 2002)
According to a recent e-biography, the author has ventured from the Midwest during his teaching and writing career as a writer-in-residence at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and a visiting scholar, at of all places, the urban and technical Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These New England bastions of education may have helped influence his vision, explicitly connected to Thoreau, Emerson, and the other 19th century New England Transcendentalists, that continues to evolve in his literary, environmentalist, and political prose.
In a 2000 interview with The Kenyan Review Sanders spoke about the reoccurring themes in his work, of his love of the land, his belief in pacifism, and his father's military background. "The contrasts and tensions arise from my life -- North/South, country and city, militarism and pacifism. Living as a boy in an arsenal in Ohio, I felt a fierce contrast between the fruitfulness and wildness of nature, on one hand, and the ingenuity and destructiveness of technology, on the other ... As a writer I keep seeing these contrasts ... And maybe I'm still trying to bring the two poles together, to reconcile enemies."
Scott Russell Sanders thus describes himself as an author who has been deeply affected by his geographical and environmental surroundings and circumstances. He describes himself as a passionate product of his environment. He is a dedicated environmentalist. The transcriber of the interview in The Kenyan Review, in his critical overview of his subject's work noted that: "Sanders celebrates the beauty of nature. Every detail is noticed and appreciated, and this attention to intricacy fills his essays with vivid descriptions of his surroundings."
True, this appreciation not confined to the scenery of the Midwest or to Indiana alone. He writes of his appreciation of New England as well. But in Sanders' book Secrets of the Universe, the joy of returning to familiar countryside is obvious, "After a year in the bunched-up terrain of New England, I was amazed by the extent of sky, the openness of the land, the vigor of the head-high corn, the loneliness of the farmsteads, the authority of those clouds," of Indiana. (Sanders 84)
Thus, the author's visual and geographical touchstone and point of contrast is forever Indiana. "If midwestern places are so grim and gray, why do writers keep recalling them, sometimes after decades of living far away? What draws the imagination back across the miles and years? The chief lure is the country itself; the forests, fields, and prairies, the wandering rivers, wide skies, dramatic weather, the creek beds lined with sycamores and limestone, the grasses and flowers, hawks and hickories, moths and cicadas and secretive deer. Again and again in literature about the Midwest you find a dismal, confining human realm -- farm, village, or city -- embedded in a mesmerizing countryside ... By turns cruel and comforting, the land holds them, haunts them, and lingers in their memory and bones." (Sanders 84)
The McGraw Hill Website on the author asks students of Sanders' work to consider the author's own favorite texts when critically evaluating his work. (2001) These texts primarily include nature-oriented authors of the present day Midwest, and 19th century Transcendentalist authors from New England such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The website includes links to images of Sanders, and asks that students of his work view images of the man, which even in publicity photos for his works show him in his natural environment. But despite these literary allusions and aspirations in his favorite fiction and his literary publicity shots, Sanders' own literary aims are anything but highfalutin. In his enthusiasm for saving the environment for the next generation he has written children's books such as Warm as Wool to try to show the relevance of natural life to children in an elemental and tactile fashion.
Along the lines of his hero Thoreau, Sanders has additionally taken a strong stand on issues of national policy, and not merely environmentalist policy. After the attacks of September 11th against the World Trade Towers, Sanders wrote in the literary publication Orion, "I think the attack demonstrates the folly as well as the immorality of using violence to impose our will on others, and so I am dismayed to hear so many voices, both inside and outside the government, responding to the atrocity by threatening vengeance, by calling for greater military spending, by promising war. I think the attack demonstrates the folly of building a nuclear missile shield, both because the money for such a technological fantasy will be drained away from humanitarian purposes (at home and abroad), and because there are clearly easier ways to attack a complex technological society than by firing nuclear-tipped missiles." (Sanders, Orion Magazine, 2001) He was unafraid, even right after the attacks, on the publications' release date online of September 17th, to advance what were unpopular and radical views of the complicity of the military industrial complex in creating the folly of attempting to protect against the attack in ineffective ways, and the need for a larger and universal project of peace and pacifism.
His stress upon pacifism is one reason why Sanders is also widely popular, much like his admired Transcendentalists, in spirituality and health circles, as he is quoted on one website "Soul Boosters." This website includes excerpts from Sander's autobiography, Secrets of the Universe, Scenes from the Journey Home and links to a video featuring Sanders talking about his book The Force of Spirit. The quote, stating "Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion…