Sanford and West

by Charles Alexander | History

When thinking of talented artists brought low by early death, George Gershwin and John Keats invariably come to mind. Lesser known, but as remarkable, is Nath­anael West, a bold novelist who was just finding himself when a car accident took his life at age 37.

In contrast, West’s longtime friend, novelist John Sanford, passed away in 2003 just two years shy of 100. Before their paths diverged so completely the men spent a summer near Warrensburg, working on early books and enjoying what Sanford termed a “twelve hundred-acre paradise.”

In May 1930, as a young law student at Fordham University, in New York City, Sanford escaped to the Long Lake area to “shuck the city [and] the Law” and work on his first novel The Water Wheel. He found peace and beauty on the farm of Ai Shaw, about 12 miles from the train station at Raquette Lake, down a long logging road and up against a “ruck of trees and the dim and distant ridge of Kempshall Mountain.” Over the following weeks the flowing water of the brooks that fed Shaw’s pond often soothed him to sleep.

While at the Shaw farm, Sanford spent time fishing with a district game warden named Beak­bane. The following year, after West had suggested they spend the summer together, Sanford wrote Beakbane asking for places to stay. The warden recommended a place for a “summer of writing” but warned they had better hustle since the best properties were being taken.

As a result of Beakbane’s letter, the intrepid young men showed up at his house in Glens Falls. Sanford was impressed with Beakbane’s office, “where the walls were largely hung with geodetic surveys of his domain, the southern half of the Adirondacks. Their scale was small, an inch to the half-mile, and in the density of their contour lines, you could read the ups and downs of the earth.” At the nexus of the Schroon and the Hudson, Beakbane fatefully inserted a pushpin: “That’s where the village of Warrensburg is.”

In July 1931, for $25 a month, West and Sanford rented a seven-room cabin on Viele Pond, six miles from Warrensburg. It was owned by Harry Reoux, president of a local bank and a state assemblyman from 1930 to 1950. Not only did Reoux give them the cabin for an unheard-of price, but he also trucked in a rowboat, a double-barreled shotgun and boxes of shells. West and Sanford also connected well with another local family, the Bennetts, their only neighbors on Harrington Hill. It was Fannie Bennett who bailed them out with her baking and advice about surviving blackfly bites.

Loaded with rods, reels, guns and typewriters, West and Sanford drove over the primitive roads in a used Ford they ac­quired for $195. They carried books by outdoorsmen Nessmuk and Horace Kep­hart. Each writer had his own room, separated by a common wall; on one side West was writing Miss Lonelyhearts while on the other Sanford labored on The Water Wheel, creating a “tapdance of typing,” in Sanford’s words.

Despite their high purpose in coming to the wilds, the budding au­thors reveled in fishing, shooting targets and swimming. Their “expeditions for bass or pickerel” took them to the Hudson, Brant Lake and the Schroon River. They cooked the game “a la Nessmuk and Kepog [sic] and ate it along with canned beans and brown bread.” As Sanford described it, “We ate like swine.”

Along with his care packages Harry Reoux included a note pointing out the top places on Viele Pond for brook trout, but these “incompleat anglers” succeeded only in stirring up ferocious bullheads. Reoux had to come up from Warrensburg to demonstrate just how to land the best game fish.

West, dressed in a red-flannel nightshirt, once emptied his shotgun into a stray cat, thinking it was a bear. Sanford offered this succinct insight: “There was no more dangerous man to be in the woods with than Pep West.” After West downed a hawk late one night he insisted on driving many miles over rough roads to the taxidermist in Chestertown. When he saw the trophy, West was disappointed: “It looks dead.” Still, Sanford kept it for years.

West, according to Sanford, wasn’t particularly interested in hearing about Sanford’s own literary efforts, and it bugged him that West would recite Miss Lonelyhearts loud enough to ruin his concentration. “I squawked time and again, and finally I realized that he was so rapt that he actually didn’t know what he was doing.”

At the end of September West and Sanford returned to New York City, each with dreams that had taken real shape in the Adirondacks. (Sanford lat­er called those days “decisive.”) Miss Lonelyhearts was finished in 1932 and published in 1933. It met with critical success, but because the publisher went under it nev­er received the promotion it deserved. To­day that novel and The Day of the Lo­cust are icons of the modernist movement in American literature. Although Sanford’s The Water Wheel likewise failed to find an audience, it motivated the young man to forgo the practice of law and dedicate himself to a long career of wildly imagined and brave writing.

Sanford’s Warrensburg trilogy—The Old Man’s Place (1935), Seventy Times Seven (1939) and The People from Heaven (1943)—delivers a fascinating look at the Adirondacks of the era. This “Warrensburg battleground,” as he called it, became a mi­crocosm of the United States and its broken promises, stunted lives and se­cret sins. The Adirondacks for him was “a place of imagined people more real to you than the ones you could see in the street.”

The Old Man’s Place was widely criticized for its violence; a New York American headline called it “A Horrid, Horrid Book About Horrible Men.” Nonetheless a New York Times reviewer placed the author well within the nativist tradition, taking “esthetic delight in the salt and savor, even in the occasional flaring brutality of the American character.” Ultimately the book was made into the 1971 film My Old Man’s Place. The central characters were played by Michael Moriarty and Ar­thur Kennedy, while the Adi­rondacks was played by California.

By the time the trilogy’s third novel appeared, Warrensburg stood for all the communities in a flawed America. Sanford took a chance in The People from Heaven, dedicated to West, by alternating chapters narrating hateful events in Warrensburg with blank verse pieces on sorry moments in our national history (“the culture of kerosene”). It was pretty bitter stuff for wartime.

Sanford’s recollections of his “Viele Pond idyll” produced at least one other volume of consequence, a compilation of short works called Adirondack Stories (1976). Most of the tales were collected from those published in the 1930s. Once more Warrensburg was the principal lo­cation. The dedication reads: “For my sister Ruth, who looked in on us for a while that summer.”

Despite their East Coast origins and their fondness for the Adirondacks, both Nathanael West and John Sanford found themselves working as screenwriters in California, wrestling with an American culture they could never fully embrace. (Sanford, a longtime communist, spent the 1950s on Hollywood’s blacklist.)

West’s genius was only beginning to hit stride in 1940, when he was killed in a violent automobile crash near El Centro, California. “Before you now,” wrote Sanford after the tragedy, “the rifle-case and the Winchester .22, and as you gaze at the canvas, the wood, the gun-metal, you wonder whether Pep ever wandered his mind back to that summer, whether in his nine more years he remembered the little green Hudson River bass, the Brant Lake pickerel, the partridge feathers, the nights you blew smoke at the kitchen fire and talks of all things imaginable except a certain crossroads a few miles out of El Centro.”

Sanford would outlive West by 63 years. Over a long career largely spent away from the Adirondacks, he could not get the area out of his mind: “The day came, finally, when your stay at the Pond was over, and you drove away. Neither you nor Pep had anything to say as you went slowly along the bank … and then paused for a last look at the cabin before leaving it behind you in the woods. It had been a fine summer, you thought, and you knew, as you know yet, that it was one you’d forget never.”

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