Friday, December 31, 2010


As I have looked into ideas of Utopia for my fourth novel (of the four I am working on), I realize that writing is utopian by its very nature. We are writing about things that have not yet and may never come to pass. Some writers have absolute control over their material and others seem to just let it range out there a little. A writer writes and perhaps that is as far as it should go. In our work we can give our thoughts the kind of freedom our actions can never have. It is only when we try to put into practice some of the things we have thought that the trouble begins.

Louisa May Alcott (‘Little Women’) was the daughter of transcendentalists who tried to put their theories into practice. The results were not disastrous, at least, but they were disappointing. She summed it up with words to this effect: “Great thinkers tend not to make great farmers.” And, since most utopian efforts are agriculture based, (and often led by great thinkers), you can see the problem.

We here have set our utopian efforts to agriculture as well, on a small scale. (One acre). On a morning like this while I was out shoveling snow and working in the greenhouse and bringing in firewood, I began to wonder if I would ever get to my writing. (The snow does pile up here in Colorado at times – it took three hours just to move it). Of course while you are shoveling snow all morning you can let your mind convince yourself that you are the leader of some great utopian enterprise if you want, but the reality is somewhat grittier than that. And for a writer to be shoveling snow, well, it’s just unseemly. But I guess Robert Frost owned a working farm and if it was good enough for him, who am I to complain? Besides, if we run into economic bad times in this country – as we certainly might - at least we’ll know where our food is coming from.

Utopia is normally considered unattainable and perhaps that is true unless we stick to a micro-utopia like ours and leave it at that. I would like to think ours is the mustard seed of the New Testament Church as it will one day be, but even that may simply be grandiose thinking. Utopia cannot be completely lived out as long as it is wrapped in a society that remains organized around other principles. (With a nod to Karl Mannheim ‘Ideology and Utopia’ 1929). The dominant wish prevails. Or, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “Nothing so much hinders the soul from knowing God as time and space.” Since Utopia in reality is fixed in time and space, we are hindered from other-worldly results. Of course no one would love it more than I if the true Christian ideals of love as taught in the Sermon On The Mount would suddenly burst into existence and that love of one another would become a reality at last, but I think I will have to continue to be patient for that day.

In the work of Utopia we must choose what to remake and what to leave as it is. To tear down without a plan of rebuilding is simple destruction. Yet many a charismatic leader has led followers into destruction. (I am thinking specifically of cult leaders on the order of Jim Jones). The charismatic leader can be temperamental and self-seeking. No, I know the vision must lie with the people themselves if anything is ever going to change. I know that change must be implemented nonviolently. Only in that way can we avoid the pitfalls of violence and destruction.

But I leave this subject with a bitter-sweet meditation, again from Louisa May Alcott: “They said many wise things and did many foolish things.”
For those of us who attempt to step outside the norms of society: Beware.

Have a Happy New Year


Friday, December 24, 2010


All that is not given is lost. If everyone gave everything they had, everyone would have everything they need. After many years living among the homeless we have been given the solution to the problem. This solution, of course, goes way beyond most Liberal thought and beyond even the urge to communism, (though we have been called that). (“Why is it when we help the poor they call us saints, but when we ask why they’re poor they call us communists?” –Dom Helder Camara). All of this goes far beyond where most people are willing to go, we know, and that is just the problem with Utopia.

The social and political approach to Utopia has left the idea dead. No wonder modern writers trend toward dystopia – all that can go wrong will go wrong (and just when I thought it was going so well). And, looking at the long history of religious Utopia – the Puritans; the Shakers and so on, we see that that idea is also dead.

This leaves only one possibility – the Utopia of the Kingdom of God.
I once wrote an article that was rejected on the basis that, according to the editor, “The Church is not about Kingdom work, but about gathering for worship on Sundays.” This reduces the church to a worship center and as my wife said, “That’s just plain wrong.” Whether or not Christians are willing to come together once a week for an hour to worship God leaves the world unmoved. The only way for things to change is for us to lead in changing them. In addiction recovery groups I have run we said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” Well, that seems to be what most people expect. “If I vote once every few years, everything will change. If I go to church on Sunday, everything will change. If I buy guns to protect myself and my family, everything will change. If I spend lots of money this Christmas season, everything will change. If I give a little to the poor this year, everything will change.” Here’s a news flash: That’s what has been happening for a long long time, and nothing has changed. Nothing will change, either.

Utopian thought as it grows from the Kingdom of God is not about wild-eyed revolution with blood running in the streets. (Nothing changes that way either). It is, rather, the growing up of the new within the shell of the old – eventually bursting its desiccated skin and sloughing it off – as a new order emerges that is not based upon certain rules or religious dogma, but which is based upon the actual ‘laws’ of love. Love others as you love yourself. Do to others what you would have them do to you. Easy to say. Not so easy to do.

I live in a Utopia that actually works. When I and others like me were ready to stop living the way of insanity and to actually live the way of change in the world, we stepped across some invisible barrier that had previously held us in place. Through our work with the poor we came to know the problems of the world first hand. Poverty. Selfishness. Addictions. Violence. All have been a part of our daily lives for many years. And we have found that the only way to solve these problems is to ‘be’ the New Testament Church. Only in self-suffering nonviolent love can we find the solution to these problems. If we are to solve the problem of war and violence, we must live the way of nonviolence in our own lives. (We have not solved the world’s addiction to war, but we have solved it for ourselves – we do not participate). If we want to solve the Gulf oil spill, we must drive a small car or walk or ride bicycles. If we want to solve the problem of resource shortages, we must recycle everything and touch the world lightly. If we are to solve the problem of hunger, we must grow and share our food. We conserve water by capturing rain water and using it for the garden. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
If Utopia is ever to be anything but an abstract idea, we have to begin to actually live it. By my experiences I am in a unique position to write about Utopia from direct experience. I intend to use these experiences to illuminate the final volume of my novel in four parts.

I do wish you a Merry Christmas and the best for the New Year. I know I have not convinced you with this argument. (How few have actually listened to us over the years – sigh). But if you would drop everything and begin again, sharing everything… Well, your world would change today.
Love to you, Jim

I am not copyrighting this piece so that you may spread it far and wide among your friends if you wish. I do invite your comments or further discussion. I’d like to hear your thoughts on Utopia. Thanks.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Once Utopia leaves the mind, like a child leaving the womb, it is confronted with the reality of the world. The idea is immediately set upon from every side and, whether reality was considered at all in the formulation of the Utopia, it can no longer be shielded from that reality. Reality is no respecter of ideas. Reality will not only attempt to reshape the utopian idea in those places where it does not fit, it will attempt to annihilate any aspect of the idea that does not conform. What seemed so pristine in its conception is now beleaguered in its inception.

Let me give an example. Fifteen years ago I visited a local soup kitchen with the idea of donating some money and then getting out. It was a cold February morning and when I stepped in from the quiet whiteness of the snowy dawn I was confronted with the reality of heat from the kitchen and the smell of cooking and the almost monolithic noise of people gathered in a confined space, all of whom were trying to be heard over everyone else. I met a fifty year old woman who obviously lived outdoors. She was shivering and her grey coat was mottled with damp spots.

“I live in a cave in Horse Gulch,” she informed me. I stayed to share some hot beef stew. “Of course on nights like last night my pets get awfully cold.” She carefully took some rocks from her coat pocket. I looked at her closely to see if she was joking.

“What’s it like, living out like that?” I asked. The nighttime temperatures had been hovering around twenty degrees.

She looked evenly back at me. “Well if you want to know what it’s like, why don’t you come out and try it for yourself.”

This was probably a standard dodge for her. She never thought, and I never dreamed that I might actually take her up on her proposition. But on Friday afternoon I followed her and several others up into the mountains along a narrow trail that led, they informed me, into a place known as Horse Gulch. I had nothing with me but a sleeping bag and a roll of plastic to keep out the cold and wet.

There is no way for me to relate here what transpired over the next twelve years. Suffice it to say that we took her challenge to the greatest extreme possible. We lived among the poor and homeless. We shared meals and led worship and cared for those who were ill and helped in any way we could for all that time. We came to realize that if we set up camp right in the midst of the homeless we could bring positive elements to an otherwise very negative community. And it worked! It worked, that is, until the reality of the world set upon us. It was strange, really, how we were cast away. People did not want to help the poor or homeless – at least not in the way we were doing it, up close and personal – but they also didn’t want us doing it. Apparently our sincere actions made them look bad. So in the end they got rid of us. They closed the soup kitchen on Sundays altogether, so that we would not have a place to gather.

Their actions, however, did not change our commitment to helping others. We moved out into their parking lot in and continued to serve hot meals all winter long. If they would not fulfill their own mission, we would do it. It was something of a Public Relations nightmare for them. At last they negotiated with others to re-open on Sundays and we were not invited.

This Utopia did not grow directly from an idea. Rather, it grew from a need that wasn’t being met. A community was already there. The homeless in our town knew each other and met together, but at the center of their meeting were drugs and alcohol and violence and alienation. What we did was to displace that center and bring a positive community into existence. A community of love and nonviolence and of healing recovery.

We still live in that Utopia. We meet in our home. We share food and love and healing recovery together, though on a much smaller scale. While living in the streets we came to truly understand what the problems of this world are, and what must be done to solve them. Now, we are living every day as a solution to those problems. But that is the subject of next week’s post: ‘The Kingdom of God’.

Merry Christmas. Jim

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Violence is a way that seems to work. When one gets the upper hand over another, the issue seems to be resolved in favor of the 'winner'. But is that ever really the case? Are we not always left with unresolved issues that will need to be worked out in the future? And, if violence is the way that seems to have worked, will we not be more likely to employ it next time?

A number of years ago a member of our family was preparing to enlist to fight the war in Iraq. Nancy and I had taken a vow of nonviolence years before that, so it was not surprising that we voiced our objection to sending this young man off to be a Marine. It is also not surprising that we were laughed at and our voices left unheard. He joined and went.

Before that, even, we were laughed at whenever we attempted to voice an alternative response to the horrible events of 9/11. Would war really be the best way to lead to peace in the world? We were very lonely then. I went out with a sign that said simply, "Say No To War". People driving by threw things. They made gestures. They shouted out their windows at me. We put the sign in the window of our home and it gained us no new friends. We wrote a letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper and became the target of written animosity.

Now everyone is tired of war. The truths we tried to convey then still hold true today. But has anyone learned anything from these years and years of war, or will we simply be led into another bloody war after this one? And another after that? Our family member went to Iraq for two tours. He was not killed. He came back injured in body and mind. He has turned to alcohol and his anger cannot seem to be contained. What a tragedy his life is turning out to be.

"What are we to do?" people are asking now. (Especially now as we approach Christmas day). "How can we fight evil without becoming evil ourselves?" Ah, there is the question. The dilemma is created by our addiction to violence. Because violence seems to work, and doesn't, we hopefully choose it every time, only to have our hopes dashed. The problem seems too large and thus seems to have no solution. But, as with nearly every problem, we can reduce it in order to find a solution. If I personally choose the moral way of nonviolence - if I choose not to participate in violence - I will have solved the problem of war for myself. I cannot say what others will do. I cannot say what my government will do. But as for me, I choose the only sane way open to us. My writing reflects this stand.

I wonder if others will have the courage to choose a new way, or if the new year will simply be an extension of last year's moral dilemma. May you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Jim and Nancy

Friday, December 10, 2010

UTOPIA I The Dream of the Mind

The utopia of the mind is not the same as the utopia of reality. Writers and philosophers and great thinkers of every stripe; and in fact any old crackpot, scoundrel, and megalomaniac can conceive of a utopia in the mind. That is where utopia works best – in the imagination and in dreams. A utopia in reality is quite another matter and we yearn with all our hearts to look further into that possibility next week.

As you may recall, the fourth book of my novel in four volumes will concern itself with the ideas of utopia. (Utopia as allegory).

The utopia of the mind works best because, after all, who does not have the answer to all the world’s problems? If all the people in the world simply acted more like me or at least did everything I told them to do, the world would be a much better place. And when we read Utopian literature that is what it most often sounds like. Take Plato’s ‘Republic’ for instance. What it seems like on paper is the ideal, if not perfect society, based upon the City-State of the Spartans of another age. But in reality what it would be is the kind of totalitarian nightmare regime we have become so familiar with in the modern age. The Nazis in Germany thought of themselves in Utopian terms and look how that turned out. Their ‘reason’ was formed in a vacuum so when it became reality it was as twisted as their swastikas.

Writers through the ages have always had a Utopian bent. The word itself comes from Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ which can mean either ‘Good Place’ or ‘No Place’. This fits because utopia can be a good place, but it is found no place. His utopia was a contrast to the English society of his day. (He later died a martyr’s death at the hands of Henry VIII, but that is quite another story). Some other Utopian writings are Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’; John MacNie’s ‘The Diothas’ (1883); Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1888); ‘What the North Wind Rose’ by Robert Graves; St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ and B.F. Skinner’s ‘Walden Two’. I remember being enthralled by ‘Walden Two’ back in the day, but now find it simplistic in the horse and carrot manner of solving social problems.

Of course there are plenty of examples of utopia gone wrong such as Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’; ‘1984’ by George Orwell; and the allegorical ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. We might say that the Engels/Marx Utopian idea of communism went terribly wrong also, but that has crossed over into the world of reality.

America, the dream – not the reality – was very Utopian from the beginning. Columbus dreamed of discovering the Garden of Eden. Puritans sought release from the bondage of European restrictions. (Even that failed, however. We North Americans think of Puritanism with no little embarrassment today.) Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ is a kind of individual utopia. If we are willing to endure loneliness and to live within the laws of nature, we can seek and find the genuine self.

There is something unreal even in the dream of utopia. Once we have dreamed it up (it’s perfect!), are we then to stop dreaming? And the reality is even more removed –who will do the work and who would even want to live in such a place? “That’s your idea of perfection, partner, not mine.” Or – “That might work for a mindless automaton, but I have dreams of my own.” In a way the writer is always somewhat Utopian - thinking. The written word is a utopia created and controlled by me (and I hope you all will fight to the death with sticks and fingernails over the manuscripts and papers I leave behind me when I die!). Most writers have given up on utopia altogether, and have opted for anti-utopia, or dystopia instead. Utopia, they believe, is bound to fail.

All life must grow. In order to grow, utopia cannot become static. Growth causes pain. Pain must either be inflicted on others or taken upon ourselves in self-suffering love. Pain becomes suffering if it is not addressed and alleviated. Suffering causes discontent. Discontent leads to Utopian thought. Utopia fails because the people dream of utopia…

Next Week: UTOPIA II The Reality of the World.

Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All rights reserved.

For some intellectually stimulating and eclectic articles about utopia see:

Friday, December 3, 2010


I confess I'm not sure I know exactly what an allegory is. I know one when I see one, (see my list below), but I'm not sure how to define it or how to put it into practice. The reason this is important is that this month I am studying allegory with the notion of employing it in the fourth volume of my novel in four volumes. In September, you may recall, I studied Tragedy with the emphasis on Shakespeare. In October it was Apocalyptic Literature (not post-apocalyptic like 'The Road'), and last month the emphasis was on Prose Epic. So now - Allegory.

As near as I can figure, a work is allegorical when the meaning of the story is conveyed symbolically - where one thing represents something else - or when the story itself represents some other story. (If you know a better definition, please enlighten me). In a way, all literature is allegorical. The quest for Utopia (a rough idea about volume four), is the American story, for instance, or perhaps it is a universal story. Do we not all yearn for a perfect life? But a perfect life means different things to different people, and there is the rub. (American Anglo settlers destroyed indigenous peoples and cultures). Anyway, we'll look deeper into Utopia next week.

Coleridge said allegory "cannot be other than spoken consciously, whereas in... the symbol the general truth may be unconsciously in the writer's mind." A symbol is a physical image of some other thing. It therefore has a deep affinity with physical things. Allegories make extensive use of symbols - the most successful I believe is 'Lord of the Flies' - but they are more than symbolic.

Plot in an allegory unfolds as an exploration of a literal truth that is found in the words themselves, and in the history of those words. This can cause confusion among readers who are used to the standard triangular plot arrangement seen in most writing today. The author may suspend a traditional plot in mid-air, so to speak, and reveal a deeper truth about characters, situations, or words. Wordplay, then, is an organic part of the genre.

Allegory works on at least two levels - the literal and the figurative. The figurative level offers up a moral or political lesson which is indicated by the characters, symbols, and everything else in the narrative. Dante claimed that his Commedia, like the Bible, worked on four levels: 1) The literal level - the historic event. 2) The typological level - writing history as a series of signs, just as God does. 3) The moral level - the turning of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace. 4) The anagogical level - the soul's departure to heaven from the body at the time of death. This definition seems to pose as many questions as answers 'nel mezzo del Cammin di nostra vita' ('halfway along the road of life', or in my case more than half way.

At what point, then, does formal allegory give way to extended metaphor or imagery? Can a sustained metaphor become allegory? All writing begins with words and letters upon the page. Writing cannot be 'real' at all - all is allegorical. The inherent truth on the page is found in the words themselves and the narrative images they produce. If I find the rules of allegory too rigid, can I find a way that does not bind the narrative so tightly? Like Milton, of course, I can choose not to write allegory at all. Or, as when Melville claimed that 'Moby Dick' was not allegory, Hawthorne pointed out that it was "part-and-parcel allegoricalness of the whole." Perhaps I can find what C.S. Lewis ('The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'), called "the allegorical core". Thank goodness I don't have to decide today. I will continue to study the matter and invite your comments.

One allegorical novel I particularly enjoy is Hawthorne's 'The Scarlet Letter'. Yet even here some of the rules of allegory seem to be neglected or abandoned, especially when one considers how well the 'real' nature of the main characters and the demands of the tradition plot works. Still, who can forget that opening scene - an allegory if there ever was one - with the rose found at the threshold of the prison and the grim 'black and white' vista of the Pilgrim world beyond. Again and again the narrative returns to this opening scene as Pearl and the scarlet letter become one, and the scarlet letter itself becomes the 'letter of the law' written of in Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

What I am looking for may be more 'mythical' than allegorical. Myth is a story that is central to a culture or society. It embodies the values of that culture. An example of myth is, of course, the creation myth. How the universe and people came into existence. There are nearly as many creation stories as there are cultures telling those stories.

While I consider which I will use for volume four, I will be reading (or re-reading) the following books this month as examples of allegory:

'Gulliver's Travels' by Jonathan Swift
'Ulysses' by James Joyce
'Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan
'Divine Comedy' by Dante
'Sea Wolf' by Jack London
'Blindness' by Jose Saramago
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey
'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' by Carson McCullers
'Death Comes for the Archbishop' by Willa Cather
'Gravity's Rainbow' by Thomas Pynchon
and 'The Scarlet Letter' mentioned above, by Hawthorne.

Alright, I admit it may take more than a month.

Happy Holidays to you all.


Friday, November 26, 2010

HIROSHIMA, The Bomb and The Book

For some reason the notion that there was an itching sound inside the bomb as it rode along in the belly of the Enola Gay persists. It is mistaken of course. Who knows even where the notion came from? Perhaps the silence of the bomb in those moments before it was dropped on Hiroshima is just too immense to contemplate. The itching sound, then, is some sort of compensation for that end-of-the-world silence.
In 1939, before the United States entered what became World War II, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt explaining the efforts by the Nazis in Germany to purify uranium-235, which in theory could be used to build an ‘atomic’ bomb. An atom is comprised of the three sub-atomic particles – protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons cluster together to form a center mass around which the electrons orbit like tiny planets around a sun. Uranium is a heavy metal with the largest atom of all natural elements and is the most highly ‘splitable’ atom there is. Given several hundreds of thousands of years this atom will disintegrate naturally into lead. If it is bombarded with neutrons, however, a chain reaction occurs releasing heat and gamma radiation. It is this effect, it was thought, that could be used to create a blast to destroy our enemies.
Thus began the Manhattan Project. Two billion dollars were spent over six years to develop the atom bomb. A huge uranium enrichment plant was built at the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and, under J. Robert Oppenheimer a laboratory was created at another secret city; Los Alamos, New Mexico. By 1944 most of the work was focused on an implosion type device made with plutonium using the cold name ‘The Gadget’, which need to be tested before it could be used in combat. (This was the type of bomb used on Nagasaki on August 9th.) Oppenheimer directed Project TR, for Trinity, to conduct this test.
Some believed this test might cause a cataclysmic reaction in the upper atmosphere bringing about the complete destruction of the world and the annihilation of humankind with it, but apparently this did not cause enough concern to bring the project to a halt. Instead people prayed for God’s protection while their hands went about the work of creating the atomic bomb.
On July 16th, 1945 the Gadget was suspended one hundred feet above the ground on a steel tower in the pre-dawn hours and was detonated. .034 seconds later a camera caught a black and white image of the dome-like ball that looked like the back of a jelly fish or a flapper’s hat, with a roiling fringe along the bottom edge. The burst of light was such that people in distant towns thought the sun rose twice that morning. A blind girl 120 miles away ‘saw’ the light. This intense white flash stretched from the basin of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico across the Jornada del Muerto and then it became an orange fireball shooting upward at 360 feet per second turning reddish and pulsating, and finally blooming into the full mushroom cloud we have all become familiar with, pushing up to 30,000 feet in the atmosphere.
Oppenheimer, now at the very pinnacle of his achievement, grimly quoted from the Bhagavad Gita. “I am become Death,” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.” Several others circulated a petition to stop this monstrosity from ever being used again. Their efforts were, of course, like trying to put the genii back in the bottle. No one paid any attention to their protests.
In a diary entry dated July 25th, President Truman wrote, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark…
“This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children…
“The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives…”
Work commenced at once to produce the bomb – ‘Little Boy’ – that would be used in combat. Even though it was a cute little thing by today’s standards, the bomb was still ten feet long, over two feet in diameter and weighed four and a half tons. It would use TNT charges to force two masses of 235U together causing the chain reaction. Parts were delivered and assembled at the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands, an island that had been liberated form the Japanese. Fierce fighting was continuing on other likely island locations like Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Hiroshima was chosen as the site of the drop because it was flat river delta country, with no hills or mountains in the immediate area to deflect the blast and so it had been bypassed as a target for conventional bombing, leaving it in pristine condition so that the effects of the blast could be more readily observed. The heart of the city covered about four square miles. Its normal population was 380,000 men women and children, but this had been reduced to 245,000 by wartime evacuations. There were factories and residential areas there, and other residential areas extended outward toward the hills in the distance.
At around six in the morning a minute-long sounding of the air-raid siren warned of approaching enemy planes but this got little response. People were used to weather planes coming over at about that time of day, so they paid little attention. Those who were going to evacuate had already done so. Besides, strangely, Hiroshima had been spared all bombing up to this time. People speculated that their city was not a critical target for Japan’s enemies. Perhaps, they thought, the area was so beautiful that the Americans could not bring themselves to spoil it with bombing. This in spite of the fact that 720,000 leaflets had been dropped two days earlier, warning them of the impending destruction of their city. Before eight another siren sounded, but then the all-clear was given. There was no breeze that morning. It was going to be a beautiful day, if a little too warm.
The Enola Gay was a B-29 Super Fortress under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. It had been flying practice missions out of North Field, Tinian, since early July and on August 5th LI1 – Little Boy – was loaded into the front bomb bay. The following morning at 2:00 a.m. it took off on Special Bombing Mission #13. Target: Hiroshima, with the bomb to be dropped from 30,000 feet at 8:15 local time. Ground Zero was a point 1,980 feet above the Aioi Bridge.
In an instant 70,000 people vanished from the face of the earth, evaporated by a 13 kiloton explosion that measured one mile in diameter. The super-heated x-ray heated air sent a shock wave and fireball in all directions at the speed of sound. Houses were reduced to kindling as this massive wave shot forward with 5psi (which amounts to about 720 pounds per square foot), and the kindling then burst into flame, further fueling the destruction. At the very center of the blast the temperature was 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Another 70,000 were injured with no one to care for them.
A noiseless sun-bright flash of light bounced across the sky toward the hills. Those who survived the initial blast were knocked off their feet and covered with splinters of wood and shards of glass and bits of concrete. Only those many miles away heard any kind of noise from the explosion. Most thought that the bombing had been a near-direct hit in their own neighborhood. Clouds of dust rose up into the air, causing a kind of eerie morning twilight. Flames and clots of smoke rose up from anything left to burn. Survivors staggered around with terrible burns on their faces and arms, and in many cases their clothes had been burned away, leaving the pattern of the fabrics imprinted in their skin. Some people’s faces had been melted away completely. A wind picked up now and peculiar grape-sized raindrops began to fall from the dirty sky. We know now that this rain was packed with extreme amounts of radioactive materials. Here and there children were calling out for help form the piles of rubble which moments before had been their homes. For the most part there was no one capable of digging them out, and after a time their cries died down.
Survivors tried to help each other out as much as they could, but in the face of such destruction there wasn’t much anyone could do. Many made their way to the Red Cross hospital, which was filling up so quickly most were left outside. The few doctors and nurses left alive were soon overwhelmed by the shear number of casualties.
The shadow of one anonymous man – all that remains of him – was found on some steps near a bank.
Over the next several days those who had not been killed in the initial blast began to experience headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and recurring fevers. Many died. In two weeks their hair fell out in clumps, diarrhea and cramps increased, and fevers shot up to 106 degrees. By the end of the month incidents of blood disorders increased, people’s gums began to bleeding, and they experienced a sharp drop in their blood cell counts. (White cell counts went below 4,000). Open wounds were slow to heal. They had sore throats and mouths.
If their burns healed at all, and many did not, these ‘kibakusha’ as they were called – ‘explosion-affected persons’ – healed with deep layers of pinkish, rubbery scar tissue called keloid tumors.
In his book ‘Hiroshima’ (1946), the finest and most horrifying book written about this event, John Hersey quoted a report sent to the Holy See in Rome by a German Jesuit priest, a Father Siemes, “It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”
Everything following ‘Hiroshima’ can be read in a different light – the light of a nuclear explosion. Not that literature itself was shaken by this book’s words or style, but that life itself has been irreparably shifted from its foundations and that literature from then on likewise had shifted. There is no way it could not have. For that reason alone everyone who reads should read this book. It is horrible, intelligent and realistic. It begins, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima…” The author then proceeds to give a rundown on what each of his six ‘characters’ were doing at that moment. These are some of the real-life survivors of ‘the Bomb’.
Originally published in ‘The New Yorker’ in its entirety, it was recognized at once as a classic in American literature, standing witness to the tragic and earth-shaking (literally a global event as subsequent decades have proven) moment of a nuclear detonation over a largely civilian population. A hundred thousand people died in a single blast intended to prove to Japan the futility of its continue the fighting of World War II. Those who supported the use of the weapon justified it by pointing out the casualties that would be spared by abruptly putting an end to the war. Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece repudiates their claim by presenting the horrifying facts about how the blast affected the lives of real people.
Hersey wrote, “Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendezvous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Superfortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.”
Special indeed: “He heard no roar. (Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb. But a fisherman in his sampan on the Inland Sea near Tsuzo… saw the flash and heard a tremendous explosion; he was nearly twenty miles from Hiroshima, but the thunder was greater than when the B-29s hit Iwakuni, only five miles away.)”
Nearly forty years after writing ‘Hiroshima’ John Hersey returned to Japan to follow up with the people who had lived through this horrendous event. He wrote an ‘Afterward’ to his original work, published by Alfred A. Knopf (1985). Most had gone on with their lives, as one might expect; and most believed that nuclear weapons would be used again one day. Their memory, “like the world’s, was getting spotty.”

Copyright © James D. Sanderson 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


"The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." - Mark Twain.

Well that didn't take long. All one has to do is suggest that there might be a certain standard in literature for it to achieve greatness and the controversy begins. Perhaps it is time for some controversy. Readers keep being led to mediocre books (those written by the Greek master 'Mediocretes'), without ever being shown that there might be something better or (dare I say it?) more valuable. Oh sure, everyone is exposed to a good book or two in their High School lit class, but that is often considered a violation of the reader's 'free will'. To actually pick up a great work of literature and read it and to come to understand why it might be considered great... that seems to be a thing of the past. Or, perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps greatness is always reserved to an exclusive few while the masses always continue to lust after that which is worthless.

Let me be clear, here, so as not to upset any future readers. This is a blog that concerns itself with literary greatness. (Thus the name: 'Literary Greatness'). We will not, here, concern ourselves with literary mediocreness nor with literary trashiness, nor with literary okayness. No, greatness is our goal and we shall not deviate from it. If, in these pages, certain readers are made uneasy by our directness, we make no apologies for it. If readers of these pages become outraged that we do not accept the flat terrain of the internet, so be it. (The internet seems to make everyone believe they have something to say, and that it is important because they want to say it, and that it is worthwile reading because they have said it. I assure you, I don't have time left in my life to share with you what I had for breakfast (oatmeal), nor do you have the time to spend reading such hogwash). I see that anyone and everyone may 'vote' their preferences on certain book sites. In that way Harry Potter is 'great', while 'Great Expectations' might be considered too long and, you know, like, totally boring. If that is the site for you, please go there.

This is the last I am going to say on the matter. From here we will continue to wade into the deep waters of great literature - both the reading and writing of it - and we will not detour because certain writers or readers think we should lend our attention to more mundane affairs.

I agree with Robert Frost... "People who read me seem to be divided into four groups: twenty-five percent like me for the right reasons; twenty-five percent like me for the wrong reasons; twenty-five percent hate me for the wrong reasons; twenty-five percent hate me for the right reasons. It's the last twenty-five percent that worries me."

Well, No Soup For Them...


Friday, November 19, 2010


At dusk we set out by train from Barcelona. The compartment was jammed with merry-makers from many countries passing bottles of wine around. Empty bottles rolled and clinked together on the floor of the compartment. After a time many of us dozed off.

It was many years since I had first read Hemingway and by now I had read them all. Somehow I had gotten the notion that all great writers must attend the Running of the Bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. I don't know why they call it the Running 'of' the Bulls, which makes it seem that the bulls run alone through the streets.

In the morning we stepped bleary-eyed from the train into the dusty dawn of Pamplona. Women were down at the river already washing clothes. We began to ask along the street about a place to stay. The town was packed with tourists, of course, but we eventually got a spare room in the house of a couple whose baby toddled around without benefit of diapers. The place smelled dusty and even the water from the tap tasted of dust.

The day was hot and dry. It was the first week in July. We spent our time wandering around, taking a meal at a little restaurant, and napping in the afternoon. That night the merry-making continued. Everyone had come to get drunk, it seems. Perhaps they were building up their levels of liquid courage. By morning people were staggering or already passed out in doorways and along the sidewalks. Those who were still upright began to line up along the street that would take the bulls through town to the bullring. The very bravest, the drunkest, or the most insane, formed a line nearest the place the bulls would come from. I will leave it to the reader to decide which I was.

We began to shake rolled-up newspapers and chant and call for the bulls. We didn't have long to wait. The loud retort of fireworks set them off. We waited and chanted and shook our rolled-up newspapers and then the bulls appeared around the corner below us. The first wave of bulls are relatively tame, and lead the next wave - the actually Spanish fighting bulls - through the streets. They were very close and still no one moved. Each of us seemed determined to wait for someone else to run first. It doesn't seem nearly so brave now.

At last someone moved and we all turned and ran. We took three steps before the first wave of bulls was upon us and we dodged as best we could those horns that could carry us away to the infirmary or worse. But the bulls were intent upon getting up the street and we came away undamaged. In fact they seemed little concerned with us at all.

Things became serious with the second wave. They also seemed little concerned with us except inasmuch as we got in their way. As they came up even - we were running with all our might, indeed, with all our might - a black bull stumbled on the cobblestones and fell heavily in the street beside me. I stopped, not knowing what to do. The bull regained its footing and now, cut off from the others, became dangerous. He swung away from me. A man on that side caught hold of the awning over the doorway and pulled himself bodily up and out of the way of the horns. I don't know what superhuman strength he called upon to accomplish it.

The bull swung his head back toward me. A man just in front of me caught his eye. He charged. His right horn caught the man in the midsection, in the stomach, and slammed him mightily against the wooden beam barricade that blocked that side of the street. An astonishing fan of blood splayed out into the dust. The man dropped where he had stood and people on the other side of the barricade pulled him under. I turned and ran back down the street the way we had come. The bull proceeded up toward the bull ring, attacking any and all who got in his way.

I found Nancy in the crowd. She hadn't been able to see, but heard someone shouting a man was gored. It wasn't me, I informed her.

Somewhere in the thick of the crowd someone got the notion that the bulls were coming again. A moment of panic seized them all. The crowd surged with a mind of its own. Nancy was knocked to her knees.

The bulls, apparently, are not the only thing to be feared in Pamplona early in July.

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I first read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by kerosene lantern light in a cabin in the wilds of northern Michigan. The lantern sat in the middle of the kitchen table and my brothers read ‘Sports Afield’ and ‘Outdoor’ magazines and as we read shadows played upon the dark walls. The cabin itself was made from sections of an old army barracks that my father and I had hauled up one weekend on a flat trailer pulled behind a borrowed truck. Outside in the dark as we read the wind blew acorns down onto the roof with a nobly sound and it was then, somehow drawing a connection between the tall dark forest of the north and the infinite deep waters of the Gulf Stream, that I knew I would be a writer.

Santiago, the old man of the story, had gone eighty four days without taking a fish. Many years have passed for me since first reading that opening line. And, like the old man, I have had little luck. A couple of minor works were published, but that was long ago, and the two good things I have written now go begging for a publisher. But, also like the old man, I would rather hone my skills than depend upon luck. In that way when the big one comes along, I will be in the place to hook it.

It has come along and I have hooked it and now, like old Santiago, I know I will suffer for it and pay my life into it and struggle with it until the greatness has been landed. Nothing else, now, is of any significance. Even to write here, now, would be a waste of time if I was not also thinking through what I will do with the greatest story I have ever been given; and the greatest story I ever will be given.

In college my professor predicted I would be a great writer and I have spent much time since then trying to live up to the promise, with little material success. But now that I too am growing old I know that material success has little meaning in itself and that once his fish was landed and he had paid the price for it, it would all be stripped away and he would be left with nothing but a bare backbone that would lie awash in the water along the beach, and the tourists would identify it with a very different fish. It would be tempting to shrug and say fatalistically, “such is life,” and give up on the whole mess.

And I would give up, too, if it were not for the greatness that is calling from the deep waters too far out from land. I, like Santiago, know that I will go there and bring in the big fish, no matter what the cost.

Friday, November 12, 2010


In the world of publishing any long novel is considered to be an epic. ‘Lonesome Dove’ is an ‘epic’ of the old west. Or it might be called a ‘sweeping epic’, or a ‘grand epic’. And of course it is prose, so it might also be considered a ‘prose epic’. But is this correct?

The only true prose epic I know of is ‘The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda’ by Miquel Cervantes, the Spanish author who also brought us ‘Don Quiote’. It was his final work, published posthumously. It is the story of a prince and his wife who travel as ordinary people and who are met with many dangers along the way. The remarkable thing about his epic is that Persiles is a hero who employs not a sword, but his words against those who would harm them. It is a kind of nonviolent epic, the only one of its kind that I am aware of.

I bring this up because I have been working this month on the structure and plan for a prose epic. It will be one volume of a novel in four parts. The first, which I planned out in September, is a tragedy. That led me to read and study Shakespeare, of course, and other tragic works. Last month I planned out my apocalyptic novel, the second in the series. I, like so many others, really thought of post-apocalyptic when I thought of such work. But no, apocalyptic is before the event. It predicts the coming events. Not in the way of fortune telling, I found, but more in the sense that if we don’t change the way we do things, this is how it will turn out for us. So that will be the second. Now, the third is an epic novel. There are certain characteristics that make an epic an epic:

True epics are found in verse form. The verse builds a kind of separation between the events, and the story of the events, and the reader. ‘The Illiad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, are epics. The ‘Modern Sequel’ by Nikos Kazantzakis (also the author of ‘Zorba, The Greek’, one of my favorites), is also an epic. Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ are epics. They begin in the middle of things, (in medias res). The hero is in the thick of it, perhaps at his lowest point. The setting of an epic is vast, and may even represent the world or the universe. It begins with an invocation to a muse and with a statement of theme. Epic simile is used.

There are many more ‘restrictions’ to epics that I’m sure you can find if you take up the subject search on the internet. The main point I am making, and am learning for myself, is that modern literature does not lend itself to the creation of true epic, especially in the prose form. Our sense of what a novel is rejects many traditions and rules. We tend to shy away from a high moral tone and long lists of people or objects, which seem to typify the epic. We think of our heroes, and ourselves, as individuals doing single battle in the world, whereas the epic hero embodies the values of civilization and community. Many modern novels reject the idea of an orderly and purposeful universe, while the epic assumes there is meaning in life, and that it is directed toward some purposeful goal.

So, have I painted myself into a corner by planning a prose epic? We shall see. It will be a challenge, to say the least. But isn’t that what we authors love most?

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010



At an agent's site this week I read with interest that our (we writers) best bet would be to churn out a couple of trashy (my words) novels a year and forget about the literary stuff. After all, who is going to pay any attention to literature? Do you want to make a comfortable living or get a good review?

I'm not even sure I'm capable of saying what is wrong with all that. Is it any wonder we don't have any Leo Tolstoys around any more? "Hey, Mr. Tolstoy, that 'Anna Karenina' is great but what we really need for you to do it to crank out a couple of romance novels first. You've got to keep the rubles rolling in, you know."

This comes at a bad time for me. I have been trying to find a publisher for a literary nonfiction book 'American Masters' and for my novel 'The Struggle' and have not been having much success. I have also picked up working on a novel in four volumes - very literary - that I began clear back in 1996. Each volume is going to have a different literary approach to the story. The first is tragedy. The second apocalyptic (not post-apocalyptic, but true apocalyptic). The third is prose epic. (About which I will write more on Friday's post). And the final volume will be allegorical. If I can't even get anyone to pay attention to my more modest works, who is going to go for such a grand work of literature?

Then it dawned on me: A publisher is not going to take a risk on anything any more. The author is going to have to do all the leg work to get people interested and to get the word out. To 'build a platform' as they call it. But, if the author has done all that, what need do we have of a publisher? I have seen some of my work through the printing and distribution process before. So why not again?


Does that make sense? There seems to be no standard in literature except that it be exciting and that it make money. Is anyone attempting anything more than that? I'm sure some are, but I'm not sure their voices are being heard.

Having said that, then, I have begun trying to get the word out via this blog and on Facebook and so on. This is not a viral effort, which suggests an overnight 'Flash' success. No, there will be nothing flashy about any of this. What there will be, here, is a genuine effort to discover what is missing, and perhaps to explore ways to put it back into our literature. Content is supreme here.

I can't do this alone, however. I'd like to link up with other authors and groups that have similar interests. I will be looking to those of you who read classics and who write literary novels , short stories, and nonfiction. Then, as we build a network together, I believe we will experience a cascade as friends tell friends that something real is happening among us. Once we have set this in motion, in short, it will be difficult to stop.

Won't you join with me in this effort? Spread the word that literature is not (yet) dead. We won't let it die.


Friday, November 5, 2010


Our eleven year old granddaughter has begun reading some 'classic' literature. She started with Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea'. (The author claimed to have written the ending 26 times. When asked by a reporter what the problem with the ending was, Mr. Hemingway replied, "I couldn't get the words right"). She has just finished 'Call of the Wild' by Jack London and is now reading 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens. She has found these books 'real' and 'fascinating'. Even her vocabulary has increased. I don't ever remember hearing 'fascinating' before. Her reading has caused some lively discussion around here and she has been asking some pointed and sometimes uncomfortable questions. New worlds are opening up to her, in short, and her experience reminds us that Great Literature 'is' fascinating. These are words and sentences and stories that have lasted - some for thousands of years.


We can turn to them when we want a real experience of the world, and of our struggles in it. Their pages are filled with laughter, tears, and questions like: "Why am I here?" And "What is it all for?" Sometimes we are disturbed by the author's answers.

Here, at 'Literary Greatness', we take a look at what makes such work great. We struggle with the questions. We look at the stories of what it took to create these works - what it cost their authors or at what they did with their lives. These, also, are sometimes fascinating. In her childhood, for instance, one famous American author taught a chicken to walk backward. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist, was next in line for the firing squad before his sentence was commuted and he was shipped off to a prison camp.

Here you will find these 'portraits' of famous authors, essays on things literary, book reports, reviews, short stories (as I struggle with the questions in my own work), sample chapters, and more.

I hope you will join 'Literary Greatness' now to receive weekly updates and to post your own comments. Let me know what you think. Let me know what you're reading and what you think of it. Let me know how you are struggling with the questions and what greatness is required of us all to prevail.

Sign up now and let's get to it...


Friday, October 29, 2010


At sixty years of age Daniel Allman had committed the one sin he never thought he would; he had not died in his youth. To say he wouldn't live past forty had been a popular saying back in his day, (or was it thirty?)but he had really believed it. He had always done the kinds of things that would bring an early death, but he had somehow avoided it. Now, as he had heard someone say, "If I had known I was going to live so long, I'd have taken better care of himself." He had lived hard then and was paying the price now.

Courting death then had been his way of staving off madness, a family malady, but now - being no longer young - he tried to stave off that madness and his quite literal temptation to suicide, by way of his writing.

He wrote a weekly column about literature, surprisingly popular, for a metropolitan newspaper, had had reviews and articles published in the 'New Yorker' and others, but he feared writing his Great American Novel because he might fail and kill himself at last. It was touch and go for him - any day could be the end of his sanity and his life. He had a long history of many events and a nearly photographic recall of things literary. He had the ability to write interesting tidbits about books and authors. These were things he knew he could write. His 'portraits' as he called them. But there was no guarantee that he could actually write fiction of great caliber.

So it was with great apprehension he sat down and began to write what was then and would remain his secret work - his secret novel.

Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I just finished my nonfiction book 'American Masters'.

‘American Masters’ (89,000 words) is a book for those who love books. It is a popular history of American literature from its beginning in our colonial period (Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin), through our most recent Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. It is written in a sweeping narrative style (with a hidden first person narrator), drawing from the lives of the authors, their stories, their work, and interesting anecdotes from their own experiences. (All properly researched and referenced). Did you know, for instance, that at age six Flannery O’Connor taught a chicken to walk backward. It was filmed by the Pathé News and was shown across the country. Little Mary O’Connor was on film helping with her chicken. She claimed that everything else in her life was anti-climactic. This is only one of the many such stories that have turned up in the research of this book. (And it has been just a plain ol’ hoot to write, if you’ll allow me that levity).
The study of literature has somehow become divided up by particular authors or poets, or various ‘movements’, or by their individual works. Very little has been done to mine the vast interconnectedness of the literary tradition from its earliest days until the present. Yet, not surprisingly, these authors knew each other, or had read each other, or had written reviews about each other, or had made comments about each other, and nothing was ever written in a vacuum as it sometimes appears to us today. Readers, (myself included), have approached the whole affair of reading our masters as a hit and miss matter, which seems to be more often miss than hit.
‘American Masters’ has a strong narrative insistence which does not sacrifice itself by use of obvious fictional techniques. Rather, it is written on several levels, giving it a deep tidal flow that is not fully appreciated by only a surface reading. Beyond the simple chronological reading there is a deeper symbolic level; and a deeper still mythic historicity of dreams, fears, imaginings; and a deeper still labyrinthine level of games, puzzles, codes, word play, and so on. (Which could be appreciated by the likes of Nabokov.)

You will find that my serial novel 'Double Portrait' will contain many of the same devices, as well as being a good read. I'll let you know. Soon. Very soon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So, having said that, I am going to try something very different very soon.

It's not like I haven't been doing anything this past year. I have finished a screenplay 'The Angelic Mysteries', 118 pages. It is an action thriller with a love story naturally woven in based on my 1995 novel by the same name. (There are still some copies floating around out there on the 'used' shelves. Yes, that is the very same novel my agent said was going to bring in seven figures. (I had to count on my fingers. Yes, that's $millions!) Well, that didn't happen then but maybe it will now.

'The Angelic Mysteries' is 'Terminator' meets 'City of Angels'. When sensual young bachelor Daniel Allman leaves home to travel in Europe he does not expect to meet Sarah, a woman who believes herself to be an angel. Intrigued by her beauty and mysterious ways, he invites her to travel along with him. Only too late does he discover she is being pursued by a monstrous psychopath known as Toombs. Only by transcending his own selfish desires and falling in love with this 'spiritual' part of his life will he be able to destroy the evil anti-angel that dogs them.

I am currently finishing up a literary novel, 'The Struggle' - the story of a man who must give up everything in the attempt to liberate his country through nonviolent direct action - and a screenplay based on that novel. I am also working on yet another screenplay that I'll say more about as it gets closer to completion.

Soon, very soon, we will begin a literary adventure that will explore the life of Daniel Allman in his later years. He writes a column for a metropolitan newspaper. His subject. You guessed it. Literature.

How well read are you really? You will have to be ready to delve into the mysteries of great literature, and great writers - their lives and ideas about writing - in order to fully appreciate this serialized novel that will be offered right here. Soon. Very soon.

I have disabled comments from any and all except members of this blog. I was getting way too many weird comments from all over the blogosphere. I'd rather know who it is I'm corresponding with. Hope that works for you.

Keep reading and writing,