Saturday, June 25, 2011


How would the American character have been portrayed if our earliest writers had not made the attempt to define it for us? Last time we left off with Washington Irving warming to his story set in the small market town of Greensburgh. Or, more specifically, in a quiet spot two miles outside of town. A spot known as Sleepy Hollow. In this bewitched place there was one apparition that seemed to prevail over all others - that of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball. Historians believed that the body had been buried in a nearby churchyard and that every so often he rides out in search of his lost head. Before daybreak this 'Headless Horseman' was always in a hurry to get back to his proper place.
Now it is said that some thirty years earlier a tall, lank man with narrow shoulders and long arms and legs - a man named Ichabod Crane - 'tarried' in the area. "To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him fro the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield," Irving writes. Such details continue to build believability in his tale.
Why is it that Irving gives his main character, his 'hero', such strange features and odd manners? This school teacher from Connecticut is an 'outsider' and anyone who has been an outsider in a small town will recognize just what this man is up against. That old Headless Horseman is more accepted, despite the fact that he is ephemeral - a spirit - than this very human stranger. By sharing his stories of ghosts, Crane is hoping to win acceptance in this place where nightmares and superstitions are as real as, or more real than, real life.
Ichabod Crane was a strict taskmaster in the classroom who always kept in mind the golden maxim to spare the rod is to spoil the child, but after school he would hang out with the older boys and even escort the smaller ones home if they had pretty sisters or mothers who were good cooks. This character might be summed up in modern terms like this: he was a gangly, freeloading, self-absorbed, sissy. Not the attributes that would naturally endear him to his solid, hardworking, tough neighbors. He was the quintessential outsider.
This hero makes his first real mistake when he begins courting the beautiful Katrina Van Tussel, whose father also just happens to be a prosperous farm owner. She, of course, is also being courted by some of the local boys - strapping, hardy lads. Chief among them is a strong country fellow named Brom Van Brunt, whose nickname reflects his prowess - Bram Bones. He is the true hero. Here is the insider, the hard rider, the wild and spirited fist fighter. It is he, Bram, (the narrator leads his readers to believe), who 'becomes' the Headless Horseman in order to run this weak, effeminate, intellectual city slicker back to where he came from. It is this child of the American wilderness who prevails in the end and all join in the laughter as old Ichabod Crane skedaddles back to civilization.
It is here, too, in this tension between civilization and wilderness, between the insider and the outsider, between the intellect and the physical, that is found the American character and the gravitas of Washington Irving's storytelling.
Next week we'll take a look at Rip Van Winkle in the concluding post of The American Character. Hope you'll join me.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 17, 2011


I thought there would be a 'Sacred Writing' Part III this week but as is sometimes the case, I just discovered it is not here to write. I do reserve the right to post more on Sacred Writing at some later date. Instead, join with me as we explore some of the earliest writing in our country's history, and how it reveals something about The American Character:
Jorge Luis Borges said of Washinton Irving and James Fenimore Cooper,"... we can skip over them without any consequence." Friends, their position at the very beginning of the history of American literature brings at least some relevance to their work. Here in their writings is found the first seeds of the American hero. Here is found the hero that is never quite at home in the world. The one who is unsure of his place. The one who is unable to ever completely fit in. Here is found the predecessor of Ahab, Snopes, Jake Barnes and Dean Moriarty.
It is, in fact, impossible to calculate just how much influence Washington Irving exerted over those who were to follow. He was the first belletrist of American Letters. He was the one who shaped and created the modern American short story - placing his tales on American soil. He was the first to write in the vernacular - the common language of the day. The first to bring humor into his work. The first in the Gothic tradition that would later influence Edgar Allen Poe. The first to set pen to parchment to create literature in America. What might have emerged if he had not written can never be known.
Because he was born shortly after independence in 1783, he was named for George Washington. He was a sickly kid - the eleventh in his family - but he dreamed of adventure and far-flung travels. His favorite book growing up was 'Robinson Crusoe'. One day his dreams would be realized and, as was reported in 'The Atlantic Monthly' "He recognized fully the advantages of a foreign life... in following up that career of belles-lettres study which he had marked out for himself. The free entree of European libraries and galleries and familiar association with a class of cultivated men of leisure (in countries where such class exists), offered opportunity for refining his taste, for enlarging his stock of available material, and for stimulating his mental activity, of which he was not slow to perceive the value, and of which he has given ample account." ('The Atlantic Monthly' Vol 13, Issue 80. Boston. June 1864).
Irving's two most famous stories appeared in 'The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.' (1819). Its publication won its author and American literature in general the respect and acclaim of European critics.
'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is told in the first person, presumably by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. By claiming the manuscript was found among the papers of the deceased, and by saying in the Postscript that it had been "Found in the Handwriting of Mister Knickerbocker," Irving is doing everything he can to make the story seem a true one. The narrator gives details that he claims to be precise and authentic. At every turn he attempts to establish the story's veracity. "On my word of honor," is what is implied.
Having established the 'truth', then, Irving warms to his story. (One can almost see him rubbing his hands together with a mischievous and knowing smile on his full face). On the eastern shore of the Hudson River lies the small market-town of Greensburgh or, more properly Tarry Town. So-called because in it men used to tarry or hang around on market days while their wives were off shopping. Outside of town, some two miles away, is found a quiet and secluded spot. In fact the general characteristics of the entire area is of quietude, of repose, and retreat from the troubles of this world. There, in that little valley known as Sleepy Hollow one may find tranquility and a drowsy atmosphere. Some say the place is haunted or bewitched. There are many local tales about that enchanted region.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.
Let me tell you more about this Sleepy Hollow next week in Part Two of 'The American Character'. Jim

Friday, June 10, 2011


I'm way behind the times. In fact the truths I try to live by are as old as the hills. Love God. Love One Another. Tell the truth. (Perhaps even more important -live the truth). Haven't I heard about Postmodernism? people demand to know. I must be stuck way back there in the male dominated, structuralist, pre-deconstructionist, urban, elite, totalization - ated :), hierarchical, designed, purposeful, modernism (or even pre-modernism) of some other time! Well, OK, while that is not completely true, it is mainly true. Is that because I don't understand Postmodernism? Not at all. I understand it only too well and I reject it.

How can I reject it? Everyone else is doing it. I reject it because of its selfish, relative, anarchic, fragmented, and deconstructive approach to the truth. (Or antithesis of truth). It is just that simple. I believe in a creator God. A saving Christ. A single truth. A value system rooted in God's Word. A purposeful life lived according to an ultimate plan. Eternal life.

The way I believe causes me to write the way I do. There is a reason for writing as I do, I should say. I understand that there is a reason Postmodernists write the way they do too. They see the world as a frustrating, enraging, dis empowering, authoritarian place to live. (And believe me on certain days I can see exactly what they are talking about). But when I'm in my right mind, I know that I am but a small part of the overall pattern and plan in a universe created for a purpose by a Grand Creator - God.

My belief causes me to love others even when they are unlovable. (Its a supernatural thing). To help others even when they don't deserve help. To live the way of nonviolence in my life. (And that's a tough one folks in a culture steeped in violence). To love and cherish my wife and family. To touch the earth lightly with a smaller car, recycling, reusing, rethinking the way I do things, batching my trips so I drive less, buying locally when possible, shopping at the thrift shop, to grow my own food as much as I can, to capture and use rainwater, to stop and help my neighbor with her goats... I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here. I'm trying to make a point that the way I believe drives the way I act 'and' the way I write. My writing is just part and parcel with the way I have chosen to live my life.

And, as I pointed out last week, my life is all I have to give. The time I'm given on this great earth is all I'm going to have so when I write, I'm investing the most precious gift I have - my time - into my work. I think that makes what I have to say pretty important. It will have to be important to you, too, if you're going to spend/invest your time reading it. Does that mean you have to believe exactly as I do? Not at all. We can agree to disagree. We can even disagree and disagree. But I want you to know that what I have written I take very seriously. I hope it entertains you, but I also hope it makes you stop and think about the nature of the planet we live on, and the sacredness of our lives.

Those are the terms under which I set pen to paper. It sets a standard for my writing and it also sets forward a challenge for the reader. The more the reader has read, the more insight the reader will have into what I have written.

Whew, this whole post took an unexpected turn. I guess I'll have to write what I planned to write next week. Let me know what you think either here or on Facebook at:

See you next time GLW (Good Lord Willing),


Monday, June 6, 2011


It doesn't seem like so long ago when I was young and my dad was in business for himself as a house painter and Marmaduke came over every so often to visit us. I always looked forward to seeing Marmaduke. He was a college guy and he had big plans and he always handed me one of those match sticks that was made of cardboard and asked me to split it with my thumb nail. Then he'd tell me to take each side between my fingers and hold the thing out in front of me. Then he'd tell me to say 'Vroom' 'Vroom' and when I did he said, "Hey, what have you got there, a motorcycle?"

He did it every time he came over and I guess it was a little bit silly, especially looking back at it now, but I admired him so much I didn't care.

Marmaduke always had a story to tell and of course I don't remember most of them now. He really liked my dad and they hit it off well in spite of the difference in their ages, just as I hit it off with him in spite of the age difference between us. Maybe Marmaduke just hit it off well with everyone, I don't know.

One time Marmaduke came over with a record album to play for my dad. It was one of the first albums by Bob Dylan - I don't remember which one. I listened in and I could tell my dad didn't really get it about Bob Dylan but I did. After a while my friends were listening to Bob Dylan and they didn't really get it either. I tried to explain it to them but they still didn't get it. Then after some more time went by everyone was listening to Bob Dylan and they really got it about him. I think I must have been one of the first people to get it about Bob Dylan and that was because of Marmaduke.

Another time he came over he had a roll of paper under his arm and it was plans for an amusement park once he rolled it out, all laid out like it was ready to be built. It was a project he had done for a college class but then he started to take it seriously and thought that he might actually build it and he'd make a bundle of money. He asked my dad if he'd like to invest some money in it but my dad just shook his head sadly and shrugged his shoulders and showed the palms of his hands.

"Sorry, buddy, I can't do it. I've got kids to raise."

I don't know if the amusement park ever got built. I don't remember there ever being a new park being built around that part of Southwest Michigan. Probably not. That's how things go, really. There are a lot more 'probably nots' than there are 'probablies' in the world. As least that was true where I came from.

Anyway, I ran into Marmaduke years later and he didn't mention the amusement park or anything like it. He worked in a record store as I recall. He still like Bob Dylan but there was a lot of other music he liked too. That was after my dad lost his business and went out to Arizona to live in a school bus.

After we had gotten past our greetings and smiles and back slapping and answering, "Say, where is your old man anyway?" and "How is he doing?" Marmaduke said, "I've got a story to tell you, Jim." And he proceeded to tell me about this man he knew - Daniel Allman - who met a woman who believed she was an angel. "Honest to God," he said. "They traveled around together and I'm not lyin' he said they were being chased around Europe by a huge anti-angel. An anti-angel is one that comes from hell according to Daniel. And their job is to catch or kill the good angels."

And the more he told me the story of this Daniel Allman and the girl, Sarah, the more I knew I had to write it all out and that is the story that is 'The Angelic Mysteries' that is coming out August 18th this year.

I don't know whatever happened to Marmaduke after that. I never saw him again. I do know what happened to my dad and all the rest of it. But I guess that will have to wait for another time.

Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson All Rights Reserved.

Friday, June 3, 2011


All writing is sacred. It is sacred in the sense that our lives are sacred and if we are pouring our lives into something, that something becomes a sacred endeavor. This makes some assumptions, I know. It assumes that our lives 'are' sacred. That there is some meaning and purpose for our lives. And it assumes that what we do is sacred - that it is part and parcel with the purpose of our lives. Without those basic assumptions I question whether anything is, or could be, sacred at all.

Even if we leave aside the idea of a Creator God (which I don't), our lives are sacred in the sense that we are only given so much time. This moment is the only such moment we are to be given. When it has passed it will never be present again. We will never again be present in this moment. In a sense I have traded this moment in time to be writing this blog posting. It will never be again. I will never be again in this moment. Therefore, this moment is a sacred moment.

I have heard it said that time is limited. That's not true. Time is not limited. Our lives are limited in time. Because our lives end, we have been given only so much time to be. What I am be-ing in this moment, what I am doing, is therefore important. Should I not be doing something important with it?

Sacredness in our culture has been eclipsed by the desire for money and the pleasure that we believe money can buy. We are intent upon getting our work done so that we can exchange it for payment and to exchange that payment for a night out, a travel adventure, a new car/boat/house/RV, or what have you. Even when we are poor, however, and not presented with so many options, we can lose track of our sacredness. We become caught up in our lack of money and our lack of the pleasures that money can buy. (We see these pleasures being lived out all around us, do we not?) We can come to curse our life and lose sight of its significance.

But time is passing whether we recognize our sacredness or not. A good exercise might be to imagine we are at the end of our lives and looking back and asking ourselves what we would like to see there. Am I going to curse the day I held my child and loved her? Am I going to rue the day I woke up early to watch the sunrise? Am I going to feel cheated by the time I put into writing the greatest work I possibly could?

Such is the sacredness of writing.

I am nearing 59 years of age and both ends of life are coming into view. Looking back now, I can scarcely remember the gratification that came from owning things. I can scarcely recall the days I cursed my life because I was poor and having trouble paying the bills. What has become important to me, and what was important all along, was the time I spent/invested in finding the sacred center. It is here I want to spend the rest of my days.

With love,