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part one of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

For other Sanders work, see Pops’s review of Staying Put and my review of Writing From the Center.


At this point in my semester, I’m beginning to work on a first draft of the third semester project in my MFA program: a critical essay, or longform investigation of the strategies of writers I admire that might inform my own work. (For more about the critical essay, you can take a look at pages 42-44 of the student handbook here, and follow this tag.) My essay topic is the use of stuff, things, or material objects (new tag!) as a way in to a subject or a character. With this topic in mind, I approached this most recent (2012) collection of Scott Russell Sanders’s work especially interested in a few essays in particular. I’d intended to only sample from the rest; but I couldn’t put it down.


Earth Works is a must-have collection for the Sanders fan. He carefully selected the 30 essays here, including nine that have never before been collected. I’ve read some of these before, but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings in.

A brief preface places these essays in some context in Sanders’s life and aims, and then they unfurl, in mostly chronological order by date of composition (some exceptions for the sake of juxtaposing topics), and with few revisions to their original published form (“for better or worse”). I really appreciate that the first essay, composed in 1987, is “The Singular First Person”: it lays out Sanders’s perspective about the personal essay, its form and purposes. It’s a smart way to start, because it offers some idea of what he thinks he’s up to, and therefore some promise of what is to come. A humble man speculates on what he finds in the world, in the hopes of asking big questions: “Who am I? What sense can I make of this inner tumult? How should I live? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we? What finally and deeply matters? What is true, and how can we know?” (From a later essay, “Letter to a Reader.”) Sanders is concerned with nature and the natural world, but resists the term “nature writer” (as did Edward Abbey), because he is most concerned with interconnectedness: human beings with one another, with the natural world of which we are mere part. He wonders about spirituality, about our place in the cosmos, about the sadness of consumerism and war, the destruction of the Earth; but he has a great love for the world, too, and allows that to shine through.

This reading, my deepest exploration of his work, confirms for me that Sanders is one of my favorite essayists. He marries content that is meaningful and sympathetic to me with style that is both lovely to read, and nearly invisible. As I’ve said before, the best writing often doesn’t even feel crafted, but that’s when you know it was hardest to craft. These essays are good examples of that idea.

I came for three essays in particular, as I said. “The Inheritance of Tools” uses stuff or things to get at a character: Sanders recalls his father through the tools that father passed on to him, along with the knowledge of how to use them; this essay is a way of processing his grief on his father’s death. “Under the Influence” is about the same father, but in this essay, the father is an alcoholic, who causes his family great pain. The two fit interestingly together because they’re about the same man from two very different perspectives. Finally, “Buckeye” continues the grieving for the beloved father, through a series of objects, beginning with the title buckeyes but traveling through other material things. Because all three attempt to profile a parent, and deal with the relationship between writer and parent, and because two of them do so through objects, they offer a number of things to me. For the purpose of the critical essay, I’ve also got my hands on a talk Sanders gave in 1990 at the University of Iowa, about the crafting of “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Under the Influence.”

As I said, these were not the only standout essays for me, and I kept reading for the pleasure of it beyond the three essays I’d intended to study. It wasn’t all good times, either, though. An early (1984) essay, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds,” made me angry. Sanders means well, and he is good to the women in his life (wife and daughter) in many ways. He considers himself a feminist. This essay means well, too, but it makes some major blunders, when he concludes that his own upbringing in relatively impoverished, working-class conditions make the challenges he’s faced the same as those faced by women. I am taken back to an excellent article I read years ago, titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” The idea here is that you can be really poor and still enjoy privilege as a white person, because at least your race isn’t contributing to the limitations or constraints you face. The same principle could be applied to Sanders’s arguments. You might have been poor, you might have been limited, but you didn’t face the glass ceiling, the sexual harassment, the wage gap, the rape culture, or the insidious, invisible assumptions of incompetence that women did and do face. Concluding that you thoroughly understand the predicament of women when you don’t is arguably more problematic than not attempting to understand in the first place; congratulating oneself and turning away is troubling, because it makes you something of a false ally. His blindness to this problem gave me a lot of trouble. The HuffPost article was published in 2014, and Sanders’s essay, again, in 1984. But since he’s reprinted it in 2012 without feeling a need for further comment, I think he still needs to go read the HuffPost piece.

I won’t forget the blind spots exposed in this essay. But it’s to the great credit of the rest of this book that I still love it. Because there is indeed much to love here, not least the previously uncollected work near the end–I really enjoyed seeing Sanders articulate his appreciation for Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, among others. I had already sent a copy of this book to my father before I got to these essays, but they made me glad again that I’d sent it to him.

Come back to me next Wednesday and I’ll do more raving, and slightly more quibbling, with this long and rich book.

2 Responses

  1. […] two essays, “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Buckeye,” from his collection Earth Works. My critical essay is titled “Yucca, Lemon, Buckeye: The Strangeness and Singularity of […]

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