Spring 2015 Bulletin

Writing as Discovery

Scott Russell Sanders

Editors’ Note: We are inaugurating a new feature in this issue of the Bulletin: notes and short essays written by Academy Members on their current work or on new developments or topics of interest in their fields and professions. We invite all Members interested in contributing to “On the Professions” to contact the editors of the Bulletin at bulletin@amacad.org. We hope that this new feature will be a medium through which Members address one another and share in the excitement of each other’s work.


When I told my parents I wanted to switch my major, midway through college, from physics to English, my father replied, “But you already know English.” So I explained that I wanted to study British and American literature, pursue a Ph.D., and become a professor. To my parents, neither of whom had graduated from college, that goal seemed rather grand, but like many of their generation, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, they believed that a brighter future awaited their children. My father had earned his living in factories, first as a line worker and eventually as a manager, and he was surprised to learn that a person could actually get paid for reading and talking about books. My mother was a homemaker with sundry skills, none of which were dignified by a paycheck, but she was an artist at heart as well as an avid reader, and she understood that my real ambition was to become a writer. If studying English would help me pursue that dream, then she would support me wholeheartedly, and she persuaded my father to do the same.

Half a century after my parents gave me their blessing, I can look back on a career that has proven to be more fulfilling than anything I could have imagined as an undergraduate. After completing my Ph.D. in English at the University of Cambridge in 1971, I joined the faculty at Indiana University, where I taught for the next four decades. During all those years I never ceased feeling grateful to be able to earn my living in the way my father found so implausible: by reading and writing, and by discussing works of literature with bright, inquisitive young people. In what other profession could one share on a daily basis the pleasures of language well used and art well made, while exploring the variety and meaning of human experience?

It is not fashionable in today’s academy to speak of literary study as a source of aesthetic pleasure, much less as a way of exploring what it means to be human. But those were the rewards that drew me to the reading of stories and novels and poems in childhood, and that keep me reading now. Literature helps me think about how we shape our individual lives, how we treat one another, how we organize ourselves into communities, how we relate to the rest of nature, and how we might do all of those things more wisely, kindly, and richly. Biology influences our behavior profoundly, of course, as it does that of all animals; but humans are distinctive in the degree to which we must choose how to act, individually and collectively. Shall we go to war or make peace? Shall we enslave one another or not? Shall we cheat and lie and steal or shall we deal honestly with each other? Shall we care for the poor or discard them? Shall we regard Earth as a warehouse of raw materials or as our beautiful and irreplaceable home? Shall we think of ourselves as machines made of meat or as beings with souls?

The questions that guide my reading have also guided my writing over the past half-century. My first published work, which appeared when I was a junior in college, was an essay on the morality – or, as I concluded, the immorality – of nuclear weapons. I turned next to short stories, heavily (and clumsily) influenced by Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, models that allowed me to brood over racism, class divisions, and war. Those issues, like the ethics of nuclear armaments, were impressed on me not only by the public history of the 1950s and 1960s – the civil rights movement, the persistence of poverty in the world’s richest nation, the Vietnam War – but also by my private history. Born in Tennessee, with a father from Mississippi, I felt implicated in the bitter legacy of slavery. I grew up among working-class people, many of them chronically unemployed, in an economically and environmentally ravaged part of Ohio. I spent my school years living on and near an Army munitions base, surrounded by the expensive machinery of war. It puzzled me that we could spend vast amounts of money preparing to slaughter our enemies, while kids boarded my school bus from rusting trailers and tarpaper shacks, their cheeks hollow with hunger.

Like all children, I absorbed notions about gender roles without questioning them. Only after I became a father, first of a daughter and then of a son, did I begin to write about the impact of sexism on women and the impact of violent and oafish models of masculinity on men. Becoming a father, and then, thirty years later, a grandfather, made me pay closer attention to the deteriorating condition of the planet, a legacy of abuse as grievous as slavery, and one for which our descendants will have good reason to condemn us. While my colleagues were studying literary theory, I was reading reports by scientists about pollution, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, species extinction, climate disruption, and other symptoms of humankind’s erosive impact on nature, and I was weaving these disturbing trends into the plots of stories and novels or into the arguments of essays.

These concerns – about race, class, war, gender, environment – have preoccupied me on and off the page throughout my writing life. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, I have sought to understand these matters more deeply, hoping that in doing so I would make them more comprehensible, and more compelling, to readers. Literature has the power to enlighten as well as entertain us, to wake us up to life’s subtleties and beauties and possibilities. I have experienced this as a reader, and I have witnessed it as a teacher. Whether my writing carries that power, I cannot say, but I do know it has served me as a means of discovery, about language as well as nature, about our inner and outer worlds, mind and cosmos, and about the ever-challenging task of being human.

Scott Russell Sanders is Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Indiana University. He is also a novelist and essayist. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2012.

© 2015 by Scott Russell Sanders