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Remembering Lee Sandlin, a Genius of Midwestern Letters

Long before he became known as the author of three books about the mysteries of the Midwest, he was quietly writing some of the best longform non-fiction in the country for the Chicago Reader.

Photo: Courtesy of Frank Blau Photography  

When I worked at the Chicago Reader, I posted almost every article that ran in the alt-weekly to its website. It didn’t have a content-management system; I hand-coded every article, for years, saving each as its own HTML page. It was excruciatingly boring; I’d load up episodes of Frontline to run in the background as I cut-and-pasted stories from Quark XPress and inserted the appropriate tags, sentence by sentence. As a result, I read every article that went in the publication for a good three or four years. One of those sentences led me to the work of one of the best writers ever to work in the city.

One night I processed a TV-show review of the short-lived Darren Starr absurdity Cashmere Mafia and a pleasant, obscure vodcast (that was the term, then) called Ask Anything With Beth and Val. It was anomalous, for the Reader, which rarely acknowledged the existence of television or the Internet, and neither show had any connection to the city.

But the review was lit by a distinctive, animating intelligence. One line, about Beth and Val, jumped out at me: “The dominant quality of the show is its airiness. It’s such a spiral of offhand absurdity that at times it seems as abstract and daffy as a painting by Paul Klee.” It was just a tossed-off line, but how it sparkled: what a curious and wonderful choice to compare a ridiculous little vodcast to Paul Klee, or to find the perfect word, daffy, to describe the painter. (Think Klee’s Red Balloon or Twittering Machine.) Sometimes all it takes is a line to let the light in. Lee wrote a lot of good lines about television.

That was the first time I’d read anything by Lee Sandlin, who passed away this weekend at the age of 58. It was well before his immense, singular talent was discovered, before he published three books; he was working on the final chapter of a fourth the day he died. He’d been writing sporadically for the Reader for about 20 years—sporadically enough that I’d missed his byline.

After reading that one review, I began to read through his Reader work. It was unexpected. The author of this little gem about disposable television had written a number of classical-music reviews suggesting that, if he had the desire to do so, he could be the equal of the New Yorker’s brilliant Alex Ross; his writings on classical music were that good.

So much of classical-music writing is narrowly focused on performance minutae, of interest to the season-ticket holder with the context to care about how the first violin sounded in the second movement. Lee wrote like the works mattered. Here he is on Wilhelm Furtwangler’s recording of the St. Matthew Passion (another anomalous choice of review for the Reader):

Nothing much happens here in most performances I’ve heard: Jesus might as well be an after-dinner speaker, and his accompaniment is a routine Baroque filigree (all of Jesus’ recitatives are accompanied by shifting clusters of strings–the musical equivalent of a red-letter edition of the Bible). But in Furtwangler’s version, as Jesus breaks the bread and pours the wine, the strings mysteriously rise and overflow with lovingly abundant, Wagnerian lushness, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voice soars nobly into crescendo after triumphant crescendo. It’s an impossible, wildly operatic scene. Furtwangler’s Jesus proclaims the New Testament as though it were a victory speech on a battlefield; he becomes another Siegfried or Parsifal, a mythic hero possessed by a vision of divine grace.

Or on Pierre Boulez navigating Bela Bartok:

So how is it that Boulez was able to make Bartok’s music sound so lovely? Maybe it was an accident—Boulez might be so used to dissonant exercises in avant-garde audience alienation that he can no longer tell that Bartok is supposed to sound weird. Or maybe his being saturated in the compositional logic of modernism has let him get past the surface strangeness of Bartok’s sound to reveal an extraordinarily luminous inner design. Boulez isn’t fazed by Bartok’s love of grotesquerie or his Einsteinian approach to form. Where other conductors see an eerie parody of lyricism, Boulez simply sees lyricism; where they find a broken maze of internal construction, he sees a lucid through line.

They’re sophisticated ideas, written with economy, about one of the hardest subjects in the field, which tends to produce prose with all the verve of a day-after baseball game recap. That was when I realized I was reading someone with deep gifts.

But it didn’t prepare me for his essays. Lee estimated that he wrote 250,000 words for the Reader over 25 years. Almost half came in the form of four immense projects of 20,000-45,000 words—none of which, as he readily admitted, were obvious choices for a locally focused alt-weekly.

My favorite of these was the least obvious: “Losing the War,” a 30,000 word essay on World War II—what the men who fought it know, what the rest of us don’t, and the unbridgeable gap in between. It refers to Chicago only in passing, but in an act of editorial bravery, it ran in two parts as the cover story in consecutive weeks of the city’s alt-weekly.

In its broadest strokes, it’s a simple idea: “The sense that what happened over there simply can’t be told in the language of peace.” But it’s a difficult one, to describe the incomprehension of an indescribable event, like painting a void. As a result, his frame of reference is vast—Die Miestersinger von Nurnberg, Albert Speer’s memoirs, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the reporting of Ernie Pyle, The Saga of Njal Burned Alive. Some of it is the result of intensive research, but much comes from his deep, classical learning. His beloved wife, Nina, told former colleague Michael Miner that they met at a bookstore, where Lee used his generous store credit to bring home shelves full of books that were constantly being replenished: “There was never enough space for all of the books Lee brought home in the garret attic we shared next—even with the frequent sales back to bookstores of the 35 shopping bags or so that he didn’t need anymore.”

This was one of my favorite things said about Lee:


It’s the kind of essay that made me want to be a better reader—not just of history, but poetry and mythology, the kind of broad cultural understanding that made Lee capable of making spectacular leaps like this unforgettable paragraph about war:

Another Viking term was “fey.” People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant “doomed.” It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair. The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lea, in the midst of the desperate Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle: “He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense.”

Or this:

Can there have been a worse way to see an opera? It sounds like a school field trip where the teachers are armed. But audience accounts of the performances – even some official reports filed by the SS—show that there was at least one production where the fuhrer’s guests responded exactly the way Hitler wanted them to. They were enthralled, they wept openly at the climax, they greeted the final curtain with salvo after salvo of deafening applause. It was the July 1943 production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg—which means the audience was profoundly, heart-shudderingly moved by a four-hour light opera about a medieval singing contest.

Maybe this is a cultural divide we can’t hope to cross, but the truth is that even under less freakish circumstances Die Meistersinger can have an unpredictable effect on audiences. It’s a mystifying work—odd among Wagner’s operas, odd among operas generally. It’s billed as a comedy, and by comparison with Wagner’s normal mode of cosmic tragedy, it can fairly be called lighthearted. But it doesn’t have much in the way of laughs; the funny scenes are so enormous and diffuse they’re like slapstick performed by cumulus clouds.

Grim as the piece is, it’s filled with moments of an obvious joy taken in the writing of it: like slapstick performed by cumulus clouds. Wartime Washington D.C., was “a desperately overcrowded town caught up in a kind of diffuse bureaucratic riot.” The Nazi’s destruction in retreat, like Sherman’s march in reverse, was “a last gesture of renunciation, a Wagnerian finale enacted across the wreckage of Europe.” Here’s how he describes the mechanization of war:

But it seems somehow paltry and wrong to call what happened at Midway a “battle.” It had nothing to do with battles the way they were pictured in the popular imagination. There were no last-gasp gestures of transcendent heroism, no brilliant counterstrategies that saved the day. It was more like an industrial accident. It was a clash not between armies, but between TNT and ignited petroleum and drop-forged steel. The thousands who died there weren’t warriors but bystanders – the workers at the factory who happened to draw the shift when the boiler exploded.

And it’s sustained like this for 30,000 words, vivid in its smallest details and effortless in its overarching structure.

My other favorite essay of his—again, one of the best I’ve ever read—is “The American Scheme,” which is written in a different mode but is of a piece with “Losing the War.” One is about the inexorable logic of war; the other is about the inexorable logic of American postwar capitalism.

It’s also a searing autobiographical piece about his father, a decorated Korean War pilot who came home and went on the make. He was both a hustler and a mark, a success and a failure, who built substantial real-estate wealth in the country’s expanding economy and lost it just as quickly, becoming an indebted paper millionaire by the time he died at 43, alone in a rented apartment. He’d translated his pilot skills and a love of numbers into an underwriting business for regional airlines and crop-dusters, where he saw a landscape in transition. And he jumped into the moving river:

My father had seen it from above, as he jumped from airfield to airfield visiting his clients. At first there had only been a few subdivisions on scattered hillsides, at respectful distances from the old suburbs: constricted mazes into which only the unlucky strayed, hanging from one slender access road off the exit of a new highway. But almost immediately there were more expansive sprawls eating up pasturage and swampland, geometric curlicues radiating out along the flat land from a thousand centers at once, like mold forming on standing tea. It was amazing how fast it was happening. He’d visit an airfield stuck out in hilly farmland and come back a few months later to find himself banking over a limitless array of ranch houses, with saplings by the curbs and picture windows and cupcake garages with three diamonds on the door.

It blew up on him; of course it did. Both essays capture a period, but they’re timeless. I’ve gone back and re-read them as overseas wars have dragged on from my adolescence through my adulthood, as the McMansion dreams of a million strivers like Lee’s father went under with the economy.

When you see the video footage after a Midwestern disaster, the helicopter flying over mile after mile of debris, shredded roofs and exploded kitchens, shards of paneling slipping like surfboards down a tide of appliances, you can’t help thinking it’s an ecological process, as impersonal as the floods wiping out farmers’ shacks in transient river deltas. Nobody was supposed to stay on the prairie for that long. The hustle had been over for years; everybody was supposed to move on, chastened and wiser, and next time buy a real house with a cyclone cellar, something meant to last, the way they used to build them in Oklahoma.

For my father, the ferocity of the American landscape was ultimately a kind of faith. He had never believed that anything of his would survive him; he was sure it would all be ripped out of his hands, like a kite on a windy day. America would scour the slate clean every time.

If you wanted to draw a line through his wandering intellect, one way to think of his longer works would be as an alternate history of the Midwest. The great essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, reviewing Lee’s first book, Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, placed it in perceptive context when he wrote that “appreciators of what Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America will savor ‘Wicked River.’” (Perceptive, in part, because Marcus’s store of cultural knowledge and the intuitive way in which he wields it remind me of Sandlin’s work.)

But Lee’s old, weird America includes not just the prehistory of the Mississippi, but his own, in the 12-part Reader series that became his final book, The Distancers, a quiet and dark history of his quiet and dark Midwestern family:

Our four hosts would sit motionless, their heads bowed, staring fiercely at the floor. I learned better than to say anything then: any attempt to lighten the mood would be met with glares of hostility and incomprehension. There was absolutely nothing to be said; no thought was impersonal enough, no emotion that wouldn’t be in bad taste. As the silence deepened I’d feel as though they were fossilizing before my eyes: those Germanic peasant foreheads, those round cheeks, those hatchet noses, those glinting, heavy-lidded, suspicious eyes–they were like stone trolls in a forest glen.

Even “Saving His Life,” Lee’s Reader piece about his father-in-law, is a Midwestern origin story, gathered as it slipped into the void of Alzheimer’s—how a Russian, born in the Chinese city of Harbin came to be a young parent in Rockford, Illinois:

They were all dismayed by Rockford. They had been expecting one of America’s fabulous cosmopolitan cities, gleaming with wealth and excitement; the train left them in an industrial town deep in a wintry countryside. Their sponsors were nice people but appeared to think that everybody in China lived in mud huts: on the first day, they took their guests on a proud tour, plainly expecting them to be dazzled by Rockford’s meager attractions – the corner drugstore and soda fountain, the little downtown movie theater, the car dealership near the main highway, the glass and steel roadside diner where the truckers ate … for once Maria spoke for the whole family: she kept saying in Russian, “Well, it’s just like some little peasant village, isn’t it?” No one could figure out a way of translating this so as not to cause offense.

And, of course, “The American Scheme": the old, weird America of capitalism’s frontier in the postwar Chicago suburbs.

As sad as I am—Lee was a friend, as well as a role model as a writer—I’ll always be grateful that Lee’s writing finally had its moment. One day I was scouring the Reader archives for everything he’d written; seemingly the next, he’d published three books. It had to happen, eventually. I’m glad he got to enjoy it.

In his review of Wicked River, John Jeremiah Sullivan concludes: “I was surprised, on finishing ‘Wicked River,’ to read that this confident and swift-moving book is the author’s first. It makes one eager for the next.” Ah, if you only knew. That confidence was there before. It’s all collected here; I hope you spend some time with it.


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