Gleanings From The Fruitful Soil Of Midwest Life


By Scott Russell Sanders

Indiana University Press, 196 pp., $20

'How can one live a meaningful, gathered life in a world that seems broken and scattered?'' asks Scott Russell Sanders in the preface to ''Writing From the Center,'' his new collection of essays. While the 12 pieces range in subject matter, they are bound together by the author's search for answers to that central question.

Skillfully written in a clear, unmannered style refreshingly devoid of irony and hollow cleverness, the author starts with everyday experiences and gleans from them larger truths.

In ''The Common Life,'' Sanders begins with an afternoon baking bread with his daughter and two young neighbors, and finds his way into a discussion of our society's obsession with individualism and the neglect of community. In ''Faith and Work,'' a kitchen remodeling project evolves into a thoughtful consideration of work and its function in our lives. In ''Voyageurs,'' a canoe trip in the wilderness of northern Minnesota becomes the springboard for one of the author's favorite themes: nature and man's relationship with it. In this and several other essays, Sanders shows his knowledge and love of nature and his regret over our abuse of the natural world and separation from it.

The predominance of nature in the author's thought and experience gives him a large view of the universe. Seeing humanity as just one part of the natural world - a world that includes everything around us, from otters and limestone to quasars and black holes - leads him to some provocative thoughts on community and ''diversity,'' a term so freely tossed around these days.

''[If], while respecting how we differ, we do not recognize how much we have in common, we will have climbed out of the melting pot into the fire.... If we merely change how [our differences] are valued, celebrating what had formerly been despised or despising what had been celebrated, we continue to define ourselves and one another in the old divisive ways.'' Our similarities outweigh our differences, the author tells us. We should glorify our common ground, not the superficial points that would divide us.

The title of the collection refers not only to writing from a moral and spiritual center, but also to doing so from the center of the continent. Sanders, whose literary output includes novels and children's books as well as three previous essay collections, lives in Bloomington, Ind., where he teaches English at Indiana University. Several pieces take up the subject of writing from and about the Midwest. Since all but one piece was published previously and written to stand alone, there is a slightly repetitious quality to the collection as a whole.

''Imagining the Midwest'' examines in detail how the region has been depicted in literature, from the post-Civil War period to the present. In ''Letter to a Reader'' and the title essay, the author, a native of Ohio, tells of his decision as a young, aspiring writer to turn down a teaching job in England and take up his life and work in Indiana.

But Sanders rejects the idea that good writing can come only from the margins, either of the country or the psyche. He celebrates marriage, family, and community relationships, not as hindrances to creativity, but as proving grounds for life and art.

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