It didn’t pay to be progressive in the McCarthy era, and John Sanford learnt that the hard way.
John B. Sanford was born Julian Lawrence Shapiro in Harlem, New York in 1904 to Jewish parents; his father was a Russian immigrant and his mother a first-generation American.
On the advice of a friend, J Shapiro became J Sanford, so that his book sales would not be damaged by the growing anti-Semitic sentiment of the time. This paid off, and after the success of his second novel, The Old Man’s Place, he moved to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. He was soon hired by Paramount Pictures, where he met his wife, Marguerite Roberts.
Around the same time John and Marguerite joined the Communist party, a choice that would have a major impact on the future of their careers and personal lives. By the time John finished his third novel – epic tale of the immigrant experience in America A Man Without Shoes – this had already taken its toll. The novel was considered too politically radical and leftist for the mainstream publishers at the dawn of the McCarthy era. This was compounded by the fact that John and Marguerite were to be blacklisted along with many other Hollywood professionals, effectively ending their Hollywood careers.
Both John and his wife were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they refused to give their names, invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Written between 1943 and 1946, without a publisher brave enough to print a work by a known Communist, A Man Without Shoes was finally self-published in 1951 after over thirty rejections. This lack of support in a pre-internet publishing world led to an important novel about how it is was to be an immigrant in America, not getting the recognition it deserved.
At the end of 2016, after a somewhat tumultuous political year, it feels like a good time to look back to an era when liberalism, propaganda and the plight of immigrants seemed to have similar public narratives to what they do today. The power of literature is that it can offer a window into another life, another way of thinking, and another lived experience. Now available as an ebook from Bloomsbury Reader, A Man Without Shoes is finally accessible to those who would like a glimpse into another time, not too dissimilar to our own.