The first comprehensive biography of one of Texas’s most important female writers—made complete with examples of her work, excerpts from her private papers, and eighteen previously unpublished letters from her mentor, H. L. Mencken.
Series: Southwestern Writers Collection Series, The Wittliff Collections, The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University
Winifred Sanford is generally regarded by critics as one of the best and most important early twentieth-century Texas women writers, despite publishing only a handful of short stories before slipping into relative obscurity. First championed by her mentor, H. L. Mencken, and published in his magazine, The American Mercury, many of Sanford’s stories were set during the Texas oil boom of the 1920s and 1930s and offer a unique perspective on life in the boomtowns during that period. Four of her stories were listed in The Best American Short Stories of 1926.
Questioning the sudden end to Sanford’s writing career, Wiesepape, a leading literary historian of Texas women writers, delved into the author’s previously unexamined private papers and emerged with an insightful and revealing study that sheds light on both Sanford’s abbreviated career and the domestic lives of women at the time. The first in-depth account of Sanford’s life and work, Wiesepape’s biography discusses Sanford’s fiction through the sociohistorical contexts that shaped and inspired it. In addition, Wiesepape has included two previously unpublished stories as well as eighteen previously unpublished letters to Sanford from Mencken.
Winifred Sanford is an illuminating biography of one of the state’s unsung literary jewels and an important and much-needed addition to the often overlooked field of Texas women’s writing.
- Chapter One: The Story Begins
- Chapter Two: A Wonderful Time
- Chapter Three: Keeping House
- Chapter Four: Difficult Adjustments
- Chapter Five: The American Mercury Adventure
- Chapter Six: Plans, Pressures, and Expectations
- Chapter Seven: Unexpected Interruptions
- Chapter Eight: Pieces of the Puzzle
- Chapter Nine: One Story Ends and Another Begins
- A List of Winifred Sanford’s Publications
- A List of Stories and Novels That Winifred Sanford Wrote but Never Published
- Appendix A: Letters Exchanged Between Winifred Sanford and the Editors of The American Mercury
- Appendix B: Lagniappe: Two Unpublished Stories by Winifred Sanford
- Appendix C: Two Nonfiction Articles for Writers
My husband and I were driving along the Kona coast of the Island of Hawaii when I spotted the handmade sign. Uneven blue letters scrawled across the length of a weathered board spelled "petroglyphs," and a crooked arrow pointed in the direction of an overgrown field. My husband grimaced, pulled the car to the side of the road, and shut off the motor. This trip to Hawaii was his anniversary gift to me, and after twenty-five years of marriage, he was well aware of my obsession with places other people ignore: dusty attics, neglected cemeteries, dilapidated houses, and overgrown paths that lead to nowhere.
Earlier that week, we had driven twenty miles from our hotel to view a highly advertised petroglyph site in Volcano National Park. There, we hiked five miles in midday heat to a site surrounded by a wooden boardwalk and numerous interpretative signs that explained the significance of nearly invisible markings on the rock outcroppings. After that experience, neither of us had great expectations for a field of petroglyphs marked by one hand-painted sign, but we had an hour to fill before the first leg of our flight back to Dallas.
I shall never forget the rush of adrenalin I felt when I parted the weeds and saw hundreds of distinct carvings on the rocks in front of me. Some figures danced, some carried torches; some marched single file in straight lines, while others crouched low with raised spears. Unable to focus my attention, I ran from one group of figures to another. While my husband took photographs, I inspected the carvings, marveling at their clarity, puzzling over their meaning, and regretting that I had only one hour to spend in this abandoned field.
I stood with the breeze blowing in my face and the afternoon sun roasting my skin and tried to imagine what life had been like for the people who carved the petroglyphs—people who lived out their days between the roar of the Pacific Ocean and the rumblings of an active volcano. What was so important? Why had they spent countless hours with the hot sun beaming down upon their backs as they worked? And who was their intended audience? I felt an intense desire to know what had happened on the island that was so important to the individuals who carved these figures.
When I returned to Dallas, I engaged in some light research on petroglyphs. I learned that the carvings I had seen probably represented the narrative history of a native tribe, that the stick figures arranged in vertical rows beneath the outstretched arms of larger stick figures represented the tribe’s genealogical records. Although I might never fully understand what those carvings meant to the people who carved them, as an aspiring writer, I could identify with the tribe’s desire to preserve a record of their experiences—to create some kind of narrative about the people they had encountered, the island they inhabited, and the events they had witnessed. I had no way of knowing that soon I would stumble upon another abandoned field—one much closer to my home, but just as unheralded as the field of petroglyphs.
My interest in Winifred Sanford began one Sunday morning the following November when, shivering from my foray into the front yard to fetch the newspaper, I wrapped my fleece robe closer around me, poured a steaming cup of coffee, and sat down to read the Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News. In 1988, the Sunday edition contained a weekly insert entitled Dallas Life Magazine that featured stories of particular interest to residents of Dallas and the surrounding Metroplex.
I thumbed through the magazine until I encountered a short story entitled “Windfall.” A brief introduction to this story identified the author as Winifred M. Sanford, a woman born in Minnesota in 1890 who moved to West Texas with her lawyer husband during the Burkburnett oil boom. “Windfall” was but one story in a collection of this author’s short stories that had been released recently by SMU Press as part of the Southwest Life and Letters series.
As I read “Windfall,” a story narrated from the perspective of a West Texas farm wife named Cora, I experienced a similar rush of adrenalin to what I had felt while looking at the petroglyphs in Hawaii. I identified with Cora’s ambivalent attitude toward the oil well that had been brought in on her family’s farm the previous night. As the wife of a petroleum engineer, I had experienced firsthand the stresses that an association with the oil industry can precipitate on a family. I felt an immediate kinship with the author.
The short biographical sketch that accompanied the story identified Winifred Sanford as a Texas writer whose short stories were published between 1925 and 1931. A majority of these stories had been accepted by H. L. Mencken for publication in The American Mercury. I was intrigued by Sanford’s connection to the famous editor. In my studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, I had read “Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken’s scathing attack on regional writers of the American South, and I wondered how stories written by a Texas housewife had gained the famous editor’s approval. I also was surprised that I had never before encountered Winifred Sanford’s name in my study of Texas literature.
Determined to learn more about this author and eager to read more of her stories, I drove to the nearest bookstore the following morning to purchase a copy of Windfall and Other Stories. Neither the bookstore clerk nor the manager had heard of Winifred Sanford, so they brought out the only short story collection they had in stock that was published by SMU Press and written by a woman author whose last name was Sanford. After I assured them that Annette Sanford was not Winifred Sanford, the manager searched his computer database and found the correct entry. He promised me that he would have a copy of Windfall and Other Stories in his store within a few days.
With Annette Sanford’s short story collection Lasting Attachments in a plastic shopping bag on the seat beside me as I drove home, I wondered how an author whose stories had gained the favorable attention of the leading literary figure of the 1920s and 1930s could fade so completely from the collective literary memory. I also wondered if, fifty years into the future, Annette Sanford and her award-winning short stories would meet a similar fate.
When Windfall and Other Stories arrived, I read every story in the collection and searched Emerett Sanford Miles’s foreword and Lou Rodenberger’s afterword for additional information about the author. Miles’s speculation that her mother quit writing because “new interests grew to fill her days, and she went on to other things” only increased my curiosity, as did the encouraging comments from Mencken that Miles quotes. I was just beginning to submit my own short fiction for publication, and I knew that if I ever experienced the level of success that Winifred Sanford had achieved almost instantaneously, I would not stop writing and go on to other things.
I looked for Winifred Sanford’s name in secondary sources that Miles and Rodenberger cite and uncovered a few mentions of her in books about H. L. Mencken and The American Mercury. My search through Mencken’s published letters was fruitless. I did not locate what I mistakenly thought was a single letter from Mencken to Winifred, but I did discover an interesting reference to her in M. K. Singleton’s H. L. Mencken and The American Mercury Adventure. In a footnote, Singleton identifies Sanford as the mysterious, unnamed female that Mencken’s onetime assistant editor, Charles Angoff, wrote about on pages 111–113 of H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory:
Another newcomer was a woman writer of short stories about whom Mencken was almost as excited as he was about [George] Milburn . . . She wrote about life in newly discovered oil lands . . . and did so with a truly astounding perspicacity. She had a . . . sharp eye for the vulgarity of nouveau riche American men, and she also had a very keen ear for the speech . . . these men picked up. Mencken thought that in many ways, she was more gifted in this respect than was Sinclair Lewis.
Angoff tells that Mencken pleaded with this woman to write a novel, but she said the novel form did not interest her. She suddenly stopped submitting stories to the Mercury after telling Mencken that she had experienced an emotional disturbance and would probably never write again.
At this point, all the hours that I had spent reading Nancy Drew mysteries and envisioning myself as a private detective when I was an adolescent resurfaced. Solving the mystery of why such a successful short story author would suddenly stop writing became a quest, one that took precedence over several other pending research projects. I was determined to follow every lead until I learned why this had happened. My search led me first to Southern Methodist University, located only a few miles from the Sanford family’s former home in Highland Park. When I contacted SMU Press, I was told that Susan Comer, the editor who had acquired the rights to the Sanford family’s privately published collection of Windfall and Other Stories, was deceased. The current editors did not know how Comer had acquired the collection, where the Mencken letters that Emerett Sanford Miles quotes in her foreword might be located, or how the Sanford family might be contacted.
I talked to research assistants at all of the SMU libraries, including the DeGolyer. Although the DeGolyer has an extensive collection of papers by Texas poets and writers of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the archivist could not find a single reference to Winifred Sanford. She suggested that I contact the SMU Archives. The archivist there vaguely recalled a conversation that she once had with one of Winifred Sanford’s daughters, who still resided in Highland Park. Based solely upon a telephone conversation with Winifred’s daughter Helen, the archivist had concluded that the author’s papers contained nothing that would be of interest or value to the university.
As soon as I hung up the telephone, I located Helen J. Sanford’s name and address in the Dallas telephone directory and wrote her a letter telling of my interest in her mother’s stories and requesting her help with my investigation. A few days later, Helen contacted me by telephone. She was delighted to learn that I was interested in writing a master’s thesis about her mother, and she was eager to aid in my investigation. Despite Helen’s willingness, I approached our first meeting with more than a little trepidation. I was concerned about how she might respond to questions about the sudden termination of Winifred Sanford’s writing career and to questions about M. K. Singleton’s footnote that identifies Winifred as the mystery woman in Charles Angoff’s H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory.
On February 14, 1989, I drove to Helen J. Sanford’s home and conducted a three-and-a-half hour interview. At the end of the interview, Helen led me up a staircase to the attic of her house, where she had stored her mother’s papers. I will never forget the excitement I felt as I carried the cardboard box down the stairs to Helen’s living room and removed the lid.
“Oh look,” Helen said, reaching into the box. “Here are those Mencken letters right on top.” She lifted a bundle of letters still in envelopes addressed to Mrs. Winifred Sanford, untied the string that held the letters together, and placed them in my hands. I had begun to suspect that I might find among these papers the Mencken letter(s) referenced in Emerett Sanford Miles’s foreword, but suddenly, what I had expected to be a single letter turned into a collection.
In addition to the Mencken letters, the cardboard box contained over one hundred pieces of information: correspondence between Winifred Sanford and a variety of literary figures, copyrights and receipts for the sales of her short stories, and original copies of The American Mercury and other magazines in which Sanford’s stories and nonfiction articles had appeared. In the bottom of the box, I found manuscripts of stories that Winifred Sanford had written in her childhood and a couple of stories that her family had not included in Windfall and Other Stories. In short, the box in Helen’s attic contained everything I needed to solve the mystery surrounding Winifred’s abbreviated writing career.
I spent the better part of a year fitting this evidence together with information that I gained from interviews with Winifred’s daughters—Helen J. Sanford, Emerett Sanford Miles, and Mary Sanford Gordon—and with surviving members of the writing club that Winifred had helped to organize in the West Texas town Wichita Falls. Manuscript Club members who granted interviews and provided me with other information were Margaret Dvorken, Jenny Louise Hindman, Bert Kruger Smith, Peggy Schachter, and Laura Faye Yauger.
In fall 1992, I submitted my thesis entitled Winifred Sanford: Her Life And Times to fulfill requirements for a master of arts in humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. At the insistence of Dr. Bert Kruger Smith, my thesis was placed in the Harry Ransom Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, and members of my thesis committee, along with Dr. Lou Rodenberger, urged me to turn my thesis into a book, which I fully intended to do at some point. But as so often happens, unplanned events disrupted good intentions, and seventeen years have now passed since that Sunday morning when I discovered “Windfall” and first became acquainted with Winifred Sanford’s fiction.
So who is Winifred Sanford, and why is a writer whose literary output was limited to fourteen published stories worthy of a biography? Although Sanford did not have a prolific career, scholars who served as readers for Windfall and Other Stories pronounced her works, published in leading American magazines in the twenties and thirties, to be on a par with the short stories of Pulitzer Prize-winning Texas author Katherine Anne Porter and superior to all other stories written in Texas during that time period.
In 1926, Edward J. O’Brien listed four of Winifred’s stories in The Best Short Stories of 1926, making her the only Texas writer at the time—perhaps the only Texas writer ever—to achieve such an accomplishment. Although these stories attracted the attention of leading editors, reviewers, literary agents, and publishing houses, and appeared in a number of anthologies, Winifred never published her stories as a collection. This may account in part for the fact that more than fifty years after these stories first appeared in print in national magazines, until they were published in the SMU edition of Windfall and Other Stories, few scholars knew these stories existed.
Even in the twenties and thirties, when Winifred’s fiction was attracting such favorable attention nationally, her work received few accolades from literary luminaries in Texas. Her realistic stories differ greatly from the romantic tales of cowboys, desperados, treasure seekers, and Texas heroes that were being produced and promoted by prominent regional writers such as Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Prescott Webb. At a time when arbitrators of Texas culture were engaged in an ongoing debate about what characteristics should define southwestern literature, Winifred Sanford was quietly producing stories that featured characters modeled upon contemporary Texas residents and current events that were taking place on Texas soil.
Today, these stories, written in an ironic mode and set in the oil boom days of the twenties and thirties, have historical and cultural as well as literary significance. The cultural upheaval that occurred in the state’s rural societies when oil was first discovered lasted for only a brief period of time, and Sanford’s artful stories provide rare glimpses of the historical moment when industrialization in the form of oil exploration came into conflict with the longstanding beliefs and values of an agrarian society. As Sylvia Ann Grider and Lou Rodenberger, editors of the short story anthology Let’s Hear It: Stories by Texas Women Writers, indicate, “It is important to note that Winifred Sanford was the first among the more gifted Texas writers to recognize that this was a unique experience worthy of literary response.”
SMU Press’s 1988 release of Windfall and Other Stories precipitated a flurry of interest among literary scholars of southwestern literature and culture. Reviewers of the collection commented favorably about the content of the stories and about Winifred’s minimalist writing style. Subsequently, contemporary scholars solicited individual stories for soon-to-be-released anthologies, and literary historians began to mention Winifred’s accomplishments when they discussed early Texas writing, effectively installing her name in its rightful place in the canon of southwestern literature. In the 1990s, when most of the literature produced in Texas in the twenties and thirties had been relegated to dusty basements or dimly-lit shelves in the back rooms of university libraries, Winifred Sandford’s short fiction was enjoying resurgence, not only in Texas but also in Hollywood. Windfall and Other Stories appeared on the reading lists of book clubs and on syllabi for college and university courses on southwestern culture and literature. Clint Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso Productions, collaborated with veteran actor Robert Duvall to make a movie based on Winifred’s short story “Luck.” This movie, a 1995 release entitled Stars Fell on Henrietta, was shown in literary festivals and movie theaters throughout the United States.
My biography of Winifred Sanford’s life illuminates circumstances that stimulated her desire to write fiction early on as well as circumstances that impeded her literary production and contributed to the early termination of her brilliant career. Other scholars have puzzled over this sudden end and have lamented the fact that, although Winifred lived to be ninety-three years old, her last short story was published when she was only forty-one. Friends and family members have offered hypotheses as to why she stopped writing, and these suppositions have been repeated as fact by several scholars. For this project, I have made a careful examination, through the primary sources, correspondence, and other related materials that reside among her papers (now located in the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos), of the circumstances surrounding the termination of Winifred Sanford’s writing career. I reveal my findings and solve the mystery of her aborted career in the pages of this biography.
Many of the circumstances that impeded Winifred’s writing life have been present in the lives of other women writers—in Texas and elsewhere, in the twenty-first as well as the twentieth century. My findings lend support to statements made by Grider and Rodenberger in Let’s Hear It: Stories by Texas Women Writers that many women writers in Texas have excelled in the short story form because the genre has accommodated the limited amount of time they have been able to devote to their writing. In Texas Woman of Letters, Karle Wilson Baker, Sarah Ragland Jackson tells how, although Baker always felt that she would become a novelist, she was unable to do so while rearing her children.5 And in a 1963 interview with Barbara Thomson Davis that appeared in the The Paris Review, Katherine Anne Porter, a woman who had no children, commented on writing her first and only novel, Ship of Fools:
You’re brought up with the notion of feminine chastity
and inaccessibility, yet with the curious idea of
feminine availability in all spiritual ways, and in
giving service to anyone who demands it. And I suppose
that’s why it has taken me twenty years to write this
novel; it’s been interrupted by just about anyone who
could jimmy his way into my life.
In my research of Winifred Sanford’s papers, I uncovered irrefutable evidence that she made numerous attempts to publish two novels, and that at one point, she was working on a third. When her literary agent David Lloyd’s efforts to place the novels proved unsuccessful, he returned them to Winifred. However, these manuscripts are not among her papers, and Sanford family members whom I interviewed had no knowledge of two of them. Given the superior quality of Winifred’s short fiction and the positive comments that readers at various publishing houses made about her novel manuscripts, it is unfortunate that they have not been located and probably no longer exist.
Correspondence that Winifred Sanford exchanged with H. L. Mencken during the years that he was editor of The American Mercury reveals a side of the editor that is very different from his often caustic public persona. Finally, and most importantly, Winifred’s statements to M. K. Singleton concerning Mencken set the record straight regarding Charles Angoff’s account in H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory of the mysterious woman who wrote about Texas oil fields. Winifred’s comments in her letters to Singleton in 1962 substantiate what Mencken scholars such as William Nolte, Charles Fecher, and Carl Bode have long suspected—that much of what Angoff wrote about his former boss in this unflattering biography was either partly fabricated or greatly exaggerated.
“Winifred Sanford: The Life and Times of a Texas Writer is a well-researched and thorough account of Sanford’s life…If you are part of the ever-growing community of scholars who can’t help but puzzle over the shortage of women writers, especially Texas women writers, then this biography may be for you.”
Texas Books in Review
“Wiesepape’s methodology in bridging Sanford’s private and public life proves to be highly effective, as she leaves few gaps in Sanford’s life unaccounted for.”
Great Plains Quarterly
“One of the most exciting new contributions to the field of Texas women’s writing that has appeared in decades!”
Sylvia Grider, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University