Homage to Miss Sanderson

MISS SANDERSON — she must have had a first name, but I never learned what it was — served my native town as librarian for thirty-eight years. She was tall and thin, vaguely Scandinavian, with a great jib-sail of a nose, a stern, reserved sort of mouth, and pale, watery blue eyes behind pince-nez glasses. Winter and summer, heedless of the passing fashion, she wore the same costume — a starched white shirtwaist, paper cuffs, a tweed skirt, serviceable stockings, extremely sensible (and very large) shoes. In later life, I came to the conclusion that she selected her garb from the novels of John Galsworthy. The ensemble was topped off by a long yellow pencil thrust into her long gray hair. Her one adornment was a gold watch attached to her bosom (or where a bosom would have been on a less angular female) by a tiny gold clasp in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. When she spoke, this timepiece formed a sort of counterpoint to her voice; its steady and audible tick-tock reminded one that life was short, art long.

She was one of those people who seem to exist only in their professional capacity. I never saw her against any other background than the public library. Her private life must have been rather like that of a mediæval nun — austere, yet genteel. Very likely she lived in a small hotel or boardinghouse given over to the care and feeding of unattached middle-aged ladies — a setting composed, for the most part, of rattling teacups, the aroma of yesterday’s stew, and the endless filling and emptying of hot-water bags. Occasionally, she must have gone to the city, dining at one of the politely bohemian restaurants, and dallying wickedly, throughout her meal, with a glass of Chianti. On these occasions, she would most likely be accompanied by her nephew. I am certain that she had one. She was the sort of woman who has nephews.

After dinner (and this is all conjecture, mind you), they would attend — ‘attend ‘ is the word — the theatre. Her taste in drama was probably pretty catholic, but I have a feeling that she never missed a Gilbert and Sullivan revival, particularly Pinafore. These excursions must have been infrequent, because at no time did her salary exceed fifteen hundred dollars a year, a sum barely sufficient to keep one of our local ward heelers in cigars. Out of this she saved enough for at least one trip abroad, the climax of which, I am sure, was a pilgrimage to the Poets’ Corner, where she stood, very reverent and very shy, and rather self-consciously paid her silent little tribute to the Glories of Our Sweet English Tongue. She always spoke, and I believe thought, in capital letters.

From ten in the morning until ten in the evening, six days a week. Miss Sanderson labored in the vineyard. The town, a hothed of boosterism, possessed a city hall sixteen stories high, representing an investment of several million dollars. The library was one story high and represented an investment of perhaps twenty thousand dollars. Everyone was very proud of the city hall, even after the men responsible for letting the contracts for its construction were sent to state’s prison. Nobody paid any attention to the library. Nobody, that is, except Miss Sanderson. Her job was so unimportant and arduous and underpaid that no politician ever saw in it a political plum for a deserving in-law. She was unmolested, except that during the depression she took two ten-per-cent cuts in salary. This was under a reform mayor who was giving the town a business man’s administration.

Though not a graduate of any school of librarianship, nor an author of a thesis on The Proper Method of Case Cataloguing Slavic Non-Fiction, Miss Sanderson was adequate in the basic duties of her profession. There were books, and she was there to give them out. That would seem to be the general function of a librarian, and she performed it passing well. But it was as an educator that Miss Sanderson excelled. So far as I know, she was the only educator in town. The good ladies of our public-school system only practised education, and practised it badly. The faculties of our schools were composed, for the most part, of post-adolescent females filling out the itching interval between the end of college and the beginning of marriage. The instruction imparted by these unhappy young ladies turned the average boy into an impassioned enemy of belles-lettres, a man destined to go through life on a literary diet of Edgar Wallace, and a potential user of ‘contact’ as a verb. Hapless youths, seeking a counter-irritant to their forced excursions into Shakespeare as interpreted by these sterile maidens, would seek out and devour blood-and-thunder fiction, which the brighter lads would soon discover was to be had in gory plenty at the public library.

It was here, searching innocently through the shelves for a volume of Tom Swift, or The Motor Bogs in Mexico, that a lad would run afoul of Miss Sanderson. Having received a card entitling him to borrow books from the library, the gossoon would collect his quota of thrillers and present them to the librarian to be checked out. It was then that Miss Sanderson went into action. Adept and canny in the arts of salesmanship, she would gently but firmly oppose the boy’s choice of literature, until, his resistance broken, he would surrender his original selections to find himself burdened with an armful of works more in line with Miss Sanderson’s standards of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,

Don’t think that she was a stupid pedant given to confiscating Riders of the Purple Sage and replacing it with the Complete Works of Robert Browning. Miss Sanderson was nothing if not subtle. She loved good writing and hated trash, and time did not wither nor custom stale her infinite variety in promoting the former. If a youthful admirer of Tarzan appeared, he was gently shunted into the Jungle Book. If a boy asked for Tom Swift and His Electric Motorcycle, he was sure to wind up reading The Time Machine. From then on, she had things her own way. In no time at all she would have brought the boy through Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Tono-Bungay. After a bit of this, he would be grooming himself for a position of responsibility in the coming world-state, and would begin to view himself as a competent receiver for a bankrupt capitalism. A young student of the works of Zane Grey, would, under this relentless missionary, soon have a decided preference for Mark Twain, and one who expressed an interest in Joe with the United States Navy was apt to become a minor authority on Conrad, Melville, and Stevenson.

Not all boys were to be cowed into a love of letters. Some diehards insisted on being allowed to borrow juvenilia. These Miss Sanderson dealt with in her own way. They would be told that their hands were dirty and they were forbidden to touch any books; if they coughed, they were reprimanded for being noisy, and in every way they were made to feel utterly and completely beyond the pale of civilization. As they reached for a bloodcurdler, their hand was stayed in mid-air by the ominous tick-tock of Miss Sanderson’s watch. They felt that unseen and disapproving eyes watched their every move; in short, they were harried relentlessly. After a couple of treatments the luckless wights would surrender to the inevitable, never to return. Nor do I think that they ever entered a library again — any library, anywhere.

The rest — those who survived their literary baptism of fire — found that life with Miss Sanderson was no bed of roses. They were taken through the field of world literature at a stiff gallop. Faltering brought a freezing snub — and Miss Sanderson cool could make an old Grotonian seem downright chummy. You couldn’t just pretend to read the books she lent you, because when you returned them she’d question you about your reading. Not the sort of questions schoolteachers asked, like ‘Compare and contrast Brutus and Anthony,’ or ‘Describe Cassius’ physical appearance,’ but sensible questions — big questions.

When I returned the Forsythe Saga she asked, ‘What’s the Matter with England?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the rich people. They don’t lead any more.’


‘They just don’t seem to have the stuff. The war and all.’

‘They’ll have to find New Leaders, then, is that it ? ‘

‘But the poor people aren’t able to. And the rich don’t believe in themselves any more.’

‘Well, then. What’s going to Happen to an England Without Leadership?’

‘Mr. Galsworthy,’ I said, ‘says England is going to go smash.’

You got an education from Miss Sanderson.

That was the Sanderson technique. She kept it up twelve hours a day, six days a week, for thirty-eight years, and made, as her maximum, fifteen hundred dollars a year. Not long ago I had news of Miss Sanderson. A boy went to her desk with a book, and she was asleep with her head on her arm and her watch ticking away above the silence. This was unusual, especially so because a boy with a book was always a call to arms to Miss Sanderson. He represented a Brand to be Snatched from the Burning. But this time Miss Sanderson ignored the boy and the book. She was dead. A spinsterish Passionara, she had spent thirty-eight years on the barricades fighting for Culture against the Philistine Horde. She died, fittingly enough, with her big sensible shoes on.

There has to be a Heaven, if only for people like Miss Sanderson. I hope that when she arrived the Poets’ Corner turned out with a big brass band, and all swinging to beat hell.