• Frank Blau Photography
  • Lee Sandlin

Like Walt Whitman, whom he resembled in beard and girth, Lee Sandlin was immense. He inhaled the world, and exhaled in language he was prickly in defending against editors, word by word. The stories he told in the Reader tumbled on and on as Song of Myself does, thousands upon thousands of words that did not need to be collected to become books because they were book length already.

Lee died suddenly last Saturday night in his Chicago home. His wife, Nina Sandlin, e-mailed friends, “Lee collapsed suddenly last night, and they could not revive him. He is gone from us. Nothing will ever be the same again. He had spent the day putting finishing touches on a book review for WSJ and working on the final chapter of the new book. We composed some notes to go with Christmas presents and had a nice dinner. It had been a good day. Just before bed, he started to feel strange and said ‘Well, now this day is becoming mixed.’ It all happened very quickly after that.” He was 58.

Lee worked the same rough clay Walt Whitman did, the common earth of American lives. Saving His Life, published in the Reader in two parts totaling 35,000 words in 1998 and by Sherwin Beach Press as an elegant limited-edition book in 2008, is the story of his father-in-law, Nick Cherniavsky; the story begins with the Russian Revolution and ends in a Chicago nursing home. The Distancers, a 12-part series of 45,000 words in the Reader in 2004 that Lee expanded for Vintage last year, tells a family history focused on the aunts and uncles with whom Lee spent summers as a boy in a small house in Edwardsville, Illinois. “Mr. Sandlin fashions something beautiful from singularly unpromising material,” said the Wall Street Journal, accurate on both counts.

There was other long writing of great sweep for the Reader, for instance a 30,000-word meditation on World War II, “Losing the War,” that was excerpted by Ira Glass seven years ago for This American Life and in the collection The New Kings of Nonfiction. There were frequent classical music and TV reviews. And as his reputation as a writer broke free of Chicago, he wrote directly for Pantheon the books Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, and Storm Kings: America’s First Tornado Chasers.

In the latter book, Sandlin tells us Benjamin Franklin was just as curious about downspouts as he was about bolts of lightning. Traveling through the Maryland countryside in 1754, he spotted “a tight little commotion of air: a newly-forming whirlwind.”

Sandlin continues, “The whirlwind looked, Franklin later wrote, like ‘a sugar-loaf’—by which he meant it resembled a funnel (that was the shape that sugar-loaves were commonly spun into). The funnel swerved off the road and came sweeping up the hillside towards them. It swelled as it approached; by the time it crested the hill, Franklin guessed, it was around forty or fifty feet high, twenty or thirty feet across at its height, ‘no bigger than a common barrel’ at its base. It moved past them at a walking pace, with an odd, irregular bob and swerve like a spinning top.

“Everyone in the party reared back—except for Franklin. He later said that he just couldn’t help himself. He had to urge his horse to a trot and he went tagging alongside the funnel to see what it would do.”

Lee Sandlin was like that too—audaciously inquisitive. He liked American originals such as Franklin—we’re a nation that turns out oddballs, and that was fine with him. In 2008 he wrote Alison True, then the editor of the Reader, from Singapore, where he was talking at a conference on World War II. He reported, “I was worried that they might not get some of the references—I had a great image of the original Star Trek with Kirk and Spock disguised as Nazis.” Not a problem, said a curator of the museum hosting the conference, and sure enough—”when that image came up there was an immediate wave of recognition and laughter.”

In a post announcing his publishing contract with Pantheon, True surveyed Lee’s writing for the Reader. One piece was an essay on Charles Ives. “The radical originality with which [Ives] treated the forms of classical music sometimes seems prompted by a hatred of everything civil, decorous, traditional, and European,” said Sandlin. “The turmoil of his music—the vast storm fronts of marches, hymns, jigs, ballads, hornpipes, and anthems—is really a kind of patriotic road rage.”

Lee wrote for us from 1993 to 2008, and he was emphatic about his debt to the Reader, particularly to True. “I spent many years, with Alison’s encouragement, pushing at the boundaries of long-form journalism,” he said in a tribute in 2010, after True had been fired by the new management who would briefly run this paper. “Each time I’d tell Alison that I’d finally come up with an idea for a story she’d never be able to use. ‘Try it anyway,’ she’d say. ‘I love a challenge.'”

He went on, “I ultimately wrote around a quarter of a million words for her—and I wasn’t even one of the Reader‘s most prolific contributors. Some of it is among the best writing I ever expect to do. But the highest compliment I can pay to Alison as an editor is that I think the Reader got better after I stopped writing for it.” I don’t know about that. The average piece of writing might have remained as good as it ever was. But the heights never rose quite as high.

His wife Nina just wrote me the following:

He was 24 when I met him, and already had the look of an elder statesman. He was already a fount of knowledge and eager consumer of everything from Elizabethan revenge tragedies to the most appalling TV drivel (some of which he later reviewed). I boasted to my friends then that my new boyfriend knew “not only all of literature, but all of trash.”

We met at a bookstore, the old Booksellers Row on Lincoln Ave (he was at the time living upstairs on a cot surrounded by overstock). I worked there too, for a while. Howard, the owner, gave staff a $25 a week book credit on top of your pay. 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. The apartment in Lincoln Square where we’ve been since 1992 is more spacious, and even more overfilled with books.

He was the only person I ever knew who, when he annoyingly interrupted what you were saying, would dependably make a remark that was actually on point—and which would immediately become the essential core of the conversation. He was basically a raconteur. His mind was all about story. He could tell a riveting (true) story about a situation in which “nothing had happened.” Some of his best short pieces are like that. He was disappointed and frustrated if I told him something—even something random—that didn’t have narrative pacing and a payoff at the end.

He liked a good meal, preferably with an aperitif and/or after-dinner drink that he had not had before. He would take people to restaurants and impulsively start ordering for everybody without asking anyone what they wanted. I would be tugging on his sleeve, but typically it worked out very well, and over time our friends would just say “you order.”

You know, btw, that he dedicated The Distancers to Alison True.

• Lee Sandlin’s website: leesandlin.com

• Sandlin’s Reader author page

“Saving His Life,” published in the Reader in two parts in 1998 and later released by Sherwin Beach Press in 2008

• “Losing the War,” later excerpted by Ira Glass for This American Life and in the collection The New Kings of Nonfiction

The Distancers as it was published in the Reader:
Part One: The House in Edwardsville”
Part Two: Just Shy of the Mississippi”
Part Three: Bosh Builds a House”
Part Four: The End of the Old Country”
Part Five: The Champion Distancers”
Part Six: We Can’t Take Care of Our Own”
Part Seven: Nobody Owes You a Living”
Part Eight: War Fever”
Part Nine: Nobody Would Ever Guess”
Part Ten: One Last Parade”
Part 11: Things They Never Told”
Part 12: This Is All I Know”