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Imagining Bigfoot in Exeter

By
Scott Russell Sanders, 1974 Bennett Fellow
July 30, 2018
Scott Russell Sanders, 1974 Bennett Fellow

Scott Russell Sanders.

On a sweltering August day in 1974, my wife, Ruth, and I, along with our 18-month-old daughter, Eva, arrived in Exeter after a thousand-mile drive from our home in Indiana. On leave from my position as an assistant professor of English at Indiana University, I had come to spend the year as writer-in-residence at the Academy, supported by a George Bennett Fellowship. I was the seventh in a series of aspiring young writers blessed with this award, a series that has now continued for half a century.

Ruth and I moved our baggage and baby gear into the second floor of Anderson House, on Williams Court, behind the Exeter Bookstore. My highest hope for the year was to write a novel that might one day find a place on a shelf in that bookstore and in the Academy Library. At the time, I had published a dozen stories in magazines, but no books of fiction, so Charlie Pratt and his colleagues on the Bennett Fellowship Committee showed remarkable faith in my promise by granting me a year’s freedom to write. In addition to lodging, we were provided with a stipend, meals in the dining hall, and warm hospitality from faculty members and their families.

The apartment was furnished with antiques. Ivy curled at the windows. Mice scratched in the walls. Floorboards creaked underfoot. Now and then bats emerged from the fireplace and flitted through the room I used as a study. It was the ideal setting in which to write a mythic story.

The one I had in mind was based on a bizarre murder case from the Ohio county where I had grown up. In the fall of 1813, while America was at war with Great Britain, an ironworker passing through the county robbed and murdered a peddler; he was then pursued by two volunteers, brought back for trial and convicted. The Iron Man, as he came to be known, was powerfully built, towering over everyone in the village. He claimed to be mute, but children said he joked with them through the bars of his cell. After breaking out of jail several times, and being recaptured, he was hanged in the main street and buried at the foot of the scaffold. His body was dug up twice, first by doctors wishing to dissect him, then by a religious group wishing to claim him, and each time he was reburied.

The Iron Man loomed so large in my imagination that he began to resemble Bigfoot, the hairy, shambling, elusive creature sometimes called Sasquatch. As the novel took form, first in my head, then on sheets of paper dimpled by the worn keys of my typewriter, the peddler grew smaller and crueler, the Iron Man grew larger and stranger, and the tales stirred up by their passage through the Ohio frontier became ever more fabulous.

Ruth looked after our daughter in the mornings while I wrote, then I took Eva for walks in the afternoon. Our favorite destination was the bridge on High Street overlooking a waterfall in the Exeter River. Eva and I would often stay there for half an hour at a time, listening to the falls, feeling the spray on our faces, while she told me fanciful stories, made up songs or danced. I suspect it was these outings with my daughter that inspired me to add to the novel a young Shawnee woman, who acquired Eva’s grace and whimsy and defiant spirit.

At the invitation of teachers, I visited classes to read aloud newly completed chapters. Before one such class, a boy asked me, “Mr. Sanders, are you going to read us literature or something you wrote yourself?” “Something I wrote myself,” I admitted. After hearing early episodes, students would halt me on campus to ask what happened next, and I would tell them that I didn’t know, that I would find out only by writing my way to the end.

By spring I had completed a draft of the novel, but had not found a title. Then one evening, while Ruth gave Eva a bath, I sat on the edge of the tub playing my guitar, balancing an anthology of American folksongs on my knee. The book lay open to an editor’s note explaining that songs about colorful outlaws such as Jesse James and Billy the Kid were called “bad man ballads.” And so I had my title.

Among the 20 books of mine housed today in the Academy Library’s Special Collections is a novel called Bad Man Ballad. I might not have gone on to publish that book, or perhaps any others, without the affirmation and support provided by the Bennett Fellowship. Our sojourn at Exeter confirmed my vocation as a writer. Ruth joins me in sending deep thanks for our year in that welcoming community. 

Editor’s note: The George Bennett Fellowship celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Established by Elias B.M. Kulukundis ’55 in honor of PEA English Instructor George Bennett, the yearlong fellowship provides writers “of outstanding promise” with support they need to pursue their craft. To commemorate the anniversary, we have featured a Bennett Fellow in each Bulletin issue during the 2017-18 academic year. This article first appeared in the summer 2018 Bulletin.