Sanders was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1945. His father came from a family of cotton farmers in Mississippi, his mother from an immigrant doctors family in Chicago. He spent his early childhood in Tennessee and his school years in Ohio. He studied physics and English at Brown University, graduating in 1967. With the aid of a Marshall Scholarship, he pursued graduate work at the University of Cambridge, where he completed his Ph.D. in English in 1971. Since 1971 he has been teaching at Indiana University, where he is a Distinguished Professor of English.
Among his more than twenty books are novels, collections of stories, and works of personal nonfiction, including Staying Put, Writing from the Center, and Hunting for Hope. His latest book is A Private History of Awe, a coming-of-age memoir, love story, and spiritual testament, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. A Conservationist Manifesto, his vision of a shift to a sustainable society, will be published in 2009.
He has received the Lannan Literary Award, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Great Lakes Book Award, the Kenyon Review Literary Award, and the John Burroughs Essay Award, among other honors, and has received support for his writing from the Lilly Endowment, the Indiana Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was named one of five inaugural winners of the Indiana Humanities Award. The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature recently named him the 2009 winner of the Mark Twain Award.
His writing examines the human place in nature, the pursuit of social justice, the relation between culture and geography, and the search for a spiritual path. He and his wife, Ruth, a biochemist, have reared two children in their hometown of Bloomington, in the hardwood hill country of Indianas White River Valley.