With Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan has written an incisive, alive, wit-filled book. In a collection of essays with topics spanning from Bunny Wailer and the caves of Tennessee to TV culture and the Tea Party, again and again Sullivan employs a discriminating, yet encompassing eye when looking at his subjects.
I recently spoke with him about his book, Guy Davenport, rereading, and his new essay in the Paris Review’s 200th issue.
The Rumpus: “This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.” I was never on the lookout for a sentence that encapsulates American culture at this moment and maybe for the last fifteen years, but when I read that one in your essay on MTV Reality stars—“Getting Down to What is Really Real”—I thought you had undoubtedly nailed it. It comes at the end of a very plangent paragraph lamenting our country. It seems to me that if we aren’t weeping and lifting weights in the open as those on TV, many of us are at least the picture of your words behind closed doors. A number of people hold things in until there is an explosion. People hurt in our culture but it seems a message reigns that it’s more important to have stronger abs than to get to know our mother. How does the making of a sentence happen for you? And how can a culture so swamp bitten by the parade of ego-gratifying devices and websites still hold onto our soul and our imagination in the face of the pressure to be popular?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: That’s wonderful, your response to that sentence. Thanks for it. You described it in a way I might never do, but that seems equally legit. I can’t remember the actual thoughts involved in writing that, or what it felt like. I do know it was a visual, an image in my mind’s eye that I wanted to catch. Looking back, I must have been thinking crypto-politically about our longstanding tradition, as a people, of holding forth self-righteously while dropping bombs on your village. The way niceness and violence walk hand in hand through our history.
Rumpus: Your essay on the naturalist Rafinesque is dedicated to Guy Davenport, a writer of great eminence in American letters. About ten years ago you interviewed Davenport for the Paris Review—one of the few extended interviews he ever gave. Can you speak about his influence on you? He speaks of iconology (the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images) as being the “true study of the world, the true way to criticize anything.” In some of the pieces you are looking critically at cultural phenomenons like reality TV, the Tea Party, and Christian Rock, but you’ve also written a very fine review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (not in the book)—giving an overview of his career in the same piece. How does this method play into your own writing?
Sullivan: Guy lived down the street from my grandmother, in Lexington, and my brother had taken English classes from him at University of Kentucky, so he was in my imagination before I read or understood any of his stories, not that I really understand all of them now. When I was an editor at Harper’s, around 2000, Roger Hodge, who went on to edit the whole magazine, had the idea of doing a New Books column, in the line of what some of the British mags were doing—one writer reviews several books at a time, allowing each one a few paragraphs, and makes a little essay of it. If it’s done right, if the writer is good enough, you end up getting not just “notices” but an impression of somebody’s sensibility.
Anyway, Guy was the first person I called. I’d been corresponding with him for a couple of years by that point, mostly just to ask questions about his work. We became friends—I mean, at first, it was an odd kind of friendship. I doubt there was enough equality between us for it to be a real, enjoyable thing for him. He probably felt like he was talking to an idiot much of the time. He was a certified genius, after all, and that can be isolating. But I was happy to be his—what?—student? Yeah, I was his student. And that relaxed him, because he knew how to teach. I would visit him at his house on Bell Court, and take notes while he thought out loud. For about three years I read nothing but books he’d mentioned. That was a lot of books.
As time went by, the dynamic did develop into something deeper. I got to know Erik Reece, Guy’s real apprentice during those years. I got to know Wyatt Mason, another of Guy’s correspondents. Guy brought people together that way. Knowing him was an invisible college. And I got to know his fascinating wife, the research librarian Bonnie Jean Cox, who still lives in Lex. Point being: he was a magnificent, complicated creature—sure-minded and neurotic, sweet and ornery, gossipy, touchy at times, yet invariably quick to laugh at himself or retract some nasty remark if you called him down on it—those are only my late-in-his-life notebook observations. There are people who really knew him, as a man. I never did. But well enough to feel his absence very keenly. There were things, having to do with writing and history, that you could only call Guy about. Now that he’s dead, you won’t ever call anybody about them. The last time I heard his voice, he was quoting Kipling, on young men going to war, and crying. He did not try to hide that he was afraid—he did not give death the honor of having forced him to pretend that. I got to tell him my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. He said, “I envy all young people the enjoyment of their bodies.” I dedicated that “Rafinesque” piece (a mushroom grown in his shadow, to use one of his phrases) to his memory because… I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I do have a vestigial hippie suspicion sometimes that our cells pass into other people somehow, and theirs into ours, and Guy had some of Rafinesque’s cells in him. If they’d been in Lexington at the same time, they would have become best friends, and then had a hideous falling out.
Rumpus: In some pieces in the book, most notably in “Upon This Rock,” “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” “At a Shelter,” “American Grotesque,” “Unknown Bards,” “The Last Wailer,” and Peyton’s Place,” you yourself are a main part of the piece. The “Mr. Lytle” essay is one of the most fascinating because it’s a reminiscence of yourself at a younger age where you say about Lytle: “I came to love him. Not in the way he wanted, maybe, but not in a way that was stinting. Mon vieux. I was twenty and I believed that nothing as strange was liable to happen to me again. I was a baby.” It seems that one reason that your book has touched such a cord is the openness between the author and the reader. We might feel you are being more of a pal than many other essayists and your trust in us is matched by our trust in following you into any subject. As with a John McPhee, you are a writer whose audience would be happy to buy you a beer. How do you keep the balance between what is too personal? Do you have a line you won’t cross?
Sullivan: If I do I haven’t found it. But then… in a way, the line is total. I never really feel like I’ve given myself away, in a piece; the “first person” isn’t you; you’re zero. The first person already involves the assertion of a mask. As for the balance, I feel about it precisely as one would at a meal or on a boat with strangers, wanting to talk about myself enough not to seem closed off, but never so much as to bore them, and always watching, in a probably paranoid way, for that moment, that line, when I’ve talked a sentence too long, and added a detail after they’d lost interest in the subject. The eyes people get at that moment, they glaze over and go dead, in an uncontrollable primate way—we can’t help it. I hate and fear those eyes. This isn’t exactly a heroic vision of the writer, but it’s natural. I am trying to charm the reader because I want him and her to come with me deeper into the piece. If you can bring them with you there, things get more interesting.
Rumpus: I know you’ve said you’ve gotten many angry comments on “The Violence of the Lambs” piece. It’s about the animal kingdom’s growing attacks on human beings, detailing the sharp increase in incidents in the last decade or so. I was surprised by the ending, but it wasn’t enough to sever that trust that the rest of the book had basically cemented. Why did you feel you had to make a fiction out of the situation surrounding these attacks? Did you want to make it a better “story?” Adding characters and a travel trip to unearth more bad news to up the tension?
Sullivan: I’m not into bullying readers with my own interpretation of my stuff. If they see it differently than I do—if they care enough to “see” it at all—this tells me it’s alive in the world, so I’m happy. I back off. But with that piece, it was more… a question of genre. There are people who think I was trying to write a serious report, and using deception to keep them hooked. They got mad at the end, when I revealed it. But the deception was the point of the piece. It was a hoax. Not a “Ha ha, I’m clever and you’re gullible” sort of hoax, I hope, but a “Don’t you see how easy it is to do this, to make totally insane things seem plausible?” sort of hoax. A satirical hoax. It was written in the thick of post-9/11 fear-mongering. I don’t know. I don’t suppose I have a right to complain, if some people took it wrong or continue to think it sucks, for that matter. He who lives by the hoax dies by the outrage.
Rumpus: Your new essay, “Two Princes: A Reconstruction,” in the Paris Review’s 200th issue, is a little different from many of the essays in the book—yourself as writer has disappeared, with no references to your life and little to the world as we currently know it. In a way you’ve taken on the guise of a nameless scribe or chronicler, but one who is sorting out history as made jumbled and diffuse by many sources and viewpoints related to the Indian princes and their master, Captain Pecht/John Pight, who was in truth one man but with two names and two similar stories in the annals. What made you pursue this particular story? Was it the ability to reconstruct—to right a flaw in history? What also stands out is the 300-year-old attitude toward Native Americans from the sources you quote: the parading around, the examining them as specimens. In light of living in a time of many occupations across the world, particularly by the U.S., I can’t help but be unsettled by a glimpse into the impact of the largest genocide in history. How did your feelings about these topics play out in shaping the piece?
Sullivan: I’m glad it unsettles you. Yes, my whole interest in the early eighteenth century is a sublimated interest in the present. That’s a suppressed phase in our history. We have a couple of myths for the beginning of the South—we have Ponce de Leon finding the fountain in Florida, for the Spanish, and we have the whole Pocahontas thing in Virginia, for the English—but then it’s as if the South disappears for a couple of hundred years, in terms of our collective historical imagination—reemerging with the antebellum period, and then fully visible in the Civil War. But there were two centuries in between those phases. What was happening? Plantation slavery was happening, for one thing, getting codified, and the English were starting to export it west. The west was open now, which again in our textbooks happens as if by magic, “as settlement expanded,” but it was because of over two centuries of violence against and among the eastern Native American tribes. Disease epidemics were causing fatalities among the Indians that we don’t even know how to calculate, because in some cases they hit tribes whose existence and languages weren’t recorded, and the remnant populations disappeared into other tribes, if they were fortunate. You had this strange institution that the vast majority of Americans don’t even know existed here (but that existed for more than a hundred years)—Indian slavery. A scholar named Alan Gallay wrote the first really good book about it less than a decade ago. As the Indian populations declined, Africans started arriving to Carolina in newly massive numbers. An ugly, bloody period, but vivid and dramatic. I don’t think you can understand much about American history without it. And it generated some wonderful, haunting stories. My piece on the two American princes is an attempt to capture one of those and put it in a bottle.
Rumpus: What do you re-read? Are there certain pieces and authors you go back to? Does reading ever interfere with your writing? Is the relationship antagonistic or easeful?
Sullivan: With some books, it’s not so much re-reading as perpetually reading, and never finishing, since what would finishing even mean? Boswell is that way for me. A house where I know I’ll be spending time for the rest of my life. Pepys, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, books like that. The most recent book I re-read was Dame Frances Yates’s Rosicrucian Enlightenment. For a project I’m working on.