John Jeremiah Sullivan: There’s No Such Thing as Wasted Writing
On Etymology, Literary Generations, and the Importance of a Notebook
In a recent essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that 19th-century African American stage actors commonly performed in blackface. It is, he writes, “a strange story, but this is a strange country.” The same observation could be applied to Sullivan’s own work. His nonfiction investigations of Disney World, reality TV, American history and prehistory, and, most frequently, popular music, have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Harper’s, the Oxford American, and the Paris Review (where he is the Southern Editor), and were collected in Pulphead (2011). Sullivan’s first book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (2004) won him a Whiting Award. In more recent years he has been honored with the Windham-Campbell Prize, administered by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Sullivan, who has two daughters, lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where his wife, Mariana, teaches film studies, but he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1997 he graduated from the University of the South, which publishes the Sewanee Review. Sullivan’s current book project, The Prime Minister of Paradise, dates from his undergraduate days, when a conversation with a French professor sent him searching through the SR archives for an essay about a man named Christian Gottlieb Priber. Twenty years later, Sullivan is still immersed in documenting Priber’s vision of an early-American utopia.
Sewanee Review first published Sullivan in Winter 2017; his two-part essay “The Curses” explores the origins of the blues. This interview was originally conceived of as a discussion of that story, but soon expanded to cover other aspects of Sullivan’s career. A phone call last May was followed by two in September, and then, in October, an afternoon and an evening spent talking and typing in the attic of a farmhouse near campus. Sullivan’s curiosity, his powers of association, and his singular talent for turns of phrase were on generous display during each of these conversations, as we discussed Spinoza, the idea of literary generations, and how Cabeza de Vaca made it to Mexico City.
Alec Hill: “The Curses: Part I” chronicles the life of Columbus Bragg, the black critic to whom the Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first use of the word “blues” to describe a style of music. Where did you find him?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: I first encountered Bragg in the pages of the Chicago Defender, the African American newspaper, so in a sense I came up against him raw. I’d never read anything about him in an academic context: there’s been hardly anything written. But initially it was just background. He was one of forty or fifty different characters I’d run across and made a note to learn more about. Then we met again when I saw the OED credit, which had him using that phrase, using “blues” as a genre adjective, in 1914. But even that wasn’t what struck me about him: instead it was the idea that he was asking, in that first usage, about the first blues song (which he identified, idiosyncratically, as Paul Dresser’s “The Curse”).
I was amazed to see evidence that this way of thinking had begun so early. The year 1914: by most scholars’ accounts, that’s not too long after you get the first blues song, period. It’s as if the blues as a commercial form and this almost religious desire to understand its roots came into existence together. Bragg, to me, is the initiator of that tradition. He’s being a little ironical in his asking, maybe—we can’t really tell—but even the fact that he can joke about it proves that the idea of the first blues song, as an entity, was already there. Finally, it’s significant that we have an African American critic theorizing about the blues, because that is in diametric contradiction to the typical narrative, which is pernicious but persistent, namely, the tale of the primitive black musician and the sophisticated white critic. Bragg flips the script on that, but does so in the first line of the script. It’s disorienting.
AH: Why were you reading old newspapers like the Defender in the first place?
JJS: For years I have been trying to find out how far back a few particular English words, or their usage in certain contexts, can be traced. “Blues” and “jazz” are two of the words. A lot of good work has been done on their etymologies, but when I got into the primary sources, I realized, with joy, that some remained to be done. Even better, I learned that aspects of their earliest appearances were impenetrably mysterious, maybe eternally so. I wound up feeling that the only way to gain any real clarity on it all was to assemble in my head a year-by-year and, when possible, day-by-day understanding of their linguistic gestation. I watched the word “blues” develop in the pan, almost in what we call “real time.”
The new old-newspaper web databases make this possible, to put your ear horn into different early American small towns and hear people talking. And you can observe something, doing it like this, that can’t be perceived any other way. It’s related to how words behave and evolve. They can be very animal-like, or organism-like. I think maybe they are so deeply human that they take on a parasitic or symbiotic life, following our species around like the fish that hang out all their lives by the mouths of sharks. It’s an illusion, of course, but not without information in it. I mean how closely certain words hew to uniquely human and idiosyncratic social situations.
To understand where “jazz” came from, you have to know about a series of unintentional misspellings that occurred in advertisements in Chicago in the 19-teens, and about the fact that when the word “orgasm” started appearing widely in print, in the first half of the 19th century, many if not most people assumed that it was pronounced “or-jazzem.” After all, we already had the word “orgy,” with a soft g. Why wouldn’t you pronounce it that way? Why would you ever pronounce it the other way? Well, from orgasm to “jazzem” is a short step, as is the one from jazzem to jism. These are just the preliminary stages, but you get what I’m saying. Etymology and linguistics are sciences that force you to visualize what people did with their mouths hundreds or thousands of years ago, people who are long dead. We can still hear them.
AH: You’ve written about the way words behave in many of your essays. I’m thinking in particular of “The Ill-Defined Plot,” your introduction to The Best American Essays 2014, in which you trace the origins of the word “essayists.” Can you talk a little bit about that piece?
JJS: I have a weakness for that, as we were saying, for word histories and origin hunting, that sort of thing. I must have picked it up from Guy Davenport to an extent, and from C. S. Lewis. I always liked Lewis’s book Studies in Words. He takes four words—one is “wit”—and follows their changes over centuries. He shows how they function as mirrors. We can watch our societies and souls changing in them. In the piece you mention, I had become fascinated with an oddity of literary history, namely that the essay, as a modern form, is thoroughly French, thanks to Montaigne, but the culture of “essayists” as a tribe, and the notion of essaying for a living, took root in England instead, and took on an English stamp quite early. This consumed me for reasons that are preserved, I hope, as an artifact in that essay. Also remember that I went to Sewanee, where the banner of the New Criticism had not fallen, and may not have yet. It was beaten into us that you couldn’t get to grips with a subject until you began looking skeptically at the words being used, trying to get behind them somehow. That meant learning their histories.
AH: You worked for SR while a student at Sewanee, correct?
JJS: Yes, I logged the unsolicited manuscripts and made coffee, that sort of thing. George Core was a great first editor to work under, or at least he was for me. We never wound up collaborating professionally or having much overlap of sensibility, but I benefited from working for him, even at such a lowly position, because I observed his approach, and it was very traditional and rigorous. He assumed, correctly, that one knew nothing. He started by pulling out the Chicago Manual of Style. When I graduated he gave me a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and a $20 bill. Which made that gift worth exactly one million and twenty dollars.
AH: Had you already settled on nonfiction at that age?
JJS: I still don’t feel like I’ve settled on it, though my right to say that is probably expiring. But there was never a moment of choosing. I just started to feel myself falling into a rhythm. The form was answering back; I wasn’t groaning against it the way I had with poetry, although I certainly transposed skills I’d learned from having failed at that for years. Young writers should remember: nothing is wasted. A story you write that doesn’t get published, or even that genuinely sucks, is as “wasted” as any practice mile run by a track star. If you’re young, and you’re not Rimbaud, you’re not as good yet as you need to be to express what’s in you, but you can already feel it there, and even intuit its shape at moments. What you need is more doing of the thing. Even a discouraging editor can give you that, by pissing you off and putting you back to work.
AH: That’s an intriguing phrase, that the form was “answering you back” in a perceptible way. Do you feel you are a good judge of your own writing?
JJS: Mainly I resist thinking about it after it’s done, or consigning any one piece to a rank. To me it all belongs to a unified project. I could understand the reader not feeling the same. Partly the don’t-look-backness comes from having been around Andrew Lytle when I was young, and hearing him talk about John Crowe Ransom’s obsession with “perfecting” his poems, a lifelong project. In the end he made them worse. That taught me to be suspicious of my own views. When it came to looking back, I mean. In the instant, your judgments are all you have, even if mostly unconscious. But I don’t know—writers’ judgments of their own work ought to (and I think do) make us suspicious, anyway. It’s not that the opinions are meaningless or valueless, but they tend to say very little about the work and a lot about the psychology of the writer or the power dynamic that his or her literary generation was formed in, and how the narrative of their successes and failures is being written. It’s one of those areas where we start speaking in code.
If I could be frank, the only time when I feel like I’m not more or less full of shit about my work is when I’m doing it. Everything else is metacognition and runs instantly to self-mythologizing. Writing “The Curses” is a good example, if only because near to hand: in writing it—I mean in actually composing it, during however many hundreds of hours—I was completely driven, completely myself, completely happy, and had no obligation to say anything except what I most wanted to say. The second I stop and alienate myself from that experience, and apply to it a word called “writing,” the slide toward dishonesty begins. It wasn’t writing when I was doing it. It was it.
“If I could be frank, the only time when I feel like I’m not more or less full of shit about my work is when I’m doing it. “
AH: What is your sense of your own literary generation?
JJS: I know I have one. I think I’m at the age now—I’m in my early 40s—when writers realize that. Because for so long, see, while we’re molting, we’re doing everything we can to set ourselves apart from our generation, reacting against its weaknesses and self-deceptions. They sicken us because we know them too well. I mean, why would you want to belong to your own generation? It’ll never be half as interesting as one that came before, or as horrifying as the one that’s coming up. It doesn’t offer you any tools for reshaping reality. But yes, I have a literary generation. And when I look out at the world, what is happening now, the acceleration of climate change—our increasingly hilarious-sounding euphemism for the end of the Holocene—and of political atavism, too, I see that my literary generation is being asked to witness and speak truthfully about some very intense shit. I sincerely hope we’re up to it.
Recently I got sucked into a research project in northern Michigan, and it led me to reread Hemingway for the first time since college. It was fun. All these recent biographical attacks have made him interesting again. He was, as we know, fantastically tormented about sex, and gender, and his own masculinity. If you had asked me about him 20 years ago, I would have said what I’d been taught to say: “It’s about the work.” Which—and I’ve learned this—is what people say when there’s something they want to avoid. The something is, with a freakish regularity, sexual. Or in the blues world, when people say, “It’s about the music,” my interior translator has learned to hear, “I don’t want to talk about race.” What matters is what they wrote! What matters is what they sang! Yes, precisely—and for that reason, we have a duty not to avert our eyes from any available information.
As I became less ignorant about Hemingway, in this regard, it made me want to laugh and clutch my head, that we ever could have thought that way. His “issues” are so blazingly on the surface. So emphatically on the surface. There’s almost a quality of performance art to them. For God’s sake, his mother dressed him as a girl, and he made his wives turn themselves androgynous, and his greatest fictional hero is a man who’s had his penis maimed. Why would we deliberately deny ourselves this very useful stream of information about some of the most powerful fiction written in the 20th century? In this sense I think the whole New Critical allergy to biographical digging was a mistake, a transposition of personal squeamishness into a critical position. What real close reading means is a willingness to incessantly keep folding, or kneading—like with a ball of dough—everything you can know about a work of art back into your conception of it.
I mention this because I was reading one of Hemingway’s letters, in which he’s talking about his literary generation—him, John Dos Passos, Maxwell Perkins and Gertrude Stein, the rest. You think, Okay, that’s a real literary generation, there’s someone who has a right to talk about it. But he says something like, God, it chills me to hear journalists talking about our grand literary generation. If only they had known us. If they had seen Max Perkins, who had all these kids and was permanently stressed out, and if they had seen so-and-so puking on the floor. I thought, Wow: even Hemingway felt alienated from the idea of literary generations. To me they are a kind of bedtime story. Everyone works in such tremendous isolation. In your head, you’re always on the outside, even when you’re in the room with seven or eight people who later will be placed in your “literary generation.” Yet the photographer is there, and he takes the picture.
I also remember feeling that if there was something wrong with the state of letters in America, that my generation may have had something to do with it, and that therefore I needed to be wary of writers my age. I felt grateful to know people like Lytle, who had come from a previous era that—though it was messy and even grotesque, politically—possessed a kind of egomaniacal passion we hardly have access to now. Lytle was someone who talked about prose as a vocation, with no irony. It wasn’t florid either, it was very . . . tough, you know?
AH: What are your writing habits?
JJS: Self-defeating ones. Followed by weeks of frenzied typing. Materially, I almost always have a notebook with me. I don’t know how important that is to any hypothetical method, but I like it as an object. A notebook is a nice thing to have in a room, the same way it’s nice to have a musical instrument in a stand. I press my friends to buy instruments, even the ones who don’t play and even the ones who don’t ever want to learn, because it makes a house vibrate differently, to have one hanging on the wall. It makes the household gods happy.
For the last 13 years a room on the second floor of our house has been my writing nest. I have tapes, notebooks, hundreds of files on my computer, stacks of books with pages marked that I know I’ll want to quote from, thousands of stored emails that I can search with a keyword, and on and on. It’s a mess, my habits are a mess, everything is a mess, until a certain moment—usually related to a deadline—when a shape starts to form in the middle of it all, like that one nasty coffee cup on your desk that finally starts to host some spores. You know what I mean? Something has quickened. The mold, in this case, is an electronic text document. When the document starts to happen, the scene changes, the little iron shavings line up. Now things are being arranged under headings, and I’m working with patterns I know are there—realizing they’re there and then working with them, folding them in.
At a certain point the document further crystallizes, into the form—the essay, the book, whatever it is. It’s there and it’s making a sound. From the very first page. If you poked it with a needle, it would sing a certain way. That’s the best moment. Finally I hand it over to an editor, and the madness repeats itself several times. But that’s good hard work, too, that gets you somewhere. Together we push the piece as far across the plane toward perfection as possible, landing somewhere that still feels depressingly far from perfection. After that is just total emptiness and exhaustion. The only thing worse would be not having written it.
AH: The journalist Larissa MacFarquhar likened John Ashbery’s writing process to “lowering a bucket down into what feels like a kind of underground stream flowing through his mind.” Do you feel any such struggle to tap into a core of creative potential?
JJS: I love that image. I don’t relate to it. By the time my writing is happening, I’ve been at the bottom of the well for a long while. But for every writer, a different wiring, and each of us has to improvise a way around unique obstacles. Some pour coffee and sit down at the desk in the morning and think, My job is to write short stories, so let’s do that. There’s a clean place for them psychologically, a switch they can find and flip. I sit down to write the way you’d sit down with your parole officer. Any buckets are for puking in. Not really—I mean, I know what he means . . . but the well. The symbol of the well, the watering hole and the entrance to the underworld, all in one. I deeply enjoy that, and go to it in my writing so often that I’m on guard against it now, as if it could become a tic. I think about Viktor Shklovsky’s well, which he says we are falling down in his great metaphor for human intellectual life. We are plummeting down a well, with torches in our hands, trying to read signs on the walls as we fall. The shapes we glimpse are the sum of human wisdom. The well seems bottomless to us, but it isn’t. Just unusually deep.
The full version of this interview originally appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Sewanee Review.