Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Whole Horse: Walter Sullivan and the State of Southern Letters

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

The Whole Horse: Walter Sullivan and the State of Southern Letters

Article excerpt

In his controversial memoir Making It, Norman Podhoretz characterizes the several generations of writers associated with the Partisan Review as "The Family." It should be clear by now that modern southern literature is also a multi-generational family, with its share of filial loyalties and sibling rivalries. The Vanderbilt branch of that family came into being with the birth of John Crowe Ransom in 1888 and Donald Davidson in 1893. The major figures of the second generation (Tate, Lytle, Brooks, and Warren) first saw the light of day between 1899 and 1906. Thus Walter Sullivan, who was born in 1924, is one of the youngest members of the third generation. As such, he is too young to have been a part of the southern renascence but old enough to feel that he missed out on something important. Those facts go a long way toward explaining Sullivan's sense of himself as a writer and critic of fiction.

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In one of his most memorable statements, Andrew Lytle said of his generation (the one preceding Sullivan's) that it "was the last moment of equilibrium ... the last time a man could know who he was. Or where he was from. It was the last time a man, without having to think, could say what was right and what was wrong." In his criticism, Walter Sullivan has done a good deal of thinking about what is right and what is wrong. In his Lamar Memorial Lectures (collected in 1976 under the title A Requiem for the Renascence), he argues that modern southern literature began to decline when the moral culture of the South became too weak to sustain the collective myth upon which the renascence had been based.

That myth postulated a glorious southern past, which could be recovered only in song and story. Those who had possessed that past in fact (i.e. the earlier generations of southern patriots) either took it for granted or spent themselves trying to defend it. The writers of the renascence had the literary good fortune to come along at a time when the myth of the past still lived in the collective imagination. (The resulting tension produced what Sullivan refers to as the "gotter-dammerung theory of southern literature.") Their successors, however, belong to an age in which the southern myth is regarded as not only lost but (what is far worse) irrelevant. It sometimes seems that to be a writer in the South today, one must be either an assimilationist or an anachronism.

As much as he values the southern myth and the great literature it produced, Walter Sullivan is too much of a realist to want to turn back the clock. What is more to the point, he believes that the myth was bound to fail because, for all its appeal, it was essentially a gnostic heresy. Protestant Christianity was an essential part of the culture of the old South, but as a force shaping the lives of men it became increasingly subordinated to the secular authority of family, community, and tradition. (As Allen Tate noted in his contribution to I'll Take My Stand, it was a religion of only part of the horse, when a religion of the whole horse was needed.) The future southern utopia envisioned in the nineteenth century by Henry Timrod and Robert Barnwell Rhett became the Edenic southern past recreated by twentieth-century romantics such as Margaret Mitchell. That both these earthly paradises were unreal goes without saying. What Sullivan finds far more damning is that they were based on an immanent (even pagan) metaphysic. In our own time that metaphysic has not taken the form of deifying a particular image of society (except perhaps among orthodox Marxists), but of sacramentalizing the artist as an enemy of society. For both the artist and the community that has been a disastrous turn of events.

Sullivan supports his generalizations about the decline of recent southern fiction by citing the postwar work of such major writers as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren. (Go Down, Moses was the last of Faulkner's great novels; The Optimist's Daughter is not as good as The Golden Apples; and the renascence itself ended with the publication of All the King's Men. …

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