Walter Sullivan entered Vanderbilt University in 1941 as an 18-year-old freshman. Two years later, he left during World War II to join the Marine Corps. He returned in 1946 to finish his degree in English and left again in 1947 to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Robie Macauley and Paul Engle; became reacquainted with Andrew Lytle, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Lowell; and first met the star of the fiction program—a brilliant young girl from Georgia named Flannery O’Connor. In 1949, Sullivan again returned to Vanderbilt, where he taught until his retirement in 2001.
Recalling the “hot June day” when he moved his last belongings out of his office, Sullivan writes:
Most of what I knew I had learned here. Here, I had made most of my friendships that had endured through the years. If I had been leaving the same university, the same English department I had joined when I left Iowa, the separation would have weighed heavily on my heart. Now I felt as if I was leaving a strange and unfriendly land where every value I cherished was under assault.
In a way, Sullivan was lucky to have spent most of his career in a vocation that still maintained some semblance of cultural integrity. As a critic and fiction writer, he came at the end of the Southern Renascence, living on its accumulated capital and frequently eulogizing its demise. Even if he did not help to shape the tradition, he still lived on its patrimony. For those who have come after, the battle has been lost: The patrimony lives only in memory.
To overemphasize this melancholy ending, however, would be to distort a book that is largely a celebration of a good life and an affirmation of unfailing aesthetic and spiritual sanity. Part of the charm of this memoir lies in Sullivan’s gift as a raconteur. Whether he is evoking his impoverished childhood in Nashville during the 1920’s and 30’s, his experiences as a young Marine, or his encounters with several generations of Southerners and Europeans, his narrative never falls below the level of engaged conversation. (This gift was even more evident in his 1988 book Allen Tate: A Recollection, which reads, at times, like inspired gossip.) To be sure, the interest is particularly high for those who already know and care about the personalities and the situations that Sullivan describes. Others might conclude that they have wandered into the wrong cocktail party.
One revealing incident occurred in 1990, when Sullivan was the target of a malicious reference in Kingsley Amis’s autobiography. Amis had spent a year at Vanderbilt back in the mid-60’s, before his reputation had been eclipsed by his son Martin. Beneath Kingsley’s surface geniality, there apparently seethed a contempt for the provincial pretensions of the Nashville gentry. Amidst his peripherally snide references, Amis charged that Sullivan had once told a dinner party at his house that he “couldn’t find it in his heart to give an A to a Jew or a Negro.” Although it is virtually impossible to disprove such an accusation, not even Sullivan’s political opponents believed it, and an examination of his grading practices showed no ethnic bias. Also, it was a line that had already been attributed to any number of other people. But such a charge, published by a once-famous writer, lives a life of its own beyond truth or falsehood.
One does not find this kind of backbiting and score settling in Sullivan’s memoir. He is a man comfortable with his limitations, some of which have to do with the ironies of history. Not only did he buy into the Southern Renascence after it had begun its decline, he also got into Catholic literary modernism long after it had ceased to be a growth stock. Reared as nominal Methodists, he and his wife Jane became high-church Episcopalians as adults. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Sullivan and two other colleagues in the Vanderbilt English department organized and directed the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer. This attempt to protect the majesty of the traditional Anglican liturgy enjoyed widespread support everywhere in the church—except among those who actually made the decisions. In Minneapolis in 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church radically transformed that venerable denomination by approving both a new prayer book and the ordination of women to the priesthood. Walter and Jane Sullivan promptly converted to the Church of Rome.
We see their deepening faith sustaining the Sullivans when, a few years later, their son John is rendered comatose by a car accident on an icy road near Columbus, Ohio. Although doctors gave John virtually no chance of recovery, he gradually regained consciousness. Still, there was the tricky proposition of removing him from Columbus to Nashville. An eight-hour trip by ambulance was deemed much too dangerous, as was a helicopter ride, with frequent ascents and descents. The only hope seemed to lie in securing an airplane.
It turned out that one of Sullivan’s childhood playmates, now commander of the Tennessee National Guard, heard of his plight and put his own career at risk to help an old friend. The pages describing John’s clandestine trip to the National Guard airstrip and departure for Nashville could have come from a very good mystery novel. We sense, however, that the entire healing process is an example of a mystery not dreamt of in John Le Carre’s philosophy.
If John Sullivan’s story has a happy ending, the same is not true of his father’s memoir. Within a year or so of his retirement, Walter Sullivan had an apparently harmless lesion removed from the back of his neck. In November 2003, his doctor informed him that a subsequent X-ray revealed inoperable cancer in his lungs. He was given 8 to 14 months to live. The final chapter of this aptly titled book tells what it is like for a man of faith to live under sentence of death. The news of Sullivan’s condition also casts a retrospective light on everything that has gone before.
At last report, Walter Sullivan had lived much longer than expected—through the first half of this year—but had finally taken a decisive turn for the worse. Nothing Gold Can Stay, which is surely his last book, is not only an arresting and finely crafted narrative but an act of personal courage. It is significant that a man who paid such homage to his predecessors should dedicate this last testament to “those who come after.” May we be worthy of the legacy.
[Nothing Gold Can Stay: A Memoir, by Walter Sullivan (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 196 pp., $29.95]