Walter Sullivan is professor of English at Vanderbilt University, the author of two novels, and, most recently, of Allen Tate: A Recollection. He is also a frequent and long-standing contributor to the Sewanee Review, in which four of the ten essays in this volume (dedicated to, among others, George Core, Sewanee‘s editor) first appeared.

Although certain of these pieces are stronger than others, in all of them Professor Sullivan shows himself to be a good critic, and, in some of them, a very, very good one. He is a poised and polished writer, academic neither in his prose style nor in his approach to his subject. Walter Sullivan does not—as so many contemporary critics do—regard a work of literary art as an epiphenomenon, but as an objective reality: as something made, like a Chippendale chair, a Ming vase, or a medieval cathedral. In this he reminds me of no one so much as Edmund Wilson, whose literary essays Professor Sullivan’s resemble in structure, approach, and at times even in tone (though they lack entirely Wilson’s habitual irascibility, Sullivan being by contrast a notably irenic expositor). Like Wilson, Professor Sullivan does not hesitate to resort to exegesis; like Wilson also, he is so skillful an exegete as to have an effect on his reader that is nearly subliminal.

“The Last Agrarian: Peter Taylor Early and Late,” “Irony and Disorder: The Secret Agent,” “A Sense of Place: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of the Heart,” and “The Two Worlds of William Golding,” in the present collection, are examples of this inspired-abstractive approach to either a given work or to the corpus of works by a particular author. “Waugh Revisited” is a discussion of the relationship between the art of Evelyn Waugh and the English novelist’s Catholic faith; it finishes with the suggestion that Waugh’s novels are perhaps best read in chronologically reverse order—beginning with the Sword of Honour trilogy and ending with Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall—to give the reader a sense of how much Waugh’s earlier fiction was “a long preparation for his final achievement.” Apart from its implicit underestimation of the early Waugh books, so far as I can tell “Waugh Revisited” has nothing new to say about either Waugh as a Catholic or the Catholicity of his later novels, and suffers as well from undirectedness. This last criticism I think can also be made of “Irony and Disorder: The Secret Agent,” which concludes with the unsurprising observation that “As much as the characters and the plot, the language itself . . . conveys the absurdity of the world as Conrad saw it and the moral frailty of those who inhabit it.” Similarly, “Richard Weaver and the Bishop’s Widow: A Cautionary Tale,” adds little to our appreciation of Weaver and his work, while making it abundantly clear nevertheless that when Weaver wrote, “The South is one of those entities to which one can apply the French saying, ‘the more it changes the more it remains the same,'” he was very substantially wrong. The strongest among the essays included in this volume are “The Fathers and the Failure of Tradition,” “Southern Writers in Spiritual Exile,” “Andrew Lytic: The Mythmaker at Home,” and the tide piece, “In Praise of Blood Sports.” These four share, if not exactly a common theme, then at least a common preoccupation, and that is the modern writer and a sense of the sacred—or the lack of it.

In “Andrew Lytle” Professor Sullivan quotes a saying by Jacques Maritain, that “Only a Christian, nay, a mystic, can be a complete novelist,” since only he “has some idea of what there is in man.” Lytic himself, of course, qualifies in Maritain’s terms as a complete novelist, believing as he does in what Sullivan calls “the mysterious and ultimately unfathomable connection between the Word made flesh and the words that are the incarnation of thought and the raw materials of writers.” Precious few novelists nowadays can believe in that connection, even if by some mysterious accident the idea of it should occur to them. In result, according to Professor Sullivan, “[d]eprived of its sacramental quality, literature ceases to be an art and becomes artifice” (“Southern Writers in Spiritual Exile”). To illustrate his point, he compares the work of one dead white female writer with that of a live white one: Bobbie Ann Mason, Sullivan (to my mind incredibly) asserts, has a “talent and technical virtuosity equal [to Flannery] O’Connor’s,” yet hers is a kind of “no-fault fiction” in which one human value is no better than another. “Unlike the fiction of O’Connor, in which underlying meanings are significant and the vision is apocalyptic, in Mason’s work everything is on the surface: what you see is what you get.” Sullivan continues: “When the commonly held sense of the sacred is lost, you can shout as Flannery O’Connor did, but you have to have something to shout about; therein lies the difficulty. If you are devout, as O’Connor was, you can work from your own sense of the divine, but if you do not have the sacred within yourself, your work is in jeopardy because society will no longer furnish it for you.”

Professor Sullivan is not saying that, in order to be a great writer, one must believe in Cod: he is saying that great writers cannot develop in that state of moral detachment in which one no longer asks the question. Cormac McCarthy, who is probably the finest American novelist working today, writes, as Sullivan justly remarks, like a former altar boy, as beautifully as “a fallen angel”; yet McCarthy’s parody of God in the figure of the Judge in Blood Meridian “must take seriously the idea of Cod or it has no significance.” Still, Sullivan has to wonder: is McCarthy really a “Southern novelist,” heir to Faulkner and Allen Tate? Sullivan believes that Southern writers “are writing about [the South] badly now,” perhaps because, with piety largely evaporated from the South as from every other region of the United States, novelists can no longer trust in what was the birthright of earlier generations. “Writers of fiction begin with the concrete, not with the abstract. Faulkner began with what he saw and heard, with what his senses told him, and in the shaping of details and sequences, he discovered the southern piety that underlay them. My contention is that under present circumstances, with the sense of the sacred gone. the shaping of details that are specifically southern will lead the writer to think he has done what Faulkner did, but he will not have done so. Rather he will have created work similar to that of Bobbie Ann Mason, whose stories are southern all right but are bereft of piety and meaning.”

“In Praise of Blood Sports,” coming at the end of the book, ties these themes together by a comparison of blood sports with the literature of games (meaning team sports), from which Sullivan discovers that the crucial distinction between the two types of activities involves the locus of their meaning. Hunting, as a ritual of death, finds its meaning beyond the act of drawing a bead, pulling the trigger, and downing the bird; while baseball and football discover theirs in a self-reflexive codification of artificial rules. This explains why, as Professor Sullivan demonstrates, all good “sports literature”—meaning in this country primarily baseball stories and novels—succeeds as literature only by venturing outside the game itself, into that uncodified world where life proceeds according to the ancient ways of human folly, weakness, and true heroism.

“When Modern Fiction Studies invited submissions for a special issue on sports fiction (Spring, 1987), the editors received many manuscripts, but none on blood sports. Represented among the fourteen essays chosen for publication were swimming, track, boxing, football, and other, less-wellknown sports; six of the pieces were about baseball.” Who is surprised? In a culture that has become deaf and blind to the supernatural, every part of life must—and does—seem a game, a closed entity defined strictly by its own self-referentiality. Modern “philosophy” assures us that such an entity is simply “reality,” and contemporary “criticism,” which is deconstruction, seconds the conclusion.

“What we have lost,” Walter Sullivan concludes, “—let me repeat it—is a sense of the sacred in literature and life.”


[In Praise of Blood Sports and Other Essays, by Walter Sullivan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 136 pp., $19.95]