In a recent essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that nineteenth-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.
SR 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.
SR: “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?
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.
SR: Why were you reading old newspapers like the Defender in the first place?
Sullivan: 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 nineteen-teens, and about the fact that when the word “orgasm” started appearing widely in print, in the first half of the nineteenth 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.