Novelist and short story writer Walter Sullivan dead at 82

(Editors: A high resolution photo of Walter Sullivan may be downloaded from VUCast, the website of Vanderbilt University, Click here to download)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Walter Sullivan, a Southern literature expert who published criticism, novels, short stories and taught at Vanderbilt University for more than half a century, died of cancer Tuesday at his home. He was 82.

Sullivan was an in-demand professor at Vanderbilt for decades, in particular for his courses on creative writing. He was Vanderbilt’s leading authority on the Fugitive and Agrarian literary movements, which included writers Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle and Peter Taylor. He befriended most of these writers as an undergraduate and authored a memoir of his relationship with Tate, Allen Tate: A Recollection.

“I think I met most of the senior Southern literati at social events at the Sullivans’,” said Mark Jarman, a Vanderbilt English professor and poet who worked alongside Sullivan near the end of his teaching career.

Sullivan was educated in Nashville public schools, served with the Marines during World War II and earned an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt in 1947. He went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1949, where one of his fellow students was writer Flannery O’Connor.

Sullivan joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1949 and was named a full professor in 1963.

“Walter and his wife, Jane, were both undergraduates at Vanderbilt and he remained deeply loyal to the university and to the English department and to an idea of a classical humanities education that both represented for him,” said Vereen Bell, professor of English and Sullivan’s longtime colleague. “He thought of the English department especially as a bastion of those traditional values, and he fought uncompromisingly throughout his career to keep it that way.”

Sullivan’s first two novels, Sojourn of a Stranger (1957) and The Long, Long Love were set in Middle Tennessee. He wrote short stories and criticism for Modern Age, Georgia Review, Sewanee Review and many other publications.

“Walter did some of his best writing in the years just before he retired,” Jarman said, “his memoir of Allen Tate, his novel A Time to Dance, and a number of short stories.”

Sullivan hosted a local Nashville television show focusing on literature, Between the Lines, in the 1970s. He was active in an organization opposing changes in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and edited a book of excerpts from the letters, diaries and memoirs of Southern women during the Civil War.

Sullivan was not fond of the trend of putting artists on pedestals.

“We must cease to worship the artist for his skill, no matter how great that skill may be,” he said during a 1974 lecture at Mercer University. “For only when we begin to see art as a vocation, like and no better than any other, can we expect a rejuvenation of our literature. This is true because to comprehend the artistic gift as a simple calling is a first step toward our recovery of community and myth.”

Sullivan became a professor of English emeritus in 2000. His papers from 1928 to 1993 are maintained in the Vanderbilt University Special Collections and University Archives in The Jean and Alexander Heard Library.

Services were set for 2 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Survivors include wife Jane Harrison Sullivan, daughter Pamela Chenery, sons Walter Laurence Sullivan Jr. and John Harrison Sullivan, and six grandchildren.

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

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