Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Unknown Bards" by John Jeremiah Sullivan

"Part of hearing the blues is taking away the sociological filter, which with good but misguided intentions we allow to develop before our senses..." (270)

The first book I read after completing my M.F.A. in fiction was nonfiction, a collection of essays called Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. You might have heard of it. It's been pretty popular. And it's good, the kind of reading you can do outside and still feel intellectually stimulated. It's 365 pages of keeping company with someone entertaining and smart who knows way more than you about things like animal attacks, One Tree Hill, Michael Jackson, Christian Rock, and mysterious blues legends.

But what really stuck with me were two rather unassuming quotes buried in the essay "Unknown Bards". The first is above. Here's the other: "We have to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn't serve at these strata" (275).

Sullivan's larger exploration is of two books (Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues and Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music) that acknowledge and discuss the "baroque aestheticization of early black Southern music by white men" (Sullivan, 268). Within the essay these snippets remind us that jumping to conclusions about art, aiming to categorize it, can lead to a very problematic fetishism, but I held onto them because they remind me how essential first responses are to my experience of literature. When I go after a piece with my craft filter (i.e. how is this working? what is the writer doing here?) first, there's no point. I'm not allowing the piece to simply be what it is; it will leave me cold. But if I turn the filter off to begin and allow my senses to develop first, if the work is good, I'll get to that higher strata.


  1. Whenever I hear a caution to not over-analyze works of fiction I'm immediately reminded of one of my favorites quotes -

    "Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog, no one is interested and the frog dies of it."

    I believe that's by EB White, and I might have paraphrased a bit.

  2. Nick! That's a great quote-- and, I think maybe the reason I started this site. I'm so pleased to hear from you. Still in Michigan, I gather? Dissertating? Beer-drinking? I'm in Oregon, starting my "real" writing life after an MFA, looking for a teaching or writing/editing job to pay the bills.

  3. Oh, also, I think you'd really like this book of essays-- the Michael Jackson one is top-notch.