Walter Sullivan is dead. For more than 50 years he taught American literature and creative writing at Vanderbilt and became in the fullness of his time one of the great story-tellers of Vanderbilt's past. Legions of students who passed through his modern novels course will remember him reading the final passage from The Great Gatsby
—"commensurate to his capacity for wonder"—setting the book down and saying, "Isn't that marvelous?" And when he said it, you believed it. He said that about a lot of things, actually, for he loved Conrad and Faulkner (of course) and O'Connor and Taylor, and all the rest.
He was a mild mannered and a very kind man, though he would sometimes ruffle the feathers of the great and the would-be great. He wrote an excellent biography of Allen Tate, for example, which did not endear him to that acerbic old man.
Perhaps his most interesting book, his last, is Nothing Gold Can Stay
in which many of the great characters who passed through the Vanderbilt English Department get their stories told in Sullivan's wry and perceptive voice. Who else could have written humorously but kindly about having to haul the drunken James Dickey out of a bar so that he could trudge over to Underwood Auditorium and give a reading? Walter made Dickey sound like a champion.
Walter was also devoted to the old Episcopal liturgy, in which religious conviction and fine literature were so closely bound. He would say—and he was right—that the "old" prayer book was the language of Shakespeare and had a power, like Bach's, to raise religious feeling beyond itself. Sullivan fought tirelessly against the new "Green Book" with which the liturgy was changed into more modern dress in the 1970s. When it appeared that the old rite was passing, Walter and several other saddened Christ Episcopal parishoners left to form an Anglican communion where they felt their spiritual needs were better served. And who's to say they were wrong.
All of what I've just said comes from today's immediate memories, and it's certainly incomplete and perhaps inaccurate, but at the end of his life Walter would probably say, as he did at the close of so many of his classes, "Well, there you are."