Death was very much a part of life for Sullivan during his childhood years. His father, Walter, died when he was only three months old, leaving Sullivan to spend his infancy in a grieving family with his mother and her parents. Every Sunday afternoon his paternal grandparents visited, and they all went to the cemetery to pay respect to his father. Sullivan recalls that his “First encounter with literacy was learning to identify letters on bill boards.” He spent many of his childhood Saturday nights at Nashville’s Elite Theater, watching silent films, where they became an “inspiration” for Sullivan to learn to read because nobody read the subtitles to his satisfaction. “They didn’t read them quickly enough, and their renditions lacked passion,” recalls Sullivan in his memoir, Nothing Gold Can Stay.
Sullivan entered Vanderbilt University in September of 1941, two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Sullivan revealed in his memoir, “Even for seventeen, I was immature and shy and deeply insecure, and I felt that I had been precipitated into an alien world where people [were] neither friendly nor hostile, but indifferent to my very existence.” At the end of his sophomore year, Sullivan became a Marine in the V-12 program, where he later became a first lieutenant.
Sullivan was able to graduate from Vanderbilt University in 1947 with his B.A. and earned his MFA at the University of Iowa two years later. After graduating, Sullivan became a Professor of fiction writing and literature at Vanderbilt University. His debut novel, Sojourn of a Stranger, was published in 1957 and was the book that hailed Sullivan “a writer of obvious talent” (New York Herald Tribune). His other novels are The Long, Long Love, set in the 1950’s in Middle Tennessee, and A Time to Dance, which takes place in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the author of numerous short stories and several books of literary criticism.
An advocate of preserving Southern literature, Sullivan was the founding member and Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern writers and was Vanderbilt’s leading authority on the Fugitives and Agrarians. In 1973 Sullivan delivered a series of lectures on modern American novelists on WDCN, the NET channel in Nashville. The series became an immediate hit and subjects included Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Eudora Welty, and Saul Bellow (Vanderbilt.edu). After 51 years of teaching at Vanderbilt University, Sullivan retired in 2000 having earned numerous awards.
In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Sullivan said, “Writing was not something I consciously chose to do. I was called to it, driven to it, obliged to do it–to do it as best I could and perhaps write something that people who were able to recognize good writing would consider good.” He also shared his process of writing recalling, “When I was young, I wrote at night. Now, I write in the morning, for about two hours, and then I’m through. But like most writers, the process goes on after you’ve left your computer. You continue to think about the work at hand.” Sullivan ended his interview by saying, “I brood a lot, which may be, for me, the most essential step in the act of writing.”
Sullivan won several awards, including: Literary Achievement Award, Southern Heritage Award, O’Henry Award, and Robert Heilman Prize for his literary works. After succumbing to cancer, The Walter Sullivan Prize was established to honor an author whose work demonstrates a marked accomplishment in fiction or the criticism of fiction. A collection of essays (Place in American Fiction) was conceived as a way to honor the life and career of Sullivan, for whom place was central in both his fiction and critical writing.
Sullivan developed a close personal relationship with many of his students who consider their lives enriched by this friendship. One of his former students said, “We mourn the passing of Walter Sullivan, we shall not see his like in the younger generation of ‘humanities’ professors, for people with his views are no longer hirable.” Another student recalled, “One of my favorite memories of his short-essay class is when one student wrote a story with a particularly awkward ending. Professor Sullivan said it wasn’t remotely believable, to which the student responded, ‘But that actually happened’. Sullivan told him, ‘That doesn’t make it believable’” (Nashville Scene).
Soujourn of a Stranger (novel), 1957
The Long, Long Love (novel), 1959
A Time to Dance (novel), 1995
Nothing Gold Can Stay (memoir), 1996
“A Requiem for the Renascence (criticism)”, 1976
Writing from the Inside (textbook), 1983
Allen Tate: A Recollection (memoir), 1988
“In Praise of Blood Sports” (criticism), 1990
Vanderbilt Special Collections page:
Sullivan’s entry in University of Missouri Press
Review of A Time to Dance by Publishers Weekly