Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Trying Out a New Voice

John Jeremiah Sullivan is growing weary of the first-person voice that made him famous

February 27, 2012 John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Sewanee grad and the author of critically acclaimed essay collection Pulphead, writes nonfiction of the variety generally classified as New Journalism. In reporting on a subject, he also interacts with it—talking with the locals and describing the landscape, of course, but also remembering episodes in his own life which bear on the telling of the new tale at hand.

A recent essay in The New York Times about post-housing-bust Ireland, for example, becomes simultaneously an essay about Sullivan’s father, ancient monks, his own stint as a kitchen serf in Cork during his college years, and a brilliant piece of criticism about the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. It’s easy, reading any essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan, to believe what you’re really reading about is the limber mind and capacious heart of John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Except that it isn’t. The first-person “I” in Sullivan’s essays, according to an interview in McLean’s, is a “character” he invented for the purposes of telling a true story. And now, he says, “the character doesn’t serve anymore. … I really want to try something different that’s moving into a more complete third person.” The problem? He’s also not sure exactly what that voice might sound like, or what it might say: “Honestly, I’m kind of figuring it out right now,” he says. “My writing is changing. It’s starting to sound different. I don’t know exactly where it’s going.”