History Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 1996

Publication Source

Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation


Despite the fact that Sullivan never achieved the fame he sought, the record he left behind reveals much about the way one writer handled the complicated personal and professional questions of regional, literary, gender, and religious identity. He was a regional author with national ambitions, a serious author who did not disdain the notion of popular success, and a male author whose primary focus was domestic life and relationships. He was also a Catholic author-that is, he belonged to a tradition that believed in normative standards for artistic value in an era when such a belief was considered by some to be inconsistent with, even inimical to, art. He held himself accountable to those norms while simultaneously refusing to concede that such accountability limited his scope as an artist. It was a position that he found himself defending on several fronts-against some of his fellow Catholics who thought his realistic depiction of contemporary life veered too close to naturalism as well as against some of his fellow writers and critics who thought including Catholicism made any depiction of contemporary life unrealistic.

In the end, what characterizes Sullivan's understanding of himself is his matter-of-fact belief in the natural coherence and rightness of the multiple facets of his identity. Richard Sullivan's work and career reveal not so much an overlooked genius as an ordinarily complicated craftsman, a rich example not of timelessness but of timeliness.

This essay is not an attempt to rehabilitate him, to present him as an undiscovered treasure in the archive of American literature, because, as Jane Tompkins (among others) has shown, mining literary history for examples that fit preconceived categories leaves much of literary history unexplored and useless. Rather, it is much more interesting to recover the terms of ordinary complexity in which a largely forgotten life was lived in order to highlight and to clarify those things that are remembered and preserved.

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