There's an ambling gait to John Jeremiah Sullivan's voice, at least over the phone from his home in Wilmington, N.C. It comes as somewhat of a surprise after reading Pulphead, Sullivan's collection of essays and articles from throughout his career, pieces about his electrocuted half-brother and Michael Jackson that originally ran in different forms in publications like GQ and The Paris Review (for which he serves as Southern editor). Sullivan's unhurried pace doesn't particularly evoke an idea of the same person who wrote so vividly about frying frogs with West Virginian Christian music fans and obsessing over bizarre animal attacks. On the phone from North Carolina, he sounds more like a tenured professor mid-lecture.
And that's not an inappropriate way to describe him. As Sullivan has labored away at a career that most journalists would covet, all the while he's been at work on something else: a historically researched book that's the basis of his Wide Angle Lunch lecture, titled "What If: Thoughts on an Early Carolina Utopia."
A child of Kentucky, Sullivan was educated at Tennessee's University of the South. He was fascinated by utopias and community experiments, and during a discussion of 18th-century enlightenment history, a professor tipped Sullivan off to one of the period's most advanced thinkers: Dr. Christian Gottlieb Priber. The German reformer came to the New World in 1735, thinking it would be a more hospitable environment for his radical ideas. Once he got to Carolina, Priber disappeared into the back country, living with the Cherokees for six years, eventually penning enraged letters to the governor requesting the return of the tribe's land. "It was such a weird idea, unplaceable, you know, and that sent me off down the rabbit hole," Sullivan says. "He's a fascinating and almost totally unknown figure in American history and is really a Carolina story in many ways, a South Carolina story, a German story and an English one and a Tennessee story, but the most exciting stuff happened in Carolina, so I've been spending a lot of time in the archives there for what feels like a huge chunk of my life now."
So for this project, Sullivan has to take historical records and craft them into something digestible. One aspect of this process that interests the writer, and still gets the better of him, is dramatizing the research, the actual physical material, because he finds it so compelling. "It's like you're writing about these people who've been dead for hundreds of years and trying to resurrect them in a way, and there's drama to that," he says. But just as fascinating for Sullivan is the act of researching itself, time spent deep within archives, whether physical or digital. One of his favorites is the British Library's Burney Archives, a digitized collection of 18th-century magazines and other printed ephemera hoarded by the scholar Charles Burney. "God knows how they do it, because the pages are messy and ink smeared, but you can actually go in now and essentially do word searches through the entire periodical literature of the 18th century," Sullivan gushes. "There's hardly a subject from the period that you can't find new stuff on searching that way."
Using resources like the Burney Archives, Sullivan has been chipping away at his Priber book for close to a decade. But, "As much as I'd like to say that the book has taken me this long because the research just kept producing new documents and things — which is true — it's also the case that I had to learn how to do a completely different kind of writing first," he says. "Making a real book is so much harder, no matter what anybody says." Fortunately, at the same time, he doesn't see any of his other, shorter works as wasted opportunities. "You've been learning to do different things technically on more of a micro scale, and now you have to think in a much wider way structurally, but you're still using those techniques and things in the moment." Still, he reluctantly admits that sometimes his magazine assignments have been an obstacle to completing his passion project, though he doesn't really like to say that. "I feel lucky to be able to do it, but sometimes there's a choice, and that's been kind of a frustration having to back-burner the book so many times, because you get momentum going and then a big deadline comes along and knocks you down."
At the same time, this work can be a refuge from Sullivan's day job, especially in the aftermath of releasing a book that, though a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, has received its share of criticism; the L.A. Times called some of its essays "off-balance" and "undercooked." "It was nice to have the little early-18th-century bubble to escape into," he says. "Nobody there cares what anybody's saying about Pulphead." In fact, some of the nastier articles he was reading from the past reminded him of some of the vicious reviews he received in the present. "That was comforting at the soul level."
At the Wide Angle Lunch, Sullivan will talk about the research, and maybe even ramble a bit, and he hopes that his Charleston audience will like hearing stories they haven't heard before. Because of his research, Sullivan's vision of Charleston and the Carolinas is cynically realistic, less focused on the glamorized tales told from horse-drawn carriages that most of us may be used to. "There's so much fear in that early Carolina world," he says. "The level of paranoia justified the paranoia that people were living with on a daily basis. They were afraid of slave uprisings, they were afraid of Indian revolts — both of which happened. They were afraid of pirates. They were afraid of the Spanish and French. They were afraid of diseases which were racing around."
And, according to Sullivan, on a racial level, this history is impossibly complicated, and the intellectual landscape was more complex than we might expect. "You had Indian slavery happening at the beginning of the century, so visually, already it's different than what you expect because much of the time, when you encounter a slave, you're encountering a Native American person or a mixed race person," he says. "There is definitely a dominant ideology that was in favor of slavery and land piracy and everything else those early Carolinians were up to, but there were also dissonant voices and dissident voices from very early on ... You have this idea in your head of the South in the old days, the Old South, but this is not the Old South, this is before that. This is the Early South, which is a very different thing."
The writer is new to this kind of lecture circuit, and it's only the second or third time he's ever presented his work on Priber, and the first time doing so in the South. "I've been researching this story for a long time, but doing it in a somewhat narrow way, a very focused way, and I know that I'll hear some things about the context of that period in the city that I wouldn't have known."
This new insight into what has been called the forgotten half-century may be a revelation to the Wide Angle Lunch audience, as every single part of his research has been a surprise to Sullivan. "We just know so little about it, both in the scholarly sense — it's obscure and it's kind of famously patchy in the documents — but also in the collective imagination. It's a bit of a blank, but when you get in there, your mind is instantly blown."