When I’m bored at a bus stop or in grave danger of dozing off in class, my thoughts often turn to Norton Anthologies. I realize that this is the sort of topic that most people would ponder when they WANT to fall asleep. However, it’s interesting to think about what””and who””will be included in the Nortons that our kids read. Keats and Twain and Kafka embody the literary imagination of their eras. Who will do so for ours?
The anointed Hot-Shots, for sure: David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jhumpa Lahiri. But there’s another who merits inclusion in this list; a British-American named Andrew Sullivan, who has, for the past-decade-and-a-half, chronicled this country’s rivenings and redeemings via a deeply fascinating literary genre: the blog.
I should note that I’m not calling all blogs literary; indeed, most of them have more in common with “Leave Britney Alone!” than with D.H. Lawrence. But Sullivan, whose combination of British refinement and ruthlessly incisiveness is the literary equivalent of being shanked and then handed a handkerchief, bent the blog format to his own will. He MADE it literary, and his best posts can stand with this age’s best compositions.
That’s one of the man’s many achievements. And since Sullivan has recently announced his upcoming retirement, now’s a good time to talk about those achievements.
For one thing, as implied above, Sullivan combined the unique qualities of literature with the unique qualities of the blog format. Blogging, with its unlimited length and unbeatable speed, is the perfect place to capture knee-jerk reactions. Of course, the capacity to do so has led to plenty of unsavory word vomit and internet flaming. But not with Sullivan: the man is so bristingly intelligent that his initial reactions, even when incorrect, are insightful and eloquent to a fault. Take for example, his response to the CIA torture memos, which he read and reported on as they were being released:
“At some point, even [Obama] will have to acknowledge the gravity of these facts beyond his callow, off-hand admission that “we tortured some folks.” Does the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize really want to go down in history as the president who made sure that war criminals are only punished if they are not American?”
It’s a literate and powerful statement that still resounds with the shock of emotional immediacy we expect from a certain kind of blogging. What’s more, he welcomed other perspectives on the torture debate by weaving in his commentary with tweets and links from other bloggers, journalists and historians.
This sort of real-time patchwork may seem normal now, but it’s only so because Sullivan made it so; his blog “The Dish” was founded in 2000, when most of us probably thought “blogging” was some kind of weird Swedish sport. Over five years before blogs really took off, Sullivan was pioneering, setting an example of how a blog could provide for a singular of intellectualism and a social-media-based incorporation of different reactions and perspectives.
But “Sully”’s influence doesn’t stop there. He didn’t just make blogs a place for healthy debate; he shaped many of those debates. In the “˜80s and early “˜90s, Sullivan was a bizarre outlier, a fiscally conservative gay Catholic who could be hawkish one minute and resolutely anti war next. When I think of Sullivan during this time, I always think of a phrase from Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints”; “always a stranger when strange isn’t fashionable.”
But throughout the late “˜90s and “˜00s, Sullivan’s strangeness gave him special perspectives into newly pressing topics: the struggles of John Paul II Catholicism, our national ambivalence about Iraq and the Tea Partied bizarreries of milennial politics.
In each case, Sullivan’s positions seemed initially odd, but, due to both the whims of history and sheer power of his arguments, his positions eventually became majority ones among the American people.
Nowhere is this more true than on the subject of same-sex marriage. Sullivan was way out front on this issue. He wrote a book on it, “˜Virtually Normal,” in 1994. He testified in favor of it in Bill Clinton’s Congress. When it comes to fighting for the right to marry, Sullivan is among those who have fought the longest.
That made his reaction to the Supreme Court’s anti-DOMA ruling especially moving: “It is the most liberating feeling to hear your once near-solitary voice blend finally into a communal roar until it isn’t your voice at all any more. It’s the voice of justice.” On that day, conservative writer Ross Douthat also said something instructive about Sullivan: “Interesting to contemplate whether any writer/intellectual in the last 25 years has seen as much direct impact from their work.” Sullivan’s writings on same-sex marriage will one day be placed at the same level of importance as Seneca Falls speeches. History and literature will, and must, make room for sentences like this one: “The pied beauty of humanity should not be carved into acceptable and unacceptable based on things that simply make us who we are.”
Well, there you have it. Your short education (OK, kind of lengthy by newspaper standards) on Sullivan’s importance is complete.
However, I can’t end this article without mentioning that he is also very important, to me personally. I love his wit, commitment and opennesss to dissenting views.
But above all, I admire his willingness to go where others didn’t dare. Another quote from “The Rhythm of the Saints”: “A reach in the darkness/To dominate the impossible in your life.” As “The Dish” powers down, let us remember Sullivan as one who reached in the darkness and, by doing so, blessed us with the light of understanding.
Let all who mock Internet writing as trivial remember that. And let their kids read about it in their Nortons.