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Pulphead: Essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan

2012/03/29

After seeing Flavorwire’s List of 10 Contemporary American Essayists You Should Be Reading Right Now, I added “Pulphead” to my ever growing list of things to read.

The opening essay, and my personal favourite, entitled “Upon This Rock,” chronicles Sullivan’s assignment to report on a Christian music festival. He ends up attending Creation Fest, the largest Christian music festival in the US, which is held in Pennsylvania. Sullivan is given a rental RV, a massive hulking vehicle which nearly tips over as he attempts to park in the assigned slot, and is instead rerouted to an open field, where he meets a couple of West Virginians named Ritter and Bub. He hears plenty of Christian rock, which he describes as “message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to ‘reach people.’ As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability” (17-18). Upon hearing a performance by Petra, Sullivan was reminded of his teenage years, when he was undergoing a white, middle class American bout with evangelicalism, what he calls “an experience commonly linked to the teens and moved beyond before one reaches twenty” (32), prompting a reflection on his youthful faith, of the “passionate engagement” of young Christians who “went at the Bible with grad-seminar intensity” (27). In the end, he writes of the men he met at Creation, “it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God — and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I never was capable of” (40). As someone who grew up within an ethnic Christianity far removed from the political maneuverings of what passes for mainstream Christianity today, I found that both fair and poignant. I had the same feelings towards the other essay that most interested me — “Unnamed Caves,” which described Sullivan’s descent into a culture of another type — ancient American caverns which encase paintings from Native Americans of hundreds of years ago. He writes of his visits to the many caves in Tennessee and the South, of the looting and the trade of relics amongst those who live there now, of the lost treasures and and cultural histories, of paintings that depict stories and religions long lost and never to be known.

I haven’t read much in the way of essay collections although I do my fair share of collecting articles from the NY Times, The Atlantic, and whatever else is mentioned on ALdaily. I enjoyed this collection of essays, although the ones I discussed above were topically more interesting to me than others. Still, the writing is excellent, and the topics varied enough that many readers will find at least one essay that piques their interest.

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