After struggling with chronic lymphocytic leukemia for over five years, Alan Sullivan, poet, sailor and polymath, died yesterday. He was 61. Many of you probably don’t know of him or his blog, Fresh Bilge, in which he chronicled for a little more than seven years his passions for sailing, poetry, meteorology, volcanology and political and economic commentary. A diverse group of subjects, yes, but Alan’s accomplishment as a writer was such that he handled all with skill, knowledge and grace.
He was, I think, a blogger’s blogger. I came to read him after following a chain of links related to one of his interests, and stayed for the intelligent and sometimes compelling commentary on everything else. He was a daily read for me, and was always worth reading. He took obvious and considerable care in his writing. To be sure, his politics were very nearly opposite of mine. He belonged to that branch of American politics which calls itself libertarian, but really represents a kind of atavistic paleoconservatism. Obama he frequently excoriated as heralding the fall of the American Republic, while he viewed Sarah Palin and the whole Tea party movement as its greatest hope for salvation. It is a measure of his ability that while the majority of his readers probably tilted rightwards, he drew an eclectic audience across the political spectrum. We were rarely disappointed.
In some ways Alan Sullivan was a puzzle. He was a gay man who came to age in the Sixties, yet drifted steadily right to share the worldview of those women and men who, if they did not hate gay men outright, would steadfastly hinder their rightful place in civil society. Towards the end of his life, he sought spiritual renewal and hope in the Roman Catholic Church. Again not a bastion of comfort these days, one would say, for any gay man, afflicted or not with a life-threatening disease, yet it was profound comfort he found there. But the Church he was drawn to, it seems, was emphatically not the Church of the Second Vatican Council — weak tea, one suspects, for his political or aesthetic sensibilities — but in the ultramontanist Church of seventy-five or one hundred years ago. He was not a man easily categorized, but he was not for the mushy middle.
Latterly, Allan provided us, his readers, the powerful, frightening and insightful testimony of a man dying of an implacable disease, yet at the same time it is difficult to gauge by the same writing the sun and sum of the man himself. One senses, through half-mentioned glimpses of domestic arrangements, of a man beloved, especially by his readers, for his integrity and for his stubborn, railing intransigence, yet perhaps not lovable. Against the rising tide of hagiography occurring in the blog’s comments on the penultimate day of his life, only his partner Tim Murphy could write the most revealing comment of all: “Those of us who knew him well could write a convincing demonology. But good authors are good at constructing the persona they want the world to see.”
In the end of it all, he stated no need to justify or explain any of these incongruities to his readers: perhaps he saw no contradictions, or if he did, they were subsumed in the apparent moral fitness of his spiritual and political beliefs. Or maybe he was just unique in his own self. “Do I contradict myself?” asks Whitman. “Very well then I contradict myself,/I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Very worthwhile mentioning is that besides his blog, Alan Sullivan was also a published poet, novelist and memoirist: much of this work can be found associated with his blog. In the last year, he was engaged in a translation of the psalms of David, a work he sensed God was directing him to do. His determination to finish this one last great work was evident in the final weeks and months of his life, and it was clear that if he were granted the time to complete this project, he could die content. It was not to be. In some part, it is a work unfortunately incomplete: he was finishing his last revisions as he died. Yet the work as it stands is considered very good, and will be published in book form. There is no small solace in that.
Alan’s last post, written from a hospital bed, was entitled: “What I Yearn For.” He answered prosaically, reflecting a terrible thirst: pineapple juice, orange juice, milk. One thinks too, having read him for long time, and especially in these last months when the flotsam of his life were drifting away, leaving only the psalms, and then they too were gone, he was yearning to see God in the face. May God grant him what he truly yearned for.
Good-bye, Alan, and thank you.