Obituary: John Patrick Sullivan
Wednesday 14 April 1993
JOHN PATRICK SULLIVAN was a distinguished Latinist, translator and critic.
Born in 1930 in Liverpool into a family proud of its Irish traditions, Sullivan was educated at St Francis Xavier College, Liverpool, and (after a year's military service) at St John's College, Cambridge, where as Henry Arthur Thomas Scholar he performed brilliantly, graduating in 1953 with a starred double First in Classics. From 1954 to 1961, as a fellow first of Queen's and then of Lincoln College, he taught ancient philosophy and classical languages and literature at Oxford University, before being invited to take up a professorial appointment at the University of Texas at Austin.
In Texas (1961-69) Sullivan grew from being an imported Oxford don to being a leading international figure. He co-founded and was one of the most influential editors of the Texas classical literary journal Arion, which generated strong conservative reaction by promoting the critical investigation of ancient literature above reductive philological commentary. In Arion, Sullivan sought also to underscore the critical importance of translation (especially 'creative translation', for which he had already argued in Oxford) and campaigned against the insularity of Classics, advocating a new interdisciplinary approach to ancient literature and culture. Among his many articles for the journal was his celebrated retrospect of the English literary periodical Scrutiny.
To this time also belong the two volumes of Critical Essays on Roman Literature, which he edited: Elegy and Lyric (1962) and Satire (1963). Like Arion, the volumes had a radical and seminal impact on the teaching and literary investigation of Latin authors, and contributed to (and largely generated) a critical revolution in Latin studies throughout the English-speaking world. Other important books followed, including Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: a study in creative translation (1965), for which he received the Reddit Award, The Satyricon of Petronius: a literary study (1968), and a (now canonic) translation of Satyricon (1965).
Sullivan moved from Texas in 1969 to the State University of New York, Buffalo, where, as Faculty Professor of Arts and Letters until 1978, he continued to foster literary criticism and the art of translation. As editor of Arethusa (1971-75), he championed new theoretical approaches to Classics, especially the approach through psychoanalysis and through feminism. Himself a poet, he published a collection of satirical verse, The Jaundiced Eye, in Buffalo in 1976. His Propertius (1976), too, belongs to this period, as do his critical anthology on Ezra Pound (1970), his Martin Lectures on Neronian literature and politics (1976) and the J. H. Gray Lectures at Cambridge (1978), which provided the impetus for his revisionary critical investigation of the Latin epigrammatist Martial.
Sullivan's final professorship at the University of California at Santa Barbara (1978-93) was marked by accelerated teaching and research activity. The former resulted in the formation of a resource-sharing teaching consortium between the six principal campuses in Southern California; the latter in a panoply of important critical books or jointly edited collections on women in antiquity (1984), Neronian literature (1986), early Imperial verse (1991), contemporary critical theory (which has yet to be published) and three works on Martial, most importantly Martial: the unexpected Classic (1991), which has permanently recuperated this neglected poet, reshaping the Latin literary canon.
Few men of letters will be missed by so many as John Patrick Sullivan. He travelled constantly and made enduring friendships with so many literary luminaries and classical scholars throughout the world that to name them would itself be testimony to the impact of his work. Belief in friendship and intellectual discourse as defining human values informed the whole of his life. In his last days, before losing the battle with a most cruel cancer, he insisted on giving two seminars to his graduate students. Fittingly they were on two areas he had made his own: the ancient novel and satire. The firm intelligence, pungent wit, expansive humour, commitment to human dialogue were undiminished. His students saw that his was a life of extraordinary worth. He is survived by his devoted wife, Judy, who sustained him to the end.
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