Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, two of the original Vanderbilt Agrarians, maintained a remarkable friendship spanning some half a century, from the early 20’s until Tate’s death in 1979. While both pursued prolific literary careers, their paths crossed less frequently, particularly as Tate became identified with modernist poetry and criticism in the Eliot tradition. Lytle, on the other hand, maintained his Southern loyalties, spent more time in his native region, and did not cultivate the Anglo-American attention that Tate, more than any of the original Vanderbilt Agrarians, sought. The influence of each is still evolving, particularly with the current publication of the Lytle-Tate correspondence and the collection of Lytle’s literary essays entitled Southerners and Europeans. We are able to trace the multifaceted talents of each—Tate, a poet, editor, historian, and critic; Lytle, a novelist, historian, editor, and teacher of writing.
Initially Lytle and Tate found themselves, because of when they were born (Tate, 1899 and Lytle, 1902), at a prophetic crossroads in the understanding of American history and its mythical meaning. The legacy of a Protestant-inspired egalitarian democracy provided no comfort nor illuminated the historical complexities from which Tate and Lytle emerged in the early 20th century. In an 1872 speech, Paul Hamilton Hayne said of the Civil War, “many of the tongues have essayed to narrate its history, but not for us, not in our generation, can the ‘Iliad’ of the Southern war be said or sung!” Hayne’s Homeric allusion anticipates the early Civil War writings of Tate and Lytle. Both devoted themselves to biographies of Southern leaders—Tate to Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, and Lytle to Nathan Bedford Forrest. Their early letters reveal both in substance and in the use of the folk idiom of Tennessee and Kentucky an oral and instinctive embrace of history. The past is no abstraction, but reveals itself as vivid memory and myth.
The letters of Lytle and Tate show the delight that both took in reliving the brief military and political fortunes of the Confederacy. The correspondence is a running account of their growing understanding of its meaning. We discover that both found themselves to be interpreters of the most intense fratricidal strife that the nation has ever witnessed. While the generals and leaders of the Confederacy had been completely absorbed in the military and tactical affairs of an abortive War of Independence, Lytle and Tate found themselves to be commanding another battle—the battle for the meaning of it all.
While Tate and Lytle attempted to solidify the national memory of the South by a vicarious identification with legendary leaders, their intellectual prowess allowed them to see the fissures in the emergent Confederate nation that were there from its beginnings. Both were linked by family ties and regional loyalties to the “old West” of Tennessee and Kentucky. And it is these loyalties that encouraged Lytle to question the location of the Confederate capitol at Richmond. Lytle believed that it should have been in Montgomery, Alabama. He writes Tate in 1929 that the geographic position of the deep South city “made it the ideal capitol of the Confederacy, without consideration of other strategic and political advantages.” In the same letter Lytle remarks of a proposed settlement at a Virginia farm: “How can a Tennessean and Kentuckian return to Virginia? I have a suspicion that a Virginian doesn’t differentiate much between one who comes from the North and one who comes from behind the Blue Ridge, and if he does, he will favor the carpetbagger to, shall I say, the scalawag.”
These reflections, we find, are fueled even more by Tate’s growing dislike of both the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, and the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee. Tate tells Lytle that “Davis never knew fundamentally what the war was all about. He really thought it was about political abstractions and civil liberties; it was fought (largely unconsciously) for that irrational good known as national independence.”
But it is General Lee who comes in for Tate’s severest rebuke. Initially, in the 1930’s, Tate had undertaken to write an exemplary biography of Lee as the exemplary Virginian. But the more Tate analyzed Lee’s career, the more he grew to dislike him. It was Lee who encouraged in President Davis what Tate identifies as a “capitulation to the Virginia viewpoint after he went to Richmond and his neglect of the West” (Tennessee and the lower South). Tate further faults Lee for his “state rights provincialism which led him to prefer doing his duty to winning the war—his duty being to Virginia alone,” and goes on to suggest that “Lee had a kind of egoism that yielded to no influence—not even to the independence of his country. It was the egoism of self-righteousness, and it was absolutely unassailable.” By 1931, Tate writes Lytle that he has come to despise Lee and suggests the prospect of continuing to write his biography is too much of an ordeal. At least, Tate concedes, Davis could be excused because of intellectual deficiency and weakness of character. Analyzing Lee, however, Tate can muster no such caveat, and says finally that under Lee’s heroic surface there is “an abyss and it is to this that I do not want to give a name.”
Lytle and Tate’s advocacy of Agrarian freedom fighting, however, was blunted by the rhetorical power of I’ll Take My Stand, which accentuated the perception of the romantic isolation of the Confederacy, “taking its stand.” Tate and Lytle both believed that the allusion to the Confederacy’s national anthem in I’ll Take My Stand glorified the “Virginia ethos”—a sense of selfconscious abstract heroism that would become a later staple for sentimental images of the South. Tate and Lytic, on the other hand, saw in the Southern war the paradigm for the ethnic revolution of the soil, and preferred calling the Southern exposition of the Agrarian legacy Tracts Against Communism. The political pattern is as old as Abraham and as timely as Solidarity in Poland, the mujahideen of Afghanistan, and a variety of other Eastern ethnics—Armenians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and others—who are testing Soviet glasnost with tentative assertions of folk identity and religious liberty. In this way, Tate and Lytle’s view of the “War of Northern Aggression” against Confederate freedom fighters provides the American model for the defense of liberty. And in the Southern exercise in folk rebellion, Lytle and Tate recognize a potent catalyst for both the essence and legacy of indigenous but exportable American freedom.
The renascence of ethnic and religious zeal in Eastern Europe, given spiritual sanction by the Catholic Church, provides a pattern that Tate and Lytle envisioned in 1930 in their own understanding of the Southern political ethos. Yet there is one important difference in contemporary people’s revolts of Eastern Europe: while the icons of the Virgin Mary and the pope provide inspiration to members of Solidarity, the Southern Agrarian experience was, at best, Protestant-inspired. From Tate’s earliest participation in the Agrarian campaign of the 1930’s, he was aware of the absence of religious cohesion in the South, and he , reflected on this matter over the years. In a remarkable letter written to Lytle in 1954, Tate observes, “in retrospect upon our early days, we made of the South, and especially the Old South, an object of idolatry, in the strict sense of the word: we were worshiping a ‘perishable god.’ I have come to the view that no society is worth ‘saving’ as such: what we must save is the truth of God and Man, and the right society follows. We thought that the South was an historical problem: it was actually a theological problem.”
The original activist Agrarian rebuke of statism deepened over the years into a larger critique of pervasive cultural materialism of Western societies and an attendant spiritual exhaustion. In Lytle’s Southerners and Europeans: Essays in a Time of Disorder, the reference to disorder emphasizes Lytle’s gradual shift from Agrarian activism to theological reflection and analysis. This transition can be traced to the difficult research and writing of At the Moon’s Inn (1941) to which he alludes in “The Subject of Southern Fiction.”
Lytle’s most ambitious novel is The Velvet Horn (1957). In “The Working Novelist and the Mythmaking Process,” one of the most revealing essays ever written by a novelist on the nature of fiction, Lytle reveals how he, as the “working novelist,” discovers the mythical meaning of Southern history. After some years of working on the novel Lytle discovered to his surprise that he was not treating directly the historical post-Civil War Tennessee, but that he was tracing a myth from the Book of Genesis. It was, he writes, “an aspect of an ‘ancient drama'”—”the state Adam and Eve found themselves in after Eve had been taken from Adam’s side.”
It is unfortunate that the LSU volume does not include such essays as “The Search for Order in American Society: The Southern Response” and “A Habitable Garden.” The Velvet Horn belongs with the canonical books of American literature—with Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and Go Down Moses. It also demonstrates the full development of what Lewis Simpson, in the introduction to Lytle’s collected essays, calls the Tennesseean’s “moral vision” that “has always embraced European and American writers as necessarily constituting one community.” Lytle’s readings of Caroline Gordon, Robert Penn Warren, and Faulkner are presented together with an equally penetrating elucidation of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. As early as 1959 Tate recognized Lytle’s critical gifts and remarked in a letter, “you have defined the orbit for fiction in the future.”
[The Lytle/Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate, edited by Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone (Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi) 374 pp., $37.50]
[Southerners and Europeans: Essays in a Time of Disorder, by Andrew Lytle (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press) 308 pp., $32.50]