Though one of the original Agrarians—men now widely considered prophets—Andrew Lytle is an unheralded man of letters. He has been an influential editor, essayist, farmer, poet, and novelist; yet, outside of a small group of men devoted to Southern letters, Lytle has not been fully appreciated. John L. Stewart, the oft-praised Northern historian of the Agrarian movement, has concluded that Lytle is unimportant. The reason for Lytle’s undeserved obscurity may be that in an age that disdains humane literature, he remains a crusader for its preservation. 

Nowhere is Lytle’s unapologetic defense of the old order more evident than in his short fiction. Though his short stories do not make him a major figure in this field, they are exemplary of a renaissance of Southern short fiction which has included Warren, Taylor, Porter, and Welty. In this collection of four stories and one novella, the reader will find some of Lytle’s most unyielding defenses of the “old morality.” The story “Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,” the first in the collection, is illustrative. The central figure, the old matriarch Katherine McGowan, is representative of an older order in the way she operates a large plantation in rural Alabama around the turn of the century. With concern and love she has kept the farm in good shape—paying Black and white workers respectable wages, staying abreast of the latest farming practices, and still raising a family. Yet the reader finds her on her deathbed with only one heir: a wayward grandson. Her predicament is further complicated by an in competent doctor whose remedies consist of banal exclamations about the weather and the color of Mrs. Mc Gowan’s linens. Her defeat is sealed when Dick, the grandson, brings his fiancee, Eva, to meet his soon-to-be departed grandmother. Eva is a gorgeous girl, but Mrs. McCowan suspects that her small, wrists mark her as a woman ill-suited for childbearing. True enough, Eva is not concerned with propagating the McCowans nor with maintaining the family hierarchy; she prefers the amusements of shopping instead. She inflicts the final laceration when she announces she would like to spend the falls and winters in the city instead of on the farm. The grandson’s capitulation breaks the old order. No longer will the McCowans cherish the land; despair prevails.

Ritual safeguards morality and order in Lytle’s stories. Especially affirmed are those celebrations of wholesomeness in which a boy is initiated into manhood. In Southern society, this rite of passage is often defined by the boy’s first invitation to accompany older men on the hunt. “The Mahogany Frame” shows how this rite—even when improperly administered—gives the boy his first chance to assume adult stature. Narrated by a young boy who is taken on a hunting trip by his maternal uncle, the story dramatizes the difficulty of remaining an earnest hunter when the older guides dissolve in whiskey. The problem, as Lytle has remarked, is “not chaos, but life as we suffer it.” The boy suffers from the loss of his innocence, but he is not swept up by the decadence of the adults. 

The republication of these stories is part of an effort to bring a large portion of Mr. Lytle’s work back into print. At a time when most of our national literary figures dare not question contemporary orthodoxies, this initiative is commendable.


[Stories, Alchemy and Others, Andrew Lytle; Sewanee, TN: University of the South Press]