Andrew Lytle lives in a log house on the Assembly Grounds in Monteagle, Tennessee. It is a busy area in summer, but in the wintertime most of the other houses are closed, and he has few immediate neighbors. The house is built on a cross plan and has somewhat unusually high ceilings. Most often Mr. Lytle sees company in the bar of the cross onto which the front door opens, where chairs are ringed around a sofa, before a big stone fireplace. Left of the mantle is a small portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose biography was Lytle’s first book. Further into the house are some family portraits, and within handy reach there is a sideboard with several silver cups bearing signs of use and a bottle or two of Weller’s bourbon whiskey.
This interview took place in the form of a general conversation among a various group of people seated before the fire. The talk was by no means exclusively literary, but ranged over country matters and otherwise, from what might have gone on in the Garden of Eden to what was going on then in the garden out back.
Mr. Lytle held the center of the conversation, without particularly trying to. To a considerably greater degree than the rest of us, he displayed a facility for connecting ideas both to one another and to the practical affairs of life. He lives, it appears, in a whole world, whose parts are all organically related and where every notion finds its natural place in an order of things. The listener senses that for him ideas are less abstract than concrete, meant not merely to be speculated upon, but lived. One suspects that he may be one of the last adepts of a developed art of being, which by now has been almost entirely lost.
Bell: I wanted to ask you about a term you’ve used from time to time, in letters and in print: “the hovering bard.” What is the hovering bard, exactly?
Lytle: An extension of Henry James’s “central intelligence,” that’s what it is. It’s somebody who sees everything from above and can bring it together. Just as you have in a real country community somebody who knows something about what happened. Every country society has one, who doesn’t do anything, doesn’t work, just listens to everything, tells tales, tells what everybody’s doing, you know. A sort of disappointed or incompleted artist, who gathers it all together. And—he would hover over it all.
Bell: So it’s a person inside the story that that voice comes from.
Lytle: Yes, he can be a character. Jack Cropleigh would be it in The Velvet Horn. Someone like Jack Cropleigh, who doesn’t dominate every scene, but could have. Everything could have taken place in his mind, you have to assume that. So it’s rather tricky, but it’s not an omission, it allows the comment to come through this particular hovering bard to become a choral effect, along with the action.
Bell: Can the function of the bard move from person to person in a story?
Lytle: Yes, but you can’t just move it briefly. You can’t do it just for several paragraphs or a page or a short chapter. It has to be a whole section which comes to some kind of conclusion, but which is part of the general, ultimate conclusion. But it’s never stated. As long as you say, “I remember,” then it ceases to exist. Because nothing exists in the past. So what you have to do is make the past into a moving present tense, joined to this one. It took me months to work it out.
Bell: How long did you spend on The Velvet Horn, altogether?
Lytle: Seven or eight years. I had started a book that I thought was going to be about a society that is dead. And then I realized that nothing which is dead ever moves. So what you really write about is people and a given condition. I spent two years on that before I realized you never write about anything dead. And at that time I happened to be reading Jung and Newman and Zimmer and mythology, and that gave me my enveloping action.
Bell: Could you say what the enveloping action is?
Lytle: Enveloping action is the universal, the thing which is always true. The simplest example is the triumvirate: two people in love with one person. You can have a million circumstances there. So what you do is envelop the whole action, as a particular action representing that universal. So the present action will also represent the other.
Bell: Would you say what it was in The Velvet Horn?
Lytle: I don’t know. Incest—spiritual and otherwise. I wouldn’t say absolutely.
Bell: Well, I wanted to get you to talk about shifting point of view, which it seems that you don’t much approve of. I am wondering when it can work and when it can’t.
Lytle: Oh yes. It’s a weakness for two reasons. On the reader’s part, he gets identified with a person and a point of view—you do that, certainly, in James’s central intelligence. Well, if you use that and then shift it to somebody else, then it puzzles the reader. He doesn’t know what to believe, finally. That’s the effect.
Bell: And a book can’t get resolved if the point of view shifts? Lytle: It cannot, there is just no way for it to.
Bell: What about the couple of Faulkner books that work that way, such as As I Lay Dying?
Lytle: Well, the dead woman holds it together in As I Lay Dying. She’s there. Think about it. She’s always present, as if she is not dead. That’s how it’s held together; the presence is there, and that’s why the voices work.
Bell: But in The Vanquished, for instance, it’s all told in the voice of the boy. So you don’t have the problem of separating voices.
Lytle: Yes. It’s in the first person; that’s the most dangerous point of view of all. With first person, I say you’ve got the limitation of prejudice, and then you don’t get the whole truth because the actor is involved, and then you’ve got omissions. But if you can have that attitude and still indirectly show the whole truth, then it works.
Bell: Then that would make the narrator the hovering bard?
Lytle: It would make him the bard, don’t you see?
Bell: You’ve written that dialogue is not enough to make fiction, and that summary is important.
Lytle: Summary is fiction. Because the summary includes scenes and also the implications of scenes. You’ve got to have the scene, the scene is the center, it’s drama. You have to have it because it’s concrete. So you hear people speaking in terms of the action, but summary comes out of the enveloping action, I suppose. I think that fiction is a summary—summary of scenes leading up to the scene which you need.
Bell: Did your acting career contribute to that understanding? What did you do in the Yale Drama School?
Lytle: I went there to study action, scene, really, what it comes down to, and I learned that.
Bell: What sort of parts did you play? Lytle: Different ones. I was not a matinee idol. I wrote a play that was put on, a one-act play. Made a big hit in Nashville. Called The Lost Sheep. It really went well, for three weeks. I was in one play on Broadway, ran for four months. It was called The Grey Fox, about Machiavelli. Henry Hull played in it. Crystal Hull was the female lead. I was Machiavelli’s clerk.
Bell: You were in damn good company.
Lytle: Oh yes, that was pretty good company. And I got a $50 bill and a $10 bill every Saturday night. You could live on it then.
Onstage, you see the actors physically moving, and they arrange their movements, acting together, and you get a sense that you never can in the written word. But you’ve got to try to get that sense. Your problem is how, by the use of the five senses, to make the reader see what he would see in the theater. That’s how it seems to me.
Everybody uses the five senses who writes. But Flaubert is the man who almost made a law of it. He said the more you use the senses, the more sense of being, of the reality of living people, you get. You’ve got sight, the sovereign sense, and hearing is awfully close. The mortal senses, smell, taste, and particularly touch: you can’t reach the world, you can’t love, you can’t do any of these things without touch. And the more of those you use, the more imitation of life you will get.
That’s why you’ve got to have the scene, but you’ve got to have behind that all the enveloping action, all the summary leading up to it. And scene is very extravagant. Hemingway can make a scene, his is nearly all scene, some of it. His panoramic summaries are stage directions, certainly in “The Killers.” But he can take dialogue and not only make the action advance, but the understanding of it. Well, you can go through the whole of “The Killers” and just see what the summary will do with the scenic directions.
Bell: Do you have any ideas about ways of living that would allow a person sufficient time to write?
Lytle: There’s no one way. I think you’ve got to have a little luck, for one thing. You can teach in these places, they help. You might farm. I tried farming. Now if you own the farm, and have some cows, and want to go and milk, and do those things, then you might do it.
Bell: Except it ends up that takes most of your time, doesn’t it?
Lytle: Well, don’t try to do too much. You’ve got to have some help, you know.
Bell: I’ve heard you say it from time to time that you couldn’t farm even with help and write at the same time.
Lytle: I mean, really farm. But you can do, say, one thing. Cows, you can have something to live on. You can make a garden, I do that here, you can do certain things. You cannot really farm and write. I’ll tell you what I did, I had a man do over an old log barn on one place, and I ought to have been out there watching. But I was trying to write, and I wrote four pages, I thought it was perfectly beautiful. When I looked at it, when I got through, I kept one sentence.
Bell: You were watching him out of the corner of your eye, then. Lytle: But you’ve got to do something. And if you own the land . . . but if you’ve got to pay the mortgage, you’ve got to grow things you don’t want to grow, like tobacco. That’s 14 months a year, tobacco. And there it goes. Now I think you can do it, but in comparison to teaching, you’ve got to teach too. Even writing: there’s just no one solution.
Here’s what I do, and this is the ground on which you begin: sit down at the same place every day at the same time, and put yourself away from yourself, and enter the imaginary world. And then do the day’s stint. And if you’ve got the strength left, then you can do whatever else you have to do. The only trouble with that is, that always has its own measure and its own rules.
When I was working on The Long Night, there was a hill behind the house, you know, and I would go up and put a board across a stump or something and stay there all day. And when I came in my father asked me how the muse had treated me. “Well,” I said, “I saw a snake chase a frog to a tree. And the frog got to the tree and the snake crawled slowly behind the brush and then he turned and looked at me.
Bell: That’s in the book, isn’t it?
Lytle: Yes. I was just another creature out there, and nothing could intervene.
Bell: Have you seen that book, Nashville: The Occupied City?
Lytle: I’ve got it here, but I haven’t read it. I just don’t like to read about the Civil War anymore. It’s not always miswritten, but it is so sad. There was no reason really there, at the end . . . they were as exhausted as we were. And they’d got all the people they could out of Europe. And Grant had thrown away 10,000 men in one attack; the men put their addresses on their backs.
Bell: Cold Harbor?
Lytle: Yes, Cold Harbor. And Jefferson Davis wouldn’t let Lee retreat to the mountain, and if he had, then Lincoln probably would not have been reelected, and McClellan would have been, and we could have brought the war to an end. That’s a possibility, but it didn’t happen, and so that’s what we’ve got to live with.
Bell: Where would we be if that had come to pass?
Lytle: Well, I think the Industrial Revolution would have been slowed. But I don’t know how far. They might have rejoined the old Union, I don’t know what that would have been. Or you could have had the Confederacy by itself. Then they probably would have taken Mexico and Cuba. They had an army, and the Austrians were done for there. The Yankees wanted to do it, too, so you just can’t tell. I think they would have moved in that direction.
Bell: What would life have been like?
Lytle: Country people would have made a living again, that’s what they would have done.
Bell: You think there’s a way we could have avoided having McDonalds and K-Marts all through here?
Lytle: I don’t think that’s the farming interest, [laughs] We’ve got as many stupid people here as they’ve got anywhere else, of course. It’s true. But they weren’t that stupid before the war, because everybody was well-informed on politics, they loved to hear people debate.
You know, I figured finally, after 60 years, that that was one reason why nobody paid any attention to the Agrarian position: nobody could think of his own society disappearing. They couldn’t think of it.
Bell: It did, though. Lytle: Right underneath them, yes. But you can see how that would be. Because this is the greatest revolution that’s happened, certainly, in our time.
Bell: Well, it’s the most destructive.
Lytle: Yes. Well, they put this car plant at Smyrna, they ruined that beautiful country over there, for 3,000 jobs, not two million. And you’re not going to control them, and it’s going to go bankrupt finally, because people don’t have the money to buy that many cars. You know, it doesn’t take but one bad idea, that’s all you’ve got to have, to destroy a man or a state. That’s what you’ve got: materialism, that man can finally be eternal, or immortal. You know, Allen [Tate] used to quarrel with Edmund Wilson, he believed in that: the perfectibility of man, Wilson did. But you know what the question is: When? When? And in the meantime you’ve got to make all these sacrifices at somebody else’s pleasure, or interest, toward that end. It’s a kind of satanic thing. They deny the nature of things, that there’s dark and light, pain and pleasure, day and night, male and female. . . . They deny all that, to say that there’s just goodness, what’s wrong is some mechanical difficulty. That’s what we’re confronted with.
Bell: What do you think about Lyle Lanier saying we might come back to a more agrarian type of society?
Lytle: I think it’s going to blow up first. I don’t think it can come back now—the grounds for it have been destroyed. Particularly in the South, the smaller farmers, people like that. You take Murfreesboro, Rutherford County, when they bought out the old Lytle house and tore it down and put a Carnation milk plant there, then there were 30,000 milk cows in the county. Not any there now. The plant has been torn down, itself, don’t you see? I just think we have gone mad with this technology, and just making things.
Bell: Even in dairy farming now the cows are milked around the clock, they’re never out to pasture, they just feed them.
Lytle: Just like the chickens. That’s a horrifying thing. What we have done is violate nature. You make war on nature, you use it, you see. And when you do that you yourself become a kind of monster. It’s a monstrous life, and in a way, you see the results of that in these people.
A family farm cannot be torn down to the money economy. We were at Cornsilk here in 1925 and ’26; we had mules and horses to plow, and we grew our own fuel. We had one tractor to disc with because loose ground was hard on the workstock. But then, you didn’t have any rent to pay. And you grew a great deal of your own food. But you just cannot be dependent on the world market. Just to be on the money economy, no way for a farm to do that and survive. In the first place you’ve got to consider seasons. You can have drought; you can have too much water. You pay $80- or $90,000 for one of these big tractors and have a 300-acre farm, why, there is no possible way not to go under the hammer like they do out there in the West.
And when I’ll Take My Stand came out, it was about 50-50, the chance was possible for some kind of restraint, by slowing down the speed of change.
Bell: Did the down side of it all turn out as you expected it might in 1930?
Lytle: Oh no. We couldn’t imagine it being as bad as it is now. You know, we were just protesting. The only thing that brought us into the public view was the Great Depression. And it came out about that time, so we seemed prophets. At least, not prophets then, but they think we were prophets now.
Bell: When did you get involved with the I’ll Take My Stand project?
Lytle: Well, that was the year I graduated. Red [Robert Penn Warren] was at Oxford, I was around Nashville then. . . . That’s the first writing, really serious writing, that I ever did, and I did it right on that table yonder.
I was interested in it, and there was a good deal of talk done, among Don [Donald Davidson] and John [Crowe Ransom], and they corresponded with Allen [Tate] in Europe. Allen got back and said, “I can get a contract with Harper’s while I’m here.” I just took it for granted I was taken into it—they didn’t know that until they had seen what I could do. We talked, and Don didn’t want to sign the contract. I don’t know why—Allen felt that Don would never bring anything to a conclusion, though they were great friends. So John and I went and sent a telegram to sign the contract. And I came and wrote my part here.
That’s how I got into it. I was very bumptious—I sort of confronted Don on that. It was the time when if you didn’t do it, it would never have been done. That is what, certainly, John and I felt.
Bell: Was Davidson a professor at Vanderbilt then?
Lytle: Yes. He was also John’s student, did you know that? They were at war and came out. . . . I don’t know when he was a student. He was a good teacher. He didn’t think I was much of a scholar. I took that sophomore class in English, and Davidson always shook his head at me. I was a dancing man in those days, fooled around. He only gave me a C. And I never took a class with him again.
Bell: When did you first fall in with Allen Tate?
Lytle: I can tell you exactly that. He was a senior when I was a freshman at Vanderbilt. And he and Red roomed together, they met in Curry’s office, there. I didn’t know him. I was a dancing man in those days, didn’t think about writing. John Ransom wrote me at Yale and wrote Allen at 27 Bank Street, and that is where it came about; I came down. Allen lived in the basement floor of Bank Street, and got that half rent-free for keeping the furnace. So we got to talking about the monkey trial, and we agreed about it, as did our philosophy professor. Dr. Sanborn. We saw each other for the first time there.
Bell: So you didn’t know him from The Fugitive?
Lytle: No, he wasn’t there, then, you see, he was gone. I went to The Fugitive my senior year, but I didn’t write verse, although I did try, and John Ransom was good enough to publish some, rather poor verse, which Allen accused him of Allen of course had left, and he went up to his brother’s. Ben Tate had a coal business. See, Allen’s father bought all that coal land up in Kentucky and West Virginia, and Ben developed it. And Allen shipped a car of coal in the wrong direction and Ben fired him. And, of course, it was an unconscious kind of movement. Allen had no business fooling around with coal and all. Any kind of business. He couldn’t even see those 12 tomato plants drooping at Benfolly—he would go right by them and never see them.
Bell: You’ve done a good deal of teaching here and there. Do you think it’s a good thing for writers to be absorbed into the colleges the way that they have been?
Lytle: I think you’ve got to be with people who are doing the same thing. I don’t think you ever talk about what you’re doing while you’re doing it. If you did, you would never do it. But you have to talk around it, don’t you see, and like that.
Bell: Was it in Florida that you taught Flannery O’Connor?
Lytle: No, that was in Iowa, she was out there. Paul Engle brought me out there for two spring terms. I ran that place the second term.
Bell: What was she like as a student?
Lytle: Oh, Flannery, she was a fine student. She was already working on a novel; I worked with her on that, and she would listen. I think I learned more than she did. I was given her stuff to read when I came there because they knew I could pronounce “chitlins.” There I discovered that you never let the student read his own work. The friends will say it is good; the enemies say it’s bad. So when I taught I always read their work myself.
I enjoyed it out there. I remember Flannery was such a puritan, she was one of those Catholic puritans. She had in that story (“A Stroke of Good Fortune”), remember, this woman who was pregnant, walks up the stairs—just a wonderful scene. In that, she put the boy in bed with the woman at first. And I tried to say, “It’s not done that way. You can’t get away with it.” So what she did: she put a hat on his head and made a comic scene of it. I remember that.
We talked. I didn’t know anything much about how to teach then, and she talked about it, that helped.
Bell: There isn’t any love in O’Connor’s work; do you think that’s a limitation?
Lytle: Yes, it’s a limitation—it’s her limitation. But with her use of the grotesque, the enveloping action is clear; this is what happens when you have only materialism as the common belief of society.
Bell: I read where you said that a writer has only one true subject—what’s yours?
Lytle: I don’t know. But I think your writing of it is an effort to discover it. Some who have written about me think it is the fall from innocence, the Garden of Eden myth.
We have lost the sense of when every man and woman was a craftsman. That was the Christian inheritance. My sense of that now theologically is that that’s why man has something divine in him. It’s not that he is made in the image of God—a mosquito is made in the image of God. Such diverse images. That’s a poor theology.
So my feeling is that an artist puts the best part of himself—I don’t mean his personality, but his very being—in his work. In his artifact. And I think that God, if He made man (He certainly didn’t beget him), then He put the best of himself in. And so that’s the only divine thing in human creatures.
So the writer of the Garden of Eden failed in a sense—he brought Adam and Eve alive. Now, two naked people can’t live together and not know what they’re doing, you see; there is no possible way to do that. So I think they were like angels, they were emanations, else there’s no point to eating the apple. Because when they ate the apple, they became knowledgeable of themselves, they came alive. Their eyes opened. That is, they were no longer innocent, they took on the body of flesh and then, the garden of innocence, they were out of it. They were then wayfarers in the world, you see. So my feeling is—it seems so ridiculous that the beginning of the world is based on disobedience. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Bell: People think of the story of the Garden of Eden as a tragedy. You’re saying it isn’t?
Lytle: It’s not a tragedy, it’s just the beginning of life. In the beginning of life you have comedy and tragedy too. But it seems to me you cannot fall from innocence, no way to. You quicken into living, and you fall into, you enter, the wilderness of time.
That’s a mighty broad subject. I’m going to make some biscuits, if you’ll cut the ham. Can you all eat some ham? The turkey is, well, not deliquescent, I hope it’s not, but we might best avoid it.