What makes it so appropriate that Andrew Lytle should receive the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters is that Mr. Lytle is one of the gifted people who inspired Dick Weaver’s career as what he called “an Agrarian in exile.” Moreover, an essay on the reissue I’ll Take My Stand was among the last things which Weaver wrote before his untimely death in 1963. Throughout his public life Weaver honored the example of the Twelve Southerners who in 1930 set themselves in the way of Juggernaut when they issued their manifesto against culture “poured in from the top”: against the indifference to human contingency which imagines that there is a promise of transcendent value in such presumption. Andrew Nelson Lytle is one of the three members of that original company still surviving. With long life the Good Lord has given him an opportunity to be persistent. For, an interval of 56 years has not persuaded him to retreat from his original opinion, has indeed only deepened his commitment to it, while the world wags its own way toward perdition.
Andrew Lytle has been farmer, actor, historian, editor, teacher, literary critic, cultural and social commentator, and novelist. But in the end all these enterprises have come together in the larger role which he plays among us today. For Mr. Lytle has become (and was on his way to being since he first began to write) one of the memory keepers, a repository of the shape and feel of life in this country before it ceased to think of itself as part of the Christian West. Indeed, he remembers even more than he ever knew. For about the form and texture of a world he experienced as only a lingering shadow or “ghostly presence,” Lytle learned (especially through stories) enough to imagine, to reconstruct, what he could not have seen. He came to this role naturally because he had, in a Southern context, known his own predecessors. Of them he wrote that “At a family gathering, when people were not working but celebrating, there would always be one voice more capable than another of dominating the conversation. It was a kind of bardic voice.” Lytle has made fictional use of this gift and knows its value when he comes toward us directly. The by-gone commonwealth which he represents lives also in the hearts of the rest of us who continue by choice to be its citizens and is made available to the performance of our piety through the acts of the memory keeper, the agency of his narratives as they preserve and reaffirm a truth not easily rendered in discursive terms. In this connection I think immediately of Lytle’s matchless biography of the Tennessee Achilles, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and of his essay on the same mighty warrior, “The Hero and the Doctrinaires of Defeat”; of his recent Reflections of a Ghost, and the extraordinary family chronicle, A Wake for the Living. In these works we hear the accent of the vates, who utters for us the formula of our inheritance.
The thematic focus of much of Mr. Lytle’s work has been upon the history of European man in this hemisphere, and especially upon his dream of a heaven on earth, an Eldorado, of the kind that has often inspired his adventures in “westering.” It is a recognizable subdivision of the larger subject of modernity and its costs: the great matter of how we might escape contingency and the consequences of the Fall, of the idea of a “new man” who can, through will, ingenuity, or mere relocation build on this side of Jordan some continuing city. According to Oswald Spengler, all of these dreams of a terrestrial beatitude have their collective representation and proper symbol in the old magician. Dr. Faust. Mr. Lytle tends to agree with that part of Spengler’s analysis of what has happened to Christendom since the Renaissance. And he includes the artist as among Faustian figures—that is, if he refuses to submit his imagination to his subject until “seized” by “the form, the artifice” hidden there. Yet as artist and thinker, maker and commentator, Lytle has always known better than to set store by disembodied truth. Therefore his focus has been upon specific versions of the alchemical prototype caught up in Faustian flight from human limitations and the responsibilities which go with them: in either individualism or collectivism, worship of self or of state—both rejections of the old view which maintains that each man has his place or gift of which he is steward because (or if) he loves.
Lytle’s literary and cultural criticism, much of it gathered in The Hero With the Private Parts, is clearly the reverse side of what he has done as one of the masters of the craft of fiction. Of the former he writes that “reading is one way to learn to write.” He has aspired to a total reading of those fictions which most interest him, and in dealing with Ford, Crane, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Joyce, and (especially) Flaubert, he has achieved his goal. He has also written memorably about the creative process itself, of being “merely an instrument”; and about the “network of conventions inside of which men and women perform the perennial actions summarized in our inheritance of myth.” Lytle has reminded us that Promethean man, on his way to Babylon, cannot be the artist because he understands the world as an object to be controlled. In contrast, mythopoeic man looks at it in wonder and, in reporting a reaction, leaves it to others to make propaganda and convert insight into marching orders. The best fiction, he persuades us, engenders in its audience something like that sense of wonder. In much of it the action rendered belongs to a specific context of culture and history—”manners and customs, codes, public and private disciplines”—and concerns of “people within the constraint of some inherited social agreement.” Andrew Lytle does not write or praise a literature of Platonic abstractions, which is perhaps why we should value in particular Lytle the narrator, the raconteur, the teller of tales—the one who remembers that we live only in all of the particulars of our condition, not in some anterior general state, separate from its incarnate complexity.
The antitype of the memory keeper is the artist or intellectual as alienated man: the figure we know best in modern literature through James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, the hero of his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Young Stephen, putting behind family, homeland, and church, prays to the Daedalus of myth, “Old Father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” But the memory keeper requires no such transport. He uses his gift piously, without converting his craft into a substitute religion. Out of a sacramental view of the creation and an honest realism about the creature, he makes his witness within an inherited culture, not an imaginary republic of letters, and if he does so well as Andrew Lytle, deserves the laurel which has been given with this award to him.