Almost nobody thinks that Yankees can possibly understand agrarians. But one of the great pleasures in my life is that I was, at least at one time or another, Mel Bradford’s favorite Yankee. And because Mel introduced me with great good manners to Mr. Andrew Nelson Lytle, I became one of his favorite Yankees, too.
Mel Bradford came to Hillsdale College in the early fall of 1975, to speak at a seminar we had put together to comment on and honor Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order. Mel was fascinated with the two l’s in my family name and questioned me closely about the New England heritage that seemed to him to be written on my forehead. He said to me during our very first meeting, “Did you have any people in the ‘late unpleasantness’?” He had several names for the war of 1861-65, but, when he was among friendly Yankees, he always said the “late unpleasantness.” I told him that I did, indeed, that three Willson brothers had fought with a New York unit out of Buffalo. “Were they,” he said, “at Chicka-mauga on the third day?” I told him that family history says they were, but I didn’t know the details. Mel drew himself up to his full 6 feet 5 inches and 350 pounds, and said with great dignity, “Sir, our families have met before.”
He thought that I might appreciate Mr. Lytle, so he arranged for him to come to Hillsdale, to stay a week, and to teach six or seven classes, and to teach several of our good young men how properly to drink bourbon. One of those young men was Gregory Wolfe, who was then my brilliant student and who now is an accomplished editor and author. Mr. Lytle liked what we were trying to do at Hills-dale. Once, he said to me, “I like it that you are all young—but not too young.” He later wrote to Greg Wolfe that he found joy and peace living “in a sense of eternity.” His vision of the world was profoundly Christian, but, like Russell Kirk’s, was rarely found in church. Bishop William Milsapps, a godly Anglican and resident with Mr. Lytle at Monteagle, Tennessee, chided him about needing to be in church and receiving the Sacrament. Mr. Lytle said, “William, yours is the church I do not attend.”
Mr. Lytle was taken with the gardens I used to grow. He said, “I hope you do not use chemicals. I like organic vegetables.” He really said that. I told him that cabbage worms are a real problem, and that tomato hornworms are hard to combat. He said, “Well, that’s why I don’t grow cabbage, and that’s why I don’t grow tomatoes. I grow okra. No bugs like okra.”
Many good people have better memories than I have of Mr. Lytle. We gave him an honorary doctorate at Hillsdale (wishing in piety not to let the professional agrarians die unnoticed), and he gave a talk that every American should hear. It was called “The Momentary Man,” and, although it has been published in various forms, he introduced it with a story that he had not written down.
I tell it from memory: “A man was caught up in the trials of life. He worked hard, and he had many responsibilities. His wife was unhappy, and his children unruly. He lived in the town of his birth but had secretly always wanted to get away. He stayed because he had to take care of things. His father lived in a local care facility (they had no room for him at home, and his wife would not have appreciated his presence), and the man took him for automobile rides in the country every Sunday afternoon. The man was out of sorts on one of their Sundays, and he looked over at his father who was particularly incoherent and drooling, and he stopped the car. He walked to his father’s side and opened the door and yelled at him. ‘You stupid worthless old man. You slobbering millstone. You tie me to this terrible place. I hate, hate, hate . . . ’ He had no more to say, and so went back to his place and slumped down exhausted. His father said, ‘Son, who was that man?’”
A room full of us sat stunned. Then, Mr. Lytle went on to tell us about Lilith and his heretical notions about the Bible, and he also mentioned that Thornton Wilder, a Yankee Midwesterner, had written one of the great plays about the Momentary Man, called “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Some of us Yankees get things right, sometimes.