The name of Andrew Lytle should be better known than it is: he has been a distinguished novelist and author of some widely anthologized short stories; an essayist, historian, and memoirist; an editor of the Sewanee Review for many years; and a teacher of creative writing at the University of Florida and the University of Iowa. In all of these roles, he has been one of the chief cultivators of 20th-century American letters. And 20th-century American letters do count in the eyes of the world, for whatever pride we may take in our status as the oldest constitutional democracy, as a major winner in two world wars, as the world’s only superpower, it is to 20th-century American letters that we owe most of our international reputation as a vital seedbed of artistic and intellectual culture.
If nations have their historic moments, we have had ours in this century: Americans have been the movers and shapers of the world for fully three generations, but we tend to credit the political and military leaders who have asserted our physical greatness in the eyes of the world more than we credit the intellectual leaders who at the same time have achieved a comparable moral and spiritual greatness for us. Among these leaders, Andrew Lytle stands high. His stature has as much to do with historical coincidence as with his own formidable talents, for he was part of the generation at Vanderbilt who created the Fugitives and the Agrarians in the 1920’s and 1950’s.
The writers linked together as Southern Fugitive-Agrarians have had as much to do with the intellectual history of 20th century America as the New England Transcendentalists had to do with the intellectual history of 19th-century America. Any student of American literature knows that Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman are at the heart of American Romanticism, and though the intellectual history of our century is not quite as clear, I think a similar claim can be made for Ransom and Tate and Warren and Davidson and Lytle, that they made the Southern Fugitive-Agrarians the center of American modernism—which also means, incidentally, that they made Monteagle, Tennessee, the Southern equivalent of Concord, Massachusetts, for as Concord is to Boston, so Monteagle is to Nashville. Indeed, Monteagle is more Agrarian than Nashville, and Andrew Lytle has been the most consistent Agrarian simply in choosing to live there off and on for 50 years, while the others went elsewhere or stayed in Nashville to pursue their distinguished careers.
I am not claiming that the Fugitive-Agrarians are the greatest modern American writers, for there are Pound and Eliot and Faulkner to consider, none of whom were Fugitives or Agrarians. No, when I say that the Fugitive-Agrarians were at the center of American modernism, I mean that their peculiar combination of literary ideas and practices defines modernism for us, just as the Transcendentalists define what we mean by Romanticism. Both groups were writers and thinkers rather than practical men; their theories and examples shaped American intellectual history during much of the past two centuries.
The Fugitives were first of all poets: if they had not earned themselves an international reputation as literary artists first, with the publication for a few short years (from 1922-1925) of the Fugitive magazine in Nashville, they would not have had the respect they commanded in 1930 when they published I’ll Take My Stand, a symposium on the topic of Agrarianism. Their poetry came before their social ideas, and Andrew Lytle contributed a poem, “Edward Graves,” to the Fugitive before he contributed his Agrarian essay to I’ll Take My Stand. In other words, he was a Fugitive first and an Agrarian second, though the poem is singular for Lytle, who, unlike the other main Fugitives, wrote mostly fiction and made his reputation as a novelist rather than as a poet. On the strength of that one poem alone, Andrew Lytle deserves to be called both a Fugitive and an Agrarian and as such one of the major cultivators of American letters in this century.
And what were these ideas? First, the Fugitives assumed that poetry itself is a kind of knowledge essential to human beings, that we need great literature—”poetry” is a generic name for the best writing—as we need such basic things as food and water, or political and social institutions, or religious beliefs, or military weapons, or scientific theories and methods for controlling nature. In other words, the Fugitives put common language to its highest use as art, holding that we need the poet’s work in order to know ourselves, because, in the words of Allen Tate’s essay on “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” it is the poet who above all “must recreate for his age the image of man.”
Then the Agrarian idea was superimposed on the Fugitive idea, giving further potency to the relation between literature and society. The Agrarian idea can be reduced to the thought—nowhere better expressed than by Andrew Lytle himself in one of his own later essays, “The State of Letters in a Time of Disorder”—that “the great, at least lasting, literatures and representative arts are found in either a pastoral or an agrarian society.” Now, many have disagreed with this idea, and a storm of controversy has surrounded Agrarianism from its beginning: modern society, unsympathetic critics declare, is governed by capitalism, and the pastoral society of the Agrarians has been left far behind, a part of the past that is never to be recovered. Many critics still ridicule Agrarianism, but the ideals on which literary art is based do not derive from capitalism, a pragmatic economic theory dedicated to the making of money; rather, the literary arts are still based on the cultivation of nature, an Agrarian ideal, which extends to the cultivation of letters by analogy and which capitalism has not replaced. So if we follow the logic of Andrew Lytle and the Fugitive-Agrarians, poetry is as necessary to humane existence, that is to civilized life, as farming and husbandry, that is the cultivation of nature, from which city dwellers still derive their sustenance in food and their enjoyment of natural abundance and beauty. Ransom spoke of Agrarianism as the “aesthetics of regionalism,” which meant to him that, wherever one lived, nature was to be appreciated for its beauty as well as its nourishment. Despite its critics, Agrarianism is not an outworn or discredited philosophy, for though it is true that most Americans today live in cities, not on farms, whatever aesthetic sense we retain as individuals or as a nation continues to come from the land rather than from the factory. Americans have a great literature not because we are a progressive, powerful, technological society but because we have a long memory, which reaches deep into the past to help us understand ourselves and criticize the present generation.
Donald Davidson captured the Fugitive-Agrarian philosophy beautifully in a late poem called “Lines Written for Allen Tate On His Sixtieth Anniversary,” which was composed in 1959, long after the Fugitives and Agrarians had gathered at Vanderbilt. Reaching into the past to recall meetings held in the 1920’s and 1930’s at Benfolly, the home of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon in Clarksville, Tennessee, the poem opens with an image of the Civil War in action, the sound of guns firing at a fort near Clarksville on the Cumberland River, followed by Andrew Lytle’s voice as he led his fellow writers in a discussion of Southern history and myth:
The sound of guns from beleaguered Donelson
Up-river flowed again to Benfolly’s hearth.
Year to familiar year we had heard it run
World-round and back, till Lytle cried out: “Earth
Is good, but better is land, and best
A land still fought-for, even in retreat;
For how else can Aeneas find his rest
And the child hearken and dream at his grandsire’s feet?”
Davidson’s poem is proof that Andrew Lytle played a central role among the Fugitive-Agrarians, because his historical memory and mythical imagination enabled him to find a parallel between the Southerners defeated by the Yankees in the Civil War and the Trojans defeated by the Greeks in the Trojan War. He argues dramatically for an invincible spirit in the South, which could, like that of the Trojan hero Aeneas, go on after defeat to found a new civilization to replace the old. Lytle, as Davidson pictures him, is a unifier of past and present, basing his regional loyalty on a timeless sense of human destiny, mingling his voice with those of Ransom and Tate and Warren and Davidson to honor the muses of poetry and “To join the long procession where it winds / Up to a mountain home”—a final destination that sounds much more like Monteagle than Clarksville. If Davidson’s poem opens at Benfolly, it appears to end at Monteagle.
Andrew Lytle is no anachronism as one of the leading Fugitive-Agrarians. He is a leading modernist as well, for modernism has always been a self-critical movement; in Stephen Spender’s happy phrase, it is “revolutionary traditionalism.” That is to say, modernists have been revolutionary in form but traditional in content, deploring much of what is superficially modern—in particular the dominance of money and machines—and favoring instead new expressions of the older values among which religion and art are dominant. Although these writers have been realistic enough to recognize that, again to quote Lytle, while “we still live within the confines of Christendom. . . . we are in its satanic phase.”
Thus, if we place Andrew Lytle where he belongs, as a modern writer who voices old truths in compelling and often disturbing new forms, we are identifying him broadly as a cultivator of American letters, by virtue of the historical accident that he was a Fugitive-Agrarian, a Southern poet and critic who took part in the central intellectual movement of 20th century America. He deserves recognition for being in the right place at the right time with the right measure of talent, more a matter of fate than of free will; but he deserves individual credit as well for his unique achievement as a writer, for all his work and its wide influence.
Andrew Lytle has believed throughout his long career that all writing is a craft; in this, he has followed such admired masters as Gustave Flaubert and Henry James and Ford Madox Ford. In “The State of Letters in a Time of Disorder,” Lytic spoke of his long tenure as editor of the Sewanee Review, saying, “At the Review, some five or six thousand manuscripts pass over the editors’ desks each year. Only eighty are printed.” He concedes that “obviously, good things must be rejected” but maintains that, nevertheless, “the quarteriies are needed more today than ever. Their care for language and style and the protection of what is eternal in letters makes them a kind of supreme court of literary judgment.” It was Lytle himself who, by taking over the editorship of the Sewanee Review in the early 1940’s with his old Fugitive-Agrarian friend Allen Tate, helped make it one of the preeminent literary journals in the English-speaking world. And it was Lytle who, by his long tenure as editor, firmly upheld the craft of writing, maintaining that the term “creative” was wrongly—though frequently—used to mean “imaginative.” As he always insisted, “Creation cannot properly belong to man; it belongs to God.” Since the religious perspective dominates all of Andrew Lytle’s writing, for him the craft of writing is the highest possible human achievement, even the best writer being simply man inspired by God as the only true Creator.
Andrew Lytle sees myth as central to all literature, which means that the religious interpretation of history is essential for every writer, whether as a guide when he is writing stories or novels or as a clue to the practice of the best writers at any time. His constant religious perspective is evident in everything he has written (Madison Smartt Bell writes in his preface to the new edition of A Wake for the Living that “Lytle’s Christendom is a society not of corporations but of individual creatures of God”), and it has had a beneficial influence on many other writers, starting with Flannery O’Connor, whom he taught at the beginning of her career at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa and who would later write that what was most distinctive about Southern literature was its unique combination of “mystery and manners.” Though there is no evidence of any direct influence on the greatest mythmaker among Southern writers, William Faulkner, and no way of proving his indirect influence, a case can be made that Andrew Lytle’s first, and in my opinion, best book, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company—still the best-written of several good biographies of Forrest—has more than coincidental parallels in Faulkner. Lytle’s book was published in 1931, seven years before Faulkner brought out his Civil War stories in The Unvanquished in 1938.
Though we know that Faulkner based his mythical Confederate hero. Colonel John Sartoris, on his own real-life greatgrandfather. Colonel William C. Falkner, there is no doubt that he also drew on his knowledge of the most famous of Confederate cavalry generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who came from Memphis and for a time had his headquarters in Oxford. For instance, though the real Colonel Falkner did not ride with Forrest’s raiders in northern Mississippi, the fictional Colonel Sartoris in The Unvanquished does so proudly. Moreover, Faulkner had him ride into battle on a stallion named Jupiter, a fictional counterpart to Forrest’s favorite warhorse. King Philip. The fictional Colonel Sartoris fights in the real Battle of Hurricane Creek, near Oxford, where Forrest fought against the Yankees, and in an amusing skirmish, he deprives a Yankee battalion of its clothes and then lets them sneak off in the night, as Forrest once forced a Yankee general to escape unclothed in Memphis, causing him greater humiliation than by violent capture. Most pertinently, as Lytle’s biography makes plain, after the Civil War was over, Forrest, who never lost a battle but killed many men in combat, served as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to restore order in the South by striking fear in the Carpetbaggers and black Republicans who were trying to take it over, but then he renounced further bloodshed, saying, “I have seen too much of violence, and I want to close my days at peace with all the world, as I am now at peace with my Maker.” Faulkner’s fictional Colonel Sartoris says, after he has returned from defeat to rebuild his plantation and restore order in his native town of Jefferson, Mississippi, killing a couple of Carpetbaggers in the process, “I have accomplished my aim, and now I shall do a little moral housecleaning. I am tired of killing men, no matter what the necessity or the end. Tomorrow, when I go to town and meet Ben Redmond, I shall be unarmed.” Those words are spoken in “An Odor of Verbena,” the final story in The Unvanquished, and Colonel Sartoris docs meet his end violently at the hands of his enemy, but his son Bayard faces down the same enemy without firing a shot and so peacefully accomplishes revenge for his father’s death, a significant change in the Sartoris family’s tradition of violence and in the South after the Civil War.
Thus, when Faulkner made his fictional Confederate Colonel John Sartoris relinquish violence after a violent life, he was clearly casting him in the mold of Andrew Lytle’s portrait of Forrest. The Unvanquished was praised by Lytle as one of Faulkner’s “most successful and least understood novels,” and the title fits Forrest better than any other Southern leader, for though Faulkner applies it to the women more than to the men who survived the Civil War, in a hilarious story he wrote after the novel called “My Grandmother Millard and General Bedford Forrest and the Battle of Harrykin Creek,” Faulkner dramatized the gallant figure of the real undefeated Confederate general coming to the aid of an old friend, the fictional Confederate widow Rosa Millard. Faulkner describes Forrest visiting Rosa Millard at the Sartoris plantation as “a big dusty man with a big beard so black it looked almost blue and eyes like a sleepy owl,” a description that agrees with the detailed eyewitness account of Forrest quoted by Lytle.
Though in his story the real General Bedford Forrest meets the fictional Rosa Millard and helps her marry off a member of her family to one of his officers, Faulkner had Forrest politely decline a breakfast invitation from Granny Millard, because he is going to be “whuppin” General Smith at Tallahatchie Crossing, on the river not far from Hurricane Creek, while he is headquartered at the fictional town of Jefferson. Lytle in his biography had Forrest and his Confederate cavalry fighting the Yankees under General A.J. Smith at Hurricane Creek, near the Tallahatchie Crossing, for three days before retiring to his headquarters at the real town of Oxford.
When Lytle wrote his family memoir, A Wake for the Living, almost half a century after he wrote his first book, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company, he consciously returned to the theme he had started with, that the Southern spirit was best epitomized by Forrest, a commoner who became a general, who was victorious even in defeat. Lytle says:
In the Confederacy’s declining fortunes one man stood out in the minds of Middle Tennessee and the contiguous states. General Forrest was the epitome of the spirit and the power to win. People saw in him themselves at their best in a crisis. He won while all others were retreating or being whipped.
More than he is known by any other name, Andrew Lytle is known as an Agrarian; in fact, he has been called the Agrarian, and his last major book, A Wake for the Living, is a family history that is like a long postscript to his early Agrarian essay, “The Hind Tit,” in I’ll Take My Stand, because it traces the movements of the Lytles from the Scottish border with England to Ireland to Pennsylvania and then to North Carolina and Tennessee, telling how one family retained its loyalty to the land it farmed, though in several different places and under several different governments. The Agrarian philosophy he espoused in 1930 seems to have stemmed from his earliest ancestors and to have been passed down to him in unbroken family succession. Andrew Lytle’s whole view of life stems from the family, first and last, which he believes to be the bastion of Southern society even now and which he defines realistically: “A family is not a democracy, for the parents hold the authority. It is hierarchical always, even to the spoiled last child,” with God sovereign in the universe and the family His chosen instrument of faith and loyalty, generation after generation. To Lytle’s unifying vision, the individual is always part of a larger whole, which reaches upward and outward from self to family, family to land, land to state, state to world, and world to Heaven. His Agrarianism is clearly much more than a belief in the farmer’s life as a model: it is a religious belief, like that of Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Hither of American Agrarianism, who wrote long ago in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Lytle in his writing has consistently seen man as a link in the Divine Chain of Being, which stretches from the human individual through nature up to God.
Though he has traveled widely in pursuit of his literary career, Lytle has maintained tics to his native Tennessee, returning from his tenure as teacher of writing at the University of Iowa from 1946 to 1947 and the University of Florida from 1948 to 1961 to Sewanee, not far from his birthplace in Murfreesboro (a town founded by his ancestor, William Lytle), to teach at the University of the South, live in The Log Cabin at Monteagle, and edit the Sewanee Review from 1961 to 1972. He won his greatest fame as a historical novelist, writing about the Civil War in The Long Night (1936), about DeSoto’s Spanish expedition to the New World in At the Moon’s Inn (1941), and about a post-Civil War family’s adventures in The Velvet Horn (1957), his most experimental (and most praised) novel. Now past age 90, he continues to write and live at Monteagle, where the Agrarians of old so often gathered, though as Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin has written in The Southern Agrarians (1988):
In 1980 the three survivors—Lanier, Lytle, Warren—returned to Vanderbilt for a final Agrarian reunion, a conference on Agrarianism fifty years after the publication of I’ll Take My Stand. Only Lytle, echoing the old themes, seemed an unreconstructed believer. Through the years, in letters, essays, interviews, he has kept up the fight. Finally, in a sense, Agrarianism had shrunk to the early “kid” of the group, to the ever faithful Andrew.
It may seem to Paul Conkin, a respected historian but one of many unsympathetic critics of Agrarianism, that the movement had “shrunk” to a single living writer, Andrew Lytle, but in fact Agrarianism stands as a perennial philosophy, upholding not simply farming as a way of life but man as cultivator of the best in nature, including his own nature; the craft of writing, which in its highest sense is literature, one of the fine arts; literature, which at its best is myth, the religious interpretation of history; and history, which at its best portrays man in his right relation to nature and to God.
To give the most fitting tribute to Andrew Lytle, Agrarian of American letters, would be to say that what General Nathan Bedford Forrest has meant to Andrew Lytle, Andrew Lytle means to his readers today. Both kinds of American heroes will always be needed: those who in time of war are, like Nathan Bedford Forrest, heroes of the sword and those who in time of peace are, like Andrew Lytle, heroes of the pen.