Understanding Andrew Lytle

A Review of The Southern Vision of Andrew Lytle, by Mark Lucas, Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Andrew Lytle’s writings comprise a rich and diverse tapestry whose outlines are difficult to bring together. The critic who tackles this varying body of material must become conversant in history, political philosophy, military biography, and literary criticism. Lytle has been feted for achievements in both history and literature; and he has held professorships in both disciplines. The attempt to suggest what Lytle’s achievements mean in various areas in which he ranges can be overpowering. And it is only the patient and learned critic who would undertake such a task.

Mark Lucas in The Southern Vision of Andrew Lytle writes with grace and clarity about Lytle’s accomplishment. His volume unifies Lytle’s achievement as a novelist, Agrarian essayist, biographer, and memoirist under the rubric of “Southern Vision.” This title is evocative in suggesting the organic evolution of Lytle’s writing in the areas of politics, history, religion and literature. Lucas presents Lytle as a prophetic figure whose calling is rooted in the example of Isaiah of Jerusalem, to whom Lucas alludes in estimating Lytle’s career. Lucas seizes on a central tenet of Lytle’s writings-the consistent objection to materialistic idolatry and the attendant loss of spiritual values in various orders of community-political, religious, and blood.

Starting with what Lucas identifies as a “polemical” phase of Lytle’s Agrarian writings in I’ll Take My Stand and his biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest, (Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company), the author then deepens his analysis into a complex and carefully wrought vision of the later novelist. Lucas is effective in showing how Lytle’s fiction dealing with the Spanish conquistadors (At the Moon’s Inn) gives profound sweep to Lytle’s analysis of the origins of American materialism. Lucas shows that the Spanish fiction makes dramatic what Lytle had been stating in his Agrarian essays. Lytle’s “Southern loyalties” provide the occasion for him to discover what Lucas describes as a larger “image of wholeness and order he describes in the high Middle Ages, an image summed up in the word Christendom, The rise of the bourgeoisie, Henry VIII’s sacking of the monasteries, the Stuart perversion of rule by divine right, the Whig revolt of 1688, and particularly the defeat of the Confederacy-Anglo history since the Middle Ages, according to Lytle’s world view, has seen Faustian secularism and materialism go from success to success.”

The term “Anglo history” that Lucas formulates allows him to retain an admiration of Lytle, but at the same time to distance himself from the view of history that Lucas rightly shows gives rise to his fiction. “Anglo history” is a spurious term to apply to Lytle’s complex vision of history. This device reveals in Lucas a consistently squeamish attitude toward Lytle’s view of history and his political loyalties.

There are other disclaimers in the study that allow Lucas to disassociate himself from Lytle’s political and historical writings. He is troubled, for instance, by the Tennessean’s unapologetic admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest in his biography. He states that Lytle’s “exuberance” contributes to the book’s “shortcoming as a biography; the one-dimensionality of its portrayal of Forrest.” He goes on to fault Lytle for failing to probe the “absolutism” and “guiltlessness of Forrest’s mind.” “Ostensible complexities in the character of Forrest” are not discussed in Lytle’s po¬trayal so that “‘a son of the Gods’ can emerge in unshadowed heroism.” Because of Lytle’s identification with Forrest, Lucas suggests that Lytle’s interpretation of the War is “controversial.” Notwithstanding the re-publication of the Forrest biography in 1985 with a new introduction by Lytle, the volume is, according to Lucas, “minor when measured against Lytle’s later achievement in fiction.”

Why does the author take pains to distance himself and the Agrarian phase of Lytle’s career? Why does he argue essentially that Lytle is a gifted novelist who has progressed in thought beyond antiquated “polemical” writing of the 1930’s? These questions may reveal the larger issues of editorial policy at Louisiana State University Press.

For instance, LSU Press declined to publish an elegantly written final book by the late Senator John East of North Carolina. In another recent volume called The Southern Mandarins, the literary correspondence of Sally Wood and Caroline Gordon, a disclaimer appears at the outset of the book warning the reader of outdated political and social opinions contained therein. Andrew Lytle writes the foreword to this volume and makes overt reference to the War of Northern Aggression.

We can take heart that Lytle himself has never retreated from the political and social positions he promoted in his Agrarian years. Among numerous recent public pronouncements, Lytle contributed the “Afterword” to a group of essays commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of I’ll Take My Stand called Why the South Will Survive (Univ. of Georgia Press, 1981) in which he notes that I’ll Take My Stand has never been out of print and that the book is a “contemporaneous not a historical document.”

As good as the Lucas book is in illuminating the intricacies of Lytle’s fiction, it is flawed in the stance it takes in evaluating Lytle’s Agrarian writings and their continuing relevance. Lucas is accurate in advancing a thesis that centers on Lytle’s role as prophetic son of the Republic denouncing its materialism and greed; however, he undercuts his own position in apologizing for Lytle’s political legacy.

As a critic of Lytle’s fiction, Lucas is at his best, especially in his discussion of The Velvet Horn. He painstakingly shows how the novel develops the dramatic conflict between Promethean self-will and a peculiar form of regional isolation that Lytle has theoretically called “incest of spirit.” These orientations are memorably fleshed out in the characters of the novel, Pete Legrand and the Cropleigh brothers, who elevate their family pedigree into a destructive obsession to hold their sister unnaturally within the family orbit. The resolution of this sharply etched conflict Lucas rightly traces to the novel’s rich mythical and psychological action.

In tracing the novel’s transition from its Tennessee setting into action derived from Garden of Eden mythology, Lucas gives a compelling account of a work that belongs with the great titular documents of American literature–Moby Dick, Go Down, Moses, Huckleberry Finn, and The Scarlet Letter. Lucas shows how fidelity to craft deepens the Southern vision of Andrew Lytle and how Lytle’s fiction becomes a powerful tool of religious revelation. Allegiance to the demands of art diminishes the initial personal predicament of the novel, the self-consciousness of a defeated people in the generation after the War Between the States. The personal gives way to a surprising universal drama, the drama of Eden. The mythical understanding of Southern history that the work discovers illustrates the complexities of the past.

Such discussion shows how the crucible of fiction in works such as The Velvet Horn and A Name for Evil prevent Lytle’s achievement from being reduced to any agenda or formula, or as Lucas remarks, “what is programmatic in Agrarianism.” This analysis stands as an admonition about the possibilities of resuscitating the antebellum order in a profoundly altered modern environment. According to Lucas’s reading of Lytle, such enterprises often turn into destructive acts of self-will rooted in sentimentality. The irony is that the Southerners with inordinate preoccupation with themselves, such as the Cropleigh brothers of The Velvet Horn and Henry Brent in A Name for Evil, become the very incarnation of modern hubris that they claim to resist in clinging to the past.

In this way Lucas shows that Lytle’s fiction contains inherent internal restraints against those who have found in his earlier Agrarian writings a program to advocate an acquisitive spirit or capitalistic enterprise associated with the Republican ethos of the Reagan years. It is impossible to squeeze the camel of Lytle’s Agrarianism through the eye of such a needle.

I’ll Take My Stand
and the Agrarian writings of Lytle are philosophically probing works that are not simply calling for remedial programs of adjustment within the industrial order. I’ll Take My Stand in the “Statement of Principles” delineates three kinds of industrial orientation that are rebuked in its pages: the Optimists who “see the system righting itself spontaneously and without direction”; the Cooperationists or Socialists who “rely on the benevolence of capital, or the militancy of labor, to bring about a fairer division of the spoils;” and the Sovietists or Communists who “expect to find super-engineers, in the shape of Boards of Control, who will adapt production to consumption and regulate price and guarantee business against fluctuations.” All these outlooks fail to imagine any social order other than mechanized materialism.

The Agrarians have achieved enduring notoriety in the half-century since their writings precisely because whatever applied economic and social principles they espoused emanated from a political order whose roots lie in the societies of antiquity. Lytle is a provocative man of letters in the tradition of Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, and more recently, Allan Bloom. His political loyalties are of a piece with later aesthetic principles or artistic accomplishments. They comprise an organic whole. The health of what the ancients understood as the polis, the political community, is of vital importance to the exercise of citizenship; and the cultivation of Aristotelian citizen virtues runs parallel to the practice of literary craftsmanship. Such a legacy is not dated, but is the enduring inheritance of the West. Mark Lucas would have given us a stronger understanding of The Southern Vision of Andrew Lytle if he had emphasized the vitality of Lytle’s political and historical writings in relation to the artistry of his fiction. Instead Lucas attempts to shape Lytle’s reputation in such a way as to publish a work that is critically competent and well-written; yet at the same time it retreats from (or is apologetic for) that portion of Lytle’s career that champions the mythology and memory of the Republic in its Southern history.

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