Andrew Nelson Lytle

Andrew Nelson Lytle, writer, editor, critic, and teacher, was born the day after Christmas, 1902–like a “wet fire-cracker,” his grandmother remarked. He would spend nearly the rest of the century pondering the remote world into which he had been born: the rural farmland and agrarian life of Middle Tennessee, the heart of the yeoman South. Farmer, scholar, and famously hospitable host, Lytle was the most enduring member of the Agrarians, the collection of essayists at Vanderbilt University who published the 1930 manifesto I'll Take My Stand. It was a formidable assembly of talent: Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson. And it was, for the era, a powerful message: deeply suspicious of central authority and industrialization, Lytle and his comrades made a case for preserving the economy, habits, and values of the farm and small town. Coming after World War I and in the midst of the Great Depression, the book resonated in a region long soaked in sentimentality.

Eventually, most of the Vanderbilt figures moved North. But Lytle stayed in the South. Living mainly in his ancestral log house in Monteagle, Lytle taught at the University of the South and edited the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, The Sewanee Review, which he helped turn into a showcase for the old Confederacy's best writers–a group including Warren, Tate, Caroline Gordon, Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Katherine Anne Porter, and Cleanth Brooks–at the pinnacle of the Southern Renaissance.

Lytle was the center of this enduring circle, a man of enormous charm, lyrical storytelling gifts, and a fixed world view that lasted until his death in December 1995 at Monteagle. Celebrated more in the South, particularly in upcountry states like his native Tennessee, than in the rest of the country, he was chiefly an artist, a literary man whose history, novels, and stories rank, in quality, with the better-known work of William Faulkner. Lytle kept his eye on the permanent things; he always thought in epic, mythic terms–then brought overarching themes down to earth. “Now that I have come to live in a sense of eternity,” he wrote in his family chronicle A Wake for the Living (1975), “I can tell my girls who they are.” He spent his life telling his three daughters, and the rest of us, exactly where we all came from.

Born in Murfreesboro in Rutherford County, Lytle was the son of Robert Logan Lytle, a farmer and lumberman, and Lillie Belle Nelson. A founding family of the Middle Tennessee town–a Revolutionary War ancestor had donated the land for the city–the Lytles raised their son there and in northern Alabama. Andrew attended Sewanee Military Academy on the grounds of the University of the South, then graduated from Vanderbilt with a Bachelor of Arts in 1925. That year he was accepted at Exeter College, Oxford, but was summoned home on the death of his grandfather. After discharging his familial duties, he moved north to New Haven, Connecticut, as a student at the Yale School of Drama from 1927 to 1929. Always theatrical, he supported himself as an actor in several plays in New York City. In 1938, Lytle married Edna Barker, and they had three daughters.

Lytle's serious literary career began in the late 1920s, as he worked on a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest. His book turned into Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (1931), in which he used the wild Confederate general to muse on the nature of the hero in decidedly unheroic times. It is a marvelous narrative, one that helped inspire another southern writer, Shelby Foote, as he wrote his epic history of the Civil War decades later.

Lytle soon turned his attention to serious fiction, writing a powerful and enduring short story, “Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,” which contains perhaps the finest dramatic narrative of the moment of death in the English language. Then came The Long Night (1936), a novel of revenge set during the Civil War. It was followed by At the Moon's Inn (1941), A Name for Evil (1947), and his masterpiece, The Velvet Horn (1957). He also authored three collections of essays and one collection of stories, as well as a ruminative book on Sigrid Undset, published near the end of his life.

For many years, Lytle also kept up a punishing teaching schedule. He lectured on American history for a year at the old Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop (one of his students there was Flannery O'Connor), and founded the writing program at the University of Florida, where he was resident from 1948 to 1961. He also taught at Kenyon College and the University of Kentucky. In 1961 he returned to Sewanee to edit The Sewanee Review and teach English and creative writing at the University of the South. He retired from his official university duties in 1973. Among his honors are two Guggenheim fellowships, a Kenyon Review fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters fellowship, and a special achievement award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in Chattanooga, of which he was a founding member.

Lytle then opened the long final chapter of his life and career, becoming the South's most gracious man of letters. On his vine-covered porch in summer and before his stone fireplace in winter, Lytle presided over a salon featuring bourbon in sterling silver cups and his own ruminations, ranging from theological musings to backwoods tall tales, from the proper use of olive oil to the decline and fall of the Episcopal Church. By turns formal and earthy, he fascinated generations of undergraduates and transfixed aspiring writers and journalists who, in search of the authentic South, gathered around him, dining and listening–always listening to his incomparable, subtly sophisticated voice. Still a fierce defender of Agrarianism–at several points in his life he had in fact attempted to write and farm at the same time–he would nevertheless dress in Brooks Brothers shirts and, for a time in the 1980s, drove a black Mercedes around the mountain.

At heart, however, Lytle belonged to another age. “I'm in a precarious position,” he would say to guests at the log cabin, and he did not just mean his health. Reflecting on his Forrest biography, he once said: “The world over which Forrest's men rode and fought was closer to Henry II's than it is to ours. They are centuries apart, yet those centuries knew the orderly return of the seasons, saw the supernatural in the natural, moved about by foot, by horse and at sea by the wind. We have put our faith in the machine.” It was quintessential Lytle: erudite, authoritative, unapologetic. In the end, he was more artist than polemicist, though, and as he lay dying, all of his work was in print. “If three generations are reading my book,” he said, “then it's holding up–that means, it's not just a provincial thing.” His art is indeed universal, and will endure.

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  • Article Title Andrew Nelson Lytle
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 25, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018