Andrew Lytle Essay - Critical Essays

Lytle, Andrew (Nelson)

Introduction

Andrew (Nelson) Lytle 1902–

American novelist, short story writer, historian, biographer, critic, and editor.

A member of the Fugitive and Agrarian movements, Lytle is a regional writer in the same sense that Faulkner is termed a regionalist: both use the terrain, history, and people of the South to build a private mythology in their fiction. The Velvet Horn is generally considered Lytle's finest novel. He is a former editor of The Sewanee Review.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War II.)

Fred T. Marsh

["The Long Night"] tells a story which succeeds in keeping you on its trail. Whatever else it may be, it is not dull.

It seems to be a good many things at once, not always to its advantage, a kind of split personality of a novel. The opening chords are ones of mystery and terror as we arrive at a kind of House of Usher [where] … a dark tale of the past is unfolded—here during the course of a long night….

It is a tale of revenge in blood feud resurrected by the aged narrator out of a demonic period in his past….

There is all the theatricality of a Monte Cristo …, all the suspense …, the stealth and secrecy, the "making your peace with God" kind of thing so familiar to romantic mystery. But this is only one phase of the novel.

Much of the book is plain regional and historical realism, with character sketches, dialogue in dialect, stories of horse races, drinking bouts, typical episodes and twice-told tales….

Mr. Lytle has done a number of good things well. But we doubt if any one will feel terror creeping over his body…. The Poesque vein runs pretty thin and whatever one may think of Poe's dictum for general application, it is certainly true that for his own kind of story-telling there must be totality of effect. Mr. Lytle tries his hand at several styles in several moods to achieve several effects with considerable virtuosity. But the result is that [the terror becomes] increasingly unconvincing.

Fred T. Marsh, "Mystery and Terror in Mr. Lytle's Novel of the South," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1936 by The New York Times Company; copyright renewed © 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 6, 1936, p. 9.

Hamilton Basso

["The Long Night"] will probably rank with Mr. John Peale Bishop's "Act of Darkness" as the best fictional performance of the Southern Agrarians. It is, however, more strictly in the Agrarian tradition than was Mr. Bishop's novel: deriving its importance, not so much from the story it has to tell, as from its reconstruction of a vanished way of life whose essence, if not actuality, the Agrarians seek to recapture.

We have had many such reconstructions: in prose and in poetry. An examination of this Agrarian literature shows that each member of the group, while paying tribute to the Good Life of the 50's, has created his own special kind of past. There has developed, because of this, a division in the Agrarian ranks that has been consistently overlooked. While it is ture that a haze of nostalgic romanticism tends to obscure and soft-lens the Agrarian landscape, there are realistic Agrarians as well as romantic ones.

Mr. Lytle, in his biography of [Bedford Forrest], revealed very clearly that he has no fondly cherished illusions about the past. [In "The Long Night"] he again abjures the stylized conventions of the aristocratic tradition…. Mr. Lytle, in fiction, says … that the culture of the Old South … was the culture of the frontier. For most people, including members of the upper classes, life was hard, even brutal. Illiteracy was more prevalent than learning. Men took their whiskey and insults hard. The most respected authority was the authority of the gun. All this Mr. Lytle makes very clear….

The story in "The Long Night" is a story of vengeance. Vengeance is a dark theme: it comes out of what Balzac called the night of the soul, and already "The Long Night" has been called Dostoevskian…. [But] Mr. Lytle's book deserves more substantial praise than that. The emotion in this book is not terror, there is nothing Dostoevskian about it, it is simply a very good story about a man who sets out to avenge the murder of his father, and the One! Two! Three! way the murderers fall is more like "The Count of Monte Cristo" than anything else: except, along with the Dumas interest, you get a very well done picture of life in the American South around 1860. And that is a lot to get in one book.

Hamilton Basso, "Orestes in Alabama," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 1139, September 30, 1936, p. 231.

John Farrelly

"A Name for Evil" is a ghost story. A man and his wife plan to renovate a dilapidated old plantation house, but before long the man senses a hostile influence in the place…. The story is the struggle between … man and ghost for possession of the house.

There are good things in the book. The oppressive atmosphere of the ruined country is appropriate to the events of the story, and the incidents are skillfully disposed to build suspense. But the "horror" is described rather than conveyed, and is not sufficiently associated with the commonplace which would beguile the reader's attention and assist his credulity…. [Therefore] the inexplicable soon becomes the merely inexpressible.

But I think the real flaw in the story is caused by Lytle's intentions as a novelist. As I make out, they are more serious and complex than are appropriate for this sort of tale. A ghost story must always be something of a tour de force, a contrived machinery for definite and limited effects. Moral evil, if it appears, is part of the machinery, making perhaps for added intensity. But Lytle brings to it the critical attitude of a "serious novelist," and means, apparently, to say more about Life and Death and Ruin than he has given himself occasion for. In the absence of any human motives and action, his implications sound too much like pronouncements in a void.

John Farrelly, "Ghost Story," in The New Republic, Vol. 117, No. 8, August 25, 1947, p. 31.

Robert O. Bowen

["The Velvet Horn"] has a ranging profundity and rich life found in current American fiction only in a Southern setting. Only the South offers a people bound to living history through crossed lines of blood and name, through the land that bred them, the falling forests and the barrening cotton and cattle fields of the drought years. Against this setting Lytle's powerful sense of a folk creates in a reader a sadness, a poignancy for that richer time and place: the upper South following the Civil War. (p. 13)

In the hands of a lesser writer some of the turgid passion of the narrative would be melodramatic. Lytle's deep insight has justified the tragic truth beneath each violent act. The old feud that Lucius feels in his bastard blood … is more than family enmity; it is the untamed hunter's being driven by the very land to live within fenced lines, and beyond that toward a life where that land must merge with the outer world if its people are to survive. Through the entire book runs a vein of stoic and enduring hope for the people whose faith lies in the lasting earth.

Lytle's lyric prose resembles Faulkner's, though it is likely that the similarity indicates a common source rather than a borrowing. Where in Faulkner a character's rich emotive memories rush out with a hypnotic tremolo, in Lytle such passages fall toward either the haunting cadence of the folk ballad or the declamatory rhetoric of a Lear. Jack Cropleigh, the major speaker in "The Velvet Horn," is highly Shakespearean in his drunken philosophizing, and in the main his speech is a successful device. Nevertheless, at times the effort to poeticize a scene is overdone, and again one is sometimes troubled by too near a lofty tone from various characters. But these are trifles.

All in all, this is a solid, moving, and readable book set in the Southern agrarian tradition of which Mr. Lytle has so long been a part. (p. 14)

Robert O. Bowen, "Sons of the Soil," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 33, August 17, 1957, pp. 13-14.

George Core

The appearance of [Andrew Lytle's collection of critical essays] The Hero with the Private Parts is, in the best sense, what New York reviewers like to call a "literary event." (p. 209)

Defining Andrew Lytle's criticism is difficult and risky. Certainly he is a new critic, yet he is less a new critic in the generally accepted sense than any other major Fugitive or Agrarian, excepting Donald Davidson. True, he reads the text very closely, but at the same time he relies very little upon the criticism of others, and he does not use much in the way of a special vocabulary. He also does not set out to provide an exhaustive interpretation; rather, he is interested generally in several large considerations: the relation of form to subject, or technique to theme, being the most important. He dislikes historical scholarship, but he is very aware of the historical dimension of a work of art…. He is also more concerned about the religious and moral dimension of fiction than are his fellow critics. And, finally, Lytle is much more interested in "myth criticism" than the new critics…. (pp. 211-12)

The best way of getting at Andrew Lytle's criticism is through the examination of his most representative essays, and I would say these are the first four in the book, which deal respectively with War and Peace, Madame Bovary, the recent impressionistic novel, and "The Open Boat," and a fifth—"The Working Novelist and the Mythmaking Process" which is about The Velvet Horn. Lytle's criticism in these pieces is devoted to the way a good author renews the reader's consciousness of his world and of the human dilemmas which constantly and forever recur in the mortal sphere. And often there is of course more: the author will refract the light of our common seeing into a wholly new focus. Human experience is always the same, but the perspective (or form) may be different, and that jars us into agonized awareness or dazzling wonderment, whatever the case may be. At his best Lytle can re-create the artistic process which brings us to this kind of insight—and at once show why and how the author rendered his fable the way he did.

The best piece in the volume is the leading essay, "The Image as Guide to Meaning in the Historical Novel." This reading of War and Peace is certainly among the finest which have been done…. The critic begins his task by discussing the problem of critical strategy, and he makes it clear why psychological and sociological approaches to art ultimately fail, no matter how artfully applied, for the victims (in this case author, novel, and reader) will always feel the Procrustean knife. Lytle also believes that the term "historical novel" is specious, and he rightly says that humanity, not history, is the first concern of the novelist. History then is always secondary in art: the primary considerations are whether the novel maintains the illusion of life and whether "its form makes the most of the subject." With these ends Lytle proceeds to examine the novel in terms of its "controlling image," that element which he sees as "crucial to the development of the fable," as the "common referent" for the action. He takes the dominant image to be "somewhere in the dramatic plight, the dichotomy, in which Russia found herself after the arbitrary Europeanization by Peter the Great." And so the real issue of the novel involves the Russian cultural inheritance and what it is going to be…. The character who perfectly represents this dilemma is of course the protagonist—Pierre Bezuhov. (pp. 212-13)

The...

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Thomas H. Landess

One has to admire the total achievement of [The Velvet Horn]: the broad spectrum of characters, the variety of incident, the beautifully cut details, the shifting levels of language. But inevitably the very richness of structure and texture poses a problem in unity which has proven the undoing of more than one reader. Here, as with Ulysses, the novice is likely to quit early rather than to make that first synthesis which gives him all he needs to continue until the end. And with both novels, in order to make this synthesis it is almost necessary first to grasp the essential heart of the work, the archetypal or universal experience which lies at the core of the action—or, as Mr. Lytle would insist,...

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Madison Jones

[In "Mister McGregor" the narrator is all important,] for the story is in fact his own story. At first glance, however, his role seems merely secondary, the agency by which an appalling battle of the sexes is dramatically related to the reader. Mister McGregor, the master of a plantation in slave times, against accepted usage and over the bitter protest of his strong-willed wife, whips his wife's personal female slave for her blatant impudence. In consequence, the slave woman's husband [Rhears]…, makes up his mind to get vengeance by an open attack upon the person of Mister McGregor. (p. 17)

All this and what came after was observed by the narrator, McGregor's son, as a boy of eight. But it is the...

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Robert Penn Warren

[The story of revenge related by Andrew Lytle in The Long Night is based on oral tales told in the Cumberland.] But when, in the cold light of morning, the teller faces the blank, white page, alone, with no friend present and no glass in the hand, all is different. The greatest difference is that now he is to freeze the tale in the act of telling. That is the terrible fact.

What does Andrew Lytle do to, for, with, the tale that had lived in voices? What, that is, beyond his own special narrative élan?

First, he gives it a world. In the other tellings the tale had not needed a world. The world had been solidly there in the consciousness, in the blood, even, of the...

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Nancy Joyner

The nineteenth-century Southern woman of the middle class was assumed to be modest, submissive, frail, pious, given more to moral than to intellectual capabilities, whole-heartedly devoted to her family, and, above all, sexually pure. Her husband's role was to sustain, to guide, and, above all, to protect her…. [The reality of the Southern woman's position was that before] the war she faced the gargantuan task of overseeing all the domestic duties of a large family and many servants. During the war she of necessity took on the duties of the farm, and afterwards, widowed or with a veteran rendered incapable of work through physical or psychic wounds, managed the business that gradually usurped the agricultural...

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Thomas Daniel Young

Except for some casual statements about his being a writer, the many detailed accounts of family history and legend that appear almost unchanged in [Lytle's] stories and novels are the only reminders of Lytle's literary career that appear in A Wake for the Living. Few of his literary friends and associates are mentioned, and there is no account of his relationship to the Fugitive and Agrarian movements. Only the freshness and immediacy of the stories he tells—many of which are told in the understated deadpan manner of the best humorists—and the uncanny ability to select the right detail to evoke the desired response mark this loosely joined series of family anecdotes as unmistakably the work of one of our...

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Harold L. Weatherby

[The remarkable quality of Lytle's memoir, A Wake for the Living, is how] Lytle's dead ancestors exert an almost frightening pressure upon the living; as one reads he could almost wish them further away and less vivid…. The storyteller's art recovers for us the lives of [those] whom the world calls the dead but whom we know, through that art, to be alive in the mysterious way that the past always is. (p. 674)

Lytle's treatment of the living past [includes] philosophical concern. Indeed it is the conjunction of experience and meaning—represented stylistically by the easy alternation between story and commentary—which gives A Wake for the Living its distinction. By taking the past...

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Robert V. Weston

William Faulkner is an undisputed fact of our literature; Andrew Lytle is a neglected, little-understood figure, who is in some danger of suffering a total eclipse. (p. 35)

[Lytle] must be seen in the context of an important and recognizable literary tradition, while Faulkner is by contrast an isolated figure, working independently and without much knowledge of or interest in the endeavors of his contemporaries, who were paradoxically creating a context and an audience for his singular achievements. Those achievements make Faulkner a major though isolated writer; Lytle's work is that of a minor figure in a major tradition….

[In] terms of literary significance, of quality and...

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