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 entire section is 1474 words.)