Andrew Lytle Hamilton Basso - Essay

Hamilton Basso

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.