Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Thought: A Few Words from Mr. Lytle

Excerpted from his Afterword to Why the South Will Survive, a collection of essays by then more current writers like Marion Montgomery, M.E. Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, et al., published by U. of Georgia Press in 1981 to mark the semi-centennial appearance of I'll Take My Stand (1930). Andrew Lytle was Smith Kirkpatrick's teacher, and the man from whom the latter inherited the "Creative" Writing Program at UF. I put creative in scare quotes because Smith was of the inflexible conviction that man does not create. He wanted it called the Fiction Writing Program, but the bureaucrats...and you know the rest.

Fifty years, half a century, does not come within the spiral of history. Although the years are fifty, it is not the years which mark it. Most of life passes as do the seasons; but a few events, public and private, remain. Things that count never seem ended. You do not look back; you look at - a kind of perpetual present tense. During the last half-century I'll Take My Stand has seldom been out of print. The royalties have been small, the publishers generally uninterested; yet it will not die. It is contemporaneous, not a historical document. Not yet. No better proof can be evinced than these essayists who celebrate its semi - centennial and make their statements - rather, their professions of faith (some of them) - about the South, what theatens it, what distinguishes it from the other regions of the country.

It gives me the occasion to consider how I think about it now. First of all, it seems obvious that the Agrarians were better prophets than they knew. Certainly we failed to get the kind of attention necessary to delay or modify the evils of Industrialism. But we did not think of ourselves as prophets. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression, our hopes were raised for a time that we might be listened to. We were trying to stop something we felt boded no good for our kind of life, which once had been (and still was, to an extent) the dominant kind of life for the entire country.

Family and neighborhood made the world we inhabited. Travel through the countryside today and you will find it empty. People dwell there, but as individuals, except in certain stubborn and traditional pockets. They do not compose a community. Travel to the towns and small cities and they all look stamped out of plastic.They differ mainly in size. The outskirts hold flat buildings of assembly plants owned from afar; more sinisterly, factories dealing in chemical poisons pollute the countryside. People as well as the towns are beginning to have an anonymous look. Underneath, not quite covered but crowded out of any meaning, like General Lee's house in Richmond, relics of the past stand. They will stand for a while, until the ubiquitous bulldozer or that flinging ball pushes them into some trash heap. I am mindful of the restoration in places like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans and elsewhere, but the life which built these dwellings and public buildings has not
been restored.

So the Agrarians failed. We failed at least to make any practical impact upon the amoeba-like growth of the machine and its technology. Only recently has it come to me why this is so. No man can know why, but I will venture this: none is prepared for the violent revolution which changes the nature of the familiar. I feel that this is why the communities threatened with extinction only sympathized with the book's protest. They could not believe that their way of living would disappear. Well, it has.

I can wish now that I'll Take My Stand and the writings that followed had made it clearer that, in defending what was left of Southern life, we were defending our common European inheritance. Maybe the time was not right for that kind of admonition. I did follow Red Warren and Allen Tate in wanting the title of the book to be "Tracts against Communism," but this now seems inadequate. It was too political, as in other times were states' rights and the divine rights of kings. Rights are properties, not the thing itself. States exercise sovereign powers, not rights. It was a tactical error of supreme importance that Southern rights supplanted sovereignty. Nor do Christian kings possess divine rights. They are the secular agents of God.

It takes but one bad idea to ruin a man or a state. The idea that mankind can control nature, and that nature concerns only matter and energy, has lost us belief in the divine order of the universe. Materialism with all its accompanying isms is a sorry substitute. To put it in religious terms, we have lost the covenant with God; we perforce must practice magic. What is magic but the pretense and effort to control nature toward some private end. That end is inevitably power.

I've said it elsewhere, but I'll repeat: The opposite of love is not hatred. It is the addiction to power. Hatred is the eclipse of love, but under proper conditions love can be redeemed. But when the will fails, power can overwhelm love's beneficent properties. Magic in human intercourse manifests itself as lust, abusing and casting aside its object. This is a part of the universal human condition, and the victims can be rescued. But the magical incantation over nature is more indirect as to its effects. Of course, an office must have the power to execute its functions. It is the violation of this power that should concern us, for magic can seem to possess the ultimate secrets of knowledge. It is one thing when an Indian shaman, failing in his incantations to bring rain, blames his failure on the lechery of the young women (never the young men) and points to the flattened bean patches as evidence. If the drought persists, such an excuse fails him, and the tribe puts him to death. But what can we do when our shamans have tampered with alchemical discoveries and released the cataclysmic genii from the jug? The side effects of this malevolent power we cannot neutralize, not even by burying them in the ground. They reappear in mysterious diseases, miscarriages and malformed children, and in the foods of life.They even threaten life itself with sterility.

Because of the loss of the covenant with God, those who rule us at home and in foreign affairs are at a loss as to what to do. These scientists, these economists, these politicians make one incantation after another, but none can agree. None can agree, for they all accept that the trouble is only a matter of managing the machine of state. We have forgot that we are made in the image of God, and school children are forbidden to pray together.

Those who rule us, wherever they come from, are the inheritors of that power which destroyed the Confederacy and with it the idea of the federal republic, which at least gave lip service to the divine in Deism. I don't see how we can be too hopeful of a Christian regeneration of any institution...

Certainly our geography nourished the family, without which no Christian state can stand. After the physical places which fix a people in its customs and belief are gone, can the family function as it did when it belonged to a community of families?

...The farm was not only the land; it composed all the creatures inhabiting it, and all the things that grew. Even Brother Rabbit. This connection is no idle matter, or the sentimentality of pride. It is finally metaphysical. The identification of man through family with physical nature measures the state of religious belief. This induces a respect for and concord with all of God's creation, and a more practical knowledge of what to expect from the world. It teaches that you often eat your meat with sorrow and that you can lose in vital ways all that is dear. This is the supreme historical admonition we should accept from the downfall of the Confederacy. Everywhere else in this nation's "progress" there has been a succession of triumphs, until now. I would hazard the guess, when the true crisis comes, as it will, that a Southern-born man will step forward and meet it. This because he has known defeat of his society, because he has eaten his bread in sorrow - in effect, because he knows what the world is, that it is not all teatty...

This is not said in pride but out of common sense, which depends upon the hard learning from experience. Let me extend it and say it will be someone or many from a republic of families as he or they oppose the abstract state, usually referred to as the government. This kind of individual will know himself because of his love for the family. This is not to say that being a member of a family is one long love feast, but it does involve a freedom of intercourse among its members, a hierarchy of order, and the will to defend it or any part of it when threatened. Today the abstract state is totalitarian; that is, the power state, Calhoun's rule of the numerical majority, always controlled by a minority with partial and selfish interests. The Agrarians called it industrial, as did recently the news media in denominating the summit conference of the Western states as the "industrial nations." But whatever we call it, it opposes power to charity, the rule of man to the covenant with God. To repeat, its processes move by the incantations of magic; whereas the family, because of its love for its members and its surroundings, is instinctively religious. It knows that in great stress it must pray, that to bind together, to harmonize the opposites of public and private, it must cherish and sustain ceremony, ritual, the formal conventions which fix the eternal truths in poetic language. (By "poetic" I mean the only language which can translate the eternal mysteries into a simple understanding.)

Manners are the means of discipline and intercourse between members of the family and strangers. Good manners are not only charitable; they also protect us from the world's intrusion, and the world from us. Because of the family's fixity to place and loyalty to kin, it is harder for an absent power, either domestic or foreign, to traduce or manipulate it against its true interests. The proletariat or any group dependent upon wages and social security alone is more easily threatened. But the family has its weaknesses, too. Its innate conservatism and its antipathy to change make it acutely vulnerable to dramatic innovation. This can be from a failure of vision, a rigidity of habit and mores, and too often from an isolation from that which will undo it.

The South, particularly the Old West of Tennessee and Kentucky, experienced an influx of Scottish and Scotch-Irish before and after the annihilation of the Highland clans by the Duke of Cumberland, that archetypal Sherman. This bloc of people brought with them an adherence to the clannish feeling of family, as well as its inboned history of defeat. Their presence gave a distinctive quality to our sense of behavior of the region. The Scotch-Irish were said to keep the Sabbath and everything they laid their hands on. I don't know what bureaucrat so defined them, but the very understanding of themselves was through the family and clan. Clan means children. The chief or captain, as he was earlier called, was kin to everybody under his authority; this is the rule of blood. It had and has its blood feuds and other sins of pride, but I propose it to be more durable than the rule of purse or sword. Even now, when the clan is a sentiment only, our particular sense of family still derives from it. It is the lasting inheritance of the tribe. When it ceases to rule, the state changes its nature, and this usually means into a rule of irresponsible power...

Although history reveals to the present rulers how the past rulers lost a war or a state, few seem able to learn anything from history. And yet for four hundred years or longer the West has gradually come to look to history for its truths; that is, it has looked to man for the judgment of mankind. It is reported that Hitler said, "If you lie enough, it becomes the truth." Where does this leave history as man's guide? Or where does it leave us all in our present plight, if we do not by some miracle renew the covenant with God?


Here's an anecdote offered by the Rev. Tom Ward (class of '67) from the Sewanee Magazine of the University of the South, where Mr. Lytle taught history and writing for many years, while also serving twice as editor of the Sewanee Review (history here) and running three farms:

The late afternoon sun glinted off Andrew Lytle’s glasses as he rattled the ice against the sides of his silver julep cup. We were sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of his home in the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, engaged in one of the informal tutorials that was a significant part of my undergraduate education.

Mr. Lytle leaned back in his rocker and said, "Son, there is a triple pun on the word ‘spirit.’ There is the spirit of a group, such as a fraternity, or a football team, or even this University. We catch this sense of the word when we quote the Latin translation of the opening verse of the 133rd Psalm as the motto of the school: ‘Ecce quam bonum — Behold how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity.’

"Then there is the Holy Spirit of the living God."

Andrew raised his cup, took a deep drink, and said, "And then there is this good bourbon." With that he laughed, slapped the arm of his chair, and began to rock back and forth more vigorously.

"Sometimes in some places these three come together in one. I have been privileged to live in such a time and in such a place."

          *          *          *
It sounds just like him. And he was the best conversational storyteller I ever met. Wish I'd written some of them down. It's a mysterious thing, but when I first met him circa '72 or 3, it was like running into a family member I hadn't seen for many years, the renewal of a bond we'd simply left off for a while. It was something about the man, and I can't fully explain it. He made you feel that you had re-connected with something important you'd forgotten about. In conversation, he was known for asking not "What do you do?" (he cared little how you made your money) but "Where do you come from?" And he didn't care where you came from. He just thought you ought to know it, and treasure it.

Mr. Lytle passed away in 1995. He was 92. And now one of his foremost students has followed, and that latter's, Smith's, will follow after. It all goes away, and even though we all know it, it's hard to stomach. I wonder what Mr. Lytle would think of my bemoaning the fact. I don't think he'd approve. Something will survive, he'd say, even if only here and there, in hard-to-find places: an enduring philosophy of literature, a method of teaching, a vision of the humane and civilized life (the 'good' life), all subserved by that covenant with God, without which you have recourse to nought but despair, but with which you have no cause for anything but joy. I'll work on it, because for me that's what it really is. Maybe he gave the answer in that opening paragraph: "Things that count never seem ended."


Lydia McGrew said...

I'm going to send this link to an old friend of mine who was a student of M.E. Bradford's at UD.

William Luse said...

Hope he enjoys it.

Lydia McGrew said...

Funny question, Bill, and I hope you won't mind the question: Are you a Southerner born and bred, or have you just lived in the South for a long time? I'm just sheerly curious. Women are curious about things sometimes for no good reason.

William Luse said...

Women are, are they? Though my blood runs 50% with the stuff from my North Carolina born and bred mother (and all her relatives), I've lived in various parts of the country (often in the South - Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia) and in Europe. Since college, I've lived in the South, so that's approximately the last 40 years. I'm not sure Florida's really part of the South (if I had my druthers I'd be in Georgia, Tennessee, or Mississippi) but all the important influences in my life came from Southern men and women of letters. They kept alive the focus on Faulkner's "eternal verities of the human heart" during the nihilism that began to afflict modern fiction after World War II, and is with us yet. I prefer the landscapes of the North, but passing by a lettuce patch in northern Mississipi makes me want to settle down. So though I can't say I'm born and bred, it's a big part of me.

Lydia McGrew said...

You can tell I'm a Yankee born and bred by the fact that when I hear the phrase 'a lettuce patch in northern Mississippi', the first thing I think is, "That sounds hot and uncomfortable." :-)

William Luse said...

I'm sure it is. That's what attracts me to it. The nearest thing I've got is my yardwork, and a tomato plant that's trying to die.