In the early 1990s it was my good fortune to make a pilgrimage to meet Andrew Lytle on the occasion of the publication of his last book, Kristin (1992). A book-signing had been arranged by the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where Lytle taught for many years and edited the illustrious Sewanee Review. I arrived near the end of the signing when the crowd of admirers had thinned, and I was able to talk at some length with the great man, the last of the original Agrarians and a novelist of the first rank.
As Southerners are wont to do, we spent time exploring possible family ties, both of us being Nelsons on the distaff side—a clan thick on the ground in the Tennessee Valley. We failed to establish any clear kinship, but I departed that day with a memento which remains a cherished possession—a copy of Kristin, signed: “Once more, O ye laurels —Andrew Lytle.”
above left: book cover for Kristin (1992) by Andrew Nelson Lytle
The words of the inscription are from the opening line of “Lycidas,” John Milton’s celebrated pastoral lament, in which the speaker of the poem invokes the Muses for inspiration to sing of the untimely death of his fellow shepherd-poet. The poem is profoundly elegiac, and perhaps Mr. Lytle knew Kristin would be his last work.
Kristin is a study of the Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset’s Nobel Prize-winning Saga of Kristin Lavransdatter, and it’s a fitting conclusion to Lytle’s literary life. In Undset’s magnificent trilogy depicting life in medieval Norway, we encounter many of the themes that preoccupied Lytle from his earliest years as a writer, especially the shaping power of history within a providential order. In Lytle’s work, particularly in his novels and essays and in his autobiography A Wake for the Living (1975), we encounter a vision of American history that is tragically, and sometimes comically, torn between the Faustian desire for power and control and the desire for a return to Eden—before history even began.
In several of his novels and tales, Lytle strongly suggests that the conquest of the New World was from its inception a Faustian bargain. At the Moon’s Inn (1941), composed while Europe plunged into war and the U.S. was on the brink, tells the story of Hernando De Soto’s failed quest for gold in La Florida and beyond—a quest that was merely the first step in the project of annexing the New World, as a vast reservoir of raw materials, and as a Lebensraum for Europe’s restless progeny. In a letter about the novel-in-progress, Lytle notes that under the influence of the greed for gold, “the mind of Christendom…sets out on its dance of death. [De Soto’s] small army will have all the forms of its chivalry, but it is not seeking to deliver the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the infidels.”
In other words, the chivalric order had its origins in a quest for something higher than gold. The old knights of Christendom, however sinful they might have been, served collectively a providential purpose, by submitting themselves to the Divine Will. By contrast, the conquistadors were the first to rehearse the modern era’s act of self-deification.
It might be claimed that the settlement of North America by Northern Europeans was an altogether different kettle of fish. In the 1850s, the novelist William Gilmore Simms argued that the North American settlement, in contrast to the conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese, was no delusive search for the unobtainable, but the pursuit of a new existence on the land, an extension of what was best in the Old World. But even Simms recognized that large numbers of Americans were, by the middle of the 19th century, abandoning ancestral lands and wasted soils for new expanses that promised riches and untrammeled fields of dreams.
Simms was not wrong in insisting that many millions of settlers and immigrants came and remained to create enduring communities. But many others sought dominion, power, and wealth in the successive “wests” of the shifting American frontier. As Lytle would have it, “the westward movement of Europeans, beginning with Columbus, not only shattered the narrow physical boundaries of Christendom but…weakened it by reducing a union composite of spiritual and temporal parts to the predominance of material ends.”
One might hesitate to call the Puritan quest for the “shining city on a hill” (an idea which still resonates in our assumptions about American exceptionalism) a Faustian delusion, but it emerged out of the Puritan imagination as a deeply hubristic attempt to escape the grip of history and its legacy of tragic failure. Nathaniel Hawthorne knew this, as did James Fenimore Cooper. Lytle, however, recognized an equally troubling spiritual disorder in the American experience—the recurring desire for the possession of a paradise restored in the bounty and fecundity of a continent that seemed to stretch beyond the known borders of the terrestrial realm and to beacon with boundless promise at every mountain pass.
above: book cover for A Wake for the Living (1975) by Andrew Nelson Lytle
Lytle also understood, however, that the Faustian drive and the longing for Eden are both expressions of the same spiritual disorder and only superficially antithetical. In A Wake for the Living, Lytle invokes the seductive power of Edenic longing when he states that “The sweet smell of the land reached the Spaniards leagues at sea,” just as presumably it did the ill-fated men aboard Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet in 1585 as it approached the verdant shores of Roanoke Island, described as a Garden of Eden, one which they were given authority to “have, hold, occupy and enjoy.”
For some the yearning for a new Eden was easily satisfied by simple reversion to a primitive existence. Lytle recounts an anecdote from William Byrd’s Secret History of the Line (1929), in which Byrd describes an encounter with a European couple who had abandoned their homes and begun to eke out an existence along the seashore. They lived in a “frail hut” and gathered oysters in complete nakedness: “all privacies open to the glancing weathers.” This was their notion of paradise, yet “Adam and Eve were put into the Garden to tend it.” Even so, none of us is entirely free of the “hope of return to the place where sorrow and travail is unknown.”
In Lytle’s fiction the temptation to seek an escape from “sorrow and travail” bequeathed by our first parents is ever-present. This motif is most effectively worked out in what is—by virtually universal assent—his most accomplished novel, The Velvet Horn (1957), set in the forests of east Tennessee in 1880. In that complex narrative, the lust for return to undivided plenitude results in the incestuous union which lies at the heart of the tale—a transgression which in turn generates an act of revenge that takes place in a natural garden, known as Porcher’s Cove. There, two lovers flee for refuge but meet lethal violence, an ironic trope on the inescapability of Original Sin and the certainty of expulsion.
In Lytle’s metaphysics, both the Faustian drive and the lust for Edenic bliss derive from the most dreadful of human transgressions, the sin of pride. While the foregoing examples define the extremes, much of American political history can be read as reflecting the Faustian impulse, one somewhat domesticated by the Enlightenment. The original villains in this telling are the Hamiltonians—conquistadors in powdered wigs, if you will.
In one of his Agrarian essays, “John Taylor of Caroline,” Lytle echoes the Virginia planter’s arguments against the Hamiltonians with almost complete approval. Best known for his Arator, a series of essays on agrarian republican government, Taylor was perhaps most admired in his own day for his An Inquiry into the Principles and Policies of the Government of the United States (1814). While the Inquiry is a wide-ranging work of political theory, its greatest importance for Lytle lies in its powerful attack upon what Taylor called the “Aristocracy of Paper and Patronage”—that is, those who sought to usurp the republican order by aggrandizing the power of the executive branch and establishing a central bank with the power to allocate public credit.
Taylor’s essential argument, in both the Inquiry and Tyranny Unmasked (1822), is that republican liberty can only thrive when power is decentralized, and agricultural interests dominate. Against Hamilton and the mercantilists, Taylor defended the yeomanry, the thousands of small farmers whose independence was threatened by tariffs and new taxation that would enrich New England’s manufacturing interests. “Oppressive taxation, by law and monopoly, direct and indirect, to create or sustain the system of paper and patronage, proposes nothing retributory for reducing a people to the condition of asses, except an aristocracy to provide for them a succession of burdens,” Taylor argued. Taxes, tariffs, a national banking system, state subsidies for manufactures, “internal improvements” and a permanent national debt—all of these were a recipe for the creation of an urban “artificial aristocracy.”
Lytle, who knew his Milton well, was undoubtedly aware that the author of Paradise Lost had subtly construed Satan and the fallen angels as merchant capitalists. Having broken irrevocably with the Divine Economy in Book I, Satan in Hell likens himself to a financier whose “Glorious Enterprize” has brought him and his fallen associates and co-partners to ruin. The rebellion against God’s providential order, in human terms, is a struggle against the limits imposed upon man by the Fall. To force another man to sell his own garden while paying him miserable wages and to compel him to export the products of his labor are transgressions against a humane order.
Of course, considerable time passed during the 150 years that separated the Founders from the Nashville Agrarians. The argument between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was finally resolved, for all practical purposes, by the Lincolnian overthrow of state sovereignty. Moreover, by the 1920s it is estimated that as many as one-third of the southern rural plainfolk (several millions) had been dispossessed of their holdings and reduced to tenancy.
How this happened and why it matters is summarized by Lytle in his first Agrarian essay, published as “The Hind Tit” in I’ll Take My Stand (1930). When the planter class was destroyed, many of them were forced to sell off large tracts of their plantations, and the buyers were often the yeomanry, who expanded their holdings at a greater price than they imagined. Whereas before they had been largely self-sustaining farmers with little or no interest in the broader market for agricultural goods, they now became producers of cash crops, particularly cotton. Thereafter they lost more and more of their independence.
Something “beyond their comprehension” was now controlling their lives, Lytle wrote. In bad years, the yeoman farmer was forced to mortgage the next year’s crop, becoming a gambler in futures markets. The same merchants to whom the farmer was now indebted forced him to grow only cotton and to purchase feed for his stock from the merchant’s warehouses. It was a vicious circle: The dependence on cash crops led to overproduction, falling prices, and more mortgages—not to mention the depletion of the soil.
Moreover, the yeoman farmer had been abandoned by his former leaders, the Bourbons, who “moved into the towns and cities and entered the industrial world,” promoting tirelessly the economic advantages of the “New South.” No longer did the wealthy take a paternal interest in the small farmer or seek to defend his way of life. By the 1890s, as the populist movement emerged, the yeoman had few illusions left, for, as Lytle states, “he had listened too long. He began to think more and more of money, and his inability to take much of it from the industrial scheme produced a feeling of moral defeat.”
For those who did remain in possession of their holdings, there was little consolation in the prospect of passing the land along to their sons, most of whom, “instead of becoming the leaders of the farm communities, went North and West and to the growing Southern cities to make their fortunes,” Lytle wrote. To survive, the yeoman had to invest more and more in labor-saving machines and fertilizers; he was forced industrialize his production, perhaps by diversifying, but always in cash crops. The way back to self-sufficiency was closed. When he doubled his crop, “he double[d] his seed, his fertilizer, his work, his anxiety.”
But what is crucial is that all these changes radically altered the agricultural way of life: its rhythms and its profound reverence for the land. Once the yeoman was the lord of his small domain, now he had become a slave to time, which meant money. When the farmer attempts to “find his ancient bearings, he discovers his provincialism rapidly disintegrating…the country church languishes, the square dance disappears, and camp meetings are held, but they have lost their vitality,” Lytle wrote. Folkways were replaced by “canned music and canned pleasure.”
Meanwhile, there emerged a “vast propaganda teaching him, but particularly his children, to despise the life he has led.” All the instruments of “progress”—the schools and universities, the press, advertising, and all the agents of industrialism have “set out to uplift him.” They say, among other things, that “the South will now come to glory, to ‘cultural’ glory, [only] by a denial of its ancestry,” Lytle wrote.
The Agrarians’ arguments in 1930 met with almost universal disapprobation: Lytle and his brotherhood were thought hopelessly reactionary. They were romantic pastoralists with no understanding of the modern world, or else quasi-Marxists or unpatriotic racists. Very few, including Southern farmers, were inclined to listen to the Agrarian message. Yet today, those arguments sound increasingly compelling. Americans are realizing that much of what the industrial era has produced is grotesque and inhuman. We have a dim but troubling awareness that we are, virtually all of us, wage slaves to government bureaucracies and amoral corporations, even when we earn six-figure salaries. Even the most intimate aspects of our biological humanity are now being incorporated into the industrial process, as seen in the genetic manipulation of reproductive cells.
Where will this end? As Lytle was fond of saying, we have “chewed the mad root’s poison” and are learning we are not exempt from judgment.