The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate
By Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Pages: 395 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
In December 1954 Allen Tate did what any Southerner marooned in a barbaric Minnesota winter would do: he turned his thoughts southward. But Tate did not have balmy weather in mind when he sat down to draft a letter to his friend Andrew Lytle. He was in a brooding mood. “It has occurred to me in recent years, in retrospect upon our early days,” he reflected, “that we made the South, and especially the Old South, an object of idolatry…. I have come to the view that no society is worth ‘saving’ as such: what we must save is the truth of God and Man, and the right society follows. We thought that the South was an historical problem; it was actually a theological problem.… Place in itself is nothing…for it seems to me that ‘place’ does not sustain us; we sustain place….”
Tate’s lucubrations did not surprise Lytle. “You know you’ve always been a wanderer,” he chided his snowbound friend. Lytle, who had returned to the South to stay after a youthful fling in New Haven and New York City, rejected Tate’s analysis. “I don’t see how you can save the truth of God and man except in terms of the conventions of some society.… Naturally religious belief is the spiritual core, but theology isn’t the only discipline.”
This exchange, a tasty sampling of the epistolary feast that Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone provide in The Tate-Lytle Letters, reveals that, 25 years after the event, the two old companions were still pondering the meaning of that noble, and grossly maligned, book of 1930, I’ll Take My Stand. Few books of the 20th century have elicited more crackbrained exegesis and warped interpretation from friend and foe alike. The volume’s critics, a category that has included everyone from communists to Southern textile magnates, have engendered more heat than light in denouncing it. “Reactionary,” “unprogressive,” “anti-capitalist,” “fascist,” “neo-Confederate,” “racist,” “elitist,” “feudal” (and “futile”), “utopian,” “romantic”: take your pick; the Southern Agrarians have been savaged for these sins and a host of others besides. Oddly enough, self-appointed disciples of the Agrarians have latched on to some of the same epithets, deftly transmuting vices into virtues. To hear such votaries talk, one would think that I’ll Take My Stand is an intellectual’s Gone With the Wind.
The problem arises mainly from two sources: the title of the book and the name of the movement it launched. “I’ll take my stand”: as in “In Dixieland I’ll….” Both Tate and Lytle objected to the connotations this title would evoke, although their preference (and Robert Penn Warren’s as welb| “Twelve Tracts Against Communism,” forfeits in panache what it gains in precision. The subtitle — The South and the Agrarian Tradition — furnished the “brethren” (as they fondly called themselves) a label, an “ism” of their own to hurl against the other socio-political movements of the 1930s. Perhaps it was inevitable that misunderstanding would occur, for the image is inescapable: grey-clad Southern farmers, fresh from the plow, braving the Yankee cannon and musketry on Cemetery Ridge on a fateful July afternoon.
Did the Agrarians take their stand for Dixie, and Dixie alone, thereby signaling the rest of America that they — at least emotionally and symbolically — intended to recapitulate their ancestors’ dismemberment of the Union? Was I’ll Take My Stand merely a rallying cry for unreconstructed Rebs? No and no. The 12 men who contributed were all from the South; they loved their native region, admired its manners and mores, and sought to preserve its uniqueness against the homogenizing tyranny of modernity. They recognized the bootlessness of retreating into moonlight-and-magnolias nostalgia for the “good ol’ days befo’ de Wah” (as one of Thomas Nelson Page’s reluctantly emancipated fictional slaves would have put it). As Tate wrote to Lytle in 1929: “Instead we must use the past for daring and positive ends.”
What ends? Salvation of the South alone? Stark Young, the member of the group most susceptible to reveries about the lost Eden of the antebellum South, remarked in his essay that “we defend certain qualities not because they belong to the South, but because the South belongs to them.” Even Donald Davidson, the most fractiously Southern of the Agrarians, later wrote an essay entitled “Still Rebels, Still Yankees” in which he extolled the hardy New England farmer as a brother under the skin to his Southern counterpart.
For the Agrarians, the South’s importance lay ultimately in its preservation of tenets that had historically formed the core of Western civilization: family, devotion to religion, cultivation of the soil, rootedness in place, respect for ancestral wisdom. Of the 12, Tate and Lytle most used the symposium as an incentive for extended probing into the larger significance of the South. Even more than Tate, Lytle assiduously explored this meaning in fiction and essays. This exploration emerges as the central theme of Mark Lucas’s splendid book, The Southern Vision of Andrew Lytle. Unlike many who have written on Lytle, Lucas does not use his subject as an ideological club with which to batter the Left. He endeavors instead to explicate Lytle’s writings, to sort through the fragments of his life, and to demonstrate how life and art intertwine to form a unity.
Although Lytle is not a Catholic, he has expressed a marked admiration for the High Middle Ages, an era which embodied the ideal relationship between the secular and the sacred: “the religious sensibility determines the economic structure and not the other way around,” to use Lucas’s phrasing. From the Renaissance onward, according to Lytle, the West boasted a Faustian, Promethean itch that goaded its most adventuresome souls to assert a godlike mastery of the world. In At the Moon’s Inn, his novel of 1941, Lytle illuminated one example of the deleterious results: Hernando de Soto, modern man par excellence, whose will-to-power impelled him to ravage nature, murder Indians, and defy God. In de Soto, Lucas observes, “Lytle located the epitome of the Faustian side of North American history….” Industrial capitalism — insensitive to God and nature alike, disruptive of human (and humane) bonds — represented the 20th-century version of this destructive impulse.
Because of the South’s “backwardness,” it still clung, however tenuously, to elements of the older ethos that had withered in the noonday glare of the Renaissance. “Partly out of such musings,” Lucas contends, “Lytle came to look on Agrarianism as a defense of what was left of Christendom….” The South was not the whole, but a fragment of what had once thrived in unity and coherence. That fragment might be flawed, but for a man born in Tennessee in 1902, it was all he had to work with.
One of the South’s salient virtues for the Agrarians was its predominantly agricultural economy. Praise of the tiller of the soil forms a leitmotif in I’ll Take My Stand. Was Agrarianism, then, “about” farming? Some latter-day champions of the movement, eager to preserve their mentors’ relevance in the face of a technological society in which agriculture has degenerated into Big Business, hasten to exonerate the Agrarians of any impulse to plow, plant, and reap. Apotheosis of the farmer, they argue, is merely a literary conceit, an extended metaphor to invigorate the indictment of modernity. Detractors of the movement refuse to buy this. They delight in scoffing at the spectacle of a bunch of poets, professors, and novelists — ensconced in classroom and scholar’s study — twittering about the joys of farming.
The situation is more complicated than either side would care to admit. The Agrarians were not unacquainted with the practicalities of agricultural life. They did not spring from city or suburb, but were born and raised either on farms — as in the case of Lytle, Frank Owsley, Lyle Lanier, and Herman Clarence Nixon — or in small towns that owed their existence to surrounding farms. They cherished few illusions about farming (especially in the poverty-stricken 1930s); they knew firsthand the hardships and frustrations that accompany agriculture. But they did believe that the farmer — rooted in place, respectful of the past, coexisting harmoniously with nature, filled with awe and reverence for the mysteries of the cosmos — possessed advantages that urban Americans had sacrificed to the voracious god of progress.
Both Tate and Lytle sought to convert bookish encomiums into practical experience. In 1932 Tate commented in a letter to Lytle: “And that’s why our notion is right — independence on the land.” At the time, Tate and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon, had launched their own experiment in independence. In 1930 they had purchased a farm on the Cumberland River near Clarksville, Tennessee. (Ironically, the money came from a loan from Tate’s brother Ben, a millionaire coal-dealer in Cincinnati.) Tate and Gordon lived at “Ben-folly” off and on during the 1930s, providing most of their subsistence from the milk, meat, fruits, and vegetables they produced. As Ann Waldron shows in her perceptive biography of Gordon, the Tates found the greatest happiness of their married life in these years. (Their union was a stormy affair that would provoke a divorce, remarriage to each other, and then a second divorce.) But Tate was not much of a farmer. Two decades later, Lytle needled his friend: “You’ve never felt much for the natural world….” He was right. Tate’s agricultural toils consisted largely of strolling past the huge and abundant garden to admire its fecundity. Gordon, who did most of the work, later recalled that Tate seemed oblivious to the connection between the food on his plate and the bone-wearying labor required to put it there.
By Tate’s reckoning, one of modern man’s gravest sins is abstractionism, the converting of existence into an idea, the better to squeeze it into a procrustean ideal. But Tate drifted toward abstractionism himself when it came to the farm. Like the other Agrarians, he viewed it as the best foundation for a stable social order, but when confronted with weeds, manure, and squealing hogs, Tate retreated to his study to read the Georgics.
Andrew Lytle loved to get his hands dirty. During most of the 1930s he lived with his father at “Cornsilk,” the family farm in northern Alabama, and in 1943 he bought a place of his own north of Nashville. He did for a time what Tate could not: combine the gritty dailiness of farming with a profound appreciation of its spiritual import. To Tate, he once wrote: “For a people who live by the land, it is the body of the world; and this…body is the point of departure for the search for meaning.” Nurturing the soil, restoring to the land through painstaking cultivation what he takes out in crops, his senses attuned to the concreteness of the world, the farmer knows at the center of his being that creation is good, that it bodies forth the benevolence of the Creator. Lytle could analyze this as an intellectual, but more important, he felt it instinctively when he surveyed a luxuriant stand of corn, watched the earth spring to life with vernal prodigality, or bowed his head to say grace over a table groaning with the earth’s bountiful fruits.
Lytle found himself torn between the demands of agriculture and his devotion to the literary craft. He could not do both with equal care and attention. He chose art, but even after he reluctantly turned to teaching to find more time to write and to provide a steady income for his growing family, he held on to the farm in Robertson County, hoping to return someday. He did not sell it until the 1950s, and then with a piercing sadness at the loss of his dream of restoring the ancestral way. By then, however, he had concluded that he had been longing to revivify a moribund mode of life. As Lucas writes, Lytle perceived that “for the modern man to live in the country in hopes of isolatedly recovering a past way of life is futile, given the fact that history…has utterly passed by that former way of life.” Only the Faustian man would seek, by force of will, to recreate the past.
Caroline Gordon might have been happier married to Andrew Lytle than to Allen Tate. Like Lytle, she grew up in the bosom of one of those sprawling Southern families where second and third cousins are as close as brothers and sisters. And like Lytle’s people, Gordon’s Kentucky kin — “The Connection,” they styled themselves — derived their livelihood and spiritual sustenance from the land. She possessed, too, an attachment to the immemorial cycles of agriculture and a love for the sensuous tangibility of country living. She probably would have happily remained at “Benfolly” all her days. Unfortunately, she and Tate racketed from place to place throughout their marriage: Paris, New York, Memphis, Princeton, Greensboro, Washington, D.C., Sewanee, Rome, St. Paul — staying in one place hardly long enough for Gordon to put in a respectable vegetable garden. She longed for “ground beneath her feet,” as Waldron puts it, for her own piece of earth to provide stability and continuity. But Tate, as Lytle once said, suffered from an “inherited wandering of the blood.”
Gordon eventually found that “ground,” not in a place, but in the Catholic Church. She was reared by the rigid canons of the Church of Christ, in which her father was a preacher, but once departed from home and family, she threw off the fundamentalist yoke. What exactly led her to Catholicism remains a mystery; as Waldron shows, no soul-convulsing turn-about occurred — there was simply the gradual welling of an answer that would not be denied. Perhaps it started with an incident in the late 1920s in Rouen, France, with one of those ineffable moments of grace whose repercussions appear only years later. Gordon sat waiting in the car while Tate entered a store to buy a pack of cigarettes. An old beggar woman approached, asking for alms. Gordon handed her some francs, and the woman started on her way, only to turn back. “Have you faith?” she asked. “No,” Gordon replied, but that “no” became, as it were, the grain of sand that initiates the formation of a pearl.
As much as anyone, Waldron suggests, Dorothy Day “influenced Caroline’s spiritual growth.” The Tates first met Day in the 1920s when she was frolicking among the bohemians in Greenwich Village. They lost touch with her for a time, but in 1935 an amazingly transformed Dorothy Day visited the Tates in Memphis. They were startled and impressed with the change Catholicism had wrought in their friend. Years later Gordon recalled: “I think Dorothy began praying for me then.”
It took 12 years, but the prayers paid off: in 1947 Gordon entered the Catholic Church. Tate prepared to follow, but his instructor, “detecting arrogance” (not hard to do with Tate) refused to baptize him. Not till 1950 did he join his wife in the Church. Gordon’s Catholicism was palpable, a religion of the senses — of rosaries, crucifixes, holy water, candles, incense, bread and wine, of the spirit enlivening and vivifying the flesh and all creation. Tate, ever the intellectual, readied himself for baptism by “plowing through two huge volumes of The Catholic Faith, stopping occasionally,” Waldron writes, to convict his wife of “various heresies.”
Gordon had always been as much an Agrarian as Tate or Lytle, a sort of president of the ladies’ auxiliary, but Catholicism shifted her angle of vision. In the 1950s, while visiting a devoutly Catholic farm family in Maryland, she suddenly spied a fatal flaw in the Agrarian enterprise of the 1930s. Among these Marylanders she discerned “no nonsense, no romantic illusions about country life being a ‘way of life.'” That had been the Agrarians’ mistake, she wrote to a friend. “My father tried it [farming]…. And we tried it in a modest way at Benfolly and poor old Andrew tried it. But it won’t work without faith. It is faith that animates every one.” Catholicism, not agriculture, was the “way of life.” The Agrarians, she concluded, had put the cart before the horse.
This insight, similar to that expressed by Tate to Lytle in 1954, returns one to that exchange of letters with which I began. Was Tate right and Lytle wrong? Tate apprehended that, for the Catholic, “the truth of God and man” must supplant “place” in the hierarchy of loyalties. The Agrarians had, in a way, fashioned the South into an idol. Religion was not the decisive consideration among the 12 men who united to write I’ll Take My Stand. Christianity was simply one of the elements required to establish and maintain the Good Society. They valued religion, but more as means than as end; religion serves society, not vice versa. Tate was correct: the Agrarians thought they faced a historical problem, when all along the trouble was theological.
None of the Agrarians addressed the “historical problem” more vigorously in the 1930s than did Lytle. Throughout the decade he battled for the South with a ferocity and passion worthy of his hero, the implacable Yankee-hater, General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Yet Lytle was too sensitive an artist to expend his talents on polemics. As Lucas skillfully demonstrates, the artist triumphed over the propagandist. If Lytle was an idolator of the South in 1930, by decade’s end he had, as Lucas shows, transcended that infirmity.
In the 1950s Tate and Lytle still considered it worthwhile to debate the issues raised by I’ll Take My Stand; perhaps the whole thing is academic now. To seek in the South the lineaments of historic Christendom is an unrewarding task. Agriculture has been industrialized and the South has forsaken much of its inherited tradition. What is left? Mark Lucas fathoms the enduring importance of Agrarianism when he sums up what the term has continued to mean for Andrew Lytle. “Agrarianism is a philosophy for interpreting life that involves a chastening awareness of human limitations and a reverent regard for the community, for nature, and for God.” One need be neither a Southerner nor a farmer to credit the wisdom in these words. Such a philosophy is a worthy place to take one’s stand.
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