Andrew Lytle was a prolific writer, critic, and teacher perhaps best known for his association with the literary group known as the Agrarians, whose pro-southern, anti-industrial ideals created controversy in their day. Brought up in a farming family, Lytle’s connections to that way of life informed his literary work, which dealt with the deeply rooted complexities of southern culture. His novels, essays, and criticism explored such diverse themes as cultural change, revenge, and family pride.
Andrew Lytle Andrew Nelson Lytle was born on December 26, 1902, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the only child of Robert Logan Lytle and Lillie Belle Nelson Lytle. He was raised in both Tennessee and northern Alabama. Lytle attended Sewanee Military Academy in 1916 and 1917. Although he was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he decided against that path, choosing instead to travel in France with family. In 1921, Lytle began his studies in the United Kingdom at Exeter College at Oxford University; after only three weeks there, however, his grandfather died, and he came home and entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
At Vanderbilt, Lytle was a student of Donald Davidson and John Crowe Ransom, two poets from the literary school known as the Fugitives for their traditionalist opposition to modernism. He was a classmate of Robert Penn Warren, and all of them would later be among the Agrarians. After graduating in 1925, Lytle returned to his family’s farm, Cornsilk, near Guntersville, Marshall County, before entering Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to study drama and playwriting. While in the Northeast, he was invited to New York by writer Allen Tate, another of the Agrarians, and enjoyed success in the theater, acting in plays and having his own one-act play, The Lost Sheep, produced.
By the end of the 1920s, however, Lytle’s mind had turned back to the South. He had begun research for a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general known in Alabama for his capture of Union colonel Abel Streight and who founded the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. He was also involved in discussions with fellow writers that would manifest in the 1930 publication of I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. This collection of 12 essays, which focused on southern culture and history, espoused a back-to-the-land ethic that sparked a backlash among those who regarded the ideals as regressive and even racist.
Lytle’s contribution to the collection, titled “The Hind Tit,” dealt heavily with the economic disadvantages experienced by small farmers in the modern economy. The essay warned of a downward spiral for small farmers who sought modern conveniences and advocated for an independent spirit that valued personal freedom and closeness to nature more than monetary wealth. Lytle knew well the way of life that he touted. (Around the time of publication, he was tending a strawberry crop in northern Alabama.)
Andrew Lytle, 1938 Lytle was not bound by his penchant for the farming life, however. He continued with his biography efforts, and Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company was published in 1931. During the first half of the 1930s, he wrote and published stories and plays, reviewed books for the Virginia Quarterly Review and the New Republic, and acted in plays. He also continued to focus on the family farm in Alabama: a years-long mortgage dispute over Cornsilk was eventually resolved in his favor by the Alabama Supreme Court in 1936.
During this period, Andrew Lytle was also a prolific teacher, writer, and critic. In 1936 alone, he taught history at Southwestern College in Memphis, contributed an essay “The Small Farm Secures the State” in the second Agrarian collection Who Owns America?, published a story in Southern Review and an essay in the Atlanta Constitution, and published the novel The Long Night. The novel, which is set in Alabama after the Civil War, follows Pleasant McIvor as he plans and carries out a violent revenge for the murder of his father.
Three more novels, of varied subject matter, followed The Long Night. At the Moon’s Inn (1940) depicts the expeditions of Hernando de Soto into Florida and Cuba. In A Name for Evil (1947), a man and his wife attempt to restore and reinvigorate a Tennessee mansion and farm. The Velvet Horn (1957) returns to themes of family, revenge, and the Civil War.
Andrew Lytle and Students After beginning his career in the field of drama, then becoming a noted essayist and critic, by mid-century Andrew Lytle had also achieved fame as a fiction writer. During the post-World War II years, Lytle continued to be a prolific writer, teacher, and editor. In 1949, he began teaching creative writing at the University of Florida. Some of his notable students there were fiction writers Madison Jones and Harry Crews. Then, in 1961, he moved back to Tennessee to edit the Sewanee Review and later teach at the University of the South there. Lytle retired in 1973 and two years later published the memoir A Wake for the Living. He continued to write and teach well into the 1980s.
In addition to his long list of publications, Lytle’s honors include Guggenheim Fellowships in 1940, 1941, and 1959, and an Ingersoll Prize in 1986. Lytle died on December 12, 1995, and was buried in the University of the South Cemetery. Essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about his experience living with the widowed, elderly writer-professor as his personal assistant—an honor among English majors at Sewanee—during his last days. He noted the Sewanee Review’s remark that, with Lytle’s death, an era of southern history had ended.
Andrew Nelson Lytle Papers. Special Collections and University Archives, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
Rubin, Louis D. The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “Mr. Lytle: An Essay.” The Paris Review 194 (Fall 2010); https://www.theparisreview.org/letters-essays/6048/mister-lytle-an-essay-john-jeremiah-sullivan.