Before he became a novelist, Andrew Lytle spent his twenties on Broadway and studying drama at Yale. The theatrical presence he developed became his trademark feature. Friends and family would often gather around his cabin in Monteagle, Tennessee, just to witness his charm and listen to his anecdotes. One famous tale included Lytle riding an elevator with his pet rooster. His own personal favorite was from his youth, after he dropped a quarter in the collection plate at church. His dad promptly removed it, and with a wink said, “A penny makes just as much noise.” People appreciated his humor and unparalleled raconteur abilities; in fact, if any members of his audience were later asked to repeat his stories, most of them would say, “You wouldn’t appreciate it unless Andrew was telling it.”
Andrew Nelson Lytle was born on December 26, 1902 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to Robert Logan Lytle and Lillie Bell Nelson. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned his B.A. in 1925. During his undergraduate years, he counted Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate of the Vanderbilt Fugitives among his drinking buddies. He was, however, disinclined to write enough poetry to qualify him for membership in the Fugitives, so he instead formed his own movement, “The Agrarians,” of which Warren, Ransom, and Tate were all a part.
In 1931, the Agrarians published their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, which warned against the detrimental effects of urbanization and maintained the virtues of the family farm. Lytle’s contribution, “The Hind Tit,” was one of the most artful pieces in the collection. His essay praises small farmers who live basic lives enriched by simple pleasures. Lytle was one of the few followers of the movement who remained true to his beliefs and teachings; in fact, of all the members, Lytle was the only one who was actually a farmer, and he was the only one who did not eventually desert the South to become a Yankee. He was the last surviving member of the group, and until he died, he remained on a small farm much like the ones he extolled with his Agrarian platform.
After chartering the Agrarian movement, Lytle tried his hand at writing novels. His works are often set during Civil War days, harkening back to a time before modernization. His first book, 1931’s Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company,was a biography of the Confederate Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forest. He went on to write more than a dozen others, culminating in his masterpiece, The Velvet Horn, which was dedicated to his fellow Agrarian, John Crowe Ransom, and was nominated for a National Book Award. It was so well received that Robert Phelps, a writer for the National Review, advised theft of the book if purchasing or borrowing it were not options. Lytle kept publishing into his nineties; his last book, Kristen: A Reading, was released just a few years before his death.
Along with his nomination for a National Book Award, Lytle also received two Guggenheim fellowships, a National Institute of Arts and Letters fellowship, and a special achievement award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in Chattanooga.
In addition to being a writer, Lytle also had an impressive teaching career at the University of the South at Sewanee, where he served as editor of the Sewanee Review. It was under his editorship that this journal became one of the nation’s most prestigious literary magazines, at the height of the Southern Renaissance. Lytle helped turn the journal into a showcase for some of the South’s best writers, including Warren, Tate, and Katherine Anne Porter. He helped found the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Florida, and he also taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He encouraged the writing careers of many of his students, including Madison Jones, James Dickey, and Flannery O’Connor. Always the hospitable host, Lytle would hold gatherings at his cabin, where his students came not only to witness his captivating presence when relaying his famous Southern stories, but also to seek his helpful criticism that often improved their writing.
Until his death at age 93, Andrew Lytle maintained his Southern roots and dedication to farm life, dying in his old log cabin in Monteagle. Not only was he a great writer himself, but he played a principal role in the development of the writing careers of countless others. His irresistible charm endeared him to generations of readers, students, and people who just loved a good story. He never got caught up in the façade of modern life, always channeling his genuine love of a simple ruralness though his writing, saying, “Life is a melodrama. Only art is real.”
Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (biography), 1931
The Velvet Horn (novel), 1957
A Wake for the Living (memoir), 1973
John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay on Lytle in the Paris Review, “Mister Lytle: An Essay”:
Andrew Lytle’s entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
Andrew Lytle at the Fellowship of Southern Writers:
Andrew Lytle’s profile at UTK’s Tennessee Authors page:
Andrew Lytle’s profile at UTC’s Tennessee Writers page: