William Lytle, Photo courtesy the University of the South, Sewanee
The day before Christmas in 1902 a baby was born to Murfreesboro’s founding family, the Lytles.
He was the son of hard-working Robert Logan Lytle and Lillie Belle Nelson. An ancestor, William Lytle, had donated the land for Murfreesboro in 1811, only slightly less than 90 years before.
They named him Andrew Nelson Lytle, a name that grew to represent the “final” voice of the Southern Agrarian movement.
The influential Agrarians, a group of graduates and professors at Vanderbilt University, published the 1930 book of essays called “I'll Take My Stand.”
The book made the case for preserving the values, economy and habits of the farm and small Southern town, while casting aside the centralized industrial life blossoming in the North. It was penned, to a certain extent, in response to the national uproar created in 1925 because of the “Scopes” monkey trial.
"Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction," Lytle wrote. "Return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall."
Only Lytle, who penned the essay "The Hind Tit," actually lived the agrarian tradition. He ran a series of family-owned farms and tended a garden that supplied virtually all the produce for his table until he was well into his 80s.
While the book, “I’ll Take My Stand,” resonated for decades in the South, it had little impact outside the region other than in academic circles.
The Agrarians made the case that urbanized, industrialized society undermined the value of hard work. Industrialization, they claimed, damaged religion, arts and social amenities, such as conversation, hospitality, sympathy, family life and even romance.
Eventually, the Agrarians dissipated with most of the 13 authors who penned “I’ll Take My Stand” moving out of the region. The group included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson.
Warren would grow to be the most famous of the group receiving the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “All the King's Men” (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979.
Meanwhile, Lytle remained in the South where he mixed his writing and teaching career with farming and greatly surpassing the role he played with the Agrarians.
He attended Sewanee Military Academy on the grounds of the University of the South, then graduated from Vanderbilt with a Bachelor of Arts in 1925. That same year he was accepted at Exeter College, Oxford, but returned home on the death of his grandfather.
He subsequently moved north to New Haven, Conn., as a student at the Yale School of Drama from 1927 to 1929. During that period, he supported himself as an actor in several plays in New York City. In 1938, Lytle married Edna Barker, and they had three daughters.
He developed a certain dramatic flair in those early days that carried him through the rest of his long life. In his later years, friends and family would encircle him at his cabin in Monteagle where he would entertain them with humorous anecdotes and stories from his younger days.
Lytle's serious literary career began in the late 1920s, when he penned a biography, “Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company.”
Described by experts as a writer's writer, Lytle’s writings tended to win more critical praise than popular acclaim. His first novel, "The Long Night" (1936), and "At the Moon's Inn" (1947) were well received by critics, but "The Velvet Horn" (1957) is regarded as his masterpiece.
His academic career included stints at Vanderbilt, the universities of Florida, Iowa and Kentucky as well as Kenyon College before ending up at the University of the South in Sewanee. During his years as an educator, Lytle taught several prominent writers including Flannery O’Connor. He later published several of her stories in the Sewanee Review, as well as critical essays on her work.
The longtime editor of The Sewanee Review, he transformed what had been a small academic publication into one of the nation's leading and most innovative literary guides.
Lytle, after retiring from the University of the South in 1973, spent the last 20 years of his life living in his cabin on the grounds of the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly not far from the campus of the University of the South.
He died in 1995 two weeks short of his 93rd birthday.