Kristin’s Kinsman: Andrew Lytle on the South as Christendom

On a mountain in Tennessee there lives a man who claims to know Kristin Lavransdatter, and many there be who believe him.

The man is Andrew Nelson Lytle, novelist, former professor of creative writing (whose students included Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, and Madison Jones), and the sole surviving member of the most remarkable band of writers (and prophets) in American literary history— the Southern Agrarians. Now 90, his unassuming witness to familiarity with the protagonist of Sigrid Undset’s monumental trilogy of fourteenth-century Norway is his new work of literary exegesis, Kristin: A Reading (University of Missouri Press, 1992). A journey through its mere 92 pages is tantamount to an imaginative re-embodiment as a man, or woman, of the part-pagan, part-Christian society of the Scandinavia of a half-millennium ago, and (almost) compels the conviction that, yes, Andrew Lytle lived back then, so well does he know the time, its sensibility, and its people.

How is it that a novelist who is legendary in his region but too-little known outside the South can have written, on the threshold of his tenth decade, what his admirers accept as the finest commentary of its kind on a country (Norway) and an epoch (the Middle Ages) so far removed in time and space from 1993 and Tennessee? The answer is bound up with biscuits, bourbon, and butterbeans, and an old red flag defeated in battle though bearing the Saint Andrew’s Cross. The answer, that is, has to do with a particular kind of society, a certain mode of being and knowing, and the American South as a place within Christendom that could be characterized (Southern-style, of course) as a first cousin of the Norway recreated by Sigrid Undset in her three-volume novel, Kristin Lavransdatter (which, being translated, is “Kristin, the Daughter of Lavrans”).

Perhaps yet one more explanation-of-sorts is necessary to retain the attention of the nearly incredulous.

The log cabin built by his ancestors at Monteagle Assembly Grounds where Andrew Lytle resides is but five miles from Sewanee, Tennessee, where stands what is arguably the most beautiful campus on the North American continent—the campus of The University of the South. Towering above the campus at a spot overlooking the breathtaking expanse of the Cumberland Mountains’ valley is a cross which, but for Henry VIII, would probably instead be a crucifix. Nearby, Confederate generals are buried, as is Allen Tate, the late great (Catholic) poet and novelist who also was Andrew Lytle’s life-long friend and fellow Agrarian. Only a few miles to the north is Murfreesboro, founded by one William Lytle of Revolutionary War fame, and defended in a later, even more revolutionary conflict, by the ferocious and fearless calvarymen of Nathan Bedford Forrest, subject of Mr. Lytle’s one book of non-fiction biography. When a girl, his grandmother, the author notes, heard the thunder of hoofs as Forrest’s men rode. . . . Visitors to The Log Cabin eat foods Mr. Lytle has grown—and cooked—himself, warm themselves before a fire he stokes himself, and imbibe of Tennessee whiskeys which he serves (liberally, one must gratefully acknowledge) in old and familial goblets. To the fortunate, he signs his letters, invariably short but compact of wisdom, “Your Ancient Friend,” and they know that ’tis true: he is ancient, less so of years (though that, assuredly) than of discernment (actually, seeing), wisdom, and what the mystics would call a kind of hindsight/wholesight.

Thomas Carlson, a Sewanee professor of English who partakes (liberally) of these singular graces as one of Mr. Lytle’s principal protégés, has masterfully limned his subject in the eloquent Foreword to Kristin: A Reading. As he writes, “Kristin Lavransdatter is that one special work of literature which in structure, characterization, and action peculiarly stimulates Andrew Lytle’s imagination and sympathy. In its depiction of rural manners and mores and in its historical milieu, he clearly finds a close connection between the pre-industrial South and medieval Europe. ‘I know these people. I grew up with them,’ he once told a startled class before discussion of the novel began.”

But how, many will wonder, can this be? How can it be that a man born in the twentieth century is as at home, emotionally, psychically, and spiritually, in the fourteenth century—or even, some might conclude, more at home in the world of the Middle Ages than in the world of today?

Mr. Lytle himself has often attempted to answer this query. “I am closer [in sensibility] to the twelfth Century than to the twentieth,” he has been known to remark. And he has written: “Born the day after Christmas, 1902, like a wet firecracker, as my mother remarked, I entered a world that lived with and by other creatures. My grandchildren and their ilk are unaware that they are creatures. I am closer to the twelfth century than to their world, for that world has money, not salvation, as its ultimate desire.

“As I grew up in Murfreesboro, the town easily joined the country. There were horses to hitch up, cows to milk (and that twice a day), often gardens to make. In town and country both, communities had the same kind of family life, with kin and connections, the connections by marriage, not blood. Because of this, people of the same station had the same social life and, frequently, the same marriages. Farming had not lost then its prestige as a way of life, and you could live well by it. . . . [M]ost human creatures, as they set forth to work or play, dance or love, touched hallowed ground, a pond, an everlasting spring, an old elm, a farm that generations had known and lived on and by. . .. And there was the common knowledge of the long history all creatures shared. The rat, the skunk, the fox that set out on the chilly night had most of the instincts, needs, and faculties humans shared. . . . The farm was not only the land; it composed all the creatures inhabiting it, and all the things that grew. Even Brother Rabbit. This connection is no idle matter, or the sentimentality of pride. It is finally metaphysical. The identification of man through familiarity with physical nature measures the state of religious belief. This induces a respect for and concord with all of God’s creation, and a more practical knowledge of what to expect from the world. It teaches that you often eat your meat with sorrow and that you can lose in vital ways all that is dear.”

Because one may safely assume that readers will be coming to Andrew Lytle’s Kristin only after having read the 1,047 pages of Kristin Lavransdatter, it is appropriate to remark the amazement—the kinship—that these of Mr. Lytle’s reflections indicate to the story of Miss Undset’s saga. Did Kristin not live such a life in such a place, and did she not “lose in vital ways all that [she held] dear”? Indeed, she did, and in losing all she found All. For, as the old, old Story insists, only they find life who lose it— if the loss quickens the soul unto spiritual vision and rebirth.

Thus it is no exaggeration on his part when Mr. Lytle writes in the same breath of salvation and sassafras tea. There is, to continue the exposition, a “metaphysical” quality inherent in pre-industrial (hence somewhat pre-modern) societies, and specifically the societies of Norway in old Scandinavia and the Old South in North America. This is because the very encounter of human nature with natural world (after the revelation of God in Jesus Christ) makes luminous to consciousness (and to conscience) the “connection” (a decidedly Southern term in Mr. Lytle’s vernacular) among all “creatures” (ditto) and also the fundamental realities of sin and the supernatural. There naturally follows the realization that the individual exists only and always in a society either attuned or antagonistic to the Divine, and that a people’s history is a matter not of mere economics or politics but of nothing less than either salvation or damnation. For there is (literally) a world of difference between a society (our own at present) which purports (if now reluctantly) to acclaim “In God We Trust” and a society in which virtually everyone would know intuitively that “In God we are.” Such a society has been the South, and such is the society recreated by Sigrid Undset in Kristin Lavransdatter.

Which brings us to Brother Rabbit.

Only a generation before Andrew Lytle was born, Joel Chandler Harris was still telling his stories of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. The voice of his Uncle Remus is thus as old as Adam’s, which is to say nearly as old as God’s. And it shares, of course, in the tradition of Him “Who never spake without a parable,” and Whose parables (naturally) were understood perfectly by those whose life was connected (there’s that word again) with lilies of the field and birds of the air, with the frustrations of fishing and the futility of reform. (Thus, by the bye, the tragic and ultimately doomed attempt of black Southerners today who seek their proper identity in pre-Christian Africa, through the ideology of Afrocentrism, rather than reconnecting with the richly Christian sensibility of the admirably Southern—hence American—Uncle Remus. But that is another story.)

Do we begin to see?

Kristin Lavransdatter is a monument of the human imagination because imaginatively (the stress is on image, as in Imago Dei . . .) it is a story true to the whole of life in a society aware of (if not, of course—for none is—perfectly conformed to) the mysterious relationship of all creatures one to the other, of the troubled (by sin) relationship of man and God, and of the poignancy of the human pilgrimage through time unto eternity, and that an eternity of either redemption or doom. In times past, such a society existed, and it was called Christendom. It stretched from Thessalonica to Tennessee, and encompassed old Norway, too. Kristin Lavransdatter is about it, and Andrew Lytle was born in it (though he worries whether it’ll still be around when he is not).

Here and there in his earlier writings, Mr. Lytle has offered provocative images by which to contrast the world of Before and the world of Today, which is to say he contrasts what once was Christendom and what now is merely “The West” or “Western civilization.” For example: “By means of [the] bold claim that we are made in the image of God, the structure of Christendom bound all men together, from King to peasant.” By “the structure of Christendom,” he means the customs and compacts by which a society lives according to the shared conviction that the origin of all men is in the dim, misty past, back beyond time, within, finally and originally, the mystery of God Himself. Today, this structure is all but effaced, because Western societies (once knit, however loosely, as Christendom) have allowed the postulates of materialism (of both human origins and ends) gradually to displace, virtually to dispel, the old sacred mystery. (One need think but for a moment on the difference between even “Europe” and “Christendom,” let alone between “Christendom” and what now is proposed as “the European Community”—that is, a European Trade Zone, as it were.) Writing specifically of the United States, Mr. Lytle has sighed, “this whole country’s Christian inheritance [is] threatened. But let there be no misunderstanding. We still are subjects of Christendom. Only we have reached its Satanic phase.”

By this latter (terrifying) phrase, Mr. Lytle means nothing less than that the American component of Christendom has come to manifest the malevolent spirit of Babylon of old, and Babylon he defines as “the acceptance of matter as the only meaning, the source of the mystery.” In Kristin: A Reading, which is his latest statement on the subject, he elaborates on the contrast between modern America (and, one wonders, Norway, too?) and the world of Kristin Lavransdatter:

It is well to examine how the Norwegians in the beginning of the fourteenth century accepted their world. This is crucial to an understanding of the action [of the novel]. Today we take the world as the end of all action, our reward or our bane. To the Christians of Norway it was the ground for the drama of the soul, salvation or damnation.

The loss, or worse, the abandonment, of the under-standing that history is bound up with the mysterious “eternal purpose” of God, hence that it is the “ground for the drama of the soul” unto either “salvation of damnation” leads a society (downward) into what Mr. Lytle elsewhere has termed, simply and significantly, “confusion.” In the midst of such confusion, invariably there arise artists who plumb to the dark heart of the matter. In Norway, Sigrid Undset was one—she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter in 1923, which is, one should note, but a year after T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land. In America, Andrew Lytle is one, and though his Kristin came to us as recently as 1992, his first major statement on the same essential theme appeared contemporaneously with Miss Undset’s trilogy, in 1930. In each case, the necessary a priori form of social criticism (and proffered cure) is, not some sort of political action or reform, but the story. As one of Mr. Lytle’s fellow Agrarians, the late Robert Penn Warren, wrote in a poem:

In this century, and moment of mania,

Tell me a story.

And Warren it was who described Andrew Lytle as “the perfect teller of tales.”

It is precisely in this respect that great literature, that is, a great story, is by no means an “escape,” but, quite to the contrary, both a return to the past—for the truth of the origin, nature, and destiny of the human community—and a morally-informed compass which at once indicates a society’s present situation and the path forward, so to speak, to its rightful way.

In pondering this almost-religious office of the literary artist, and in writing on Andrew Lytle himself, Lewis Simpson has suggested that “the mind of the literary artist may be almost the last mind articulately open to history as a mystery that unfolds out of God.” The “last mind,” that is, in our essentially materialistic epoch.

Literature, the great literary critic Cleanth Brooks has written, is “knowledge by imaginative enactment.” Even more profoundly, and writing as not only critic but churchman, Brooks has declared, “literature is a kind of liturgy—a symbolic action.” In our time, when the ascendancy of the ideology of materialism has all but driven a sense of the sacred from the mind of man, Sigrid Undset has rediscovered old Norway, and Andrew Lytle has seen to the same land and time through the still “Christ- haunted” sensibility of the South (the phrase is Flannery O’Connor’s), and each has told tales which are akin to the liturgies of the Church in this respect at least, that they re-mind us of the intimate connection between time and the transcendent; indeed, of time’s very existence within the all-enveloping eternal.

In his deep familiarity with Andrew Lytle both as friend and artist, Brooks has not hesitated repeatedly to define as the basis of Mr. Lytle’s art nothing less than “the metaphysics of Rutherford County,” Rutherford County being the Tennessee bounds of Mr. Lytle’s life and the particular ground of his universal vision.

Within this metaphysic, which he himself does not hesitate a moment to ascribe to his Christian faith, An-drew Lytle apprehends the very nature of Norwegian society of the fourteenth century and the very heart (unto nearly the very soul) of Kristin Lavransdatter. In a country and age marked now by the re-emergence of paganism as the principal challenge to Christian teachings, he understands wholly the similar if reverse situation of old Norway, when Christian teachings were slowly but forcefully chasing away the old false gods. And in this old and ever-new engagement he reads perfectly the symbols by which Sigrid Undset establishes her subject’s saga.

For Kristin, Andrew Lytle discerns, is confronted as all of us are at one time or another by “wreaths” of opposite, even combative, allure and destiny—of either “salvation or damnation.” One is the wreath of innocence and Christian maidenhood, and one is the wreath of the elf- maiden. One, he reminds us, is “of gold,” the other “of golden blossoms.” They are utterly different in nature and destiny. And—ah, but to tell more would be to spoil his tale. . . .

For Kristin: A Reading is, of course, a reading by Andrew Lytle of Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. But just so, it is a tale about a tale which wonderfully retells “the old, old Story,” and his book summons us, not only to re-read the great saga of medieval Norway, but to reengage a question of eternal importance: how can we live the life which the story of Kristin enjoins in our own now nearly-pagan time, in our ever-more-alien land?

By

David A. Bovenizer was formerly the Executive Editor of Crisis.

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