Carnal Choirs and Family Chronicles
The summer heat is creeping up and amphibian love is in the air. Frogs in the ditches, ponds, and trees are busy completing that most excellent curve in the great circle of life, with romantic chirps, yaps, barks, and quacks. This carnal choir of frogflesh provides a lovely accompaniment to the porch reader’s strivings, especially when he grapples with matters of life and death in the pages of an epic.
All things done in adante, of course. And all the better when synchronized to nature’s own tune.
For the month of May I am reading Andrew Nelson Lytle’s A Wake For The Living, a spectacular family chronicle that could serve as the origin myth for a future nation- that is, if future posterity still has mind to read.
A Wake For The Living: A Family Tale
Andrew Nelson Lytle begins his mythic family chronicle, A Wake For The Living, with this orphic opening:
“Now that I have come to live in the sense of eternity, I can tell my girls who they are.”
This tone- that of a wise patriarch- carries throughout the rest of Lytle’s book. Yet while he specifically dedicates his work to his children, and speaks of them with great tenderness, his real audience is the nameless reader who could easily digest this in 1973, or even several decades later.
“If you don’t know who you are or where you come from, you will find yourself at a disadvantage. The ordered slums of suburbia are made for the confusion of the spirit. Those who live in units called homes or estates—both words do violence to the language—don’t know who they are. For the profound stress between the union that is flesh and the spirit, they have been forced to exchange the appetites. Each business promotion uproots the family. Children become wayfarers. Few are given any vision of the Divine. They perforce become secular men, half men, who inhabit what is left of Christendom.”
Lytle’s admonition to the nameless individual, couched in familial terms, underscores the author’s appreciation for the centrality of family. To Lytle, the family is the first legitimate source of authority and moral responsibility. As such, it is both the model and measure of all institutions and social arrangements.
Family, Freedom, Place, and Time
This is familiar territory for the student of Southern Agrarianism. The great Southern poet Allen Tate also viewed the family as the bastion of moral authority in a free society and the foundation of Republican government.
Liberty was conceived in terms of its corporateness, a societas, combining the family and larger units of an interconnected citizenry with each other to form associations. Instead of the rigorous moral codes found in New England, the Southern colonies were more dependent upon the English model of ecclesiastic and civil subsidiarity, relying on representatives nearest the situation to provide order and preside over the deliberation of disputes. In essence, the religious and political developments within the South were founded upon a spirit of localism in theory and practice. The movement towards “establishing” state-sponsored churches met, for example, with great success in New England, while in the South a decentralized theory of control and the habit of localism in matters of church and state insured a greater autonomy and forbearance among the associations of the faithful and governing authorities.
Richard M. Weaver, another notable Southern Agrarian, makes a similar point in “Ideas Have Consequences.” The family predates modern society and its multitudinous creeds, declarations, and constitutions. Order and social harmony rest not on illusive theories like equality- which Weaver refers to as “disorganizing concepts”- but on family, the bedrock of stable society from which all sentimental ties originate:
The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights—that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.
However paradoxical it may seem, fraternity has existed in the most hierarchical organizations; it exists, as we have just noted, in that archetype of hierarchy, the family. The essence of co-operation is congeniality, the feeling of having been “born together.” Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self; and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism. The frame of duty which fraternity erects is itself the source of ideal conduct. Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition. It will be found as a general rule that those parts of the world which have talked least of equality have in the solid fact of their social life exhibited the greatest fraternity.
To Lytle, these bonds have an eternal quality. And just as our ancestors connect us to the past, our posterity carries us into the future. In a sense, we always were and will always be; an understanding that both grounds and inspires us, and forms the basis for an enduring civilization. This is the beginning of a free people. Lytle continues:
If we dismiss the past as dead and not as a country of the living which our eyes are unable to see, as we cannot see a foreign country but know it is there, then we are likely to become servile. Living as we will be in a lesser sense of ourselves, lacking that fuller knowledge which only the living past can give, it will be so easy to submit to pressure and receive what is already ours as a boon from authority.
To make this point, Lytle reaches back into our pre-Columbian past, to the conquests of the Inca. When subjugating their neighbors, the Inca carried their enemy’s gods and chieftains back to Cuzco as hostages. The foreign gods became servants to Inti- the mighty sun god and patron of Incan civilization- while the captured caciques were forced to learn Quechua and submit to the customs and beliefs of their former adversary. This served an important function, as Lytle notes:
To lose your language and your god surrenders all that you are, no matter how many grand, abstract words like liberty try to reassure you that you are something. Or that you have something to lose.
Similar to Weaver’s juxtaposition of equality and fraternity, Lytle takes aim at that famous Lockean declaration of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a delusional endeavor destined to destroy its practitioner:
Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness man can little effect. God gives and takes life away. I have spoken of liberty, but the pursuit of happiness is the most heartlessly delusive of all. It is impossible to keep this as an end and pursue it. If it were possible, it would be impossible to attain it. It is another version of the promise in the Garden: Eat of this fruit and you will live as the gods. To pursue in such a way is to destroy.
Lytle then departs from such “disorganizing concepts” as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness- in fact from all temptations of Utopian striving- to and make another endorsement of the family:
I want to make a grand leap in time and say that the stable force of the state is the family. This may seem a platitude, but wait. Its form is the most perfect for man in his fallen condition. In its private life the family is a whole with members and connections, while publicly it is a unit in a larger whole, the state.
This is the warp and weft of Southern civilization, with the family forming the thread by which an exquisite tapestry of life has endured. Here Lytle ventures into his own Middle Tennessee family history, from Cavaliers fleeing Cromwell’s hangman to multitudes of Mammies, Aunts, Uncles, and friends and neighbors- all intimately bound together by blood and history.
Like other Southern writers- Faulkner, most famously- Lytle explores his early surroundings and the character of the region through family ties. In the South, the great risings and fallings of bloodlines describe the trajectory of a much-beleaguered civilization. And just as families are afflicted by ancient wounds that never seem to heal, so too are societies. An enduring sense of defeat mingled with the ferocious defiance that has long characterized the Southern temperament, molds and shapes the Middle Tennessee of Lytle’s youth. The architecture there is obstinately gothic, and clings to a ghostly Christian past in the age of Monkey Trials. Like Faulkner, the past haunts Lytle at every turn, and the slightest object- whether a Hermes statuette or an ancient milestone- is a totem to a bygone age.
On the corner, between the brick walk and the house, stood the first milestone on the turnpike to Woodbury. In my childhood one side of the brittle limestone block had split off. Near it stood the fire hydrant, and we used to tie a rope and drive at great speeds over dangerous courses this team that never moved an inch. But there was only the milestone that morning in 1863 when Mama was playing around it with other children. Nobody ever knew who he was or why he did it, but a Yankee soldier knelt by the back window in the Mosby house and shot into the group of children, after which he mounted a horse and galloped out of town. The bullet struck Mama. At the time Miss Mattie Ready, who had recently married General John Hunt Morgan, was crossing the street. She could not imagine why a soldier would shoot a child in cold blood and thought he was aiming at her, but then a man who will shoot a woman in cold blood will shoot a child.
Violence and a loss of innocence saturate the pages of A Wake For The Living in a way only the Southern writer can relate. But from blood and death come love and rebirth, and despite the many storms of life, families endure and bloodlines continue to wind their way through time and memory.
Blood, Soil, and Extinction
Lytle’s chronicle is also rooted in the soil, which like blood, has an eternal quality, binding families and entire civilizations together through time. It is probably no coincidence that Lytle emerged from the same cultural milieu as the Agrarian iconoclast Wendell Berry, who described the soil thusly:
The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
Undoubtedly, Lytle would agree with Richard Weaver that soil- hence the land- is the American’s “last metaphysical right,” and along with family, serves as a bulwark to utilitarian leveling. This, after all, is at the heart of Southern insolence. The Puritan Yankee, schooled in theory, nourished by materialism, and guided by visions of Utopia, is forever at odds with the defiant Southerner. Not only on account of his perceived provinciality and moral inferiority, but for his stubborn attachment to unprocessed material. For the Puritan Yankee, land is a resource that is wasted when deprived of the proper utilization and efficiency.
Ever the consummate Southern Agrarian, Lytle sees land in a more organic light, with generational stewardship, as opposed to mere ownership, as crucial:
A deed to land is one thing. Possession is another. No man can live long enough to own a patch of the natural world. Possession is slow and doubtful. By loving care and attendance, as the seasons turn and the years pass, can soil and trees and running water, all that the title bounds and the fences mark, accrue to the eye. So it is the proprietor is jealous of trespassers. And so it is that living in one physical place through successive generations makes for the illusion of ownership, whose traditions recall the first glance and the growing enlargements and modifications of what the family calls ours. Beyond this lies the waste of the world.
But the waste of the world still lurks nearby, and the land itself is a haunting reminder of families, peoples, and civilizations now extinct. Indeed, throughout his boyhood wanderings in Middle Tennessee, Lytle frequently stumbles upon eerie reminders of that fact. For the sunny, abundant land he loves was once inhabited by another people now lost to the pages of history.
To Lytle, the land contains a blessing wrapped in a curse: Those who respect and cherish it are destined to live and thrive, while those who abuse it are condemned to death and oblivion. Lytle remembers some of the earliest European settlers to the region:
…the ground was accurst. Outcasts, our ancestors could only see the natural bounty through mattered eyes. Each valley beyond each mountain range, and the rumor of plains thick with grazing beasts, raised hopes. The Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies (blue mountains in Indian speech), the Great Smokies, the Cumberlands (named by Doctor Thomas Walker, Jefferson’s guardian, for the Duke of Cumberland who defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden): each of these, to land-hungry men, walled about some natural paradise; each was topped by laurel and rhododendron, tough as iron, blooming as the gates of hell, and so intertwined that only snakes could wind their way with familiar ease. To pass over: this was the heroic encounter. But no mountain man thought of himself in such terms. And it took generations to make these men.
Solely the righteous can inherit the blessed land, and only with great care, learn to tame and cultivate it. Most of us are at least conversant regarding the European conquest of this continent, but what do we know of the American Indian?
While Lytle extolls the Indian’s relationship to the land, he also admonishes his readers by recounting the Red Man’s gradual corruption. It was not murder or war that doomed the American Indian, but his embrace of commerce with the White Man:
. . . to trade with the European brought the Indian into a foreign commerce. He no longer hunted from necessity but for pelts. This change in hunting habits doomed the wild life beyond the Alleghenies, and hence tribal life. In a narrow sense this is the history of the world.
Yet everything is in the manner of the change. Young Arthur pulled the metal sword out of the stone anvil, the magical act which made him King of the Celts. Symbolically the Stone Age gave way to Iron, releasing through the young prince what was hidden in the Stone Age all along, its successor. So the smith by the magic of his anvil or the hero by the magic of his sword, an extension of himself and describing his virtue and power, brought about a dramatic change in culture. Then it was discovered that the young king was the son of the old king after all. This made for no break in the inheritance, only a modification of forms and usages. With the Indians it was different. Instead of growing into their own new ways, they took the ways of those who would despoil them. Heracles in killing the Nemean lion took on its power, and he wore its hide to show this. But not so with the Indian in his change. He grew servile in fact and spirit, not all at once but pretty quickly.
This chilling warning from Lytle would surely outrage the halfwits to our left (if they bothered to read, that is). After all, Rosseau’s myth of the Noble Savage is endemic to American progressivism. After failing to redeem the Indian through decades of monstrous tinkering, the progressive is content to keep our few living, breathing Natives confined to the margins of society so that a faceless, red-skinned apparition with no history or place can evangelize their religion.
Lytle understands that while more primitive, the American Indian who once occupied Middle Tennessee was no less human. In many ways he was superior to his conqueror, particularly in his relation to the land. But Lytle is not simply mourning the loss of an ancient people. This admonition is intended for the nameless reader who undoubtedly belongs to a civilization slouching towards Gomorrah. Just as the American Indian found himself in the grips of a tenacious enemy who defeated him through his own corruption, we too find ourselves gripped at the throat today, encumbered by a degeneracy that was freely offered, and enthusiastically received. Just as Lytle’s tale of the enervated Indian foretells the collapse of Southern civilization, it could very well serve as an allegory for modern American Conservatism. For decades Conservatives have feasted lustily from Liberalism’s trough, only to find itself too bloated with contamination to continue. Here Lytle’s story about the Inca is also apt. Conservatives now find their gods in a state of complete servility to the Gospel of Progress, their leaders forever detained and speaking the strange tongue of the enemy. Can the tradition continue in this state of disfigurement? Lytle would be skeptical.
Dead Men Walking
If Lytle’s perspective means anything, we are all likely headed for that same oblivion that awaits defeated peoples. The bedrock of our freedom, comity, and way of life- the family- is in terrible disrepair and has been for decades. The last remaining stewards of our soil are also besieged and rapidly disappearing from the American landscape. Deprived of this nourishment and stability, we find ourselves uprooted, paralyzed, and ripe for conquest. Even in those last remaining corners of the country where the walls are high and the moats deep, the inhabitants still quench their thirst with water polluted by materialism. These conditions foretell defeat. This is Lytle’s devastating curse to all unworthy inhabitants of the land.
Despite my own dark musings, Andrew Nelson’s Lytle’s A Wake For The Living is a joy to read. I have only explored several important themes here without submerging the reader in Lytle’s delightful stories of life in Middle Tennessee. The chronicle explores family, history, culture, place, and destiny, and is a small window into a forgotten world that still feels like home- like a distant memory we long for, and strive to recapture.
For those who are new to the Southern Agrarians or to Southern Traditionalism, I think Lytle’s work is a great place to begin your journey. Not unlike Faulkner, Lytle’s literature is full of stunning political, cultural, and historical observations swaddled in exquisite prose.
A Wake For The Living is one of his best works, and should serve as a signpost for all weary dissident travelers in search of rejuvenation.
Feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and impressions below.
When one comes to live in “the sense of eternity”, this offers the soul’s purpose a portal to articulate its command to self master. Awakening to the supernatural affair man has with the Earth allows a natural transcendence to occur. Seeding the soil, tending and nurturing it would be obvious- just as seeding a family, tending to and nurturing it as well. This wholly sustains one great circle of existence, all so very complimentary. *As well are the songs of crickets and frogs to accompany in adante. Looking forward to more fireflies!