Letters & Essays

Mister Lytle: An Essay

John Jeremiah Sullivan

When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade. She called him Brother. Or Brutha—I don’t suppose either of them had ever voiced a terminal r. His two grown daughters did call him Daddy. Certainly I never felt even the most obscure impulse to call him Andrew, or “old man,” or any other familiarism, though he frequently gave me to know it would be all right if I were to call him mon vieux. He, for his part, called me boy, and beloved, and once, in a letter, “Breath of My Nostrils.” He was about to turn ninety-two when I moved into his basement, and he had not yet quite reached ninety-three when they buried him the next winter, in a coffin I had helped to make—a cedar coffin, because it would smell good, he said. I wasn’t that helpful. I sat up a couple of nights in a freezing, starkly lit workshop rubbing beeswax into the boards. The other, older men—we were four altogether—absorbedly sawed and planed. They chiseled dovetail joints. My experience in woodworking hadn’t gone past feeding planks through a band saw for shop class, and there’d be no time to redo anything I might botch, so I followed instructions and with rags cut from an undershirt worked coats of wax into the cedar until its ashen whorls glowed purple, as if with remembered life. 

The man overseeing this vigil was a luthier named Roehm whose house stood back in the woods on the edge of the plateau. He was about six and a half feet tall with floppy bangs and a deep, grizzled mustache. He wore huge glasses. I believe I have never seen a person more tense than Roehm was during those few days. The cedar was “green”—it hadn’t been properly cured. He groaned that it wouldn’t behave. On some level he must have resented the haste. Lytle had lain dying for weeks; he endured a series of disorienting pin strokes. By the end they were giving him less water than morphine. He kept saying, “Time to go home,” which at first meant he wanted us to take him back to his house, his real house, that he was tired of the terrible simulacrum we’d smuggled him to, in his delirium. Later, as those fevers drew together into what seemed an unbearable clarity, like a blue flame behind the eyes, the phrase came to mean what one would assume. 

He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly. Yet although his family and friends had known for years about his wish to lie in cedar, which required that a coffin be custom made, no one had so much as played with the question of who in those mountains could do such a thing or how much time the job would take. I don’t hold it against them—against us—the avoidance of duty, owing as it did to fundamental incredulity. Lytle’s whole existence had for so long been essentially posthumous, he’d never risk seeming so ridiculous as to go actually dying now. My grandfather had told me once that when he’d been at Sewanee, in the thirties, people had looked at Lytle as something of an old man, a full sixty years before I met him. And he nursed this impression, with his talk of coming “to live in the sense of eternity,” and of the world he grew up in—Middle Tennessee at the crack of the twentieth century—having more in common with Europe in the Middle Ages than with the South he lived to see. All of his peers and enemies were dead. A middle daughter he had buried long before. His only wife had been dead for thirty-four years, and now Mister Lytle was dead, and we had no cedar coffin. 

But someone knew Roehm, or knew about him; and it turned out Roehm knew Lytle’s books; and when they told Roehm he’d have just a few days to finish the work, he set to, without hesitation and even with a certain impatience, as if he feared to displease some unforgiving master. I see him there in the little space, repeatedly microwaving Tupperware containers full of burnt black coffee and downing them like Coca-Colas. He loomed. He was so large there hardly seemed room for the rest of us, and already the coffin lid lay on sawhorses in the center of the floor, making us sidle along the walls. At least a couple of times a night Roehm, who was used to agonizing for months over tiny, delicate instruments, would suffer a collapse, would hunch on his stool and bury his face in his hands and bellow “It’s all wrong!” into the mute of his palms. My friend Sanford and I stared on. But the fourth, smaller man, a person named Hal, who’d been staying upstairs with Lytle toward the end and acting as a nurse, he knew Roehm better—now that I think of it, Hal must have been the one to tell the family about him in the first place—and Hal would put his hands on Roehm’s shoulders and whisper to him to be calm, remind him how everyone understood he’d been allowed too little time, that if he wanted we could take a break. Then Roehm would smoke. I remember he gripped each cigarette with two fingertips on top, snapping it in and out of his lips the way toughs in old movies do. Sanford and I sat outside in his truck with the heater on and drank vodka from a flask he’d brought, gazing on the shed with its small bright window, barely saying a word. 

Weeks later he told me a story that Hal had told him, that at seven o’clock in the morning on the day of Lytle’s funeral—which strangely Roehm did not attend—Hal woke to find Roehm sitting at the foot of his and his wife’s bed, repeating the words “It works,” apparently to himself. I never saw him again. The coffin was art. Hardly anyone got to see it. All through the service and down the street to the cemetery it wore a pall, and when people lined up at the graveside to take turns shoveling dirt back into the pit, the hexagonal lid—where inexplicably Roehm had found a spare hour to do scrollwork—grew invisible after just a few seconds.

 

There had been different boys living at Lytle’s since not long after he lost his wife, maybe before—in any case it was a recognized if unofficial institution when I entered the college at seventeen. In former days these were mainly students whose writing showed promise, as judged by a certain well-loved, prematurely white-haired literature professor, himself a former protégé and all but a son during Lytle’s long widowerhood. As years passed and Lytle declined, the arrangement came to be more about making sure someone was there all the time, someone to drive him and chop wood for him and hear him if he were to break a hip. 

There were enough of us who saw it as a privilege, especially among the English majors. We were students at the University of the South, and Lytle was the South, the last Agrarian, the last of the famous “Twelve Southerners” behind I’ll Take My Stand, a comrade to the Fugitive Poets, a friend since youth of Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren; a mentor to Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey and Harry Crews and, as the editor of The Sewanee Review in the sixties, one of the first to publish Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. Bear in mind that by the mid-nineties, when I knew him, the so-called Southern Renascence in letters had mostly dwindled to a tired professional regionalism. That Lytle hung on somehow, in however reduced a condition, represented a flaw in time, to be exploited. 

Not everyone felt that way. I remember sitting on the floor one night with my freshman-year suitemate, a ninety-five-pound blond boy from Atlanta called Smitty who’d just spent a miserable four years at some private academy trying to convince the drama teacher to let them do a Beckett play. His best friend had been a boy they called Tweety Bird, whose voice resembled a tiny reed flute. When I met Smitty, I asked what music he liked, and he shot back, “Trumpets.” That night he went on about Lytle, what a grotesquerie and a fascist he was. “You know what Andrew Lytle said?” Smitty waggled his cigarette lighter. “Listen to this: ‘Life is melodrama. Only art is real.’”

I nodded in anticipation. 

“Don’t you think that’s horrifying?” 

I didn’t, though. Or I did and didn’t care. Or I didn’t know what I thought. I was under the tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a nowhereness to my life. Others wouldn’t have sensed it, wouldn’t have minded. I felt it as a physical ache. Finally I was somewhere, there. The South . . . I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can. Merely to hear the word Faulkner at night brought gusty emotions. A few months after I’d arrived at the school, Shelby Foote came and read from his Civil War history. When he’d finished, a local geezer with long greasy white hair wearing a white suit with a cane stood up in the third row and asked if, in Foote’s opinion, the South could have won, had such and such a general done such and such. Foote replied that the North had won “that war” with one hand behind its back. In the crowd there were gasps. It thrilled me that they cared. How could I help wondering about Lytle, out there beyond campus in his ancestral cabin, rocking before the blazing logs, drinking bourbon from heirloom silver cups and brooding on something Eudora Welty had said to him once. Whenever famous writers came to visit the school they’d ask to see him. He was from another world. I tried to read his novels, but my mind just ricocheted; they seemed impenetrably mannered. Even so, I hoped to be taken to meet him. One of my uncles had received such an invitation, in the seventies, and told me how the experience changed him, put him in touch with what’s real.

The way it happened was so odd as to suggest either the involvement or the nonexistence of fate. I wasn’t even a student at the time. I’d dropped out after my sophomore year, essentially in order to preempt failing out, and was living in Ireland with a friend, working in a restaurant and failing to save money. But before my departure certain things had taken place. I’d become friends with the man called Sanford, a puckish, unregenerate back-to-nature person nearing fifty, who lived alone, off the electric grid, on a nearby communal farm. His house was like something Jefferson could have invented. Spring water flowed down from an old dairy tank in a tower on top; the refrigerator had been retrofitted to work with propane canisters that he salvaged from trailers. He had first-generation solar panels on the roof, a dirt-walled root cellar, a woodstove. He showered in a waterfall. We had many memorable hallucinogenic times that did not help my grades. Sanford needed very little money, but that he made doing therapeutic massage in town, and one of his clients was none other than Andrew Lytle, who drove himself in once a week, in his yacht-sized chocolate Eldorado, sometimes in the right lane, sometimes the left, as he fancied. The cops all knew to follow him but would do so at a distance, purely to ensure he was safe. Often he arrived at Sanford’s studio hours early, and anxiously waited in the car. He loved the feeling of human hands on his flesh, he said, and believed it was keeping him alive.

One day, during their session, Lytle mentioned that his current boy was about to be graduated. Sanford, who didn’t know yet how badly I’d blown it at the school, or that I was leaving, told Lytle about me and gave him some stories I’d written. Or poems? Doubtless dreadful stuff—but perhaps it “showed promise.” Toward the end of summer airmail letters started to flash in under the door of our hilltop apartment in Cork, their envelopes, I remember, still faintly curled from having been rolled through the heavy typewriter. The first one was dated, “Now that I have come to live in the sense of eternity, I rarely know the correct date, and the weather informs me of the day’s advance, but I believe it is late August,” and went on to say, “I’m presuming you will live with me here.”

That’s how it happened, he just asked. Actually, he didn’t even ask. The fact that he was ignoring the proper channels eventually caused some awkwardness with the school. But at the time, none of that mattered. I felt an exhilaration, the unsettling thrum of a great man’s regard, and somewhere behind that the distant onrushing of fame. His letters came once, then twice a week. They were brilliantly senile, moving in and out of coherence and between tenses, between centuries. Often his typos, his poor eyesight, would produce the finest sentences, as when he wrote the affectingly commaless “This is how I protest absolutely futilely.” He told me I was a writer but that I had no idea what I was doing. “This is where the older artist comes in.” He wrote about the Muse, how she tests us when we’re young. As our tone grew more intimate, his grew more urgent too. I must come back soon. Who knew how much longer he’d live? “No man can forestall or evade what lies in wait.” There were things he wanted to pass on, things that had taken him, he said, “too long to learn.” Now he’d been surprised to discover a burst of intensity left. He said not to worry about the school. “College is perhaps not the best preparation for a writer.” I’d live in the basement, a guest. We’d see to our work.

It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.” He watched as though paralyzed while I worked at building back up the fire. He spoke only to critique my form. The heavier logs at the back, to project the heat. Not too much flame. “Young men always make that mistake.” He asked me to pour him some whiskey and announced flatly his intention to nap. He lay back and draped across his eyes the velvet bag the bottle had come tied in, and I sat across from him for half an hour, forty minutes. At first he talked in his sleep, then to me—the pivots of his turn to consciousness were undetectably slight, with frequent slippages. His speech was full of mutterings, warnings. The artist’s life is strewn with traps. Beware “the machinations of the enemy.”

“Mr. Lytle,” I whispered, “who is the enemy?”

He sat up. His unfocused eyes were an icy blue. “Why, boy,” he said, “the bourgeoisie!” Then he peered at me for a second as if he’d forgotten who I was. “Of course,” he said. “You’re only a baby.” 

I’d poured myself two bourbons during nap time and felt them somewhat. He lifted his own cup and said, “Confusion to the enemy.” We drank. 

 

It was idyllic, where he lived, on the grounds of an old Chautauqua called the Assembly, one of those rustic resorts—deliberately placed up north, or at a higher altitude—which began as escapes from the plagues of yellow fever that used to harrow the mid-Southern states. Lytle could remember coming there as a child. An old judge, they said, had transported the cabin entire up from a cove somewhere in the nineteenth century. You could still see the logs in the walls, although otherwise the house had been made rather elegant over the years. The porch went all the way around. It was usually silent, except for the wind in the pines. Besides guests, you never saw anyone. A summer place, except Lytle didn’t leave. 

He slept in a wide carved bed in a corner room. His life was an incessant whispery passage on plush beige slippers from bed to sideboard to seat by the fire, tracing that perimeter, marking each line with light plantings of his cane. He’d sing to himself. The Appalachian one that goes, “A haunt can’t haunt a haunt, my good old man.” Or songs that he’d picked up in Paris at my age or younger—“Sous les Ponts de Paris” and “Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde.” His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boyned” for burned) and its raw gentility. 

From downstairs I could hear him move and knew where he was in the house at all times. My apartment had once been the kitchen—servants went up and down the back steps. The floor was all bare stone, and damp. And never really warm, until overnight it became unbearably humid. Cave crickets popped around as you tried to sleep, touching down with little clicks. Lots of mornings I woke with him standing over me, cane in one hand, coffee in the other, and he’d say, “Well, my lord, shall we rise and entreat Her Ladyship?” Her ladyship was the Muse. He had all manner of greetings.

For half a year we worked steadily, during his window of greatest coherence, late morning to early afternoon. We read Flaubert, Joyce, a little James, the more famous Russians, all the books he’d written about as an essayist. He tried to make me read Jung. He chopped at my stories till nothing was left but the endings, which he claimed to admire. A too-easy eloquence, was his overall diagnosis. I tried to apply his criticisms, but they were sophisticated to a degree my efforts couldn’t repay. He was trying to show me how to solve problems I hadn’t learned existed.

About once a day he’d say, “I may do a little writing yet, myself, if my mind holds.” One morning I even heard from downstairs the slap-slap of the old electric. That day, while he napped, I slid into his room and pulled off the slipcover to see what he’d done, a single sentence of between thirty and forty words. A couple of them were hyphened out, with substitutions written above in ballpoint. The sentence stunned me. I’d come half-expecting to find an incoherent mess, and afraid that this would say something ominous about our whole experiment, my education, but the opposite confronted me. The sentence was perfect. In it, he described a memory from his childhood, of a group of people riding in an early automobile, and the driver lost control, and they veered through an open barn door, but by a glory of chance the barn was completely empty, and the doors on the other side stood wide open, too, so that the car passed straight through the barn and back out into the sunlight, by which time the passengers were already laughing and honking and waving their arms at the miracle of their own survival, and Lytle was somehow able, through his prose, to replicate this swift and almost alchemical transformation from horror to joy. I don’t know why I didn’t copy out the sentence—embarrassment at my own spying, I guess. He never wrote any more. But for me it was the key to the year I lived with him. What he could still do, in his weakness, I couldn’t do. I started listening harder, even when he bored me.

His hair was sparse and mercury-silver. He wore a tweed jacket every day and, around his neck, a gold-handled toothpick hewn from a raccoon’s sharpened bone-penis. I put his glasses onto my own face once and my hands, held just at arm’s length, became big beige blobs. There was a thing on his forehead—a cyst, I assume, that had gotten out of control—it was about the size and shape of a bisected Ping-Pong ball. His doctor had offered to remove it several times, but Lytle treated it as a conversation piece. “Vanity has no claim on me,” he said. He wore a gray fedora with a bluebird’s feather in the band. The skin on his face was strangely young-seeming. Tight and translucent. But the rest of his body was extraterrestrial. Once a week I helped him bathe. God alone knew for how long the moles and things on his back had been left to evolve unseen. His skin was doughy. Not saggy or lumpy, not in that sense—he was hale—but fragile-feeling. He had no hair anywhere below. His toenails were of horn. After the bath he lay naked between fresh sheets, needing to feel completely dry before he dressed. All Lytles, he said, had nervous temperaments.

I found him exotic; it’s probably accurate to say that I found him beautiful. The manner in which I related to him was essentially anthropological. Taking offense, for instance, to his more or less daily outbursts of racism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, and what I can only describe as medieval nostalgia, seemed as absurd as debating these things with a caveman. Shut up and ask him what the cave art means. The self-service and even cynicism of that reasoning are not hard to dissect at a distance of years, but I can’t pretend to regret it, or that I wish I had walked away. 

There was something else, something less contemptible, a voice in my head that warned it would be unfair to lecture a man with faculties so diminished. I could never be sure what he was saying, as in stating, and what he was simply no longer able to keep from slipping out of his id and through his mouth. I used to walk by his wedding picture, which hung next to the cupboard—the high forehead, the square jaw, the jug ears—and think, as I passed it, “If you wanted to contend with him, you’d have to contend with that man.” Otherwise it was cheating.

I came to love him. Not in the way he wanted, maybe, but not in a way that was stinting. Mon vieux. I was twenty and believed that nothing as strange was liable to happen to me again. I was a baby. One night we were up drinking late in the kitchen and I asked him if he thought there was any hope. Like that: “Is there any hope?” He answered me quite solemnly. He told me that in the hallways at Versailles, there hung a faint, ever-so-faint smell of human excrement, “because as the chambermaids hurried along a tiny bit would always splash from the pots.” Many years later I realized that he was half-remembering a detail from the court of Louis XV, namely that the latrines were so few and so poorly placed at the palace, the marquesses used to steal away and relieve themselves on stairwells and behind the beautiful furniture, but that night I had no idea what he meant, and still don’t entirely.

“Have I shown you my incense burner?” he asked. 

“Your what?”

He shuffled out into the dining room and opened a locked glass cabinet door. He came back cradling a little three-legged pot and set it down gently on the chopping block between us. It was exquisitely painted and strewn with infinitesimal cracks. A figure of a dog-faced dragon lay coiled on the lid, protecting a green pearl. Lytle spun the object to a particular angle, where the face was darker, slightly orange-tinged. “If you’ll look, the glaze is singed,” he said. “From the blast, I presume, or the fires.” He held it upside down. Its maker’s mark was legible on the bottom, or would have been to one who read Japanese. “This pot,” he said, “was recovered from the Hiroshima site.” A classmate of his from Vanderbilt, one of the Fugitives, had gone on to become an officer in the Marine Corps and gave it to him after the war. “When I’m dead I want you to have it,” he said.

I didn’t bother refusing, just thanked him, since I knew he wouldn’t remember in the morning, or, for that matter, in half an hour. But he did remember. He left it to me. 

Ten years later in New York City my adopted stray cat Holly Kitty pushed it off a high shelf I didn’t think she could reach, and it shattered. I sat up most of the night gluing the slivers back into place.

 

Lytle’s dementia began to progress more quickly. I hope it’s not cruel to note that at times the effects could be funny. He insisted on calling the K-Y Jelly we used to lubricate his colostomy tube Kye Jelly. Finally he got confused on what it was for and appeared in my doorway one day with his toothbrush and a squeezed-out tube of this stuff. “Put Kye on the list, boy,” he said. “We’re out.” 

Evenings he’d mostly sit alone and rehash forty-year-old fights with dead literary enemies, performing both sides as though in a one-man play, at times yelling wildly, pounding his cane. Allen Tate, his brother turned nemesis, was by far the most frequent opponent, but it seemed in these rages that anyone he’d ever known could change into the serpent, fall prey to an obsession with power. Particularly disorienting was when the original version of the mock-battle had been between him and me. Him and the Boy. Several times, in reality, we did clash. Stood face-to-face shouting. I called him a mean old bastard, something like that; he told me I’d betrayed my gift. Later, from downstairs, I heard him say to the Boy, “You think you’re not a slave?”

There was a day when I came in from somewhere. Polly, his sister, was staying upstairs. I loved Miss Polly’s visits—everyone did. She made rum cakes you could eat yourself to death on like a goldfish. There were homemade pickles and biscuits from scratch when she came. A tiny woman with glasses so thick they magnified her eyes, her knuckles were cubed with arthritis. Who knew what she thought, or if she thought, about all the nights she’d shared with her brother and his interesting artist friends. (Once, in a rented house somewhere, she’d been forced by sleeping arrangements to lie awake in bed all night between fat old Ford Madox Ford and his mistress.) She shook her head over how the iron skillet, which their family had been seasoning in slow ovens since the Depression, would suffer at my hands. I had trouble remembering not to put it through the dishwasher. Over meals, under the chandelier with the “saltcellar” and the “salad oil,” as Lytle raved about the master I might become, if only I didn’t fall into this, that, or the other hubristic snare, she’d simply grin and say, “Oh, Brutha, how exciting.” 

On the afternoon in question I was coming through the security gate, entering “the grounds,” as cottagers called the Assembly, and Polly passed me going the opposite way in her minuscule blue car. There was instantly something off about the encounter, because she didn’t stop completely—she rolled down the window and yelled at me, but continued to idle past, going at most twenty miles per hour (the speed limit in there was twelve, I think), as if she were waving from a parade float. “I’m on my way to the store,” she said. “We need [mumble] . . .

“What’s that?”

“BUTTAH!” 

I watched with a bad feeling as she receded in the mirror. Back at the cabin, Lytle was caning around on the front porch in a panic. He waved at me as I turned into the gravel patch where we parked. “She’s drunk!” he barked. “Look at this bottle, beloved. Good God, it was full this morning!”

I tried to make him tell me what happened, but he was too antsy. He wore pajamas, black slippers without socks, a gray tweed coat, and the fedora.

“Oh, I’ve angered her, beloved,” he said. “I’ve angered her.” 

As we sped toward the gate, he gave me the story. It was as I suspected. The same argument came up every time Polly visited, though I’d never seen it escalate so. They had family in a distant town with whom she remained on decent terms, but Lytle insisted on shunning these people and thought his little sister should, as well. It had to do with an old scandal about land, duplicity involving a will. A greedy uncle had tried to take away his father’s farm. But these modern-day cousins, descendants of the rival party, they weren’t pretending, as Lytle believed, not to understand why he wouldn’t see them—I think they were genuinely confused. There’d been scenes. He’d stood in the doorway and denounced these people, in the highest rhetoric, “Seed of the usurper.” They must have thought he was further gone mentally than he was, that when he uttered these curses he had in mind some carpetbagger from olden days, because the relatives just kept coming back, despite never having been allowed past the porch steps. Now Miss Polly had let them into the vestibule, nearly into the Court of the Muse. Lytle viewed this as the wildest betrayal. He’d been beastly toward them, when he rose from his nap, and Polly had fled. He himself seemed shaken to remember the things he’d said. 

“Mister Lytle, what did you say?” 

“I told the truth,” he said passionately. “I recognized the moment, that’s what I did.” But in the defensive thrust of his jaw there quivered something like embarrassment.

He mentions this land dispute in his “family memoir,” A Wake for the Living, his most readable and in many ways his best book. That’s perhaps an idiosyncratic opinion. There are people who’ve read a lot more than I have who consider his novels lost classics. But it may be precisely because of the Faustian ego that thundered above his sense of himself as a novelist that he carried a lighter burden into the memoir, and this freedom thawed in his style some of the vivacity and spontaneity that otherwise you find only in the letters. There’s a scene in which he describes the morning his grandmother was shot in the throat by a Union soldier in 1863. “Nobody ever knew who he was or why he did it,” Lytle writes, “he mounted a horse and galloped out of town.” To the end of her long life this woman wore a velvet ribbon at her neck, fastened with a golden pin. That’s how close Lytle was to the Civil War. Close enough to reach up as a child, passing into sleep, and fondle the clasp of that pin. The eighteenth century was just another generation back from there, and so on, hand to hand. This happens, I suppose, this collapsing of time, when you make it as far as your nineties. When Lytle was born, the Wright Brothers had not yet achieved a working design. When he died, Voyager II was exiting the solar system. What do you do with the coexistence of those details in a lifetime’s view? It weighed on him.

The incident with his grandmother is masterfully handled:

 

She ran to her nurse. The bullet had barely missed the jugular vein. Blood darkened the apple she still held in her hand, and blood was in her shoe. The enemy in the street now invaded the privacy of the house. The curious entered and stared. They confiscated the air . . . To the child’s fevered gaze the long bayonets of the soldiers seemed to reach the ceiling, as they filed past her bed, staring out of boredom and curiosity. 

 

Miss Polly passed us again. Apparently she’d changed her mind about the butter. We made a U-turn and trailed her to the cabin. Back inside they embraced. She buried her face in his coat, laughing and weeping. “Oh, sister,” he said, “I’m such an old fool, goddamn it.”

 

I’ve wished at times that we had endured some meaningful falling-out. In truth he began to exasperate me in countless petty ways. He needed too much, feeding and washing and shaving and dressing, more than he could admit to and keep his pride. Anyone could sympathize, but I hadn’t signed on to be his butler. One day I ran into the white-haired professor, who shared with me that Lytle had been complaining about my cooking.

Mainly, though, I’d fallen in love with a tall, nineteen-year-old half-Cuban girl from North Carolina, with freckles on her face and straight dark hair down her back. She was a class behind mine, or what would have been mine, at the school, and she could talk about books. On our second date she gave me her father’s roughed-up copy of Hunger, the Knut Hamsun novel. I started to spend more time downstairs. Lytle became pitifully upset. When I invited her in to meet him, he treated her coldly, made some vaguely insulting remark about “Latins,” and at one point asked her if she understood a woman’s role in an artist’s life. 

There came a wickedly cold night in deep winter when she and I lay asleep downstairs, wrapped up under a pile of old comforters on twin beds we’d pushed together. By now the whole triangle had grown so unpleasant that Lytle would start drinking earlier than usual on days when he spotted her car out back, and she no longer found him amusing or, for that matter, I suppose, harmless. My position was hideous. 

She shook me awake and said, “He’s trying to talk to you on the thing.” We had this antiquated monitor system, the kind where you depress the big silver button to talk and let it off to hear. The man hadn’t mastered an electrical device in his life. At breakfast one morning, when I’d made the mistake of leaving my computer upstairs after an all-nighter, he screamed at me for “bringing the enemy into this home, into a place of work.” Yet he’d become a bona fide technician on the monitor system. 

“He’s calling you,” she said. I lay still and listened. There was a crackling. 

Beloved,” he said, “I hate to disturb you, in your slumbers, my lord. But I believe I might freeze to DEATH up here.” 

“Oh, my God,” I said. 

If you could just . . . lie beside me.” 

I looked at her. “What do I do?”

She turned away. “I wish you wouldn’t go up there,” she said.

“What if he dies?”

“You think he might?”

“I don’t know. He’s ninety-two, and he says he’s freezing to death.” 

Beloved . . . ?”

She sighed. “You should probably go up there.” 

He didn’t speak as I slipped into his bed. He fell back asleep instantly. The sheets were heavy white linen and expensive. It seemed there were shadowy acres of snowy terrain between his limbs and mine. I floated off. 

When I woke at dawn he was nibbling my ear and his right hand was on my genitals. 

I sprang out of bed and began to hop around the room like I’d burned my finger, sputtering foul language. Lytle was already moaning in shame, fallen back in bed with his hand across his face like he’d just washed up somewhere, a piece of wrack. I should mention that he wore, as on every chill morning, a Wee Willie Winkie-style nightshirt and cap. “Forgive me, forgive me,” he said. 

“Jesus Christ, Mister Lytle.”

“Oh, beloved . . .” 

His having these desires wasn’t the issue. I couldn’t be that naïve. His tastes in that area were more or less an open secret. I don’t know if he was gay or bisexual or pansexual or what. Those distinctions are clumsy terms in which to address the mysteries of sexuality. But on a few occasions he’d spoken about his wife in a manner that to me was movingly erotic, nothing like any self-identifying gay man I’ve ever heard talk about women and sex. Certainly Lytle had loved her, because it was clear how he missed her, Edna, his beautiful “squirrel-eyed gal from Memphis,” whom he’d married when she was young, who was still young when she died of throat cancer. 

Much more often, however, when the subject of sex came up, he would return to the idea of there having been a homoerotic side to the Agrarian movement itself. He told me that Allen Tate propositioned him once, “but I turned him down. I didn’t like his smell. You see, smell is so important, beloved. To me he had the stale scent of a man who didn’t take any exercise.” This may or may not have been true, but it wasn’t an isolated example. Later writers—including some with an interest in not playing up the issue—have noticed, for instance, Robert Penn Warren’s more-than-platonic interest in Tate, when they were all at Vanderbilt together. One of the other Twelve Southerners, Stark Young—he’s rarely mentioned—was openly gay. Lytle professed to have carried on, as a very young man, a happy, sporadic affair with the brother of another Fugitive poet, not a well-known person. At one point the two of them fantasized about living together, on a small farm. The man later disappeared and turned up murdered in Mexico. Warren mentions him in a poem that plays with the image of the closet. 

The point—the reason I risk being seen to have “outed” a man who trusted me, and was vulnerable when he did—is that you can’t fully understand that movement, which went on to influence American literature for decades, without understanding that certain of the men involved in it loved one another. Most “homosocially,” of course, but a few homoerotically, and some homosexually. That’s where part of the power originated that made those friendships so intense, and caused the men to stay united almost all their lives, even after spats and changes of opinion, even after their Utopian hopes for the South had died. Together they produced from among them a number of good writers, and even a great one, in Warren, whom they can be seen to have lifted, as if on wing beats, to the heights for which he was destined.

Lytle himself would have beaten me with his cane and thrown me out for saying all of that. To him it was a matter for winking and nodding, frontier sexuality, fraternity brothers falling into bed with each other and not thinking much about it. Or else it was Hellenism, golden lads in the Court of the Muse. William Alexander Percy stuff. Whatever it was, I accepted it. I never showed displeasure when he wanted to sit and watch me chop wood, or when he asked me to quit showering every morning, so that he could smell me better. “I’m pert’ near blind, boy,” he said. “How will I find you in a fire?” Still, I’d taken for granted an understanding between us. I didn’t expect him to grope me like a chambermaid. 

I stayed away two nights, and then went back. When I reached the top of the steps and looked through the back-porch window, I saw him on the sofa lying asleep (or dead—I wondered every time). His hands were folded across his belly. One of them rose and hung quivering, an actor’s wave; he was talking to himself. It turned out, when I cracked the door, he was talking to me. 

“Beloved, now, we must forget this,” he said. “I merely wanted to touch it a little. You see, I find it the most interesting part of the body.”

Then he paused and said, “Yes,” seeming to make a mental note that the phrase would do. 

“I understand, you have the girl now,” he continued. “Woman offers the things a man must have, home and children. And she’s a lovely girl. I myself may not have not made the proper choices, in that role . . .” 

I closed the door and crept down to bed.

Not long after that, I moved out, both of us agreeing it was for the best. I re-enrolled at the school. They found someone else to live with him. It had become more of a medical situation by that point, at-home care. I drove out to see him every week, and I think he welcomed the visits, but things had changed. He knew how to adjust his formality by tenths of a degree, to let you know where you stood. 

 

It may be gratuitous to remark of a ninety-two-year-old man that he began to die, but Lytle had been much alive for most of that year, fiercely so. There were some needless minor surgeries at one point, which set him back. It’s funny how the living will help the dying along. One night he fell, right in front of me. He was standing in the middle room on a slippery carpet, and I was moving toward him to take a glass from his hand. The next instant he was flat on his back with a broken elbow that during the night bruised horribly, blackly. His eyes went from glossy to matte. Different people took turns staying over with him, upstairs, including the white-haired professor, whose loyalty had never wavered. I stayed a couple of nights. I wasn’t worried he’d try anything again. He was in a place of calm and—you could see it—preparation. His son-in-law told me he’d spoken my name the day before he died. 

When the coffin was done, the men from the funeral home picked it up in a hearse. Late the same night someone called to say they’d finished embalming Lytle’s body; it was in the chapel, and whenever Roehm was ready, he could come and fasten the lid. All of us who’d worked on it with him went, too. The mortician let us into a glowing side hallway off the cold ambulatory. With us was an old friend of Lytle’s named Brush, who worked for the school administration, a low-built bouncy muscular man with boyish dark hair and a perpetual bowtie. He carried, as nonchalantly as he could, a bowling-ball bag, and in the bag an extremely excellent bottle of whiskey.

Brush took a deep breath, reached into the coffin, and jammed the bottle up into the crevice between Lytle’s ribcage and his left arm. He quickly turned and said, “That way they won’t hear it knocking around when we roll it out of the church.”

Roehm had a massive electric drill in his hand. It seemed out of keeping with the artisanal methods that had gone into the rest of the job, but he’d run out of time making the cedar pegs. We stood over Lytle’s body. Sanford was the first to kiss him. When everyone had, we lowered the lid onto the box, and Roehm screwed it down. Somebody wished the old man Godspeed. A eulogy that ran in the subsequent number of The Sewanee Review said that, with Lytle’s death, “the Confederacy at last came to its end.”

He appeared to me only once afterward, and that was two and a half years later, in Paris. It’s not as if Paris is a city I know or have even visited more than a couple of times. He knew it well. I was coming up the stairs from the metro into the sunshine with the girl, whom I later married, on my left arm, when my senses became intensely alert to his presence about a foot and a half to my right. I couldn’t look directly at him; I had to let him hang back in my peripheral vision, else he’d slip away; it was a bargain we made in silence. I could see enough to tell that he wasn’t young but was maybe twenty years younger than when I’d known him, wearing the black-framed engineer’s glasses he’d worn at just that time in his life, looking up and very serious, climbing the steps to the light, where I lost him.

 

 

"Mister Lytle" will be included in Pulphead, a collection of essays by Sullivan, which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2011. 

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