John Jeremiah Sullivan delivers lecture on legendary Andrew Lytle

By Katy Davenport

Staff Writer

At 5:25 p.m., a mere five minutes before the long-awaited John Jeremiah Sullivan (C’97) talk was to occur, University Archives and Special Collections burst with folks from every corner of Sewanee.

Sullivan began his talk with a preface: His article “Mister Lytle,” he knew, had caused quite a lot of consternation and hurt for a lot of people, especially himself, and so told the audience of his firm belief that Andrew Lytle himself would have laughed at the article, at the situation, and encouraged the audience to do the same. Despite the backlash from his article, Sullivan returned to this place, saying, “there is a piece of us that stays.” This, coupled with the opportunity to honor Andrew Lytle, brought him back.

Sullivan produced several letters exchanged between himself and Lytle and, in the excerpts he read and the gravel in his throat, showed his audience a devotion to the deceased Agrarian and gave us a small taste of Lytle’s powerful mind. While the article itself shocked some people, Sullivan’s attachment to the man he had known and to the wisdom of his mentor was undeniable.

Sullivan also discussed his reason for writing, saying that he wouldn’t have written the article had he thought Lytle’s unclear sexuality an “isolated” occurrence. The article and his talk both meant to bring awareness to a larger trend he perceives in southern literature, particularly among the Agrarians, of the love between men as transcending sexuality beyond a definitive black-or-white label. However, Sullivan says, the Southern literary record has been edited inalterably with sexual suppression, perhaps accounting for the astonishment his claims produced.

Professor Tam Carlson, who knew Andrew Lytle before age had ravaged him, said that Sullivan’s talk made him “sad.” He considers Sullivan a friend and admires him as a writer. While not disputing Sullivan’s article or his right to discuss his experiences, Carlson remembers Andrew Lytle as a larger-than-life teacher, editor, mentor, cook, gardener, host, and friend, as well as a pioneering writer of fiction and essays whose work will withstand the test of time. He said, “I wish John could have known Mr. Lytle during those days.” Carlson believes that the literature produced by the Agrarians does not evidence the “larger trend” that Sullivan discussed.

Regardless, the event was a success and many were deeply grateful for Sullivan’s frank and open talk. The event is one of many to be held in conjunction with the “Founded to Make Men” exhibit currently on display. Lytle, who died in December of 1995, was an American novelist, dramatist, essayist, and professor of literature who hosted and mentored many Sewanee writers during his time at the university.