from Southwest Review,
Volume 97, Number2
It was early spring in Ohio with just a dusting of snow from the night before still visible on the crocus pushing up by the front door of the small cottage in Gambier. The weather was cold but bright, the roads would be clear all the way to the airport in Columbus, and the car I would be driving belonged to the Kenyon College fleet, so it was a lot younger than the one I owned. There was no reason for me to be earlier than the time I'd been assigned to arrive at the cottage for the pick-up of my passenger.
The passenger, a guest in Gambier, Ohio, that day, was Robert Penn Warren, and his host was John Crowe Ransom. I was early by at least twenty minutes, and that was due not to inadvertence but to planning. I had left my house just off Gaskin Street at precisely the moment I had figured would give me the most defensible argument for arriving early. I didn't want to chance being late to the airport, I could say to the chairman of the English department when he asked me later why so forward in my timing. What if traffic got clogged the other side of Centerburg? What if the flight from Columbus to LaGuardia left a little early? Then what? Better to get to my assigned location a little early than a little late, right?
So when I knocked on the door earlier than the hour Bob Daniel had told me to arrive at the little white house, I knew I would have to explain to the person who opened the door—it would probably be the daughter or granddaughter, maybe the wife, but not likely—and I had prepared what I'd say to the greeter in defense of my early arrival. Sorry to be a little early, but I heard a report about some possible road conditions north of Columbus and I wanted to be on the safe side. A woman would accept that excuse, and she'd say come on in and I'll let him know you're here. You might have to wait a bit. You don't mind, do you?
Mind? No, not at all, I'd say, thinking I'd kill to be able to sit down with him and chat. Are you kidding me? Mind?
So I was ready. Primed. Hair combed, in full uniform of coat and tie, looking fit to be buried, all that when I heard opening noises on the other side of the front door and a shuffling of elderly feet in toddle. The wife, I thought. Speak up so she can hear you when she gets the door open. Smile. Act like you're listening to what she'll be saying. Look at her, not over her shoulder for a glimpse of either one of them.
The door opened a crack, paused, and then swung all the way wide like a couplet chiming at the end of a sonnet with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme. Bing bang. Isn't it nice to hear that satisfying sound you've been waiting for? Catching the gleam of white hair, I adjusted my sight downward. It was not one of the women of the family, nor a cleaning lady, nor a stranger. It was the essential old man himself. Coat and tie, head cranked to look up at me, light reflecting off the lenses of his glasses, his mouth open as though to speak, but more likely simply to breathe, since he appeared to be so aged that his nose wouldn't allow easy air access any longer.
"Yes?" he said. "Can I help you, young man?"
"Mr. Ransom," I said. "I'm from the English department. I'm here to pick up Mr. Warren."
"You want to take Red away from here? Is that what you're saying to me, son?"
"John," another voice called, this from a man I would have judged elderly had I not just had the door to the house opened by its owner, Mr. Ransom himself. He was elderly. The other man, the current speaker, didn't look a day over eighty, comparatively a man in full physical bloom and blossom. "Let him in, John. I'm expecting him or somebody like him, and he's where he's supposed to be."
"But he says he wants to take you away, Red. I'm not ready for you to leave."
"I want to go with him, John," Robert Penn Warren said. "I got to get on back home. Things I got to do."
"Well, come on in, then," John Crowe Ransom said. "Red can't leave just on the spur of the moment."
"I do like to dilly dally, all right," Red Warren said. "You say you're from the Kenyon English department, young man. What do you teach, beside bad writers?"
"Oh, no, sir," I said. "We do teach some bad writers, I mean contemporaries as I think you must mean. But we teach the classics, English and American. Mainly."
Then Robert Penn Warren begin to chuckle as if a fool had responded to a simple comment from him—say, for example, is it raining? And the fool answered, I don't know. I'll look at the newspaper and see—and then Warren went on to say he meant bad writers of essays, students, implying in my mind biology majors, social science aficionados, all that species.
I hastened to chuckle at my error, ready to slap myself sharply on the forehead if necessary to show how stupid I saw myself to be, but I didn't have to do that. I was saved. Saved by John Crowe Ransom, the founder of the Kenyon Review himself, the poet, critic, teacher, and editor, saved by his asking plaintively why wouldn't I leave Red Warren alone and go on about my business.
As we sat down in the living room, and as I readied myself for what I hoped would be a feast of literary talk, I mentally ticked off two more names from my list of Vanderbilt fugitives sighted, tracked down, and met. I'd actually encountered Robert Penn Warren before, when I was teaching at Vanderbilt in my first academic job. Warren was back for a visit at the place where he'd first made his mark, imported once more from his career on the East Coast to be shown off to the local gentry the way a Nashville matron in one of the mansions in Belle Meade would put an expensive piece of jewelry on display, something so valuable and blessed by time that it couldn't possibly be of practical use today. It was of such great worth now because of what it had meant when no one took notice of it. It had been at its height when it was known the least. Now it stood as a monument to itself, glowing from within with an immortal fire, no longer to be touched in this ordinary world.
That day in the faculty club at lunch, though, Warren didn't behave like a precious monument to himself and what he and his fellows had come to mean to Vanderbilt University and to the upper-class Southerners who understood it was fitting and necessary for them to appreciate works of and about literature. It was an obligation to be honored, and by God they would, if not actually read these impenetrable works, publicly honor them and their makers, no matter how much trouble it caused them to do so.
In fact, in the bar of the Vanderbilt Faculty Club, housed in a mansion on the campus left from a time when the land was a farm occupied by a former governor, Henry Foote, not yet purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt as a handy location on the edge of Nashville for the establishment of a university, Robert Penn Warren had ignored the directions of the distinguished professor of creative writing to seat himself at the table set aside for august personages and took instead the last chair at a table occupied by three assistant professors.
"Mind if I join you fellows?" he had asked, and we had all spoken our agreement that he should in one voice, sounding like recruits baying "Sir, yes, sir" to a drill sergeant.
I don't remember much of what we discussed or what Mr. All The King's Men allowed about the topics touched, but I can still see him tearing up a dinner roll and slathering it with butter, announcing as he did that what determined the essential taste of butter was what the cows whose milk produced it had been eating at the time. "Dairymen will try to disguise it, boys," Robert Penn Warren told us, "but they cannot hide the difference in taste between timothy and just a trace of bitter weed. The corrupt will drive out the good, every time."
Remember that, I recall thinking. I'll write an essay quoting Warren's comments on corruption in dairy products and apply that to All the King's Men. Send it to the Sewanee Review. Maybe the Southern Review at LSU, the one he started himself.
I never did that. But I do remember Warren talking to us three new members of the Vanderbilt Department of English about whatever topics we raised, as though our opinions were worth considering or at least hearing fully stated. As he responded to our questions about his opinion of the movie made from his novel about Huey Long, our suppositions about the ending of his short story "Blackberry Winter," our wondering at his turning so much attention to writing poetry late in life as opposed to prose, the distinguished senior faculty and important guests at the other tables muttered in low tones as they shot glances in our direction. They did not like our having Robert Penn Warren to ourselves for that hour of lunch and literary talk. And that made our hearts glad.
Some years later, though, on that cold morning in Ohio as I pushed open the door to John Crowe Ransom's house in order to allow Robert Penn Warren to lead me toward the college car in which I would drive him to the Columbus airport, my feelings were more mixed.
I was indeed glad to have had the chance to sit with these two main men of the Fugitive Group, about which so much had been written and who had exercised such influence on American literature of the twentieth century, and I was looking forward to the fifty-mile drive alone with one of them. But I found myself disturbed to realize that time's passage marked not only ordinary folk, but such a distinguished and gifted poet-critic-editor as John Crowe Ransom. Not only did my old relatives back in East Texas dwindle and fade without knowing or admitting it, but so would a Fugitive poet.
Although Warren had repeatedly assured his old teacher that he was being taken away by some young man in a car of his own volition, the founding editor of the Kenyon Review and the author of poems and essays published and republished and studied begged like an abandoned father for his younger friend not to leave him. "Why, Red," he said as we left him standing at the door, his wife and daughter hovering to make certain the old boy wouldn't wander out into the frigid air of Ohio and take a chill, "we haven't finished talking yet, have we? Didn't you say you'd look at the revision I've made of my little poem about Janet Waking, and let me know if it improves my first effort?"
As we drove off, Robert Penn Warren, twisting around in his seat to continue waving at the tiny old man shrinking up in the distance of a dying winter in Ohio, began explaining to me what Ransom meant by his words about revision.
"John," Warren said, "1 swear is still revising those poems he wrote back in the 1920s, and he's ruining everyone of them doing it. But we still have them in print alive as ever, of course, no matter what he does to them now. And his new work, God help us, I bet you'd never guess what it is."
"No sir," I said, "1 sure wouldn't."
"He is writing a series of sonnets, new ones, and here's the kicker. These sonnets of John's are twenty-eight lines long. Can you imagine John Ransom doing that?"
"No sir, I cannot," I said. "Is it a new form he's developing?"
"No, Lord, no. It's just a kind of a mental stutter he's got, that's what it is. No more planned than an egg boiling on a stove. But tell me, Dr. Duff, I expect you write poetry, don't you? Can you recite one of yours to me? I know if you've written a poem, you've got it by heart. I always do."
I didn't confess that morning as I drove Robert Penn Warren from Gambier to the Columbus airport that I had written poems of my own, knowing if I did he'd expect a recitation. And I would be able to do it, shameful as it is to confess. I did have them by heart, each and every one, as pitiful as they were, being like all attempters of the craft so smitten with my own productions that I could dream them aloud at any point, drunk or sober.
So I pled guilty only to the writing of essays of criticism about other poets' work, considerations of real poems by real poets, but I knew as I denied to Robert Penn Warren any attempt at the craft that he knew better than that. After all, he had his poems by heart, just as did John Crowe Ransom, back in his study in a constant worry over getting it right and trying to hack his way through another sonnet that kept growing on him, despite all attempts at controlling the creative impulse, that part that would not wither and fade and die, no matter the state of the vehicle temporarily housing it.
The next and last time I saw John Crowe Ransom was on a Saturday a few months after the late winter colloquy I'd enjoyed with him and Red Warren in the living room of his house in Gambier. That final glimpse came while I was sitting in the passenger seat of Sam Dobson's pickup truck driving past the old Fugitive's home for the third or fourth time with another load of furniture, kitchen appliances, and books in my move from a rental apartment to a small farmhouse I'd recently signed up to buy. Sam Dobson was a maintenance man for the college, powerfully built and low to the ground and of the earth earthy, a partaker of Red Man Chewing Tobacco and a man used to hard work and straight talk. He was fully accustomed to helping Kenyon faculty deal with the world of true substance.
"Look over there," Sam said and pointed as we drove past the small house I'd visited once. "See that old fellow out in the yard looking at them bushes?"
"Yes, I do," I said, glad to have a subject brought up that I could appear knowledgeable about to Sam Dobson, a man who'd already shown me that he knew everything about all I knew nothing about. The real world of weights to be lifted, loads to be carried, and tangible stuff to be put in the right place. "I recognize him all right. I wonder if he's looking for a gentleman in a dustcoat." That'll puzzle Sam, I figured, no matter what he knows about picking up heavy loads, hooking up water pipes, and checking slate roofs for leaks. That quotation ought to earn me a little respect.
"He ain't looking for nobody," Sam said. "Not him, naw. People's always looking for him, though, coming to Gambier to ask him questions. That old fellow kicking a foot at that redbud tree and about to fall down doing it, that's John Ransom. See, what he is, he's a book writer."
Sam cut to the core immediately, I had to admit. He nailed down the truth of the old Fugitive as firmly as he would have a loose shingle. No big deal. This particular aged townsman we watched was a book writer. That's what he did. Sam Dobson moved loads around.
Though I did live for a couple of years in the same town with John Crowe Ransom, my first contact with one of the Vanderbilt literary giants had been with Allen Tate back in Nashville. When I'd been offered a job at the university, the chairman wrote me a letter of introduction to my duties, letting me know that the department needed someone to teach one of two sections of literary criticism being offered to English majors in the fall term. "It's required for degree completion," he wrote. "The man who does it has fallen ill. The course is simply an introduction to the history of criticism and can be structured any way you see fit. You should consult the teacher of the other section, though, to determine some sort of consistency in treatment, choice of text, critics and schools of criticism considered, and so on."
I felt nothing but an ordinary degree of fear and trembling at being assigned such a topic to teach in my first gig as a PhD in English literature, figuring that though I knew as little about literary criticism as a field of study as a goose did about algebra, I'd be able to keep a day ahead of the students and compete well enough with any other new assistant professor in the other course section to be able to hold my head up.
I answered the chairman's letter, assuring him I could handle any and all courses involving literature and its nature and study they might fling at me. "If you will provide me with the name and address of the instructor of the other section of literary criticism," I wrote, "I'll be pleased to contact him or her for a consultation."
Not bad that response, I remember thinking to myself, particularly by my indicating no gender bias in it. I was off to a good start, I figured. I'd teach any course offered me, I'd be politic and polite, and I'd let the other instructor competing with my teaching of literary criticism at Vanderbilt know he/she had a forceful and competent partner with whom to reckon.
"The instructor of the other section," the chairman answered me, "I'm pleased to say, is a visiting professor just retired from the University of Minnesota, with strong ties to Vanderbilt. He is Allen Tate, and he'll be pleased to meet with you as soon as you arrive on campus."
So my first Fugitive to encounter was Mr. Ode to the Confederate Dead himself, set to be my competition in the teaching of the history and practice of the criticism of literature. The one blessing I discovered was that Mr. Tate's section of the course had an enrollment of ninety-eight, and mine had fewer than that. It had, in fact, only seven students for me to instruct. That small number struck me at first, aside from the embarrassment of being partnered with one of the founding fathers of the New Criticism in America, as a great advantage. Fewer students meant fewer papers and exams to grade, thus a livelier classroom climate.
I was soon disabused of that notion after my first meeting with my handful of critical acolytes, discovering them mute, dull, and uninterested in the topics under attack, and after the second class meeting, the reason for their lethargy struck me like a refrigerator dropped off Sam Dobson's truck would years later. These seven weren't seminarians seeking a small class for its advantages in having their voices heard in lively discussions on such topics as just what Coleridge meant by the secondary imagination. They weren't looking for cosy interaction. These seven were the only Vanderbilt senior English majors who didn't know who and what Allen Tate was. They'd never heard of him. They thought there was no difference between the older man with the bulging forehead and piercing eyes and me, their frantically overmatched teacher in required lit crit class.
I met with Mr. Tate several times, at his behest, to discuss the course, its organization, our supposed joint consideration of each other's responsibilities and contributions to the effort of preparing these English majors to go out into the world properly prepared to keep up their side in discussions of literary criticism wherever they'd spend the rest of their days in the upper social realm of the nation. In all my encounters with Allen Tate, whether at lunch in the faculty dining room or the student union or in his private office or my shared one or on the sidewalk outside Old Central under the magnolia trees, he treated me the same way my ignorant seven acolytes did. He acted as though he and I were on the same level, that his identity was no different from mine—he simply happened to be teaching a section of the same course as I was and he and I both had one-syllable surnames—and he was some years older and therefore more experienced.
He took his visiting teaching appointment at Vanderbilt seriously, and that showed in his attitude, but as he remarked to me once over a lunch in the student union cafe, it was nice to be making a few more paydays after retirement. The size of his monthly checks was a good deal larger than those of his first job, he mentioned, the one at Southwestern At Memphis, from which he'd been fired in the 1930s for some breach of book selection that disturbed the president of that college.
I frequently tried to talk to him about his poetry, hoping to get some insight into how he'd written what he did those years ago as a Fugitive poet, but he was evasive. "Oh, the things you write when you first start the game," he once said. "Your sins will surely find you out. I published a terrible little thing when I was eighteen years old, in a student magazine which by rights should have had all copies burned and its ashes scattered in the Cumberland River. As I got older, I never heard of that little squib and wasn't asked about it, so I was certain it was safely dead and buried. And then just last year, some damn fellow in England unearthed that poem, wrote an article about it, and now it's back in play. And I have to answer for that outburst in my declining years when I should be left in peace and quiet."
"What's the title of the poem, Mr. Tate?" I asked, thoughts of a small article of my own dancing in my head, titled something like "Early Announcement of Presiding Themes in the Poetry of Allen Tate." Or maybe "Tate's Poetic Sin Found Out."
"Oh, no, you don't," Allen Tate said. "I'm foolproof about my early stuff. Let's talk about Cal Lowell, instead. That can be entertaining. Let me tell you what he said about his suspicion that he had some Negro ancestry in his background, as he announced once to James Baldwin in my presence."
"Oh, yes," I breathed. "What was said?"
"I told him. Cal I said. You have enough misery of your own to deal with on a daily basis. Don't try to usurp any from another group. Jimmy Baldwin just sat there and grinned at both of us."
"What did Robert Lowell say to that?" I asked.
"Something off the point and crazy," Allen Tate said. "But fascinating. Like always. Let me ask you something now, though. Can you get your students interested in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads? If so, how in hell do you do it?"
Tate was not only a Fugitive poet, he was an Agrarian, as well, one of the contributors to that collection of essays called I'll Take My Stand, what would be called by many today a romanticized rightwing manifesto of Southern beliefs. It was utterly politically incorrect by standards current in the America of the 1960s, it bordered on being racist, and it ranted against the evils it detected in what its writers saw to be the rise of socialism in this country. Tate's essay was titled "Remarks on the Southern Religion," and Ransom's was called "Reconstructed but Unregenerate." Not only that, but among Tate's published books was a biography of Stonewall Jackson, and a later book by Tate as Southern apologist was an account of the life of Jefferson Davis. Writing from Kenyon in 1945, John Crowe Ransom would retract his support of the core ideas of I'll Take My Stand, calling the notion of an agrarian restoration" a fantasy." Tate never made such a retreat.
By all measures, Allen Tate should have looked upon someone just out of graduate school in the late 1960s—someone like me—as potentially unsound in character and politics as well as inexperienced in the profession of professing literature. But if he did that in reference to me, his partner in the teaching of lit crit at Vanderbilt, he never showed it. He treated me as an equal professionally, he joked with me over coffee about matters literary and social, and he taught his section of literary criticism without ever mentioning that his class contained the ninety-eight Vanderbilt students astute enough to know with whom they were studying, while I dealt with the uninformed seven who didn't.
Allen Tate may have appeared by all external indicators to be an imperious, haughty, opinionated, and self-satisfied martinet. I, however, though not a match for him intellectually and professionally, certainly outdid him in deserving those descriptors. I acted unyieldingly certain about any and all things. Allen Tate never did.
Others of the Agrarians I encountered during my time at Vanderbilt did not match Allen Tate in being able to achieve and display a balanced perspective, however. As one who did, though, I would present a less known of the Vanderbilt literati of that time, Jesse Stuart of Kentucky, who was not officially one of the Fugitives or Agrarians.
Jesse Stuart was younger than the core group, coming from rural Kentucky to Vanderbilt to study with the pantheon of intellectual heroes he worshipped, and he ended up writing and publishing an enormous number of poems, short stories, novels, memoirs, and essays, all tending toward the sentimental and not much remembered today. He was popular in his time, however, and sold many books.
I met him when he was visiting his graduate school alma mater, first sighting him as he came bounding out of Old Central, the former dwelling of Governor Henry Foote and the location of the offices of the department of English. Jesse Stuart was dressed in the coat and tie uniform of a professor proper to the time, but he looked like a harried grain salesman late for an appointment with a big farmer in central Kentucky. Seeing me seeing him, he rushed up, stuck out his hand in greeting and began talking.
Thirty minutes later when I finally pulled away to hurry to a class where I'd be late, I was carrying a book by Jesse Stuart suitably inscribed to me, my head full of stories about the young Stuart back in his student days, and I pondering one judgment he'd expressed about Vanderbilt and its Fugitives and Agrarians that I've never forgotten.
"Young man," he said. "I hope you enjoy reading that little book of mine. And I hope you'll get along all right at Vanderbilt. Me, now, I never did really fit in with these folk, though they did tolerate me. I think what bothered them most about me—I'm talking about this agrarian bunch now—was that I actually owned and worked a farm. My problem, see, was I had real mud on real workshoes, and these old boys smelled that."
With that, Jesse Stuart was gone, leaving me with that home truth he'd spoken about the difference between theory and practice.
The other main man of the Fugitives and particularly of the Agrarians I ran across was the one who never left home, never felt the impulse to alter a single view, and was never tempted by the strange or different or new. Unlike Ransom, Warren, Tate, and other lesser lights of that collection of writers who shaped, changed, and contributed works of their own to the literature of the twentieth century, this stalwart took his stand when he said he would, and he meant it. He belonged where he was, he'd staked his claim, and in his writings he wouldn't let anybody alone about having done it, ever.
I'm talking about Donald Davidson, like John Crowe Ransom a native of Tennessee from Pulaski—the town in which the first cell of the Ku Klux Klan was hatched by Nathan Bedford Forrest—and the author of, among other works, a long poem that imagines Robert E. Lee after surrendering to Grant at Appomattox, fleeing to the mountains to keep up the good fight, if not literally, at least in his unrepentant mind. The poem is titled "Lee in the Mountains," and along with another Davidson poem called "Fire on Belmont Street," it treats of apocalypse and how to endure it.
I never met Donald Davidson, but I saw him once in the lobby area of Old Central, as he stood in deep confab with one of the tried and true who never metaphorically surrendered at the end of the Unpleasantness Between the South and North in the previous century. I was not introduced to Mr. Davidson as I walked past him and his disciple, and I did not expect to be so honored. No man cometh to the Father but by me was the operative slogan when it came to audience with Donald Davidson. One met him by grace alone, not by works.
Physically, he was taller than average, dour and hawklike, and he stared suspiciously about him as Caesar must have done just before the events of that busy day in mid-March long ago. Davidson had retired from the academic wars some years back, and to see him at Vanderbilt in those latter days, particularly in the mansion called Old Central, was portentous. All who chanced upon him noted the fact and pondered its meaning. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, he showed himself on the ramparts and parapets in times of threat and impending doom. What did an appearance mean? A due consultation must be sought about each detail of his behavior, each gesture, any possible word from the lips of the spectre. What portends when Davidson walks?
I saw Donald Davidson that one time and was not granted a vision again. I have since been to his hometown, however. Visitors to the courthouse square in Pulaski, Tennessee, may see today on its boundary two historical plaques erected by the state. Each celebrates an honored townsman. One is devoted to John Crowe Ransom, and the other supports a statement about Donald Davidson. The words about Ransom are laudatory, but few, and with only two misspellings. Those about Donald Davidson are so numerous the plaque barely provides room enough to hold them.
You can leave home, but do that and you can't return there again, as another Southern writer declared. An appropriate corollary to Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you can't go home again is not so simply stated. But let me try. You can be a fugitive, but if you're truly that, don't look for commendation at home. You may declare yourself a fugitive from old beliefs and outmoded certainties, as did that group at Vanderbilt all those years ago, and you might get noticed, thought to be establisher of a trend, and thus recognized as a reliable interpreter of the Zeitgeist. But you aren't going back home. The folks have discarded all your old clothes and rented your room out. Let's get that straight.
But there's another way. After claiming fugitive status, you don't necessarily have to leave home. If you stay there and fight on in the mountains, you may be granted reprieve. If you trumpet the virtues of the yeoman farmer and remain careful not to get your footwear muddy, you may be able to look up from the plough and celebrate the theoretical virtues of living on the land. The next thing you'll know is that you're blessed at home and forgiven and written up voluminously by acolytes.
But no one will ever read the full text of the laudation the home folks write about you in tarnishing bronze on courthouse squares. The print's too small, and it's rubbed and faded, and it's much too boring to puzzle out.
My last encounter with one of the pantheon of Fugitive/Agrarian greats of Vanderbilt involved my assignment as chauffeur to the longest lived of the bunch, Andrew Lytle, who died at ninety-three. He had once been editor of the Sewanee Review, he was author of a biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest, among many other books of fiction and commentary on literature, history, and society, and he never had a doubt or a second thought about any topic in his entire life. His contribution to I'll Take My Stand had been an essay titled "The Hind Tit," in which he argues, among other things, against the use of machinery in farming, the purchase by yeoman farmers of goods and services in department stores, and the reliance on trading cash money for what can be directly produced by hand at home. The farmer devoted to the simple life of immediate contact with soil, water, wind, and animal will need little if any cash. Lytle said that.
Publishers in New York City did deal in cash, however, as he told me on our drive from Vanderbilt to the Nashville airport, and that sullying of the proper relationship between the writer and the producer of the physical book itself gives rise to strange doings. "Let me tell you what happened the last time I made a trip to my publisher in that cursed city, that Babylon," he said to me as we drove toward the place where great machines left the ground to fly through the air to distant cities. "It will surprise you."
"I'm eager to hear what you have to say, sir," I told him, slowing my car's progress down Thompson Lane to allow my passenger more time to tell his tale.
"Here's what happened. They had been stealing from me, the publisher had, not reporting a true account of what earnings my book was making. Holding back, lying, showing me doctored numbers, you understand. So I went directly up there to talk to the head man of the company. Just flew up there without giving them a warning I was on the way. And when I walked into the reception office there, way up on a high floor of that monstrosity of a building, the woman told me to take a seat and she'd let the man know I was there.
"So I did, and she walked off, opened a door into the hall, and closed it behind her. I suspected something was up by the way she was dressed. So I crept to the door and opened it without making a sound, and I could see her moving down the hall with her back turned to me. She couldn't see that I was watching her. Then is when I saw what was going on."
"What was that?" I asked. "How was she dressed so you knew something was strange?"
"She had on a necklace full of cabalistic signs and emblems hanging from it. And neither of her eyes had a pupil. That's what I saw first. But that's not what let me know what was really happening. No, not that. It was what I observed when I opened that door and saw her moving down the hall."
"What?" I said, captured by the narrative. "What was it?"
"She was floating about two feet above the floor of that hall. Her feet were not in contact with the floor, which was attached to the building, which was set into the earth. She was detached from all Creation by floating free, see. And then she opened a door down the hall, and floated into that room where her master had his lair."
"She was floating? Not touching the floor?"
"Yes, and at that point, I turned around and left the building, and I've never gone back. They can have the money, every bit of it. I prefer to keep my immortal soul. She was a witch and an imp of Satan."
I delivered my passenger to the airport, and he vanished into the building. Precise details of the dialogue Andrew Lytle uttered I've forgotten over the years since my drive with him, but the gist of what he said is here. And the burden of his narrative is truly what I've described. I confess that as I listened to the old Agrarian explain in detail his encounter with the evils of the New York publishing world, I wanted to believe him. Andrew Lytle could tell a story that captured and convinced, and that's all a writer should be finally judged on, I do believe. He created a plausible narrative that I wanted to hear, and I was perfectly willing to enter that trancelike state of a suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith. Thank you, Mr. Coleridge.
My acceptance of the literal truth of what the old storyteller said may have been fleeting and fugitive, as is any dream, but the poets and novelists and essayists and editors constituting that group at Vanderbilt and Kenyon and Sewanee were onto something when they announced a desire to flee from what the world around them insisted was important and lasting and real. No, they'd said, each in his own way, I'll be fugitive from all that for a time. And why? Because it satisfies my imagination to do so.
Some fooled their readers, as writers strive to do, and some fooled themselves and stayed fooled. Some left where they were and then came back. And some stayed for good, and some for ill. That is the magic and the danger of art and of the lies it convinces us are true.
It is strong medicine, and that is why the old fugitive John Crowe Ransom kept revising his poems and trying to make them perfect right up until the end.
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About the Author
Gerald Duff's work includes novels, collections of short stories and poems, and literary criticism and commentary. His most recent books are a memoir, Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory, and a novel, Blue Sabine. He has a baseball novel scheduled for publication in 2012, Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League, and a collection of short stories, Decoration Day.
Southern Methodist University
Editor-in-Chief: Willard Spiegelman
Senior Editor and Fiction Editor: Jennifer Cranfill