“FOLLOW THE THREAD INTO THE LABYRINTH”:
A FOND RECOLLECTION OF ANDREW LYTLE
When I first entered Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957 (the year he published The Velvet Horn) I was a nineteen year old girl from Brooklyn who had come to the University of Florida by way of Miami Beach. My family had moved to Florida when I was fourteen to escape the cold winters of New York; to me “the south” was mainly a place where a person could get a good suntan.
Our writing class met at night in a rickety wooden structure. Mr. Lytle would arrive, smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily. The students sat around long wooden tables, and Mr. Lytle sat in a very old, overstuffed chair. Behind him was a row of windows and, beyond them, were the lights of the library shining in at us. Beside Mr. Lytle, during each class, sat Smith Kirkpatrick, who also taught writing classes at the university and who was, even then, working on his novel The Sun’s Gold. Kirk, with his kind, intense face, usually sat smoking, listening carefully. When Mr. Lytle could not elicit from us the answers he was seeking, he would finally turn to Kirk, who always knew the flaw or excellent thing to which Mr. Lytle was hoping to draw our attention.
Before discussing the students’ stories, Mr. Lytle liked to read one of his own favorites to us. He was an inspired actor, and any story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still see his face as he began reading Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” (“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind…”) Mr. Lytle’s eyes sparkled with the thrills he knew were coming. Now and then he could not contain himself and would burst out laughing as he read one perfect comic line after another.
On other nights he showed a more somber demeanor; when he read James Joyce’s “The Dead” in class, Mr. Lytle became very serious, indeed. I still have the notes I took on the night of April 16, l959 (I found them in the pages of our textbook, Gordon and Tate’s The House of Fiction.) Here are a few of the comments I took down that night:
“Parts 1 and 2: Gabriel is in his last and sinning state.
Part 3: Gabriel is regenerated.
“The supernatural appears only through the natural.”
“The three fates (the three muses) are the three women–virgins–completed–living in death.”
“Debauchery and asceticism are both forms of death, one by denial, one by excessive use.”
“Age is dead youth.”
“The head is the upper phallus.”
“Trappist monks don’t speak.”
“In the end we all come to earth.”
This kind of talk was heady stuff to a girl who, before college, was widely read in Seventeen Magazine and who thought she aspired to publish there.
Each night when class ended, the women students had to race back to the dorms to get in by curfew. We were aware Mr. Lytle often stayed to talk with the men after class, but the women did not have such privileges. I knew that Mr. Lytle often visited the male students in their rooms and talked with them about life and art late into the night. The men in our class boasted of this–and I was jealous.
One day I took courage and asked to have a private conference with Mr. Lytle. I’d been writing a story about a young girl who was deeply troubled and who spent a long hot summer crocheting a purple and yellow snake-like rope which she wound into an ever-expanding rug. I called the story “The Purple and Yellow Summer” and I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was about. It seemed sad enough and dense enough to be “artistic”; I thought he and I should talk about it. Mr. Lytle invited me to come to his study at his house in Gainesville. He told me he rose before dawn to work, and asked that I arrive in the early morning, about eight. I distinctly remember walking to his house in the chill woodsy morning. Fall leaves were underfoot and the sun was newly up. I carried my “work” under my arm–never before had I felt so serious; I was a serious writer, on my way to have a talk with the great master.
Mr. Lytle showed me the carved wooden chair in his study; he pointed out the ouroboros on it; it was his favorite symbol–the snake eating its own tail. I indicated my story, which Mr. Lytle had already read, and asked him to help me with the characters and “the plot.”
“What should I have them do?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. Then he said, “Merrill, there is only one way to write: you must follow the thread back into the labyrinth; there and only there you will find the meaning.”
While I was pondering this (in fact, I am pondering it still), a call came from the house. Mrs. Lytle needed help! The baby had broken a jar of peanut butter, and all hands were needed in the cleanup!
I became acquainted with the family, and made friends with the Lytles’ two younger daughters, Kate and Langdon. On several occasions, I babysat for them. One evening as the Lytles were getting ready to go out, Mr. Lytle’s wife, Edna, came from her bedroom to give me some instructions about the children. She looked beautiful in a stunning red dress; when I admired it she took me into her confidence. She smiled, and said (rather mischievously): “When a woman turns forty, Merrill, she either takes a lover or buys a red dress.”
One afternoon I met Mr. Lytle on campus. “I trust you have a story to read in class tonight,” he said. “I’m counting on you.”
“Oh yes, I have one,” I said.
“Good, I’m looking forward to it.” I watched him walk away, feeling extreme panic. It was 2 p.m. I had exactly five hours in which to invent and write a complete short story! I remember thinking, as I ran to my dormitory room, “He’s counting on me!” I sat down and began to type. By 6:45 p.m. I had written a twelve-page story. When Mr. Lytle read it in class that night, no one knew the ink had barely dried on the paper. He admired the story publicly. He was proud of me.
Another time, I had written a story for class about a character I called “Crazy Harry”–Mr. Lytle was much taken with this story and told me that the following week, when he was leaving for New York to meet with his editor, he intended to bring the story, himself, directly to the offices of The New Yorker. Imagine my state of mind during his absence! All week I waited for a telegram! None came. And when I saw Mr. Lytle in class after his trip, he seemed to have no special news. In fact, he gave me no signal at all. After class I tapped his arm, trembling.
“Mr. Lytle. What did The New Yorker say?”
“The New Yorker? Oh my! I forgot about that.”
It seems to me now that the students in our particular writing class (that year, that time, that place) constituted a sacred circle; we were blessed initiates in a mysterious and difficult art. Once the door to that small classroom was shut and Mr. Lytle began reading in his wonderful, expressive voice, a magical aura enclosed us.
In my first semester of graduate work, I applied for a small fellowship from the English Department to help with expenses. I asked Mr. Lytle for a reference; he said he’d be happy to write one. To my delight, I was awarded the grant. When I went to collect my check, Alton C. Morris, then the head of the English department, seemed puzzled.
He said, “Miss Gerber, on the strength of Mr. Lytle’s extremely fine recommendation we decided to give you this money, but now that I am looking at your transcript, I see that you aren’t as brilliant as he said you are. Look at this–you had grades of C in the physical sciences!” With a look of extreme annoyance on his face, he handed me the envelope. “We hope we haven’t made a mistake,” he said.
The following September, I came back to the University of Florida to begin a job as a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. A day before the semester formally began, I received a wire from Brandeis University informing me that a scholarship for which I had applied had just come through. I was beside myself with confusion. My husband-to-be was a graduate student at Brandeis; I wanted to be with him, and to study literature, myself, in their graduate program. But I had committed myself to my rented room and promised my services to the university. (Also, I remembered Dr. Morris’ comment.) I went to Andrew Lytle with my desperate dilemma; he suggested that I search my soul (that cloudy labyrinth?) and do what was necessary. When he saw the answer on my face, he led me to his green Cadillac, drove me to his bank, loaned me enough money to buy a plane ticket to Boston, rounded up some students to help me pack and drive me to the airport. He kissed me goodbye and wished me Godspeed.