By Andrew Lytle
The University of Alabama Press, 2008
Reviewed by: Julia Oliver
Originally published in 1936, this is the classic first novel of one of the twelve Fugitive Poets who were founders of the Southern Agrarian literary movement at Vanderbilt University. The group also included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Frank Owsley, who later became chairman of the University of Alabama History Department. Lytle begins his narrative with a letter of acknowledgment to Owsley, who had told him the true story on which the book is based. The reprint edition’s Introduction by the professor’s son, Frank L. Owsley Jr., also adds interesting credibility to the aspect that this impassioned, colorful tale is not entirely fictional.
The richly detailed, perhaps overly populated narrative has so many characters the reader may find it hard to keep up with who’s who in the cast. There are no dates given, but at some time shortly before the Civil War, Cameron McIver has lost a court case and, subsequently, his Georgia property. On the way to Texas, where he plans to start anew, he finds work near Wetumpka, Alabama, as the manager of a plantation owned by Tyson Lovell. After McIver discovers that Lovell and his gang steal slaves and horses, Lovell has McIver murdered. The wealthy landowner miscalculates that this stranger’s death will not have serious consequences. When the legal system fails to exact punishment for the crime, the McIver clan decides to avenge the patriarch’s death in true frontier style: an eye for an eye.
The lead avenger is Pleasant McIver, the favorite son of the murdered Cameron. With stealth and determination, Pleasant kills off several of the Lovell gang before war intervenes and he joins the Confederate army. The battleground settings expand the dramatic scope and content and add a philosophical edge. Among the stories-within-stories here is a well-written one about the remarkable kind of love a man can feel for another man that apparently has nothing to do with sexual attraction.
Tennessean Andrew Lytle, whose life spanned much of the last century (from 1902 until his death in 1995), was the author of scholarly works, short stories, and five books of fiction. His acclaimed 1957 novel The Velvet Horn was brought back into print in the 1980s by the University of the South, where Lytle had been editor of The Sewanee Review.
Julia Oliver writes in Montgomery.