A RECOLLECTION OF SMITH KIRKPATRICK
“If a miracle could happen, every man as craftsman would know again he has only one contemplation, the mystery of God made manifest in the natural order.”
– Andrew Lytle
I first heard the name Smith Kirkpatrick in Ward Scott’s creative writing course at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida in 1976. One of our textbooks was Smith’s novel, The Sun's Gold, which had recently been published. It was in that classroom that I learned the rudiments of how to read a good work of fiction and, not coincidentally, how one was made. Besides The Sun's Gold, we were taught from that classic short story anthology that Smith himself used to teach fiction writing, Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Fiction.
“Fiction is an action composed of two separate actions, an action-proper and an enveloping action,” Ward wrote on the board that first class. He explained that his teacher Smith Kirkpatrick had taught him this, and that Smith had learned it from his own teacher, Andrew Lytle, whose stories we would also read. Ward also told us grimly that it had taken him years of reading, writing, and discussing fiction with these two masters and others before he began to understand something of what the terms and the definition really implied about good work, and that fiction writing was finally a mysterious undertaking. He spared us the worst, though later I was to hear Smith imply many times and hear Mr. Lytle say outright that one has to struggle on his own, in solitude, inside his own work, to make the words flesh, so to speak.
So with Ward’s introduction, I entered the Creative Writing Program at the University of Florida to study fiction writing under Smith Kirkpatrick. I liked him immediately. He was from Arkansas, and I was from Georgia, and we laughed recognizing one another’s idioms; for example, parts of Moby Dick and War and Peace were “too much sugar for a dime,” and certain Southern writers were “all truck and no hogs.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but coming from Georgia and from people who had lived in one place for two hundred and fifty years would turn out to be a good thing.) At the beginning of each new term, Smith would ask us all to say who we were and why we were there. Those of us who had been around awhile had learned not to say that we wanted to be “a writer.” There was a distinction between becoming “a writer” and learning what Smith wanted to teach us.
At times I was puzzled over the differences between the quiet, patient, soft-spoken man behind the desk and the man I had imagined from the fly-leaf of his novel: the rugged merchant seaman, the fierce Navy pilot who flew torpedo planes off the deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, which had figured mightily in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific against the Japanese at The Battle of Midway and was nearly sunk off Guadalcanal. Over the years I studied under him, his personal life sometimes seemed a shambles inside a catastrophe, and yet as a teacher he was extremely capable, focused, dedicated, and generous. I am unable to reconcile the two different men his life implied. Perhaps, like the middle-aged former pilot in James Dickey’s “The Fire-Bombing,” he had demons he simply kept at bay as best he could. In any case, to delve too deeply into such would be to cross from the public into the private arena of his life, and my purpose here is to convey some sense of the nobility of the man as a master teacher and a craftsman, to relate the view of fiction writing as a traditional craft which he passed along, and to acknowledge the great privilege it was to study under him and to count him, as Marion Montgomery has said, among “the men I have chosen as fathers.”
Smith gave his time, energy, and knowledge to his students at the expense of his writing, and he never seemed to regret it. Once I entered his class and he took me on, I felt like an adopted son, so completely available was he. He introduced me to Andrew Lytle and to another accomplished student of Lytle’s, Madison Jones, at the Florida Writers’ Conference in l979. He arranged for me to meet privately with Lytle to discuss a piece of my work. Smith was open-handed with everything he had, with his literary contacts, with his advice as a craftsman, and even with his personal belongings –he once lent me his favorite pair of loafers when I hadn’t anything but sneakers to wear on a certain occasion– but what I remember most is how freely he gave of his time.
If a student thought Smith’s class was going to be simply a forum for applause, he didn’t last beyond the first class reading (aloud, anonymously) of his work. We were brutally honest concerning one another’s work even outside of class. Once, I showed up late at night at the apartment he lived in for a time inside one of those venerable old houses near the duck pond off downtown Gainesville. It wasn’t even a Thursday night, but there I was, nursing a story another student had just savaged. The light was still on inside his room. Peering through the window, I could see that he was not alone. Self-absorbed, with more than a little self-pity, I knocked at the front door anyway. In a minute the porch light came on. Smith came out and sat on the porch steps with me for an hour and read the story and then discussed its main problem in his usual patient, insightful, and helpful manner. He did what he always did with student work; he left the student with a deeper knowledge of the challenges of his story than he had had previously, and he left him thinking, eager to go back to work.
I think Smith’s generosity to his students had a lot to do with him being a loving father of two daughters. He never denied them his lap. He doted on them and would stop to teach them something important about the world in the most ordinary circumstances. He possessed a remarkable prescience regarding what was needful. I remember a road-trip he and a group of us students took once over the Christmas Holidays to North Carolina to do some skiing. (We were all flops at it, but riding in the car listening to him talk was worth all the hard falls and the bruises.) He brought along his daughters, Anna, who was about thirteen, and Katie, then about six years old. We traveled in our caravan of cars until nightfall. We had left the interstate for a narrow, winding mountain road when it began to snow, so we stopped at a small motel by the wayside and rented one room. Anna and Katie got the bed, and Smith and the rest of us piled around on the floor in sleeping bags. The next morning, in the car, Katie told her father that she had heard a noise that sounded like someone knocking at the door, and that at first she had feared “it was robbers.”
“But then,” she said, “I remembered: robbers don’t knock.” (This was about the time the dapper Ted Bundy was driving his Volkswagen Beetle around north Florida introducing himself to young women.) Smith gently pulled Katie up on to his lap and explained to her that sometimes robbers DO knock! Some time afterwards, I came across Walker Percy’s novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, in which one of the characters, a canny priest holed up in a fire-tower, echoes Flannery O’Connor’s admonition to modernity: “tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer. . . ,” and I recalled how Smith had taught the same thing once in words that even a six year-old could understand.
His sagacity caused me to seek his counsel at important times. He was my Best Man when I married, and years later, when I called to tell him of the birth of my own daughter, I could hear the smile in his voice as he said: “Now you know what you’re here for.” It took me a long adolescence to learn what he meant when he said that there was really only one subject for the serious fiction writer: love or its absence.
Smith taught that fiction writing was a craft, and during the years I studied under him, I felt I was being initiated into a kind of sacred lore, one with its own mythology and heroes. There was former Lytle student Thomas Adams, whose story “The Sled” was taught as an example of fine craftsmanship alongside ones by Faulkner, Chekhov, O’Connor, Joyce, Maupassant, Hemingway, Porter, Welty, Taylor, and other “lions in the path.” Likewise the story “Bear in the Street,” by former student John Morefield. (I met Morefield unexpectedly at Lawrence Hetrick’s house in Atlanta years later, and it seemed as though I were conversing with some literary Parsifal, who had survived the Chapel Perilous of apprenticeship, and returned victorious to tell of it.)
One of the most precious things Smith taught me was the traditional view of the craftsman that he had learned from Lytle. As Ananda Coomaraswamy observed in his treatise, Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art, which Lytle mentioned often in discussions with students, all the traditional crafts (or arts) have “fixed ends and ascertained means of operation.” That is why they can be taught and learned, master to apprentice. Under Smith’s guidance, I learned that I was not studying to be “a writer,” but that I was an apprentice of a great craft, one that was connected, teacher to student, with the traditions of a rich literary heritage, a guild, as it were: through Smith to Lytle, through Lytle’s teacher, John Crowe Ransom, to the Fugitive and the Agrarian writers Ransom taught at Vanderbilt after the First World War. (Among these were some of the finest literary craftsmen the country produced: besides Lytle and Ransom, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Robert Penn Warren.)
This traditional method of learning the craft of words went even further back, deep into the literary associations of the English writers; for the master and apprentice style of teaching had been brought by Ransom from England, where as a Rhodes Scholar he had sat in on the Christopher Morley group’s discussions of, first, aesthetics, then finally particular objects of beauty, such as poems. A long historical tradition of writers meeting informally in taverns or in private homes to critique one another’s work and to discuss their craft can be traced back to the groups associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge, with Swift, Johnson, Pope, and beyond. There was much to learn, and the ghosts of many great craftsmen crowded our classroom meetings and the discussions afterwards over beers at The Winnjammer.
The practice of any craft, whether writing fiction or farming, must be rooted in the transcendent, Lytle had argued. It is, as Coomaraswamy said, “an imitation of the nature of things, not of their appearances.” In other words, art is not simply an end unto itself, unless one subscribes to the most prevalent of modern errors, that the universe is only a backdrop for the human reality show.
Reading Lytle’s essays, I learned that the vision behind what he taught Smith and Smith taught me, though not explicitly Christian, was taken from Christendom’s philosophia perennis, (Faulkner’s “eternal verities”) the vision of the world that informed medieval Christian Europe. Indeed this vision informs every traditional society, where every man is a craftsman of some kind. Not only St. Thomas and St. Augustine, but Aristotle and the Greeks before them (and Neolithic man before them) all viewed the world similarly, as a hierarchy, beginning with First Things or First Truths. This view implies a sense of the divine that is transcendent throughout Creation via the creative act of the Primus Mobile. As Lytle affirmed, man the maker does not create; only God creates. Man the maker only imitates what he observes, within the limits of his gifts and the diligence of his practice, of the nature of Creation. This is the vision that informs all meaningful art (literary or otherwise) throughout the world, from the foundations of the world. I think an instinctive Arkansian knowledge of what Christendom calls Natural Law was behind Smith’s words when he told the class, “I can’t make you a writer; I can only save you time.”
I was among Smith’s last students. As his teacher Lytle taught, the hero fails in the end. The English Department relegated him in his last years at the university to teaching freshman composition courses to students who often seemed not to know who they were or why they were there.
I am now nearly the age Smith was when I first knew him. Most of my students come to me knowing even less than I did, and I graduated from a public high school in Georgia. (Though I live in Atlanta, which has “picked up” some and is no longer Georgia, sometimes I sit in traffic and wish I had kept my bad roads and hookworm.)
Teachers like Smith Kirkpatrick are almost non-existent now. I feel it providential to have had him as teacher, guide, and friend. The Educationist and the Specialist (Lytle’s Momentary Man, Tate’s Yankees of the Spirit, C.S. Lewis’s Men Without Chests) the Agrarians and others warned against decades ago no longer just threaten society, they rule it. Their ersatz religion is Progress (including the tender mercies of infanticide, euthanasia, and genetic cleansing), and their communion wafer an anti-depressant. As Warren said, “our faith has gone from God to experts.” And any cursory glance at the evening news reveals that “sometimes experts don’t work out.” Perhaps what Tolkien’s Aragon said of the inhabitants of Middle Earth is also true of me and others among Smith’s students who are now teachers and writers: “we fight the long defeat.” Now it is a bit easier to understand the master’s world-weariness. It is not likely any of us will prevent with our words what Eliot termed society’s suicide attempt. Greater ones have failed. Yet if we have been bequeathed a great inheritance, we also have a great responsibility to it, to humbly teach what Smith taught us, to diligently practice the craft “through the dark ages before us.” Thanks to Smith Kirkpatrick, we know where we must begin, --alone, confronting the ancient terror of blank space on a blank page.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art.
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956.
Cronin, Gloria L., and Ben Siegel, eds. Conversations with Robert Penn Warren.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Idea of a Christian Society. New York:
Harcourt Brace, 1940.
Lytle, Andrew Nelson. Southerns and Europeans: Essays in a Time of Disorder.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.
Percy, Walker. The Thanatos Syndrome.
New York: Ivy Books, 1987.
Sr. M. Evangelist, O.P.. A Memoire of Mary Ann. Introduction by Flannery O’Connor.
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