In the now obscure dialect of the Algonkian Indians, there existed a word that roughly translates as “the South.” That word, an unpronounceable bundle of vowels, was Saawaneew. In the Algonkian’s inexact geography, the South was conceived of as a region that extended from Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, a region now trimmed to a much smaller swatch of earth, bounded more or less by the Mason-Dixon Line and the Mississippi River. Over time the Indian word was anglicized into a handier, three-syllabled version, Se-wa-nee, whose pronunciation was eventually further reduced, and the two-syllable word used today is a place name, specifically the name for a town in which an institution of higher learning, known by the same name, is located, deep in the heart of old Saawaneew.
That institution, founded in 1857 by twenty-eight dioceses of the Episcopal Church, was originally called The University of the South. The use of the region in its name was intended to declare the school’s freedom from “Northern influence,” which at the time was considered nefarious. After the Civil War, though, the more colloquial “Sewanee” was used to identify the college, and today it is officially known as Sewanee: The University of the South. Its campus, crowded with buildings whose neo-Gothic architecture was inspired by the grounds at Oxford and Cambridge, is located amid 13,000 acres of a forested mountain top in the Cumberland Plateau known as The Domain. Its extravagant natural beauty and its felicitous man-made environment combined to produce one of the country’s most stunning academic habitats.
In the midst of such a vernal paradise, with its cohort of intellectually curious young men populating the school, it was inevitable that Sewanee would become the object of a myth inflected with Romantic literature which, married later to the tragic imagination associated with the Lost Cause, was Sewanee’s identifying ethos. It’s no surprise that the study and creation of literature would come to be at the center of the school’s life and reputation, second only to the production of Episcopal clergy, which had been part of its original mission.
In his memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy pronounced Sewanee a kind of Southern Arcadia and described his four years there in rhapsodic terms, his experiences usually growing out of a maturing literary imagination that he was acquiring in Sewanee’s classrooms. He recalled one student friend who became locally famous for having climbed a previously unconquered nearby peak, all the while inspiring himself anew along the way by reading from a well-thumbed, pocket-sized edition of Hamlet. Such exploits confirmed to Percy that the marriage of the literary with the physical could be the undergirding of whatever vocation he ultimately chose for himself, making it heroic. He was also attracted to the rituals at Sewanee, like the wearing of academic robes to morning chapel and to class in imitation of English public schools, a way of ceremonializing everyday acts, adding color to them, solemnizing and consecrating the ordinary before the eyes of an appreciative God. He was also magnetized by the magic of the mountains themselves, where he watched “the leaves shake in the sunlight, the clouds tumble their soundless bales of purple down the long slopes, the seasons eternally up to tricks of beauty.”
Sewanee’s greatest literary efflorescence occurred around the publication of I’ll Take My Stand, to which many of its faculty and alumni contributed. Most prominent among them was Andrew Lytle, whose essay “The Hind Tit,” an exploration of the South’s fate as an also-ran in the national race for success, combined a farmer’s salty wit with the sophistication of a man of letters who had been educated at Sewanee as well as at a number of European and Ivy League schools. He edited Sewanee’s respected literary journal, The Sewanee Review, and taught creative writing for a dozen years to legions of students. Lytle turned Sewanee into a beehive of literary activity, attracting novelists, poets, and critics who hovered there, promoting traditionalist views of literature, attempting to shore up what seemed to many a losing battle with more populist schools of writing, hoping to realize a return to traditional standards as a stable center, a revitalized credo for a new generation of writers.
Lytle finally retired in 1973. Not long afterward, the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, under the leadership of Sewanee alumnus Wyatt Prunty, was established. In August of every year a drove of young writers descends on The Domain to submit themselves to the tutelage of a distinguished group of novelists, poets, and dramatists, as well as to the observation of representatives from American publishing who run the gamut from LSU Press to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. A similar workshop for high-school-age writers visits Sewanee as well. While the standards upheld during Andrew Lytle’s day are still observed, an increasing hospitality exists to strains of experiment and the non-traditional in Sewanee’s new workshops, though rigor is still the watchword employed by the faculty.
Sewanee’s entry into the post-modern world hasn’t always been smooth. Some of its traditions and associations have found disapproval in precincts that lie beyond The Domain, and questions have arisen about the school’s relevance to the newly-forged values of academia. A dark vision of Sewanee’s future has been articulated in a poem by Richard Tillinghast, class of 1962. In “Sewanee in Ruins,” he imagines a vine-choked campus of the future, when tumbledown buildings stand in stark contrast to Sewanee in its time of glory.
My thoughts run from the past
to the future as I fear it will be—
the bands of food-gathering nomads,
omnivorous bipeds bearing awful marks,
mouthing an eroded tongue,
who find their way through weirdly revitalized forests
to this mountaintop,
looking for a stopping place, looking for anything.
Tillinghast’s poem continues with a dire catalogue of other speculative catastrophes, events that would deliver body blows to its ancient foundations. Fortunately, Tillinghast’s gifts as a poet exceed his gifts as a prophet. By any reasonable reckoning, Sewanee in the twenty-first century is still a sound structure, in both body and mind. It has made navigational adjustments to the modern world but has not changed its course as an exemplar of excellence in American academia. It still ranks in the top 100 in U. S. News and World Report‘s rankings of colleges. Its classrooms still attract a faculty with the country’s brightest minds. And its campus still rings with the sound of students in love with learning. Will Percy, were he a student there again, would still use his most persuasive poetry to describe its attractions—nature at its most ornamental, the intellect encouraged to shine.