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  • “In the End We All Come to Earth” Memories of Smith Kirkpatrick
  • Merrill Joan Gerber (bio)

I first met Smith Kirkpatrick in Andrew Lytle’s writing class in 1957 (the year The Velvet Horn was published). 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 me the South was mainly a place where one could be warm in December and get a good suntan to escape the cold winters of New York.

Our writing class met in the evening in the D building, a rickety wooden structure behind Anderson Hall on the University of Florida campus. Mr. Lytle would arrive smiling, his glasses strung around his neck on a black grosgrain ribbon, and greet us all heartily. His students sat around long wooden tables, and Mr. Lytle sat in an ancient 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 sat Smith Kirkpatrick, who also taught writing classes at the university and who was, even then, working on his novel, which became The Sun’s Gold. Kirk, as we were invited to call him, usually sat smoking, listening carefully. When Mr. Lytle could not elicit from us the answers he was seeking in his analysis of one of our stories, he would finally turn to Kirk, who always knew the flaw or the excellent aspect to which Mr. Lytle was hoping to draw our attention.

Kirk, who was already a master writer of fiction, had published a short story entitled “The Wheel” in the Sewanee Review in 1955. Later Kirk published in the Sewanee Review (1963) an incisive essay-review on Katherine Anne Porter’s novel, Ship of Fools. During the years in between he worked on completing The Sun’s Gold, the tale of a young merchant seaman (a boy, like Kirk, from Arkansas whose name was “No Name”). Three chapters from the novel—“Painting the Ship,” “Joetown,” and “War Zone”—appeared in the same magazine. Kirk had a long heroic military career during World War II and the Korean War. He was a naval aviator, and it is said that during his service he survived seven crash landings. After he was discharged from a VA hospital, he came to the University of Florida to study writing with Andrew Lytle. He met Lytle by chance as he walked around an amusement park in San Francisco, where he and his mother had come to visit his brother.

In class we often listened to Mr. Lytle read one of his favorite stories—he was an inspired actor, and every story he read took on the dimension of theater. I can still remember his face, and Kirk’s bemused expression, as Lytle read the beginning of 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 [End Page 312] 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. Kirk kept his head down, as if to conceal the fact that he knew exactly where Lytle was taking us.

On other nights in class we all took on a more sober demeanor. When Lytle read us James Joyce’s “The Dead,” we had a sense we were on sacred ground. I have the notes I took down on that night in 1957:

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.

Ten years after I was graduated, Mr. Lytle published a detailed essay on “The Dead” in the Sewanee...


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