It is custom and ceremony, function maintained by manners, that tell you who you are, specifically in that most private--and yet public--unit of the state, the family. Lytle, editor of Sewanee Review, critic and novelist, wanders among the country of the dead, his own family, from Colonial days to the present, calling forth the ghosts by name in their mostly central Tennessee habitations. He quotes from scraps of correspondence, collects shards of biography, scrutinizes old paintings, visits weathered houses and recounts hand-me-down anecdotes. There are oblique portraits--several Lytles ""put to the horn"" in the border country of England/Scotland (outlawed by twelve blasts at the crossroads), another who cleared land 32 miles from Nashville and was one of four men in the state allowed to use Eli Whitney's new invention, a great-grandfather with ""an eye that parts the air."" There are glimpses of a tall 18th century forest ""saturated with green air""; men (with names and homes and work to be about) hunkering down and then dying or coming back to the farms again during the Revolution and the Civil War; women marrying, birthing and somehow managing; broad practical jokes and salty talk; moving and settling in and moving again; hog killing and field work; send-offs and welcomes. The Lytles nurtured no geniuses, reared no headline statesmen. But Lytle here is paying tribute to the phenomenon of ""family""--with its many intradependencies, the power to absorb and define the needs and psyches of its members, the dynamic spirit-and-substance at the root of a community or nation. Lytle, so wary of ""abstractions"" like ""Democracy"" and ""Equality,"" commits a few himself in his testy and condemning overview of contemporary society, but with the exception of the sermons, this is a clannish but convivial wake.