A Subversive Sympathy

The stories of Peter Taylor and the illusions they bring to life

AFTER Peter Taylor died, in the fall of 1994, I went back to the books on which his literary reputation will most likely rely: his Collected Stories(1969) and the three short-story collections that appeared after it. His 1986 novel, , won him a Pulitzer Prize, a major international award, and many more readers than most short-story writers ever hope to have, but he may have written it and the novel , which was published just before his death, in order to preserve his shorter fiction. Before he wrote his own novels, Taylor would say about his friends Katherine Anne Porter, whose Ship of Fools (1962) was a best seller, and Eudora Welty, whose The Optimist's Daughter (1972) also won a Pulitzer, that the audiences for those books had made secure both writers' "real work," as he called their stories. He would also say that novels are not quite respectable, that they lack the rigor of the story, and, later, that novels were fun to write because you could put anything in them that popped into your head. Taylor made these statements humorously, as was his way, but he felt, I think, that there was more than a germ of truth in them.

The edition of the that I grabbed off my shelf was a 1986 Penguin paperback, which Taylor had inscribed to my wife, Martha, and me. I'd forgotten the inscription, and could not remember having been in Gainesville, Florida, where he and his wife, Eleanor, had a home, on January 8, 1986 -- "my 79th birthday," the inscription said. I assumed at first that I must have been there, because it was not at all like Taylor to sign a book and send it to us; he had given us other books, but had signed them only at our request. And then the solution to this small mystery struck me: Taylor had died at seventy-seven, so the inscription was deliberately untrue. I remembered then that when he turned sixty-nine, he told me that he had decided to tell everyone he was seventy-nine, so that they would think how well he looked for his age. Presumably he had liked this joke so much that he had signed and mailed out copies of the new edition in order to slip it into the inscriptions.
As I began to reread the familiar stories, with their stately pace and mildly antique diction, it occurred to me how appropriate Taylor's straight-faced little deception was, not only for the Collected Stories but for all of his work. His imagination was always older than his years, locked in the time and place of his youth and young manhood -- Memphis and Nashville in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s -- but fixed upon the world of his elders, whose ways had made his world. This very fixation amounted to a kind of deception in itself, because one might conclude from the intensity with which he focused on the older world that he also admired it almost unreservedly. He did admire it -- madly, as he might have said -- but that is not the whole story. Finally, again and again in his work he would push through this admiration and come to a deep vein of disillusionment about the assumptions under which his parents' generation of southern urban sophisticates labored. Thus Peter Taylor's work, which seems so much in sympathy and of a piece with this past, is deeply subversive of it. That's his big joke, to go with the little joke of his inscription.

THE Taylor family has lived in Tennessee since before it became a state, and Peter could trace his family back to even before they came to Tennessee from Virginia. Family history is of course a southern obsession, but Peter's interest in Taylor and Tennessee history was perhaps enlivened by the public role the Taylors had traditionally played in the state. One of Peter's grandfathers, who would later become a U.S. senator, took part in a legendary political race in the 1880s -- known as Tennessee's War of the Roses -- when he ran against his brother for governor of Tennessee. The two men traveled around the state together, sometimes even sharing a bed when the accommodations required it, and ripped into each other on the hustings. A century later Peter's brother ran for the same office.

But Taylor himself fell in with legendary literary people. He was born in the country town of Trenton, Tennessee, in 1917, but lived for most of his youth in Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis, where in 1936 he became a student of the poet Allen Tate, at Southwestern. Soon he enrolled at Vanderbilt, where he met the poet and renowned New Critic John Crowe Ransom. When Ransom was lured away to Kenyon College, in Ohio, Taylor followed him, as did the young poet Randall Jarrell, who became an instructor at Kenyon. Robert Lowell, who had been at Harvard, also went to Kenyon, where he became Taylor's roommate. Taylor, Lowell, and Jarrell would be lifelong friends. Later Taylor went with Lowell and his new wife, the novelist Jean Stafford, to Louisiana State University, where Robert Penn Warren was teaching and co-editing The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks. Stafford and Warren would also be Taylor's friends for life.

Taylor published his first story in a small, short-lived magazine called River,in 1937. One of Eudora Welty's first published stories appeared in the same issue. Soon he was publishing regularly in the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review,and The Southern Review. His first book of stories, A Long Fourth,appeared in 1948, with a glowing and perceptive introduction by Warren. For the next four and a half decades Taylor continued to write and publish stories. During this time he taught at Kenyon with Ransom, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with Jarrell, and at Harvard with Lowell. Eventually he settled in Charlottesville, after William Faulkner's stint at the University of Virginia in the 1960s. Taylor was made Commonwealth Professor of English at Virginia in 1967, and taught there until his retirement, in 1983.

By the time I became his student, in 1975, he had already suffered a serious heart attack (his 1977 collection, , was dedicated to his heart doctor, "for an extension of time"), and he had many health problems during the two decades that I was his friend. I'm tempted to say that in those years he enjoyed poor health, because to him everything was an opportunity for humor and enjoyment. He would refer with a mischievous smile to a painful and mysterious hip ailment, which sometimes made it impossible for him to walk, as his "hipatitis." The last time I saw him, in a hospital bed with his final illness, I joked that I would be in serious trouble with his wife if I stayed very long, to which he instantly replied, his tongue thick after a series of strokes, "You'll be in serious trouble with me if you don't." In spite of his poor health and the difference in our ages of nearly four decades, he was the liveliest companion I have ever had. A quick lunch with him at some little dive could be memorable for its inspired silliness or his serious thoughts about writing or his reminiscences about his literary friends. When I had the remarkable good luck to accompany him to Paris, where he was to receive an award, and we were put up for five days in adjoining rooms at the Ritz (he had had his first stroke by then, and needed, as he told me when he asked me to go, "someone to button my right cuff"), we would talk from early morning to late at night, and I never once wished for the talk to stop.

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