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S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 7
by Robert Wilson
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, A Summons to Memphis, 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 In the Tennessee Country, 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 Collected Stories 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.
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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
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, In the Miro District, 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.
I've often wondered what made the years that separated us unimportant when we were together. It was not just that he had such joie de vivre,or that he could listen almost as well as he could talk, or that he seemed to like my company. I think it was partly that we both had such strong fathers, from whom we were in an unending state of rebellion. We both thought of ourselves in some essential way as sons. Taylor came from a line of lawyers and businessmen and those politicians, to whom the artist's life cannot have seemed very serious or very real. I think of the bitter lines from Yeats's "Adam's Curse": "For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these, and yet / Be thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world." Although Taylor wrote perhaps a hundred stories, many of which appeared in his eight collections; three novels; two book-length plays; and perhaps a dozen shorter plays, and although the themes and settings of these many works of course varied, his larger subjects were related to this sense of himself as a rebellious son. His persistent theme was how the world into which he had been born, lodged between the Old South and the New -- that is, the world of his parents' generation, born in the nineteenth century and living well into the twentieth -- failed to live up to the illusions of either.
MUCH contemporary literary theory begins with the assumption that the writer does not know what he or she is writing or does not understand the implications of his or her words. The writer is a naïf, and the work is a bundle of unexamined assertions and, indeed, prejudices. Yet to the reader unencumbered by such theories, it is almost the definition of a serious literary artist that he or she tests prevailing notions and undermines the status quo by coming to a richer, subtler, more humane or more moral view of it than the view taken by those who live under its dictates. The best writers deconstruct their worlds even as they construct them.
Whether or not one accepts this as a general rule, it applies indisputably to Peter Taylor. I doubt whether any Marxist critic could be more aware than he of the way in which class can both divide people and bind them, how it can underlie and undermine every social relationship. Take, for example, Taylor's wonderful story "The Old Forest." Nat Ramsey, a "well-brought-up" young Memphis man, finds himself caught between Caroline Braxley, his "society girl" fiancée, and Lee Ann Deehart, "a girl who was not in the Memphis debutante set" but rather a member of a group known "facetiously and somewhat arrogantly" to Nat and his friends as the "Memphis demimonde." Because Nat narrates the story, although from the perspective of many years later, it reeks of just the sort of naiveté about such matters that a critic might gleefully latch on to. And yet the story is informed throughout by a sophistication about class and its destructive assumptions which Taylor keeps right at the edge of his narrator's awareness. Thus we see the snobbery of the young Nat, the growing understanding in the older Nat of what that snobbery means, and, always, the exquisite and complicated attunement to class that the writer himself has. As one example of the story's complications, consider its central action: Lee Ann's disappearance after an automobile collision turns out to be the result not, as the reader expects, of Nat's callousness, or even of Lee Ann's resentment of Caroline, but of Lee Ann's own snobbery. Her grandmother owns a juke joint outside town, and Lee Ann is afraid that news of the accident will reveal her family background, which she and her grandmother have tried to hide. There are other social undercurrents in the story: Lee Ann's grandmother takes special care of the rich boys who show up in her place with their "demimondaines." The city fathers, out of a secret admiration for the spirit of freedom in girls like Lee Ann, feel a special obligation to protect them.
Another reading of "The Old Forest" could be made from the point of view of gender. Here, too, Nat is the naïf, a character both mystified and fascinated by the behavior of Lee Ann and Caroline, neither of whom acts by the unexamined rules of gender relations that prevail in Nat's day. Again, the young Nat embodies these values, and the older Nat, who narrates, has come to disavow them. "The Old Forest" is finally as much about both the powerlessness and the sources of power of women as it is about anything else. At its end Nat and Caroline drive out of modern Memphis as fast as their car will take them, on Bristol Highway,
the old road that shot more or less diagonally across the long hinterland that is the state of Tennessee. It was the road along which many of our ancestors had first made their way from Virginia and the Carolinas to Memphis, to settle into the forest wilderness along the bluffs above the Mississippi River.They are driving, as even Nat himself realizes, deep into their own history. As the small towns and crossroads go whizzing past, Caroline begins an extraordinary speech about the difference between girls like her and girls like Lee Ann. At the heart of this difference is Caroline's awareness of the past into which she and Nat are driving. As a creature of that past, Caroline is limited by its tenets in her relations with men. "But," she tells Nat,
"with girls like Lee Ann and Lucy and Betsy it's all different. They have made their break with the past. Each of them had had the strength and intelligence to make the break for herself. But now they have formed a sort of league for their own protection. How I do admire and envy them! And how little you understand them, Nat. How little you understand Lee Ann's loneliness and depression and bravery. She and all the others are wonderful -- even Fern. They occupy the real city of Memphis as none of the rest of us do. They treat men just as they please. And not the way men are treated in ourcircles. And men like them better for it.... Naturally we fear them. Those of us who are not like them in temperament -- or in intelligence, because there is no use in denying it -- we must fear them and find a means to give delaying action."As Caroline implies, Lee Ann's friends have protected her from various delegations who have gone looking for her: Nat himself, Nat with the city fathers, and Nat with a couple of policemen, who are also obviously in sympathy with the middle-class girls. Caroline sees that if her wedding is to take place, if she is to achieve the conventional sort of power that comes from marrying well, she will have to behave unconventionally and find Lee Ann herself. This she does, using her intelligence, her audacity, and, finally, her sense of the solidarity of all women in a world run by men. In short, she behaves like one of the demimondaines.
It amazes me how much larger a story like "The Old Forest" is than what can be said about it, how effortlessly it embodies the knowledge in these critical approaches, and yet how well it accomplishes its real goals -- of drawing us into and through a complicated narrative, making us care about people whom we might otherwise easily dismiss, and leaving us with a vivid sense of a world that is better and worse than we might have thought.
Robert Wilson is the editor of Preservation magazine and a former literary editor of Civilization magazine.
Copyright © 1997 by Robert Wilson. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; A Subversive Sympathy; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 108-112.