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.