Chronicler of the lost Lost South
By Michael Kreyling
Charlottesville ought to be on a map of legendary places in American literature. Mr. Jefferson got things started by facing the wilderness from the portico of his elegant and rational Monticello. Shortly thereafter, Edgar Allan Poe may first have envisioned his ominous raven at the newly built University. In the 1950s, William Faulkner finally collected his laurels as a UVA writer-in-residence.
Peter Taylor, restless and peripatetic early in life, found in Charlottesville a kind of leafy (if superficial) calm to serve as the social nirvana his characters always claim exists but can never quite put their hands on.
Hubert McAlexander's Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life, a new biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winner, is also a biography of a vanished civilization, almost as distant from us as the tribal networkings of Afghanistan.
I never met Peter Taylor, and after reading Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life, I still haven't. In McAlexander's "life," Taylor is a steadily happy man, the one we see in a photograph from Key West: striped polo shirt open at the neck, checked jacket and khakis and topsiders, insouciant smile and tousled hair.
You get no sense of a writer sitting on a keg of contradictions that might just as easily blow up as turn into his deceptively tranquil stories of failed men, failed families, and failed societies. Not that I want to make Peter Taylor into Franz Kafka, but his fiction suggests to me that the experience of being Peter Taylor was not all sweetness and light.
McAlexander's biography, published by Louisiana State University Press, is a scrupulous but nondramatic chronicle of public facts– a narrativized résumé. He logs the ups and downs of critical reception and the literary prizes, most of them late in life. He charts changes of publishers (lots of them) as well as changes of venue– teaching jobs from Kenyon to UNC-Greensboro to Ohio State to Chicago to Indiana to Harvard to the University of Virginia, the academy with which Taylor is most closely associated.
The biographer also itemizes Taylor's obsessive-compulsive house buying and selling. For a summer in Sewanee or a year in Charlottesville, Taylor doesn't rent; he buys, holds, sells, buys again. [See sidebar.]
Poet Robert Lowell, a friend of Taylor's from the 1930s, once half-jokingly suggested that someone should write a book called The Houses of Peter Taylor. Too bad McAlexander didn't try something more akin to Lowell's proposition; the way he adds up all the individual parts doesn't leave us with a whole Peter Taylor.
In short, McAlexander, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, declines to use biography as insight into the stories– and vice versa. And it is, after all, the stories that make the biography worth having. But if he has failed to present us with a dynamic portrait, the publication of Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life at least offers us the opportunity to revisit Taylor's work, to search for those missing insights in the very words that the writer offered us.
Peter Taylor is one of America's most powerful writers on the tangle of father-son relations. Eugene O'Neill's plays are more flamboyant, but he and Taylor were onto the same thing. In almost all of Taylor's fiction, fathers stand like giant border guards to their sons' erotic and imaginative fulfillment.
Maybe Taylor's stories abound in fathers because his ancestry supplied him with too many. The West Tennessee Taylors– the clan of the author's lawyer father– emigrated from Ireland in the 18th century, arriving in the Volunteer State by way of South Carolina. His mother was one of the East Tennessee Taylors who emigrated from Scotland to Virginia before moving farther south. In marrying, she became Katherine Baird Taylor Taylor, and the author inherited a family tree with more Taylors than he would ever need.
Like the Roosevelts of Oyster Bay and Hyde Park, the Taylors of Tennessee economized on surnames while striving for prominence in politics. The 1886 Tennessee gubernatorial election pitted Democrat "Bob" Taylor, the writer's maternal grandfather, against "Alf" Taylor, a Republican and Bob's older brother. Bob won and served as Tennessee governor for three nonconsecutive terms. Alf had to wait until the 1920s, the age of Coolidge and Hoover, for his turn as the state's chief executive.
Peter Taylor was born in 1917, the youngest of four siblings. He was christened Matthew Hillsman Taylor Jr., his father's namesake. As a child, he got the nickname "Pete" and eventually substituted the formal "Peter" for the name his father had given him. From the struggle over naming rights springs much of Taylor's best work.
Father-son friction fuels the plot of Taylor's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis, published in 1986. Based on his own father's betrayal by banker Rogers Caldwell in the ruin of the latter's financial empire in the 1930s, Summons circles in and out of the son's bitterness at his father's secondhand betrayal of the family for the sake of his own hurt feelings. At the end of the novel, the narrator's father and the Caldwell figure reconcile, leaving the son and his sisters with warped caricatures of happy lives.
For my money, though, Taylor's late masterpiece, the 1978 short story "The Old Forest," is more eloquent about father-son relations. Told from the point of view of a Memphis man almost 40 years after the events of a cold four days in December 1937, "The Old Forest" takes about 20,000 words to recount a simple series of occurrences.
The narrator, the son of a prosperous and well-connected cotton broker, is to be married to a socially prominent– and therefore parentally approved– woman in about a week. Bored and restless for reasons he can't or won't admit, he calls up another woman with whom he's had a casual affair, and they take a drive. The car slides on an icy road, there is a collision, and the "female companion" bolts into the old forest surrounding Overton Park. She's missing for four days. Eventually, however, she turns up unhurt (and not pregnant), the scheduled wedding takes place, and the bride and groom live less than happily ever after.
Clearly, Taylor didn't need 20,000 words to handle this plot line. But the quintessential Peter Taylor story is never just about the events. It's about what everybody involved suspects or fears the events might mean. Maybe Ned, the narrator, suspects he'd be happier with the lost lady; maybe his fiancée fears the same thing; maybe the father knows his son would be happier and has to stop the relationship.
As Ned says, "It is always impossible to know what changes might have been wrought in people under circumstances of the greatest or slightest degree of difference from the actual." The repressed desire to escape the actual sparks Taylor's fiction; one can only assume that it drove his life too.
In the crucial scene of "The Old Forest," Ned's father and his father's friends in the city power structure cruise Memphis in a coffin-like Cadillac with Ned huddling in the backseat as they bluntly interrogate the missing woman's compatriots. Reading this scene, you get a sense of what the streets of Kabul must have been like under the Taliban. And you see how powerfully Taylor could evoke resentment of the father.
Ned knows he will eventually knuckle under and marry the approved debutante, but he can't help desiring the other woman too. It is this denied erotic desire, which Taylor also knows as a desire for social chaos, that the writer's young characters constantly long to satisfy. They never do. Instead of passion, they get marriage; instead of freedom, stable society. And they live in discontent, sensing the difference all their lives. Ned, four decades after, can't erase the image of the escaping woman's tracks in the snow. They mark a road not traveled out of a life of order and regret.
For Taylor, the road not traveled was to college in New York. In 1936, or about the same time that the son in "The Old Forest" dodges and then succumbs to marriage, Peter Taylor won a scholarship to Columbia University. He took off on a wanderlust tramp of Europe, fully expecting to be in New York City the following fall. But in his absence, his father asserted patriarchal control; Matthew Hillsman Taylor Sr. insisted that his namesake attend his alma mater, Vanderbilt.
Taylor Jr. resisted, finally enrolling in hometown Southwestern (now Rhodes College). There, as fate would have it, poet and critic Allen Tate was teaching for a year. Tate spotted Taylor's literary talent and recruited him for a transfer to his alma mater, Vanderbilt, where John Crowe Ransom– the literary godfather of the Fugitive group of poets in the 1920s– awaited. Taylor deftly sidestepped his natural father, finding in Tate and Ransom a team of paternal figures who would mentor and support– and bedevil– him for the rest of their lives.
Taylor spent only a year at Vanderbilt. In 1937, Ransom split for Kenyon College in rural Ohio. Taylor made the trek as well, with a little insider help from Ransom, who fixed a scholarship for him. (One of the unintended themes of McAlexander's biography is that Taylor always seemed to have a godfather in the right place at the right time.) At Kenyon, the young writer forged lifelong, but not smooth, friendships with poet Robert Lowell and poet-critic Randall Jarrell.
After taking his B.A. at Kenyon in 1940, Taylor tried graduate work at Louisiana State University under two more Vanderbilt godfathers, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, editors of the Southern Review, who had arranged fellowship support. He didn't take to graduate work. Soon the draft caught up with him, and he spent the early part of his military service at Fort Oglethorpe, a streetcar ride from Chattanooga.
His army life was more No Time for Sergeants than From Here to Eternity. Regulations at Oglethorpe were so lax he could take an apartment in town and show up on the base from 9 to 5. Living in Chattanooga, he could visit friends and mentors at Sewanee, and it was on the mountain, in 1942, that he met and married poet Eleanor Ross, over his father's futile objections.
Newly married and stationed at Oglethorpe, Taylor wrote a story, "Rain in the Heart" (1943), that shows early signs of the power he could generate by not saying the obvious. "Rain in the Heart" is told from a point of view rooted in Taylor's circumstances. The story begins as a newly married, newly drafted sergeant has just finished a field exercise and returns to the barracks for a shower and a trip back to town, where his wife awaits. The GIs pelt the sergeant with the usual bawdy teasing, but he tries to keep sex on the outskirts of his mind. He walks around the barracks with a volume of Civil War history under his arm.
The sergeant makes his way into town on a succession of buses and finally a streetcar. The close-packed bodies of strangers clearly upset the new husband; you feel the psychological pressure he is putting on himself not to think of sex. At the last connection stop, he encounters a bitter, racist, working-class white woman who hands him a bouquet of sweet peas.
"The sight of 'em," she says, "make me sick." Life makes this woman sick, and the sergeant can't wait for the next streetcar and the sight of his "wife's brown curls falling over the white collar of her summer dress."
Finally, he escapes the bitter woman and makes his way to home and wife with the rescued flowers. The wife freshens the flowers; the newlyweds have dinner, read letters from home, chat. As they embrace and get ready for bed, a sudden summer storm comes up, and their bedward pull is interrupted.
In this small and unlooked-for psychological opening, the husband falls into melancholy: fears of battle, the harsh cruelty he must train himself and his men for, the hardened cleaning lady who gave him the flowers– can anything or anyone make life livable? Without knowing why, he leaves his wife's embrace and stands at the window to smoke a cigarette and stare into the dark abyss of the "terrible unrelated diversity of things." But the rain starts again, more gently, and the danger passes. He goes back to bed and his wife.
"Rain in the Heart" is fine, early Peter Taylor: meticulously paced, carefully modulating realism and symbolism, revealing and hiding its meanings at the same time. The crucial threat to order and hope is not the war, which is burning up East and West, but the possibility that sex may be all that love amounts to. One false move, one false thought, and we're all just bodies colliding as if on a battlefield. There is nothing left but the "terrible unrelated diversity of things."
Taylor's return from the war began a moderately uneventful succession of teaching jobs, fellowships, house buying and selling, dinner parties, friendly visits paid and returned that, as McAlexander tells the story, seem to have made the continuous fabric of the next 50 years of the writer's life.
To see him through McAlexander's eyes, one gets the impression that the great upheavals of his time– the Cold War, civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam– made little or no impression on his imagination. But it is not that the great public issues did not register; it's that Taylor felt the impact indirectly. If Faulkner agonized and ranted in public over integration, Taylor deflected the slings and arrows.
Of all the causes for upheaval during the middle years of Taylor's writing life, the agitation for civil rights is probably the greatest. All Southern writers during the '50s and '60s were pressured to take a stand in their work. But you can search Taylor high and low and not find a direct statement. What you do find are his depictions of a range of racisms mixed with Southern social mores. It was in the social DNA, and he knew it.
"What Do You Hear From 'Em?" (1950) is an example from Taylor's early period. Written before Brown v. Board of Education, the story features a "mammy,” Aunt Munsie, who shatters the calm of provincial Thornton, Taylor's fictional version of his hometown, with the shouted question of the title.
Aunt Munsie wants to know when her (white) boys, sons of the local doctor whom she had raised after their mother's death, will come back from Memphis and Nashville and restore old times and old ways. They always say they will be back for good some day, but all they really manage is a visit now and then.
Even the visits end eventually. Aunt Munsie is left increasingly isolated in Thornton, finally disappearing into a picturesque caricature of a mammy wearing a head rag and "talking old-nigger foolishness." Munsie, we're told, was born a slave, but the story does not directly tell us to deplore slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath, but rather to lament the general loss of kinder, gentler times.
Lest it be argued that "What Do You Hear From 'Em?" is an early story unfairly roped into the present political climate, readers have only to take the long view of Taylor's African American characters. Nearly all of them are family servants, and usually female– as in the story "A Wife of Nashville," in which the wife's emotional starvation is related through the succession of black cooks who have been her only "friends."
Even in "The Old Forest," the black characters are presented as willing adjuncts to white superiors. As the narrator says: "There was not, in those days in Memphis, any time or occasion when one felt more secure and relaxed than when one had given oneself over completely to the care and protection of the black servants who surrounded us and who created and sustained for the most part the luxury which distinguished the lives we lived then from the lives we live now. They did so for us, whatever their motives and however degrading our demands and our acceptance of their attentions may have been to them."
Taylor, as McAlexander shows, personally separated himself from Southern mores that promoted racism, and yet in his stories he never singled racism out as the spotlight message.
Taylor's work has always suffered in the eyes of critics from the perception that it is apolitical, not part of the problem or the solution but something on the side. McAlexander's biography doesn't help enough to move Taylor back toward the center of anything.
What Peter Taylor did for Nashville, Memphis, and St. Louis– his orbit– is what all great writers have done for their times and places. He saw, in local systems of knowing and doing that seem so trivial as to go without saying, the great constants of human life: fear, will, sex, loyalty, love, disappointment, cruelty.
He saw all of this first in the intimate circle of family life, then in the more public circle of class and kin. Social life and manners, in Taylor's fiction, are a kind of polite guerrilla war over a universe of meanings we can neither escape nor do without. Using his own saturation in the history and social life of Middle and West Tennessee, Taylor did what Anton Chekhov did: he defined his place more precisely, with more nuance and shading, than any surveyor who ever drew a line on a map.
Invoking Chekhov is something Taylor's critics do often: both writers are geniuses of silence and evasion. More than most writers, Taylor was adept at not saying what was really important in the story, situation or character. Like Chekhov, he knew that the fragile construct of social meaning breaks down if you have to say why you are doing one thing and not something else. And, like reading Chekhov, reading Taylor requires patience because it always takes more time to show how people are not doing something than it takes to show them doing it.
Taylor was drawn to damaged and destructive people but without ever being sucked into the damage and destruction himself. McAlexander's biography scarcely finds a friend of his who was not alcoholic, manic-depressive, suicidal, psychotic, or socially dysfunctional in some milder way, while Taylor himself tended to escape the shrapnel.
But his fiction reflects his keenness for observing those friends– it's about the victims of disorder coping in some way on the surface. Perhaps one of the greatest American short stories on this theme is Taylor's "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time," from 1957.
The masterpiece of his "middle years," the story borrows its title from Bronzino's highly polished, enigmatic painting, the meaning of which nobody has been able to figure out in 500 years. The setting is the fictional town of Chatham– it could be Nashville, or Memphis, or St. Louis, any of the "hinterland" cities with old money and older social mores that Taylor wrote about so often.
For decades, the parents of Chatham have sent their early-teens to a party hosted by the Dorsets, a spinster sister and her bachelor brother, who have assumed the authority of gatekeepers to polite society. None of the adults has ever questioned the Dorsets' claim to social authority, nor have they sensed the connection between the party and the rites of puberty. Chatham society is a conspiracy of forgetting.
The kids are cleverer than the parents, and less afraid to burst the bubble that blocks out chaos and confusion. Thus the son of one well-placed family has hired a boy from the wrong side of the tracks to act as his double and squire his pre-deb sister to the Dorset party. The plan is that the double is to start making out very publicly with the sister, so that the Dorsets can't help but be confronted by what the kids are sure is the odd couple's own incestuous love. Unlike the parents of Chatham, the kids have not agreed to forget that Ms. Dorset vacuums in the nude and that Mr. Dorset caressingly wipes down his beloved car wearing a skin-tight and flesh-colored jumpsuit.
At the climax of the party, hell breaks loose. The Dorsets don't immediately see anything wrong with the putative brother and sister necking, and real brother Ted has to point out the taboo. Ted, who has set the whole thing up, is hit by the recoil: he harbors incestuous desire for his sister that he has never acknowledged. The Dorset party has been a rite of passage, but not the one he designed it to be. As the story winds down, we are told that brother and sister have moved to different cities and seldom talk. The Dorsets never give their coming-out party again, but Chatham continues its social habit of amnesia and evasion, making up all sorts of explanations– except the right one– to answer the question why things aren't the way they used to be.
McAlexander's biography ends abruptly with Taylor's death on November 2, 1994, and the burial of his ashes at Sewanee. But the biographer refrains from any kind of eulogy or assessment of how and where this writer's life and work matter. So here is one:
Despite a career full of literary awards and prizes– O. Henry Awards for individual short stories, a Pulitzer, a PEN/Faulkner, a Ritz-Hemingway, a Chianti Ruffino and a dozen lesser accolades– Peter Taylor's critical reputation is likely to hover just about where it is now. His fiction is an acquired taste, and in any generation of readers there are few with enough patience for work such as his.
His regional affiliation with the South doesn't help either. In recent years biographies of the older giants of Southern literature– Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Donald Davidson– have appeared, but there has been no rush to revive interest in them.
Taylor, unlike Faulkner, made no preemptive claim to speak for the South on its epic theme: race. Many critics will continue to think of him on the periphery for that reason. Because he was a male writer, he did not benefit from new feminist styles of reading in the late 20th century (as Eudora Welty, a similar writer in many ways, did).
But if his reputation stays where it is now– talked about in the same breath as Chekhov and Henry James and Jane Austen– how bad is that? Like these great writers, Peter Taylor gave the ordinary life of certain kinds of families in certain kinds of places an extraordinary kind of meaning. If that does not warrant a flood of praise, it should guarantee at least a steady supply for a long time.
The author is a professor at Vanderbilt University. This story originally appeared in the Nashville Scene.