Peter Taylor (1917-1994) is usually referred to as a writer of place; his settings are most often the lower Ohio Valley and, as he called it, “the long green hinterland that is Tennessee.” But Taylor’s themes—change, evil, and political and private morality—are universal. A new edition of The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, first published in 1969, reminds us of the author’s position in the pantheon of American short story writers and makes a powerful argument for his continued relevance in a changing world where relationships, both to place and to people, are more often complex than they seem.
Taylor was born in the west Tennessee town of Trenton and spent his grade school years in Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis. After displaying an aptitude for writing, he began collegiate studies with Allen Tate at Southwestern in Memphis (now Rhodes College), later transferring, on Tate’s suggestion, to Vanderbilt University to work with John Crowe Ransom. When Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College, Taylor followed him to Ohio, where he met and befriended poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. He spent his final years of graduate study at Louisiana State University under Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who, along with Tate and Ransom, were among the so-called “Fugitives,” a group of critics whose work inspired Taylor and other writers of the region, including William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Through the luck of timing and the power of raw talent, Taylor found himself as a writer during the full flowering of the Southern Renaissance.
Through the luck of timing and the power of raw talent, Taylor found himself as a writer during the full flowering of the Southern Renaissance.
Like much of the work of his teachers and contemporaries, Taylor’s stories crack the façade of post-war Southern life. What distinguishes them is that they do so with powerful images which don’t rely on judgment or melodrama. In “Cookie,” for example, an African-American servant spills the beans about an infidelity in the seemingly happy marriage of her employer. After the revelation, there’s no pounding on the table or finger pointing; there’s only quiet acceptance and a crushing adherence to decorum. As the wife reprimands her servant for “talking that way to my husband,” the man slips out to the driveway where “his car, bright and new and luxurious, was waiting for him.”
In Taylor’s stories, tension comes from the slow-motion crash between the old world and the new. In “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” a spinster is removed from her home to make way for a new school. A remnant of the Logan Family, who “for a hundred years and more did all it could to impede the growth and progress of our town,” the woman responds by taking off in her 1942 Dodge convertible, possibly for good. Though it had been the woman’s habit to take long car trips, her former prize pupil worries that “if anything happens to her now, all the world will blame us and say we sent her on this journey, sent her out alone and possibly in a dangerous frame of mind.”
Like Taylor himself, these characters are often upper-middle-class rural transplants. They struggle to find direction and meaning as familiar points of reference evaporate. Characters like the spinster, the “colored maid,” and the old judge might be flat and archetypal in lesser hands, but not in Taylor’s. The inappropriate, carousing football coach in “The Other Times,” for instance, manages to be both evil and sweet as he risks his job to cover the teenage dalliances of a niece. In Taylor’s world, even the land is complex. “Of course some of them would pack up and leave for a while,” says one old gentleman. “But still they came back at last, singing that false old tune that there’s no place like home.”
Taylor’s alienation can’t be relegated to a particular place or time. The debased yet sympathetic Josie of “The Fancy Woman” may be gleefully unfit for mid-century Memphis society, but her self-destructive impulses horrify us all. Likewise, the marital estrangement revealed in “Cookie” is a universal experience. What interests Taylor isn’t regional peculiarities. Rather, it’s how individuals cope with the nagging feeling that, as “A Wife of Nashville” puts it, “everything in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.”
That’s not to say Taylor doesn’t appreciate the particular angst of the South’s uppermost states. On the surface, “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” is about a spinster brother and sister who may or may not have an incestuous relationship. Despite their off-putting behavior, the couple’s annual coming-of-age party is a hot ticket among the young people of Chatham, a fictitious town on the northwestern edge of the South. The implication of sexual incest is a red herring, however. Taylor’s real theme involves a different kind of incest, where pairings and community interactions are restricted by social class. Chatham has a confused pedigree that’s “geographically Northern and culturally Southern,” so the falseness of such traditions only makes them more stubborn.
Throughout The Collected Stories, Taylor’s prose is elegant and clear. If the reader goes back over a passage, it’s for pleasure rather than intelligibility—remarkable, given that Taylor spent most of his life in academia. His tales are not without humor, but with their melancholy subtext such occurrences are startling. When an unfavored student tells Leonora that he’d rather live in Memphis or Chattanooga, she replies, “I wish I could throw you there.”
Taylor’s real theme involves a different kind of incest, where pairings and community interactions are restricted by social class.
In addition to short stories, Taylor also wrote four plays and three novels, including A Summons to Memphis, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He taught literature and writing at Kenyon College and the University of Virginia, and was married for fifty-one years, until his death, to the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor. Peter Taylor’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review and Partisan Review, but he’s best known for his association with the The New Yorker, which established his place as one of America’s greatest short-story writers.