Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Eleanor Ross Taylor Emerges

What’s new in Tennessee books—and at Chapter 16—on January 28, 2010

Born in 1920 on a North Carolina farm, an era and a place not particularly noted for encouraging the literary aspirations of young women, Eleanor Ross was seemingly born under a writer’s star nonetheless. As a child, her poems were published in state newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer. As a student at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), she was taught by Allen Tate and his first wife, Caroline Gordon. A scholarship to Vanderbilt University landed her in the classroom of Donald Davidson.

Later, while visiting Tate and Gordon in Monteagle, Tennessee (where they were sharing a cottage with Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford), Eleanor Ross met Peter Taylor. Peter went on to become the much-decorated short-story master and novelist whom Jonathan Yardley, writing in The Washington Post in 1993, called “the best writer we have.” Eleanor went on to become his wife. “My husband’s career really came first,” she explained in an interview in 2002. As poet Diann Blakely, who knew the Taylors during summers in Sewanee, remembers it, Eleanor even refused to turn on the vacuum cleaner whenever Peter was in the house, for fear of breaking his concentration.

Even as her husband was becoming the literary lion of his generation, however, Eleanor Ross Taylor was quietly writing and publishing poems of her own, small gems of understatement and fearless clarity often compared to the works of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Her first collection, Wilderness of Ladies, appeared in 1960 and was followed—at the rate of about one book per decade—by four others. In her late sixties, she began to win awards—from the Poetry Society of America and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. Lyric poetry is often regarded as a young person’s art, but by the time Peter died in 1994, Eleanor was in the midst of a remarkable late flowering. (Diann Blakely reviewed Eleanor Ross Taylor’s newest book, Captive Voices—and remembered its author—here.)

Taylor has spent a lifetime writing poems that, as Adrienne Rich once put it, “speak of the underground life of women, the Southern white Protestant woman in particular, the woman-writer, the woman in the family, coping, hoarding, preserving, observing, keeping up appearances, seeing through the myths and hypocrisies, nursing the sick, conspiring with sister-women, possessed of a will to survive and to see others survive.” This week that underground life emerged into full sun as Captive Voices became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Winners will be announced on March 10.

In a measure of just how much times have changed since Eleanor Ross Taylor began writing insider reports on the underground life of women, Memphis native Heather Armstrong has made a living by opening her own life to unprecedented public view. First through her blog, dooce, and then as the author of last year’s memoir, It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita, Armstrong writes with what can sometimes be startling candor about her own family life—and has gained an international following in the process: she has more than a million followers on Twitter, and last summer Forbes magazine named her one of the thirty most influential women in media.

This week the dooce franchise expanded exponentially: Knoxville-based HGTV announced that it had signed Armstrong to “an exclusive programming development deal in which she will work with HGTV’s online and on-air production teams to create innovative convergence programming for the network.” It’s not clear what “innovative convergence programming” will actually look like, but Armstrong is eager to give it a try: “I am joining the HGTV talent family, as they call it, and I could not be more over the moon,” she reports. “I’m all the way to Jupiter. The air is very thin and dry up here.”

Adam Ross has a right to be over the moon, too. His debut novel, Mr. Peanut, will be published in June by Knopf, but it’s already getting attention, and the galleys aren’t even available yet. This week Publisher’s Weekly included the book in its top-ten roundup of “promising fiction debuts” for spring. Legendary Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon, who’s also a part-time resident of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, says, “Aside from being the most ambitious and accomplished first novel in recent memory, Mr. Peanut is as intense emotionally as it is structurally: a set of interlocking dramas that explore the twinned impulses of love and hate, murder and marriage. Audacious, intriguing, and surprising, it’s a police procedural of the soul, about the most important and elusive part of our lives.”

Library Journal contributed to pre-pub buzz for Mr. Peanut this week by including the book in its own list of “hot June and July titles,” and an internal Random House blogger writes that he’s read the first twenty-five pages and is “trying to think of an opening I like better, and only Lolita is coming to mind.” As for the Nashville-based Ross, he’s dumbfounded: “If you’d asked me how I felt when the book first sold to Knopf, I’d say I was thrilled, and if you’d asked me when it sold internationally (it’s been bought in eleven countries), I’d say I was floored,” he writes in an email. “But now that it’s getting this early attention, I’d say the whole thing is entirely surreal.”

Other news of Tennessee writers:

~Cutting for Stone, by former Johnson City resident Abraham Verghese, has earned a spot on The Wall Street Journal‘s best-of list for 2009;

~Metropulse is running a long profile of Knoxville singer/songwriter/poet/playright R.B. Morris this week; you can read Chapter 16‘s profile of Morris here and hear him read here;

~Michael Sims‘s most recent foray into literary anthropology, The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime (read the Chapter 16 review here) has, according to The Huffington Post, one of the “Coolest Book Covers of 2009.” Vote for Sims—and consider the other nominees, of course—here.

The nonfiction book of this season, if early attention is any measure, is Rebecca Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Chapter 16 reviewer Michael Ray Taylor reports that the book is even better than its buzz. Look for his review—as well as Maria Browning’s review of a brilliant new memoir by MTSU professor Jid Lee, and Clay Risen’s review of a new biography of President James K. Polk, a native son of Columbia, Tennessee—in this week’s issue. Noted writer Randall Kenan will be in the state this week for an appearance at Vanderbilt. Don’t miss his interview with Chapter 16‘s Susannah Felts here.