Miss Leonora When Last Seem
by Peter Taylor
Obolensky, 398 pp., $4.95
Middle class, Middle West, “the great heartland”—many writers have been born into it but few write about it. In American literature, the middleclass Middle West is very nearly defined as that which one has fled. (Today the emigration may be internal, to one of the regional universities. But that is far enough.) The idea of the Middle West, therefore, remains as central in the literary imagination as the fact of it does for our nation, and as undescribed, too; as unexamined; as unchallenged. We think we know it from our childhood, perhaps, or from our continual exposure to the advertised images of it. Yet we seem to know, also, that even before these images made their travesty, the life itself was a betrayal of some other American style. The only certainty is that there must be more to know. The history is unwritten and no commanding literary works have come forth to succeed the antique visions of Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson.
This is the life that the new suburbs imitate without knowing clearly what they seek, and the life that the conscious voices of New York and California scorn or celebrate without knowing really what they are talking about. It has its being, like its name, as something in between, between the coasts and between the rich and the poor. Its great mass lies between the “bourgeoisie” of owners and the “proletariat” of workers and seems to have buffered forever their prophesied confrontation. Surely, though, this life is more than the space between two limits. The middle must have its own center, its own principles of cohesion. What are they? What kind of life is this?
Almost alone among serious and accomplished American writers, Peter Taylor has taken the hours and days of the American Middle West middle class for his subject. His work demonstrates so many characteristics of this class that it seems to share something of the fate of the class itself among the literary intelligentsia. An air of some previous familiarity, of inconspicuous prosperity and untried virtue, accompanies his writings and seems to prevent them from appearing, to those who like to contemplate the current possibilities of literature, as an alternative of any force. This is not, it should be said, only an influence of The New Yorker, where many of these stories were printed; it is the proper atmosphere of the place and the people he writes about, and the truth about them lies within it.
Peter Taylor’s people come to this part of the country and to this class from the South, most of them; or sometimes, their part of the South has become this. But he is not a “Southern writer.” Everyone in the great heartland of today comes from somewhere or something that’s gone, as from Atlantis; it is only easier to say where the South was, and what the difference is. And it may be seen in his stories that the “South” for Taylor’s people is a …