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 place in the mind, is often childhood itself, with the adult’s nostalgia for the security of childhood that no child really knows. Beneath that, it may be something truly primitive, the memory of a dark well-house or of a cellar storeroom. Taylor never tries to reconstruct a “South” as Faulkner did.
Miss Leonora When Last Seen is Peter Taylor’s fourth book of short stories. He has published also a novel and a play. Few writers of the generation of the Second World War have written so much at the high level Taylor consistently reaches. This high level was his from the beginning. Stories he wrote twenty-five years ago, reprinted now in this selection of old and new, show a degree of mastery from which he has never lapsed, although his concerns, or his manner of dealing with his concerns, have changed. Taylor’s skill as a story-teller and as an amusing and evocative mimic of speech and character are immediately apparent, I suppose, to anyone who reads him at all. And also, I would suppose, the charm of his manner is apparent, perhaps especially to those who may resist it for one reason or another; apparent perhaps even to those who find this manner somewhat “Southern” and polite and thus a bit hard to take.
But the story-telling and the manner of it are about something. Just what these stories are all about is even more complex and elusive than the subject of those stories of Katherine Anne Porter’s that were so admired for their art. Their art, at least, was conspicuous enough to provide its own excuse; Taylor’s is uninsistent and the persons and settings of his narratives are without glamour. His persons are the husbands and wives, the sons and daughters, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and servants of American middle-class families. Their place is the home. We could almost dismiss them with that sinister remark of Tolstoy’s that is the title of one of Peter Taylor’s books, “Happy families are all alike.” For these families are not distinguished by great rises or falls, by excesses or defects of character, or even by interesting eccentricity. They are the normal sort for their time and place.
Taylor’s stories one after another in turn tell what it means to be father or mother, son or daughter, aunt, uncle, servant, in these homes. The many stories have not formed novels, except once, because these lives must be among the most uneventful in human history. The children grow, court, marry, become fathers and mothers, and of course die; but this all happens at home, as it were, in a decent family circle. The small particular rituals for these events that this class and place have developed are presented in these stories with good humor, even with affection. Each of them, in its performance, shows how the members of this society make their way into it, and each of these rituals points to the central truth of this society. The truth is that this warm circle is a desperate one, surrounded by a cold vacuum and surrounding a cold vacuum. There is no outside alternative to this family circle but emptiness, and within it, at its center, is emptiness. The circle itself survives by exclusion, exclusion of two things: thought and feeling.
What is left, with neither thought nor feeling? There are meals, the continual daily preparation and serving of the fat of the land to the assembled kin at the dining room table. There are games. There are dances. There are vacations; and, of course, births, marriages, deaths. But chiefly there are the endless efforts of daily preservation of the ranks in amenities of the family circle. Those inside must be kept in and those outside must be kept out. Since neither badges of station nor considerations of personal feeling make any part of this ranking, it is a subtle and arduous process. No one is ever really safe; a servant can displace a mother. And sooner or later any participant in this struggle learns that it is a circle of strangers after all. Yet not to be a part of this circle, to be a forlorn maiden aunt, a bachelor, the wife of a Jew, or worst of all, a motherless child, is to breathe the impossible air of interstellar space. And to display thought or feeling, either one, can cast you out there.
Taylor’s stories are made up so much of the small actual moments and hours and days of these lives, so little of contrived incidents or occasions, that it is impossible to summarize most of them. The things excluded from these stories are more easily named than the things included. Of a convenient list of current literary concerns—someone said they are the things Norman Mailer writes about—only two appear in these stories, sex (because these are family stories) and, more notably, Negroes (because these are sometime-Southern families, and because for Taylor, as for James Baldwin, Negroes are the reservoirs of all the feeling and also of all the thought that middle-class Americans have denied). The other things appear no more in these stories than they do in the minds of this society. “Such obsessive themes in American life,” the list goes, “as war, sex, politics, the beat generation, the orgy, homosexuality, psychoanalysis, jazz, the Negro, the Jew, the Marxist, the literary scene, the mass media, marijuana, murder, the psychology of violence, and a hearty dozen of other such preoccupations.”
These are not the themes of Miss Leonora When Last Seen. Nor are religion, money, hydrogen bombs, poverty, civil rights. Perhaps it is to seek such things that we turn our backs on the Middle West. But how does the Middle West turn its back on any kind of thought and feeling, not only on these obsessions? “If you are convinced that your strongest feelings are wrong when you are young, it makes a difference—all your life….” So says the heroine of Taylor’s play, Tennessee Day in St. Louis. Plays have to be explicit. “It’s part of being an American,” she also says. “Intellectual ideas just don’t get through to us unless we happen to grow up among artists of some kind.” But all societies must repress our “strongest” feelings. This society seems to repress them all. We can see this happening to a little girl in “A Spinster’s Tale,” to a little boy in “The Scoutmaster,” to adolescents in many stories, to mothers, to old men. And these are good, gentle people. They accept the conditions forced gently upon them and gently they enforce these conditions on others. They wonder sometimes if there may not be something more: mothers, as in “A Wife of Nashville” or “A Long Fourth,” may be stricken senseless with grief when they discover that their Negro servants are more loved and loving than they. Young men, even after they themselves have become heads of houses, may wonder if there is not something more than this to being a man. But they learn that there is not.
This situation, this family circle of strangers, has no remedy, no alternative; that is the story, as it is the story for the Middle West middle class. The only thing that can happen to these people is that the best of them come to realize their situation and then conduct themselves inarticulately well under the circumstances. That is why their lives can be told in short stories, the form that has for its usual dramatic action the access of some awareness to hero or heroine. They discover, if they are so lucky or unlucky, the terms of their lives. Then they continue their pleasant existence, and beneath that pleasant surface there is nothing to find but a dull complacency in the men and a dull pain in the women.
One of the minor stories of such discovery that can perhaps be summarized is “Two Pilgrims,” a tale of initiation into this emptiness. Here it is characteristically a comic initiation. A boy is driving his uncle and a friend from Memphis to a small town in Alabama. Typically, the men do not speak of their impending lawsuit—there is as little “downtown” in these stories as there is in James, and perhaps for better reason, for this class maintains itself quite without effort—they only gossip comfortably about the bleak and savage history of the country they pass through. They come upon a burning cabin by the road. Without hesitation the two middle-aged men “with sizeable stomachs that began just below the breastbone” pull their coats over their heads and dash in and out through the flames, pulling out the sad household articles. The boy watches. Then the poor slattern of the house rouses herself to scream, “My baby! Oh, Lord, my baby! He’s in thar!” The boy dashes in this time, with his uncle, into the burning and falling rafters, and out again. The baby, of course, is not there at all. They drive off and neither man mentions the incident again. To summarize the boy’s reaction, though, is not easy: he says he is glad to get out of this ugly, god-forsaken country. The men are almost contemptuous: “Every countryside has its own kind of beauty. It’s up to you to see it, that’s all.” What the men pretend to see is what used to be there, years ago, “the prettiest stand of timber on the continent.” The boy is left to learn to see what is not there, and to learn man’s business of saving the non-existent inhabitants of worthless houses.
Because these stories are told with humor, grace and affection, they are able to tell a truth about this society that an unfriendly story-teller would not know how to tell. For this is not a coarse, opulent “bourgeoisie”; our ignorant sense of the way they live, drawn from notions of the country club and the houses around it, is correct. These people live well and are kind to one another.
I wonder only how long it may last. The young may not be taking it as well as they once did. Several of Taylor’s more recent stories are more by way of being fables than were his others; they are stories of courtship and marriage, and in them the young men and the maidens move like fairy-tale figures into their fates. “The time was at hand, the time for each of them to meet the right someone, to fall desperately in love, to get married. They were a sleeping beauty and a sleeping prince waking, conveniently, at the same time and in the same place. It would have seemed a profanation of the miracle to say that in their long sleep they had dreamed anything sweeter or nobler than the love which they were created for and which was going to light them through the rest of their waking life. Whoever said so was a liar.” But in this story both sleeping beauty and her prince refuse their proper roles, and their engagement party at the Hunt and Polo ends in a perverse climax of muck, sex, and death that might have been a product of the “obsessed” imagination of Norman Mailer himself.
The feelings and perhaps the thoughts that have been denied for a couple of generations are breaking in again, rising now to trouble the surface of this careful society. The new people are no longer stupid in the good old day-to-day style, they are stunned, and if they open their eyes even once they will know they are stupid. The wisdom of denial comforts them no longer.
By insisting on their locale and their theme, I have given no idea of the variety of Peter Taylor’s stories. His new collection shows this range, and here and there shows what may be his occasional weakness, that he views this society sometimes too much from the inside and with as little sense of possible alternatives as the society itself has. Once at least, in the title story, there is some quite incredible “Southern” sentimentality.
But finally the middle-class American Middle West does not contain all the truth there is in many of these stories, any more than all the truth of Chekhov was contained in pre-revolutionary Russia. The terms are always local, but humanity always has its terms. One of the local terms, as I have said, is that it is left to the Negroes to be the most fully human, to have the warmest feelings and the deepest thoughts. They are also in action the most effective. The white men rush playfully through a burning house to save a child that isn’t there. In a wonderful story, “Bad Dreams,” a very old Negro man saves—or only comforts from its nightmare, the ambiguity is typical, as is the complication that he must do it to make a place for himself in the family circle that doesn’t want him—the baby of a young Negro mother and father. The old man, “a dirty, ignorant, old tramp of a Negro,” having done what he could as a man do, receives then, lying awake in the dark of a servant’s quarters over a stable, thoughts that encompass and forgive us all for the lives we have tried to make, being human, wherever we are.
June 11, 1964