Let’s imagine a street of big houses in the 1930s—deep lawns, servants in the kitchen, and a clear sense of who belongs and who doesn’t. The paperboy doesn’t. The neighborhood girls may be sweet on Tom Bascomb, but he lives in an apartment building and even at thirteen everybody knows that he doesn’t quite fit in. The elderly Dorset siblings do, simply because they always have. Their ancestors made money in town before moving on to the West, and they belong even though their house lies near ruin and they have grown shabby. Brother and sister are forever speaking of what they’ve sacrificed for each other, and the neighborhood parents find them unspeakable. Yet they wouldn’t dream of keeping their boys and girls from the children’s party the Dorsets give each year; an invitation to that oddly indecent affair has become a “way of letting people know from the outset who you were.”
“Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” first appeared in The Kenyon Review and won the 1959 O. Henry Award as the year’s best short story. A print of the Bronzino painting that provides its title hangs on the Dorsets’ wall, and a plaster replica of Rodin’s Kiss sits embowered in an arrangement of paper flowers. The old couple describe their annual evening as a dance, but they’re the only ones ever to take the floor; they waltz beautifully together, too beautifully, and the children know that such a pair shouldn’t. This year’s party will, however, have a surprise, for little Ned and Emily Meriwether have decided to smuggle in their paperboy. They will make Tom pass as if he were Ned, and at a certain moment he will cover Emily’s face with kisses.
The short story writer Peter Taylor was born in Tennessee a century ago, and described this sad and intricate comedy as an allegory: its characters may all be white, but its concern with passing and incest does seem to align it with the great questions of Southern fiction. That’s not wrong, and yet it’s not entirely right either, for in its last pages the story twists, in a way that anticipates Alice Munro, and the work we finish isn’t quite the one we thought we were reading. A first-person narrator appears, who years later uses the old tale of the Meriwethers’ prank to show a newcomer how things once were in this closed and settled world. The folly doesn’t belong to the Dorsets alone, and by its end the story has gone deep into the history of the region’s settlement, and become a rueful account of the tension between rootedness and restlessness in American life itself.
That indirection is typical of Taylor’s best work, and that tension is something he knew a great deal about. He came from a small cotton town called Trenton, a county seat northeast of Memphis where the men in his family practiced law and owned land; his mother’s family was from Tennessee’s eastern end, and her father had served as its governor. But in the 1920s the Taylors began to move. His father wanted more than the small town could give him and joined an investment company in Nashville, where he had earlier been a Vanderbilt football star. Business success then took Hillsman Taylor to a grand house in St. Louis; a Depression-era failure brought him to a modest one in Memphis. More modest, I should say—his reverses were temporary and the family always kept a cook and a chauffeur at the least, invariably black men and women from “home” in Trenton.
Such moves gave Taylor some of his richest material, and not only for A Summons to Memphis (1986), the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel he wrote in his late sixties. His characters often start in a place like Trenton—he called it Thornton in his fiction—and may even believe they’ll return someday, back to a place “where their name will mean something to them.” In the meantime, however, they have become city people, some making their own migrations north, to Chicago or New York, others at home in the newly booming big cities of the upper South, comfortable wherever there’s a country club and someone to vouch for them.
Taylor had found that urban professionalized world by the time he published his first book in 1948, a collection called A Long Fourth, and as Robert Penn Warren noted, he was then “the only writer who has taken this as his province.”1 It’s a milieu that in some ways resembles John Cheever’s Westchester more closely than it does William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha; and Taylor’s imagination lies nearer to Edith Wharton than Eudora Welty. In some ways, not all; we will come back to those servants.
It was also a world Taylor wanted to leave—to go north for college and study literature, even as his father insisted upon Vanderbilt and the law. Neither caved; the boy stayed home and then signed up for a class at the local college—and got lucky. His freshman English teacher in the spring of 1936 was Allen Tate, who soon passed him on to Vanderbilt and his own mentor, John Crowe Ransom. That was something his father could accept; safety lay in being taught by southerners, even about books.
In Taylor’s Nashville fraternity house he met a recent graduate called Randall Jarrell, and the two of them followed Ransom to Kenyon College in Ohio, where they found another of his acolytes, Robert Lowell, a transfer from Harvard. Lowell and Taylor were roommates during their last two years of college, combative but inseparable, and the Tennessean wrote of their friendship in a fondly comic story called “1939.” Jarrell was their housemaster. Taylor stayed friends with both, and spoke at each man’s funeral; he himself died in 1994.
But the teachers may have mattered more than the friends. Ransom and Tate had started as poets and then tried to turn themselves into social critics as part of the collective behind a 1930 book-length manifesto called I’ll Take My Stand. Not against the North, or not only. The real enemy for newly citified “Twelve Southerners” was modern capitalist society, and they looked to an imagined agricultural past, an ordered traditional society, as an antidote to the present. Taylor was drawn to those ideas, but he also recognized their fantasy. For one thing, there wasn’t a clear split between the country and the new businessman’s South; his own family history showed that, and undercut the nostalgia with which the Agrarians saw places like Trenton. Nor could he forget about the black people whom they tended to write out of their picture.
What Taylor really got from his teachers was their next act, in which literature itself became an alternative to the world of getting and spending, a privileged realm of ideal forms and equipoise, of balanced periods and paradox resolved. Over time it became known as the New Criticism, and among its progeny were the little magazines in which he published many of his stories, quarterlies like The Southern Review and The Kenyon Review, and the creative writing programs in which, from the late 1940s on, he would teach and make his living.2
Tate later claimed he had little to show Taylor, that even as a teenager he owned a finished style. This new edition of his complete short fiction leads off with the stories he wrote in his twenties, and though he’s yet to find his voice they all remain readable; one of them approaches perfection, an account of young marriage called “Rain in the Heart.” Still, his first fully mature piece is “A Long Fourth,” a story that Sergeant Taylor finished in England not long after VE Day. He typically tells several stories at once, and on this holiday weekend each of the characters has his or her own going on alongside the others. The center of it all, however, is Harriet Wilson, a Nashvillian “just past fifty,” who wants to make something perfect out of her son’s last visit before he joins the army. Meanwhile her longtime cook, Mattie, fears that her own nephew, B.T., will be drafted, and Harriet consoles her with a hug.
Yet when Mattie says that for her B.T.’s going will be “like you losin’ Mr. Son,” the white woman backs off. “How dare you? That will be just exactly enough from you!” Just exactly enough. Harriet wears out a rocking chair in anger, marvels that she didn’t answer with a slap, and feels that the “open comparison of Son’s departure to that of the sullen, stinking, thieving, fornicating black B.T. was an injury for which Son could not avenge himself.” Her husband knows none of this, but when he later asks her to intervene in a quarrel between Mattie and her nephew, she feels him “making a larger and more general inquiry into her character than he had ever done before.” And she will have no answer.
The New Criticism gave the young writer the belief that a fictional page could be as compressed and elliptical as a sonnet, along with an emphasis on voice and tone and point of view that taught him how to place and judge his characters without ever saying so. That aesthetic worked perfectly with short fiction—better in fact than it did with novels. I don’t think it’s an accident that the New Critics’ influence coincided with the greatest age of the American short story, the thirty years or so that began with Welty’s A Curtain of Green (1941) and that included Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, J.F. Powers and Jean Stafford, Bernard Malamud and Taylor himself. “A Long Fourth” has an extraordinary technical assurance, dropping into Harriet’s mind for a grimly revealing sentence or two, or showing how her speech changes to match the person she’s talking to; there are racial epithets she won’t use in speaking to the girl her son has brought down from New York.
Its real achievement, however, lies in its sense of moral balance, the empathy with which it depicts a woman up against the limits of her world and her mind, even as it never spares her for having accepted those limits in the first place. In a 1985 interview Taylor said that he saw two things when he began to write. One was how consistently black people got the “short end” of the Southern stick. That wasn’t always obvious to writers of his background, and the second thing was less obvious still: the degree to which women got the short end from men. His own impulse was to try to understand “what other people unlike yourself are like,”3 and in the 1950s that meant stepping inside their subjectivity with a freedom—a privilege?—that few in his position would assume today.
The test case here is a 1951 New Yorker story called “What You Hear from ’Em?” The question belongs to an old woman in Thornton called Aunt Munsie, one she asks about the white children she raised, men who have long since moved away and now have children of their own. What she wants to know is when they’re coming back—back for good, not just a visit—and the business of the story lies in charting her growing awareness that they won’t, that they’ve made lives in which she can have no part. Taylor slips inside the character’s mind enough to show her contempt for the “utterly fool answers” her question usually gets, or for the “shiftlessness” of those whites without the energy to have left this backwater in the first place. But the story more often looks at her from the outside, seeing her as the white town does, and the Thornton it shows us seems without racial tension; a firmly inscribed racial hierarchy, yes, but with great good feeling and no sense on anyone’s part that things ever could or should be different.
So in reading it one at first feels a touch of anger, not at Thornton but at the work itself; a sense that it hasn’t quite seen its own point, that in Chekhov’s terms Taylor hasn’t stated the problem correctly. Yet you can never judge one of his stories before the end, and its last sentences reveal how fully ironized his use of the white town’s point of view has been throughout. He’s channeling its choral voice, working it alongside Aunt Munsie’s, and that ventriloquized paternalism shows just how much Thornton has missed about her, and about what it calls its “other old darkies” as well. “What You Hear from ’Em?” takes an awl to anyone who might find her quaint, its readers included, and the more I read it the less uncomfortable I become; or rather the less uncomfortable with Taylor’s own performance.
Still, such stories invite their own misreading; they are tightropes from which it’s all too easy to fall, and Taylor did not keep walking that wire into the civil rights era. He was never prolific. By the mid-1960s he had published four volumes of stories along with a little-read novel called A Woman of Means; but his production had already slowed and he filled out Miss Leonora When Last Seen (1964) with work recycled from earlier collections. What didn’t slow was his rate of motion. For the first twenty years after the war he skipped restlessly from one teaching job to another: Indiana, Chicago, and Ohio State; back to Kenyon for a bit, and repeatedly with Jarrell at Greensboro. Then in 1967 he settled into a job he decided to keep, at the University of Virginia, while also spending a few terms at Harvard.
Poets and fiction writers had always had an occasional place in the American university; Frost remains the classic example. But after the war that place became regularized, institutionalized. Taylor belonged to the first generation to benefit from what Mark McGurl has called “the program era,” the first in which it became common—indeed the norm—for writers to support themselves by the teaching of creative writing itself.4 The kind of fiction he wrote seemed to offer a codifiable, workshop-ready body of technique, and a faculty salary provided an incongruous relief from what he saw as a soul-killing professionalism. It freed the Agrarian in him from having a daily quota of words to finish and sell.
A fortunate man, one might say—and yet something happened to him in the 1960s. Taylor had had a contract with The New Yorker since 1948, giving it first refusal on his work, and its editors had taken more of his stories than not; my own favorites include “Two Ladies in Retirement” and “Reservations: A Love Story,” in which an accidentally locked door leads to some bitter wedding-night truths. But now the magazine stopped buying—and in most cases rightly so. Much of the fiction he wrote in that decade is far more formulaic than his earlier work, short clipped tales that end with a regulation epiphany. They are weak enough to make me think that the Library of America would have served his case better by publishing a single, slightly thicker volume of his stories, as it did with John O’Hara.
There were other frustrations as well. Taylor wrote a series of unproduced plays, and tried for years to finish the major novel his publishers had always demanded. Short stories were luxury items. They got you the esteem of your peers, and yet in the American century even one of the form’s masters was expected, and expected himself, to do something more.
His biographer says little about these failures, and if there were any crises off the page he remains too discreet to mention them.5 But only at the end of the decade did Taylor begin to find a second act. “Dean of Men” (1969) is cast in the highly unreliable voice of a college president, a man bemoaning his son’s long hair and wondering “whether you or that young girl you say you are about to marry is going to play the male role in your marriage.” To set the boy straight he tells him a set of stories about the betrayals his grandfather, his father, and he himself have suffered at the hands of the men they trusted—political allies, business partners, university colleagues. His grandfather became an “embittered old man,” and his father was “lonely and bored.” But he has become a success, helped by his own tightly buttoned lip, his sense of when not to complain. Of course “one sacrifices something” for that success, including perhaps “the love, even the acquaintance of one’s children. One loses something of one’s self even.” That, however, is what it takes to be a man; that’s the one “essential” thing his son must hear. Only who, in hearing it, would ever want to play that part?
Taylor had written of his female characters in the third person, but from now on he almost invariably chose the first person, and adopted a point of view superficially like his own: a southern male of the same age and cushioned upbringing, and with some of the same family history as well. There would be other blind alleys over the next few years. He tried a set of one-acts with ghostly themes, and experimented with what he called “stoems,” verse narratives that read like scenarios for stories he didn’t write.
“Dean of Men” nevertheless gave him the model for a series of long tales about the relations between the generations, tales about the way we miss out on our own lives, concerned with the difficulty—the impossibility—of ever fully “understanding what has happened to us,” and why. “The Captain’s Son,” “The Old Forest,” A Summons to Memphis: they return obsessively to the Tennessee country in which Taylor’s imagination was rooted, to the cities of his childhood and adolescence. Each of them features a narrator recalling the scenes of his past, a long-ago and yet entirely present world; more present, paradoxically, than it would have been in the 1940s or 1950s, when it hadn’t begun to be forgotten. And what those narrators remember above all is the things they didn’t do, and the words that nobody said.
With A Summons to Memphis Taylor finally wrote the significant novel that had been too long predicted of him, and was pleased and surprised by the sales and the prizes that greeted it. My own choice among these late works is, however, “In the Miro District,” a 1977 fabliau about a Jazz Age Nashville teen whose grandfather finds a naked girl hiding in his wardrobe; it was the only place he could think to put her once they heard the old man’s car in the driveway. Of course there’s more to it than that. Major Manley is both a Confederate veteran and a country lawyer who stood up to the nightriders, and he’s forgiven the narrator’s earlier peccadilloes. But this time it will snap their relationship and change the major’s attitude toward everyone around him. Decades later that onetime boy will still see the moment as a question for which there is no answer, and find himself thinking about it “whenever I am lying awake at night or when I am behind the wheel of my car on some endless highway.”
The stories in these volumes define their time and place with an unrivaled precision; they offer a complete account of their milieu. Not everything here seems worth preserving, but “In the Miro District” and a good two dozen more have earned their permanence.
Robert Penn Warren, “Introduction” to A Long Fourth. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Peter Taylor, edited by Hubert H. McAlexander (G.K. Hall, 1993), p. 74. ↩
On the relation of Agrarianism and New Criticism, see especially Mark Jancovich, The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1993). ↩
Interview with J. William Broadway, The Chattahoochee Review (Fall, 1985). Reprinted in Conversations with Peter Taylor, edited by Hubert H. McAlexander (University Press of Mississippi, 1987), pp. 78–79. ↩
Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2009). ↩
Hubert H. McAlexander, Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2001). ↩