The art of Peter Taylor (January 8, 1917 – November 2, 1994) is ironic and subtle. In a typical story, the narrator or point-of-view character is an observer, perhaps a member of a community who remembers someone or something in the town’s past that is puzzling or strange, or a character whose understanding of his or her life falls short of reality. In tone, the stories are deceptively simple and straightforward, masking their complex ironies in seemingly ordinary actions. Taylor does not experiment with form or structure in the manner of a Jorge Luis Borges or a Robert Coover, but his stories are not always about commonplace experience; the grotesque plays a major role in such stories as “The Fancy Woman” and “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.”
Low-keyed and rarely involving violent action, the stories are more complex in their effect than at first appears, often revealing more about the narrator or the society than about the character being described. Their settings are often in small towns or minor cities in the upper South, Tennessee or Missouri, places such as those where Taylor lived as a boy and young man. Familial relationships, including those between husband and wife, are often central. Racial and economic matters enter into many of the stories, but such major social issues are generally depicted in the context of the social interactions of ordinary people. Nevertheless, Taylor provides considerable insight into the effects of the radical changes that affected the South in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Dean of Men
Betrayal is a recurrent theme in Taylor’s short fiction, and it is no accident that the story he chose to place first in The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor is the relatively late “Dean of Men,” a recital of the history of the men in a family. The narrator, an older man and a successful academic, tries in the story to explain to his son the background of his career and his divorce from his first wife, the son’s mother. The story unfolds by an examination of the past, in which the narrator’s grandfather was a successful politician, governor of his state, and then U.S. senator. Younger men in his party persuaded him to give up his Senate seat and run for governor again to save the party from a man he despised, and he agreed. It turned out that the plan was intended to get him out of his Senate seat. As a result, he gave up politics in disgust and lived out his life an embittered man.
The narrator’s father was similarly betrayed by a man he had known all his life, who had installed the father on the board of a bank. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the friend promised to come from New York to explain doubtful investments he had made, but he never arrived, and the father was left holding the bag. In his turn, the narrator, as a young instructor in a small college, was used by other faculty members to block an appointment they all feared, but when the move was avenged by its target, the young man was left to suffer the consequences alone. In the aftermath, he left to take another job, but his wife did not go with him; both later remarried. The story is the narrator’s attempt to explain his life to the son who grew up without him. What the narrator is unaware of is the decline in the importance and stature of his family through the generations; his achievements and his place in life, of which he is unduly proud, are notably less important than those of his father, which were in turn significantly less than those of the grandfather. The entire family’s history is flawed by the men’s lack of initiative, their acceptance of what others do to them. This lack of self-knowledge on the part of a narrator will characterize Taylor’s first-person fictions as late as “The Captain’s Son.”
A Spinster’s Tale
The narrator’s or central figure’s ignorance of her or his own attitudes is present from the beginning of Taylor’s career, in his first published story, “A Spinster’s Tale,” a study of sexual repression. Taylor’s only explicit investigation of sexual deviance would come much later, in “The Instruction of a Mistress,” although “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” contains strong overtones of incest. In “A Spinster’s Tale,” the narrator, the spinster of the title, is a woman whose youth was blighted by her fear of an old drunk who often passed the house in which she lived with her father and brother. As she tells the story, it is clear that her fear of “Mr. Speed” is a transference of her inadmissible attraction to her older brother, who also drinks, often and to excess. She is unaware that her irrational fear is really fear of any kind of departure from the most repressed kinds of behavior. In the old man, drunkenness is revolting; in her brother, she fears it only because her dead mother had told the young man that he would go to hell if he continued, but her brother’s antic behavior when drunk exercises an attraction on her that she struggles to deny. In her old age, she still has revealing dreams laden with sexual implications. The betrayal in this story, of which she is only dimly aware, is the narrator’s calling the police to haul away Mr. Speed when he stumbles onto their lawn during a driving rainstorm. She acknowledges late in life that she had acted “with courage, but without wisdom.”
What You Hear from ’Em?
Betrayal of one kind or another seems to be almost inevitable in the relations between races, especially as those relations undergo the changes brought about by the Civil Rights movement and the push for integration. Since most of Taylor’s stories are set in the South of the 1930’s and 1940’s, those relations are often between masters and servants, but that will change in the later tales. “What You Hear from ’Em?” is written from the point of view of an old black servant, Aunt Munsie, who lives in retirement, raising pigs and dogs and a few chickens. Her only real interest is in the lives of the two white men she reared when their mother died, and the question she addresses to people she meets in her daily rounds asks when they will return to the small town where she still lives. Their visits to her, bringing wives and children and eventually grandchildren, do not matter to Aunt Munsie; things will not be right until they again live in Thornton, a Nashville suburb. The be trayal is by the two men. Worried by her refusal to acknowledge automobiles or traffic rules as she goes through town collecting slop for her pigs, they arrange for an ordinance to be enacted that will forbid pig farming within the town limits. Aunt Munsie knows what they have done; she sells her pigs and loses her individuality, becoming a kind of parody of an old former servant.
A Wife of Nashville
A different kind of betrayal and a different kind of response occur in another early story, “A Wife of Nashville.” On the surface, this is a story about a marriage between John R. and Helen Ruth Lovell, in some ways a typical southern couple. He has succeeded in the insurance business, but he has spent much of his time over the years with other businessmen, hunting and traveling. Helen Ruth, as a result, has been occupied with rearing her children, and her chief companions over the years have been the black women who have cooked and cleaned for her: Jane Blackemore, when they were first married; Carrie, during the time their two younger boys were born; Sarah, who at the age of sixty-eight left for Chicago and a new marriage; and Jess, hired during the Depression and the most durable and helpful of them all.
“A Wife of Nashville,” however, is only partly about the marriage and the rearing of a family. It becomes clear as the story develops that Helen Ruth’s genuine emotional life has increasingly been centered on her relationships with her servants and that they have been an integral part of the family. Jess, who does not drive a car herself, is essential to the boys’ learning to drive, a symbol of their adulthood. In the end, she concocts a scene to explain her leaving the family; Helen Ruth knows that the explanation is false and that Jess and a friend are leaving Nashville for what they think is a more glamorous life in California. The husband and sons are shocked and resentful at the way they think Helen Ruth has been treated by Jess; Helen Ruth herself, however, rejects their sympathy and refuses to share their anger. It is clear that she wishes she had a means of escape, even one as improbable as that taken by Jess and her friend. On another level, it is clear also that she, unlike the men in the family, recognizes the social changes that are under way, changes that will alter the ways in which the races will survive. Other stories having to do with difficult marital relations were written throughout Taylor’s career and include the early “Cookie,” “Reservations,” and “The Elect.”
Miss Leonora When Last Seen
Perhaps the story most typical of Taylor’s work, and one of the most powerful, is the one he chose to conclude The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor, “Miss Leonora When Last Seen.” Narrated by one of the middling successful men who populate this fiction, a small-town druggist, the story operates on several levels. It encompasses the narrator’s sadness at having to carry bad news to the woman who was his teacher and who had encouraged him to aspire to greater things than he was able to achieve. At the same time, it is a story about a town’s revenge on Miss Leonora’s family, the wealthiest and most powerful residents of the town; over the years, they had prevented every “improvement” that might have brought business and “progress” to Thomasville, using their influence to keep out the railroad, the asylum, and other projects that would have changed the town. Most of them moved away, but they retained the home place, and they continued to exercise their influence. Now the town has decided to condemn the old manor house in which Miss Leonora lives in order to build a new high school. The irony that Miss Leonora had been a superb teacher in the old school is not lost on the narrator.
More important, “Miss Leonora When Last Seen” shows the mixed blessings and curses of the old ways and of the changes that are coming to the “New South.” The old ways were autocratic and sometimes unfair, and they depended upon a servant class descended from slaves, such as the blacks who still live on Miss Leonora’s place. Modernity, however, may not be much of an improvement; the new high school is being pushed as a final attempt to avoid the supposed horrors of racial integration. The narrator is caught between these times and has nothing to look to for support.
While these elements are at work, and the narrator is showing his own lack of understanding of Miss Leonora, the story is presenting a picture of an eccentric but fascinating individual who has lived in Thomasville all her life, teaching, trying to inspire the young men who were her favorites to achievement, and living close to the blacks who still reside on the family property, which she has inherited. In her retirement, she has taken to traveling by car, driving always at night in an open convertible, wearing one of two strange costumes, and stopping at “tourist homes,” which were the motels of the time. Informed of the town’s decision, she has taken to the road. Postcards come from surrounding states, but “She seems to be orbiting her native state of Tennessee.” There is no sign that she will ever return; the old ways are indeed dead, and those who lived in the old way are anachronisms.
The Old Forest
“The Old Forest” is a good example of Taylor’s interest in the tensions between the Old and New South. The story’s action takes place in Memphis in 1937, although the story is told more than forty years later by Nat, the central character. Nat relates how in the 1930’s a young man in Memphis, even if he was engaged, might continue to go out with the bright young women he and his friends jokingly called demimondaines. These were intelligent young women who had good jobs, read good books, and attended concerts and plays. Nevertheless, they were not quite in the social class of Nat and his friends. The two groups went out for their mutual amusement without expecting long-term commitments, either sexual or matrimonial. Young men like Nat intended to marry duller girls of their own class who lived by the standards of the Memphis Country Club. Nat says that the demimondaines were at least two generations ahead of themselves in their sexual freedom, for although they did not usually sleep with Nat and his friends, they often entered sexual relationships with men they truly loved.
Although Nat is already working for his father’s cotton firm, he is also studying Latin in a lackadaisical way at the local college. His family ridicules his interest in Horace’s Odes, but he enjoys the distinction it brings him among his friends, even though he is nearly failing the course. This particular Saturday, about a week before Nat’s December wedding to Caroline Braxton, he invites Lee Ann Deehart, his “other” girl, to come out to the college with him while he studies for a test. On snowpacked roads in the primeval forest near the Mississippi, they have a car accident. Nat is slightly hurt and hardly notices that Lee Ann has climbed out of the car and disappeared in the snow and virgin forest. When she does not return to her boardinghouse that evening, Nat knows he must confess the affair to Caroline, who is surprisingly understanding and agrees that he must find her.
Lee Ann’s friends know where she is, but Nat soon realizes that she is deliberately hiding from him, and he fears the scandal when the story hits the newspapers. Especially he fears that Caroline will break off their engagement. In the end, Caroline is the one who finds Lee Ann and discovers her motives for hiding, motives which ironically involve her own fear of publicity and the identification of her family.
Throughout, Nat contrasts the Memphis of 1937 with the present Memphis and the two sorts of girls represented by Lee Ann and Caroline. Typically, Taylor invites the reader to take a slightly different view from Nat’s. For all her supposed dullness, Caroline uses real intelligence in finding Lee Ann and real compassion in responding to her crisis. Moreover, ten years later she supports Nat’s decision to leave cotton for a career teaching college. Caroline’s own analysis of what happened, however, is straight from the old forest of Memphis convention. She has not set herself free, she says, like Lee Ann, so in protecting Nat she has protected for herself “the power of a woman in a man’s world,” the only power she can claim.
Plays: Tennessee Day in Saint Louis: A Comedy, pr. 1956; A Stand in the Mountains, pb. 1965; Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces, pb. 1973.
Anthology: Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, 1967 (with Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren).
Novels: A Woman of Means, 1950; A Summons to Memphis, 1986; In the Tennessee Country, 1994.
Nonfiction: Conversations with Peter Taylor, 1987 (HubertH. McAlexander, editor).
Graham, Catherine Clark. Southern Accents: The Fiction of Peter Taylor. New York: P. Lang, 1994.
Kramer, Victor A., Patricia A. Bailey, Carol G. Dana, and Carl H. Griffin. Andrew Lytle, Walker Percy, Peter Taylor: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.
McAlexander, Hubert H. Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy.” The Southern Review 7 (Winter, 1971): 295-313.
Robison, James C. Peter Taylor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Samarco, C. Vincent. “Taylor’s ‘The Old Forest.’” The Explicator 57 (Fall, 1998): 51- 53.
Stephens, C. Ralph, and Lynda B. Salamon, eds. The Craft of Peter Taylor. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Taylor, Peter. “Interview with Peter Taylor.” Interview by J. H. E. Paine. Journal of the Short Story in English 9 (Fall, 1987): 14-35.