Analysis of Peter Taylor’s A Spinster’s Tale

In terms of both his life and his work, Peter Taylor (1917–1994) proves a good representative of the literary generation that provided a transition between the southern renaissance and the post–southern renaissance period. Born into an extended political clan with agrarian roots in western Tennessee, the young Taylor frequently relocated with his parents as they tracked his father’s business career to the cities of Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis. Taylor continued to pursue his education at Southwestern College in Memphis, before following his English instructor, Allen Tate, to Vanderbilt, then John Crowe Ransom to Kenyon (A.B. 1940), and finally Robert Penn Warren to Louisiana State for a short stint of graduate study preceding four years of military service during the war. Many of Taylor’s stories were in print for almost a decade before his first book, A Long Fourth and Other Stories, appeared in 1948 with a laudatory introduction by Warren. It was the earliest of eight collections that punctuated his long career of university teaching, most notably at North Carolina–Greensboro and Virginia. All of his short fiction was critically well received, along with his several plays, but it was his two late novels—A Summons to Memphis (1986) and In the Tennessee Country (1994)—that finally won him wide popular recognition. Taylor received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1987 as well as other honors that really had been better deserved by both the quality and the quantity of the short fiction he had published over four decades.

Written while he was still an undergraduate student, “A Spinster’s Tale” is Peter Taylor’s first story to achieve a mature level of mastery that demonstrates the characteristics he evidenced in his finest fiction. Most criticism of Taylor’s work correctly sees his power in the creation of character rather than of plot, or in style rather than in action. His stories are focused on psychological insights into his protagonists that are revealed by nuances of feeling and mood more than by dramatic events or remarkable revelations. Although the primary influences on Taylor were the writers of the southern renaissance, particularly the Fugitives and the Agrarians, his fiction also is compared quite favorably to that of Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Thomas Mann. Often the most memorable figures Taylor creates are women, especially women limited in their personal spheres by a patriarchal southern society, and even his portraits of men are usually of sensitive sorts unable to fit the masculine roles dictated by traditional southern culture. Taylor’s typical settings in the small cities of the Upper South highlight the ambivalence of such characters in their personal transitions from an agrarian past to an urban future. The old orders of southern culture disintegrate in an aggressively commercial society left with only the pretenses of real traditions.

Peter Taylor/Memphis Magazine

“A Spinster’s Tale” provides a fine example of Peter Taylor’s particular strengths as a modern fictionist working within the changing South. First of all, the story is essentially a study of its title character, the middle-aged “spinster” who recalls a significant passage of her youth. She is 13-year-old Betsy when the events narrated begin, and 14-year-old Elizabeth when they conclude. This universal balancing point of puberty proves even more precarious in her particular case, as her mother has died in a late-life stillbirth. In her early adolescence, Betsy is left to grow up with her father and brother, along with the several black servants who maintain their large home in a settled Nashville neighborhood. Her mother’s death took place just the spring before the fall when the girl becomes aware of the neighborhood drunkard Speed, who soon embodies the living image of all the threats lurking beyond the lost safety of her childhood. In reality, Speed seems to be only a pathetic figure, the failed scion of another disintegrating Church Street family who now lives with his “old maid” sister. Betsy formalizes this apparition as “Mr. Speed,” but he is simply “Old Speed” to her father and brother, and with his bachelor brothers, her father refers to the old man affectionately as “the rascal.”

The action of “A Spinster’s Tale,” as the protagonist narrates it to the listener, consists of a half-dozen sightings of Speed in varying states of drunkenness and disarray—two in the opening section of the story and one in each of the other four. After each of these encounters, Betsy is more and more preoccupied with the old man as the incarnation of all human disorder, imaged in bestial terms such as wild horses and intuited even in her father and brother. After each of her visions of Speed, the girl attempts to communicate her fears—first to her brother, then to her father, and at last to her uncles. All of the men attempt to reassure and comfort her, but their matter-of-fact attitudes about Speed seem to mask a grudging masculine admiration of the old reprobate. Over the seasons from fall to winter to spring, Betsy matures into Elizabeth. The young woman now wears her hair up in a mature style, governs the servants as the mistress of the house, and realizes that she must face up to her own fears in the person of Speed. Elizabeth’s womanly development climaxes when the drunken Speed staggers through their doorway to escape a sudden downpour, and she calls the police to cart him away in their “Black Maria.” Decades later, Elizabeth’s retelling of this incident reveals her sense of its importance, though seemingly without her realization that it is this very refusal to accept the reality of human disorder that has made her a “spinster.”

Criticism has always been very positive about “A Spinster’s Tale,” as it has been about Peter Taylor’s fiction generally, especially his short fiction. Indeed, this is a beautifully rendered story, a masterpiece of understatement, as Taylor’s spinster narrator constructs her own identity in language worthy of Henry James’s most complex heroines. The setting of Nashville in the 1910s is likewise wonderfully realized, with local details such as Centennial Park and national ones such as the advent of the “horseless carriage” capable of even more fearful speed than wild horses. Although Elizabeth’s tale is told essentially within the walls of her family home, issues of gender, race, and class emerge in her relation to her family, their black servants, and the local tradesmen. Against this reaslism of setting, however, Taylor plays surrealistic imagery borrowed from literary fantasy and drawn from literal dreams; Elizabeth’s painful maturation recalls to mind her reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, while her own dreams recycle similar images of grotesque growth and fantastic journeys. “A Spinster’s Tale” balances between the realistic depiction of a changing South typical of Taylor’s models in the southern renaissance and the psychological deconstruction of that artistic vision more typical of the post–southern renaissance fictionists who have acknowledged his influence—writers as much like him as Anne Tyler, Gail Godwin, and Ann Beattie or as different from him as Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell, or Larry Brown. This positioning would seem to assure the continued interest of contemporary readers in the fiction of Peter Taylor.

Griffi th, Albert J. Peter Taylor. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
McAlexander, Hubert H. Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Robison, James Curry. Peter Taylor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Stephens, C. Ralph, and Lynda B. Salamon, eds. The Craft of Peter Taylor. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Taylor, Peter. “A Spinster’s Tale.” In A Long Fourth and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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