During the 1940s and 1950s, a new literary generation provided something of a transition between the southern renaissance and the post–southern renaissance period. The Pulitzer Prize–winning fictionist Peter Taylor (1917–94) proves a good example of this transitional group in terms of both his life and his work, both of which are intertwined in one of his best-regarded stories, What Do You Hear from ’Em? The scion of an extended political clan with its agrarian roots in rural west Tennessee, Taylor was born in Trenton, Tennessee, the seat of Gibson County and a center for cotton farming and Democratic politics. Although he lived there for only his first seven years, the town he recreated as Thornton became Taylor’s own “little postage stamp of native soil” much like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Thornton serves as the immediate setting for several of Taylor’s best stories and as the cultural backdrop for his fiction, more typically set in the burgeoning cities of the Upper South. As are his own family, those discovered in Taylor’s fiction are making a difficult transition between an agricultural past and an urban future. In the most interesting Taylor stories, these old orders of southern culture, and even of its literature, are dissolving within an aggressively commercial society, so that they are left with only ironically interrogated pretenses of real traditions.
First published by the New Yorker in 1951, “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” became a part of Peter Taylor’s second collection, The Widows of Thornton, in 1954. The title of this cycle of short fiction indicates Taylor’s concerns with both the symbolic setting of Thornton and the central theme of familial disintegration. The families that interest Taylor most are ones much like his own, the “quality” people of their modest rural settings who leave for the greater opportunities afforded by southern urban centers, places close enough to allow for frequent visits to their home places in the country. Their relations are extended not just by distant ranks of white kinship but by close relations with shadow families of black servants. Circumstances often allow some of these black characters to function fully as family members, for better and worse, depending on their circumstances. For example, the central character of “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” is the black Aunt Munsie, who functions as the mother of the white Tolliver children after the untimely death of Dr. Tolliver’s “Molly darling.” Although the black woman raises “the whole pack of tow-headed Tollivers just as the Mizziz would have wanted it done” (39), this heroic effort is not without its human costs in terms of her own family and, ultimately, of her own identity.
In a later interview, Taylor indicated that Aunt Munsie was based on the “Mammy” of his own family and that most of the events in the story also have their basis in fact. Perhaps this is why Taylor chooses a third-person point of view in “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” despite his general use of first-person in his later fiction. The narrative voice seems much as if it is Taylor’s own—literate, reasonable, and sensitive— but as if it were located more firmly within the community of Thornton. It resembles Faulkner’s point of view in his famous story “A Rose for Emily” (1930), which is told by a narrating voice almost as if it were a chorus of community members. Taylor’s privileged narration looks back from the present “nearly thirty years ago” to the mid-1920s, when the pivotal action is set in just the same years when the young Taylor left Trenton with his parents to track his father’s successful business career to the nearby cities of Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis. The narrator knows Thornton both before and after this period, however, as he deftly outlines Aunt Munsie’s history back 80 years to her birth in slavery days and forward another two decades to her death.
The narrative voice begins the black woman’s story by glossing the title’s question, explaining that she continually asks the town’s whites what they have heard from Thad and Will Tolliver, “her two favorites” among the several she has raised. Both men have moved off, to Memphis and Nashville, respectively, in pursuit of business opportunities, and both have promised her that someday they will return “sure enough, once and for all” (25). Despite their promises, neither will ever go back, and the story turns on the old woman’s recognition of this hard fact. The Tolliver men have taken some care of Aunt Munsie, buying her a house and providing her a pension of sorts. The narrator makes it clear that she is not concerned with material support, for she has saved for her old age and still supports herself by keeping pigs and chickens. What Aunt Munsie really wants is the sort of filial attention that should be her right as the surrogate mother of the Tolliver family, especially as that role estranged the black woman from her own daughter, Lucrecie, who was sent off to be a servant with the white Blalock family.
The symbolic action of the story concerns Aunt Munsie’s peregrinations throughout Thornton in search of slop for her hogs as well as information about the Tolliver boys. On these trips to town, she pulls “a long, low, four-wheeled vehicle about the size and shape of a coffin,” hollering what most of the townsfolk hear as a beggar’s cry, “What You Have for Mom?” (30). More importantly, the businessmen on the courthouse square say that she obstructs traffic and impedes the image of progress they would like to project for Thornton. Most of the story involves the complicated machinations of the town fathers, the Tolliver sons, the white matriarchy, and Aunt Munsie’s returned daughter to force the old woman to give up her pigs. The council passes an ordinance against swine within the town limits after the Tollivers agree to recompense the two white pig owners, and the white widows of Thornton enlist the widowed Lucrecie to break the bad news to her mother. As Aunt Munsie drives her pigs to a farm out in the county, she tells these homeless creatures that Thad and Will Tolliver are never returning back to Thornton to care for her. The seventh and final section of the story functions as a brief coda that summarizes Aunt Munsie’s degeneration into the stereotyped black mammy, with bandana, stories of the Civil War, and memories of the aging Tolliver men as boys in short pants. “On the square she would laugh and holler with the white folks the way they liked her to” (47).
The critics have always been very positive about “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” much as they have about Peter Taylor’s fiction generally, especially his short fiction. Indeed, this is a beautifully realized story, a masterpiece of understatement, as Taylor’s choruslike narrator reads the symbolism of Aunt Munsie in terms usually reserved for the most complex heroines. The setting of Thornton in the 1920s is also wonderfully captured, with local details such as the courthouse square and Forrest’s raid in 1862, as well as national ones such as the triumph of the “horseless carriage” over the presence of livestock within town limits. Although Aunt Munsie’s tale is told within the boundaries of her extended family and its small town, larger issues of gender, race, and class emerge in her relation to the Tollivers, her black counterparts, and the local “white trash.” Against this REALISM of setting, Taylor plays with ironic imagery borrowed from more recent literary sources. “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” balances 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 later post–southern renaissance fictionists, many of whom have acknowledged his influence through his writing and his teaching at several universities. This positioning would seem to assure the continued interest of contemporary readers in the fine fiction of Peter Taylor.
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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. “What Do You Hear from ’Em?” In The Widows of Thornton. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954.