The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 119-122
[Access article in PDF]
Peter Taylor's Life in Motion
George S. Lensing
Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life . By Hubert H. McAlexander. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2001. 338 pp. $34.95.
Allen Tate said of Emily Dickinson that she lived in "the perfect literary situation" in New England. She was able to focus her art at a juncture between Hawthorne's world of Christian redemption, then drawing to a close, and a newer, more Emersonian one in which arose "the conformist idea of respectability among neighbors whose spiritual disorder, not very evident at the surface, was becoming acute." Peter Taylor, one of America's most gifted writers of short stories in the second half of the twentieth century, did not inherit Dickinson's reconfigured New England. His own world fixes on the northern boundary states of the South in the decades following World War II, but it was for him also a "perfect literary situation." An older order of hierarchical class and racial separation defined by rigidly held social mores was collapsing to be replaced by a largely homogeneous, standardized, and morally groundless middle class that was, in fact, misplacing its southern identity. Taylor's greatest work becomes enmeshed in the losses and gains of that transition, though for him, as for Walker Percy, the losses seem greater. Like Dickinson's emerging New England, Taylor's new South is one "whose spiritual disorder... [is] becoming acute." Though they are less frequently anthologized now, such stories as "The Old Forest" (perhaps his masterpiece), "In the Miro District," "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time," and "Miss Leonora When Last Seen" belong among the major achievements of the last century. His novel, A Summons to Memphis, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1986.
A handful of critical studies of Taylor's work have appeared in recent years, along with a collection of his interviews. Now, Hubert H. McAlexander, who edited the interviews, has published the biography Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life. The dominant impression that I came away with after reading it is that Peter Taylor became, for the whole of his life, [End Page 119] a "collector"—of geographical places, of friends, of houses, and, of course, his own fiction. For a writer who cherished the fixities and stabilities of a vanishing South, he became himself something of a rootless vagabond. Though married for over a half-century to the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor and fiercely loyal to and forgiving of his sometimes "difficult" friends such as Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell, he was also driven by a constant need to expand his circle of friends in the role of the affable, entertaining, and ever-energetic host and guest performing in the renewable glow of the cocktail-party ritual.
Born in Trenton, Tennessee (the model for his fictional town of Thornton), and growing up in Nashville and St. Louis, he finally settled with his family in Memphis when he was fifteen. He first attended Southwestern College in Memphis where he was the student of Tate; then Vanderbilt where he studied under John Crowe Ransom and met Jarrell; then Kenyon College where Jarrell and Ransom had relocated and where he became the roommate of Lowell. Here is a list of the various places where Taylor would live, for varying lengths of time, and which typically involved the purchase of a new home: Baton Rouge; Chattanooga; England (as an enlisted man during the War); Greenwich Village; Greensboro, North Carolina; Hillsborough, North Carolina; Norwood, North Carolina; Bloomington, Indiana; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Gambier, Ohio; London; Italy; Monteagle, Tennessee (to which he would return several times); Sewanee, Tennessee; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Charlottesville, Virginia; Key West; Augusta, Georgia; Gainesville, Florida; Washington, D.C., etc. The infancy and childhood years of his daughter and son never deterred the prospect of an immanent move. Just hauling the furniture around must have been a constant chore. Peter and Eleanor could not resist house hunting, house repairing, house occupying, and house selling: the cycle is repeated over and over. Every place introduced an entirely new circle...