Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Though he published several plays and novels, Peter Hillsman Taylor is best known as one of America’s finest short-story writers. From the 1930’s to the 1990’s his prizewinning narratives have continued to be regarded as major achievements in a golden age of short fiction writing. During an era of great social change, Taylor’s publication record was amazingly steady.
The settings of his fiction and his focus on upper-middle-class Southern culture have roots in Taylor’s own Tennessee background. Born in the rural Tennessee, Taylor at the age of seven moved with his family to Nashville, two years later to St. Louis, and then in 1932 to Memphis. After graduation from high school and a brief trip abroad, he enrolled at Southwestern at Memphis and became acquainted with Allen Tate, who was his freshman English instructor. In the next few years, in the course of transferring to Vanderbilt University and then to Kenyon College, Taylor met the significant critic-teachers and nascent poets who would prove to be not only major literary influences but also lifelong friends—Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. The formalist strain in these associations, as well as Taylor’s southern consciousness, was enhanced by his brief encounters as a graduate student at Louisiana State University with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.
Taylor was one of the American writers of the post-World War II period who was nurtured by academia and the critical support it gave to a generation of creative artists. In turn, many of the writers, like Taylor, reciprocated by becoming teachers in creative writing programs at various universities. Throughout his writing career, Taylor taught at universities as varied as the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Chicago, Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Memphis State University. As well as affording him an economic base, these involvements with higher education provided Taylor with consistent contact with American youth during a period of cultural turmoil.
Yet there is little evidence in his work that he was influenced by the radicalism manifested in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His fiction instead seems to reflect the steadiness of his personal life. While friends such as Tate, Lowell, and Jarrell underwent the anguish of divorce, had mental breakdowns, or committed suicide, Taylor’s life progressed...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Peter Hillsman Taylor grew up in middle-class circumstances in border states. His family moved to Nashville when he was seven, spent several years in St. Louis, and settled in Memphis when he was fifteen. Expected to follow his father and older brother into the practice of law, Taylor chose early to try to make his career as a writer. He studied with the poet Allen Tate. After a brief enrollment at Vanderbilt University, he preferred to follow the poet, editor, and teacher John Crowe Ransom to Kenyon College in Ohio. At Kenyon College, he was befriended by the poet and critic Randall Jarrell and shared a room with the poet Robert Lowell.
After service in the United States Army during World War II, Taylor took up teaching as a profession. Between 1945 and 1963, he held faculty appointments at Indiana State University and Ohio State University, and on three different occasions he was appointed to teaching positions at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1967, he accepted a professorship at the University of Virginia, where he remained until his retirement in 1984.
Success as a short-story writer came fairly early in his career. Prestigious magazines such as The Southern Review and The New Republic published some of his stories written while he was still in college, and his first recognition in Best American Short Stories came in 1941, just after his graduation from Kenyon College. By 1948, his work was appearing in The New Yorker, which over the next three decades would publish more than two dozen of his works. Popular success, however, waited until the publication of A Summons to Memphis in 1986. The novel was a best-seller and won for Taylor the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. One scholar has hypothesized that Taylor saw this as a means of gaining validation for his short stories, the genre he considered more demanding of real artistry. Taylor died on November 2, 1994, in Charlottesville, Virginia.