Peter Taylor Essay - Taylor, Peter (Vol. 4)

Taylor, Peter (Vol. 4)

Taylor, Peter 1919–

Taylor is an American short story writer, novelist, and playwright. Considered a master of the short story, Taylor is usually associated with the so-called Southern Renaissance. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Over the years Taylor piled up a stodgily respectable list of honors, including Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Ford Foundation mementos. His stories turned up unobtrusively in prize anthologies and college textbooks, and he himself regularly manned lecterns at an assortment of universities, including Harvard and Oxford. The proper literary surveys gave him dutiful nods, and his unanimously delighted critics compared him not unflatteringly to Trollope, James, Katherine Anne Porter, Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Chekhov.

Yet, for all this, Peter Taylor is not much better known to the general American reading public now at the time of his retrospective Collected Stories than he was thirty years ago. New Yorker readers know him, and aficionados of Southern fiction, but who else? The sad fact is that in an age of exploitation, when pressagentry often means more than art, Peter Taylor remains a perfectly unpromotable writer, landing just as close to one end of the exploitation spectrum as Jacqueline Susann does to the other.

Take Taylor's typical subject matter, for instance. His protagonists are small town doctors and state senators and scholars on sabbatical, cotton brokers and colored cooks and country club brides—all remote in a thousand ways from the "relevant" obsessions of the sixties. Though Taylor deals with communication breakdowns between races and classes and generations, the resultant conflicts are personal, internalized, revealed in muted symbolic gestures rather than in shrieks and sorties….

There is no sensationalism, either, in Taylor's treatment of the South—no wild Faulknerian rhetoric, no violent melodrama, no Gothic grotesqueries. Taylor's Southerners are not the usual decadent aristocrats or earthy primitives; they are mostly unpicturesque well-to-do upper-middle-class urbanized professional people who have moved up from and out of small country towns to big Southern cities like Memphis or Nashville or even outside the South to foreign climes like St. Louis and Detroit and Chicago. Their lives have crises …, but they are more like the crises of Silas Lapham or Emma Woodhouse than those of Thomas Sutpen or Peyton Loftis….

[His] reputation at this point must rest almost entirely on his short fiction—some forty-odd stories spread out over three decades. These stories, moreover, are unapologetically old-fashioned: devoid of dazzling stunts or pyrotechnics, lucid in style, genteel in language, detached or gently ironic in tone, eschewing both the esoteric and the scatological, tantalizing neither the academic explicators on the one hand or the media markets on the other. The basic form Peter Taylor uses most frequently, in fact, is the memoir story—leisurely, digressive, reflective, casual but complex, sifting past experience through the time-wrought wisdom of a civilized intelligence.

Albert J. Griffith, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 6, 1970, pp. 516-18.

Taylor, in his later work, is able to create his effects with far less carpentry work and sheer words than he required when he began. [His] stories center on character and for this reason Taylor has been called the "American Chekhov." Actually, Taylor is, if anything, even more delicate in the way he proceeds by indirection and by irony to reveal the most heartrending apprehensions about humanity. His razor is so keen that the deepest cuts may go unnoticed; one can imagine a grandmother gently smiling over a story which would terrify her granddaughter. And here is the greatness of [his] stories. They offer something to every reader without descending to a mediocre level of technique or interest.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter, 1971), pp. xii, xiv.

While there is in these plays [Presences] a movement and tone in the dialogue I normally associate with poetry, there is something about the settings that is remarkable in quite another way. They have a pervasive "elegance"—sometimes fading, sometimes flourishing—that is unusual in modern American theater. The plays nearly always take place in houses that are very grand. Through the glass of fashion darkly, here are the gentry with a vengeance, in their parlors and bedrooms, all fiercely respectable, conscious of origins and with a sense of their own past. It strikes me that this socially ambitious concern for appearances—all that elegance and old-family vapor of prosperity—might be the very thing that inspires ghosts: a fear of failure calling up images of the dead. The banal formality of the lives—but that elegance is not every American's—somehow makes the specters more possible. It would be interesting to know if Taylor is aware of how select a crowd his haunted people are.

The publication of these seven plays will certainly establish Peter Taylor as a playwright of the first rank, excelling in both the technical and imaginative aspects of drama. It is not just that he has given the ghost a chance to make a comeback; he has added a dimension to dramatic experience by giving voice and shape to what is most private in our mental lives.

Paul Theroux, "Old-Family Vapors," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 25, 1973, p. 33.

Like his stories, Taylor's plays [Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces] are heavily concerned with family and place—and with people's uneasy experiences being in or out of these. At emotional quarters thus close, such "presences" are easily acceptable. Less acceptable are Taylor's awkward dependence on contemporaneous themes (drugs, abortion, homosexuality), and the absence of what gives his best stories their density—the restrained suggestion of turbulent drama, painstakingly rendered through social detail.

But he has found a fresh way of dramatizing the small agonies that boil insistently at the edges of our lives, yet seldom erupt into open confrontations. It is also a new way of presenting multiple viewpoints in conflict. This collection is a quiet, unpretentious contribution to the rhetoric of fiction, but it may prove a lasting one.

The Antioch Review (© 1973 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXII, No. 4, 1973, pp. 700-01.

Taylor's fiction takes up directly the subtle moral disarrangements and dislocations within a seemingly immobile middle class. Taylor is all fiction writer and does not seem to want to be anything more. The "little inch of ivory" on which everything is worked out gives his stories an effect of necessity and realization. The shifts are entirely within the stories, do not take us through those harshly contrasting changes of time, scene, history which in many big-writing Southern novelists embody violence to the person even when the novelist seems to be doing all the moving around….

[The] surface of Taylor's stories, entirely domestic, often suburban, conceals the intense Brownian movement of emotions under the surface. Yet these dislocations or rearrangements of authority are more than usually quiet; the manner of a Taylor story is entirely part of the manners it describes, and seems to follow from them; Taylor has just left the party to think it over, but will rejoin it presently….

There is far less violence in Peter Taylor than there is in Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor; but this seemingly intact world in which drama follows only from slight, soundless changes of consciousness has as its center a woman's sensibility precisely because of the contrast between the position she upholds and the slow, inner sapping of her life. The absence of "scenes," friction, strong movement of any kind, is the mark of a good breeding that seems to have worn the material smooth. The craftsmanship, like good manners, makes its points quietly; we are kept in a world in which nothing very much seems to happen only because Taylor is more chivalrous in writing about Southern ladies than they are in writing about themselves.

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 46-9.

In Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces, Peter Taylor explains that he has resorted to plays rather than fiction to present the experience of ghosts and fantasies because fiction requires too much artifice to present them convincingly, "whereas in a play, the ghost simply walks upon the stage. We do not question his presence." But there are as many kinds of stage ghosts as there are ways of being present. There is Hamlet's father and Mrs. Alving's husband and Maeterlinck's bluebird. Only one of Taylor's pieces, Maisie, deals with ghosts who are supernatural spirits rather than psychological projections; the other plays dramatize "conceits" about self-deceptions and illusions in the domestic conflicts of the upper-middle classes. The condensed form of the drama works against the delicacy of relationships that Taylor handles so well in his short stories. Ironically, then, the weakness of these dramatic playlets is that they show too much artifice, are too schematic and too neatly paradoxical, so that the effect is more often that of O. Henry than of Hamlet.

B. H. Fussell, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, p. 755.