In the Tennessee Country

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Peter Taylor was for years regarded by critics as the premier writer of short stories during the latter third of the twentieth century. Shortly before his death late in 1994, he published his second novel, In the Tennessee Country. Like much of his earlier fiction, this novel is set in his native Tennessee; also like most of his earlier fiction, it is retrospective, presenting as a central figure a person who looks back over significant events in his life, regretting some, comforted by others. Like all of Taylor’s fiction, In the Tennessee Country is low-keyed, beautifully crafted, and deeply perceptive.

On the funeral train bearing the body of Senator Nathan Tucker, former governor of Tennessee, from Washington back to his native state for burial, the senator’s four-year-old grandson and namesake, Nathan Tucker Longfort, is struck by the animosity in the look given him by a mourner in his early twenties. The man, Aubrey Bradshaw, remains in Nathan’s memory as stories about the older man accumulate in his mind. Aubrey, bastard son of the senator’s brother and a hill girl, had served as a kind of secretary to the elder Nathan Tucker when the politician was governor and had accompanied his uncle to Washington for his term in the United States Senate. Aubrey had paid court to each of the governor’s three daughters; he had especially been a suitor of Nathan’s mother while she was a teenager and had planned to elope with her. In the end, the elopement did not take place, and Aubrey left Tennessee—one of many men who simply disappeared and did not return. He reappeared secretly in Tennessee only for family funerals, at which he did not make himself known to his relatives.

Nathan Tucker Longfort grew up in households dominated by women. His father sickened and died when Nathan was still a boy, and the husbands of both of his aunts also met early deaths. The men in the family left him only the memory of lives dominated by regrets at their having missed the heroics of the Civil War.

Trudie Longfort made sure that her only child was looked after. She and her older sisters sheltered him from harsh realities and encouraged his artistic talent, hoping that he would become a famous painter. In grade school, a strong and athletic older boy took Nathan under his wing and taught him how to play baseball and football, so that the younger boy was accepted by his youthful peers. When he was old enough, Nathan was sent to a private boarding school; during these years he spent his weekends with his aunts and his mother, still under their care and guidance.

When the time came after his graduation from the University of Virginia, Nathan found an appropriate wife in Melissa, who would eventually reserve a corner of her life for the writing of short fiction, but who for the most part subordinated her own ambitions to take care of Nathan and supervise the rearing of their three sons and daughter. For most of his adult life, Nathan would continue to paint, reserving a time every morning to go to his studio for an uninterrupted hour or two, but he early gave up the notion of devoting his life to his own art, choosing instead a career as an art critic and writer about art.

This career, at which he was eminently successful, provided Nathan with increasingly important positions at various colleges and universities, from Indiana University and Kenyon College to the University of Virginia; he was in sufficient demand to be able to reject offers from Harvard and Yale universities. His early success, Nathan came to believe, was the source of envy and antagonism from faculty colleagues, and he welcomed the friendly overtures of the president of one of his universities. Realizing that he had come to the president’s attention because of his growing reputation in the academic world, Nathan nevertheless became a supporter of the president during some difficult times. His position during a particularly bitter controversy (based closely on an episode observed by Taylor at Ohio State University) caused great resentment among his colleagues and led to his accepting a position elsewhere.

Nathan’s special relationship with his youngest son, Brax, developed early. Brax alone in the family felt free to go to Nathan’s studio in the mornings when his father was painting, and Nathan allowed him to stay. Nathan, in his recollections, hardly seems to know the names of his other sons, but Brax is frequently present in his thoughts. Brax’s own interest in painting came in part from his early experiences, but his abilities and goals were far beyond Nathan’s limited...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)