Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011
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 along more conventional lines. He remained married to Eleanor Lilly Ross, whom he had wed in 1943, and together they reared their two children, restored old houses, and pursued their respective writing careers. Eleanor Ross Taylor has published several volumes of poetry. After retiring from academic life, Taylor continued to write. He died of pneumonia, at his home in Charlottesville, at the age of seventy-seven and within weeks of the publication of his last work, In the Tennessee Country.
The family and its different generations and extended branches form the central matter of Taylor’s fiction and serve to structure his elaborate intertwining of social, psychological, and historical materials. Typically, the stories are tightly crafted, reflecting the influence of Taylor’s early teachers and his poet friends. At times Taylor worked from poetry to prose in composing his stories, and several of his later narratives have been published in verse form. Throughout his career, Taylor’s stories evidenced his formalist roots; they are invariably carefully articulated character dramas, modulated by his own delicate taste, demonstrating a controlled and complex set of implications. In one of his earliest and most successful pieces, “A Spinster’s Tale,” the narrator’s sense of being the only woman in the family is amplified and irritated by the idea of the town drunk, Mr. Speed, as the symbolic embodiment of what she believes is an uninhibited and untrustworthy masculine world surrounding her. In her ultimate encounter with this pathetic drunk at the story’s conclusion, she not only discovers that she has the emotional strength to summon the police but also begins to sense, with some fear, the cruelty that has been inextricably mixed in her newfound strength.
More typical of Taylor’s domestic analysis is “Guests,” a story examining the visit of country cousins, the Kincaids, to their city relatives, the Harpers. On the surface, the narrative presents a social comedy in which Henrietta Harper’s insistent social hospitality is adamantly resisted by a defensively proud Annie Kincaid, much to the discomfort of Johnny Kincaid, whose shifting dispositions seem so often the social prizes over which the women struggle. The hidden pathos of the growing personal distance created by different social histories is suggested in the speculations of the narrator, Edmund Harper, about his cousin Johnny: “Here is such a person as I might have been, and I am such a one as he might have been.” While Taylor’s characters do not often seem uniquely striking, the sense of the self weighing its enhanced or diminished social power creates a vividly convincing picture of the domestic history of an era.
“The Old Forest,” a story set in the 1930’s, sketches, through the puzzled desperation of narrator Nat Ramsey, the very different feminine possibilities of his working-class date, Lee Ann Deehart, and his upper-middle-class fiancé, Caroline Braxley. In the search for the mysteriously vanished Lee Ann the characters seem to gain insights that result in their being established more firmly in their respective social roles.
At its finest, Taylor’s fiction is an acute mixture of psychological insight tempered by acceptance and, at times, forgiveness, with an intense sense of history. As they interact, his characters often endeavor to experience other social possibilities, only to see at last in what they are not the labyrinthine cultural depths of their own social being. The calm, retrospective narration of his 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Summons to Memphis and of his last novel, In the Tennessee Country, continues this interplay of psychological and social consciousness. While Phillip Carver reveals in A Summons to Memphis the complex workings of family and of upper-class Tennessee society, his memories show him hovering, most of all, above his own sense of self.