Peter Taylor Taylor, Peter (Vol. 1) - Essay

Taylor, Peter (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Taylor, Peter 1919–

A Southern American short story writer and novelist, Taylor is the author of Happy Families Are All Alike. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Although a comparatively young writer, Peter Taylor must certainly be considered a member of the Southern Renascence group. Allen Tate was his first mentor and John Crowe Ransom his second—the latter at Vanderbilt and then at Kenyon; Randall Jarrell was a close friend; and Taylor himself is a native of Tennessee…. Unlike the work of many of his fellow Southern writers, Taylor's is neither grotesque nor violent. Thematically, however, he shares much with them, dealing, as they all do, with the encroachment of modernity and the changing structure of the South. His subject matter is almost always the significance of this change; he shows the family and the individual adjusting to both loss and debatable gain. His characters are "normal" members of the middle-class, vulnerable before the ethically deteriorating influences of urbanization, industrialization and shifting social pressures which have destroyed a way of life and given no satisfactory substitute….

The place of Peter Taylor in modern short fiction is secure. In the years since his first publication as an undergraduate in 1937, he has built for himself a fine body of work, his own house of fiction. And as his skill has become more natural, more self-assured, he has struck more deeply into his subject matter, revealing with ever greater clarity the shifting and complex motives which drive his characters—and all men….

His books have, of course, been favorably reviewed in the major papers and periodicals; his work has been mentioned in studies of the short story and of Southern literature, and there have been a few articles analyzing his fiction. In general, however, his work seems to have caused no real critical excitement…. The very qualities which are so distinctive in his writing militate against him in this respect. His "acceptable" subject matter, his quiet style, his indirection and understatement are profoundly unlike the sensationalism, contortion and richly suggestive language of some of his fellow Southerners. His people are not grotesque, his action is not violent, his language is not flamboyant. Mr. Taylor's strongest impact comes through the quiet revelation of the unconscious complexity of human motivation, and his knowledge of the limited vision which determines our simplest actions.

Barbara Schuler, "The House of Peter Taylor," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 3, 1967, pp. 6-18.

Peter Taylor's fiction is haunted by memories of the real and illusory glories of a lost past…. His concern: the pathos of what is no longer (except in memory), of what may in fact never have been, of what of necessity is more vital than what is—the present in the process of change, the future frightening. His stories, set mostly in the middle south, are about the dissolution of a society, about the sorrows and imbalances of disorder, about an obsolescent (and quixotic) code of honor.

The voice of Peter Taylor's stories is deceptively gentle. There is violence and horror in his nostalgic comedies—the horror intensified by the matter-of-fact gentility of the narrative….

Peter Taylor's comedy requires, especially for a contemporary urban reader, a special tuning in if one is to hear its resonances. Like Lawrence's, Taylor's stories rely to a great extent on their rhythm. That is, the story's life (the life of its people) is deeply dependent on the way it is told, the rhythm of its telling, which is extraordinarily subtle and precise. There is great pleasure in a Taylor paragraph, if one, used to more frenetic contemporary styles, has the patience to savor it.

Jonathan Baumbach, in Moderns and Contemporaries: Nine Masters of the Short Story, edited by Jonathan Baumbach and Arthur Edelstein (© 1968 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1968, pp. 343-44.

The Southerners Taylor writes about … are those who stagnated because they did not move on, who fell into worship of an unreal past because they did not keep themselves refreshed by new ideas. This is Taylor's message, his heresy. He is a Southern writer who distrusts the past, a conservative writer who believes in change; those who see him as a stereotyped regionalist are themselves blinded by their clichéd responses to setting and style.

Jan Pinkerton, "The Non-Regionalism of Peter Taylor," in Georgia Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 432-40.

Taylor never distorts, never diminishes life to secure a resolution for art. The convenient and indulgent fiction of most storytelling—that emotions may be permanent, that revelations may be lasting—is never invoked. His characters are distracted when their sympathy is most required, silenced when they most require sympathy; and the lessons which they learn, or we learn, recede as each story closes, so that their wisdom, our wisdom, is at best a memory we can never be quite certain of. The most urgent cries of the heart are not heard at all, or heard too late…. [We] realize how scrupulously Peter Taylor avoids melodrama, how he refuses to deal in sudden and easy illuminations. What his characters are up against is circumstance, particularly the terrifying circumstance of their own preoccupations….

[The] rhythm of Taylor's stories carries us beyond the fiction of permanence. He demands of us our best emotions and leads us to some of our clearest discoveries—and never encourages our hope that these emotions and discoveries may be lasting. Our consolation is in the tone of his prose; [his] stories are so full of warmth, of concern and insight, that we must take heart. The resumption of Peter Taylor's voice with each story … demonstrates that even the most radical insight need not cause despair, that expense must be the form of our attempt to overcome the weight of life.

Stephen Goodwin, "Life Studies," in Shenandoah, Winter, 1970, pp. 100-02.

Peter Taylor has possibly come as close as any writer now living to achieving the unanimous critical approval of those—however few—who read him…. And yet, for all this unanimity of critical opinion, it is all too true that Peter Taylor is … one of America's "most underrated" as well as one of America's "finest" writers. For the fact remains that, however much those who read him admire him, Peter Taylor is still relatively unknown not only to the bulk of the American reading public but to the majority of critics and historians of contemporary literature. (Preface)

"The Scoutmaster," the first story in Peter Taylor's initial volume, A Long Fourth, epitomizes in many ways the themes and techniques that dominate Taylor's early stories and remain influential in the work of his later career. It not only introduces his favorite subject matter of urban Southern upper-middle-class domestic life and his favorite narrative method of the conversational digressive-reflective family chronicle, it also dramatizes basic insights about time, change, and cultural roles which receive frequent corroboration in his other works. (p. 28)

Peter Taylor's style [is one] which communicates with sensitivity the nuances of personal relationships. It is not the kind of style which hovers over external reality like a determined hummingbird sipping out the last drop of nectar. Matter-of-fact reality is presented matter of factly without stylistic grace notes. (p. 67)

Peter Taylor is first and foremost a Southern writer…. The South which Peter Taylor writes about is hardly recognizable as the one which inspired the earlier generation of writers in the Southern Literary Renaissance…. Just as Taylor almost always eschews the gothic distortion which turns action into violence and character into the grotesque, so too he avoids other types of exaggeration prevalent in much Southern literature. He does not, for instance, indulge in the fancy flights of rhetoric which make many Southern writers sound like Jefferson Davis Day orators; his style is cool, classically simple, urbane. Nor does he partake of the raw, earthy, frontier-type humor which dominates works like Faulkner's The Hamlet and Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom and which delightfully flavors the work of most contemporary Southerners…. Taylor also differs from many other Southern writers in that he does not try to enlarge his stories to epic proportions and therefore has no need to rely on a substructure of mythic parallels to carry the extra symbolic weight.

Despite these departures from some of the standard features of the so-called Southern school, Peter Taylor does in many ways reveal his kinship to his fellow writers in the Southern Renaissance. He has, first of all, that all-important sense of "place" which seems to color the whole sensibility of a Southerner…. Peter Taylor knows Southern culture in this prototypic form [that of the country town], but he also knows it … in two of its most important modern manifestations: the progressive urban center of the "New South,"… and the expatriate community pocketed in a Northern or Midwestern metropolis…. His stories concentrate on the relatively unexplored manners and mores of these two urban groups, especially as they relate back to the country town which ante ceded them. As a result, his fiction has a subject and a setting virtually untouched in the rest of contemporary literature.

Taylor also shares the typical Southern preoccupation with history, tradition, and change. Even here, however, Taylor's attitude toward the subject represents a significant shift: his tone is not so much nostalgic as it is ironic…. Finally, it may be said that Peter Taylor's affinity to the Southern Renaissance is found in his allegiance to certain institutional values largely disregarded in contemporary life…. Taylor is not "sociological," even in the flattering sense in which Tolstoy or George Eliot might be said to be so; the family in his work is not treated as an institution but as one part of a complex background for personal discoveries and developments. (pp. 155-58)

Limiting himself artistically to a narrow range of experience, Taylor nevertheless probes deeply within this circumscribed area, preferring generally to make a refinement on an old idea than to propose a totally new one…. His own philosophic position seems one of mild, gentlemanly skepticism. Like Chekhov, he is more inclined to try to state questions correctly than to attempt definitive answers…. He has the rare gift of being able to criticize and appreciate simultaneously, to mix nostalgia and irony in a compound which retains the piquancy of both. (p. 160)

Albert J. Griffith, in his Peter Taylor, Twayne, 1970.

Taylor's stories are like dreams: events are brought sharply into focus, magically and dramatically limited, a sequence of sensations and speech passes as if in no important relationship to the rest of the world. And then a mysterious "point" is reached, a point of surrender or relaxation, and the story is complete, completed. Taylor has always been admired by critics to whom the craft of art is extremely important. But he writes stories that are far more than neatly crafted; they are both hallucinatory and articulate, the violence of Taylor's vision being bracketed by, even tamed by, the intelligent and gracious voice of his typical narrators….

Taylor is obsessed with home towns. And he is obsessed with the convolutions of the past, the burden of old, heavy, expensive furniture, of peripheral, dying relatives, the teasing reassessments we make continually about our performances in the past (were we loved more than we could know? Did we fail to take advantage of that love?)—and the shadowy, alarming selves that appear in our memories, making ghostly claims upon us in the forms of grandfathers or fathers or random cousins. The family is a fierce institution, identifying and imprisoning us. And yet, when someone dies, even a distant cousin, we are deeply and personally involved….

He is certainly "Chekhovian" and "Jamesian"—not so much in style as in the precision of his imagination—and yet he is unmistakably himself, a man who writes with originality about subjects we have taken for granted….

[The] stories of Peter Taylor move us deeply, refusing as they do to imitate the formlessness around us (though the disintegration of a way of life is explored seriously by Taylor) by any mimicry of formlessness in art. Taylor's writing is always impeccable: he is a gentleman confiding in another gentlemen, certain of his mission and of his talent….

No one writes more beautifully than Peter Taylor of the tensions of love—not erotic love, but love of family, love of tradition. It is all passing, his people seem to say, lamenting the flow of time and rejoicing in it, sensing themselves increasingly cut off from their sources, from that deepest part of oneself that flows into personal history and is no longer "personal" at all but magical and tribal. And, at the heart of this passage of years, there is the sudden certainty that we are alone.

Joyce Carol Oates, "Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy" (reprinted by permission of the author and Blanche C. Gregory, Inc.; © 1971 by Joyce Carol Oates), in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 295-313.