Peter Taylor Taylor, Peter (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Taylor, Peter 1919–

Taylor is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer generally associated with the Southern Renaissance. Focusing on middle-class domestic life in the South, he writes dispassionately and cleanly of the burdens of the past. "No one," says Joyce Carol Oates, "writes more beautifully than Peter Taylor of the tensions of love—not erotic love, but love of family, love of tradition." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Morgan Blum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Taylor knows his own limitations. We can see this most obviously if we notice how homogeneous is the body of work he has been willing to put into book form. His characteristic product is the leisurely and, within its genre, fairly lengthy short story. (p. 561)

When the history of an earlier time enters a Taylor story, it always enters in a way that he could have experienced it—that is, as reading or legend or old folks' talk…. [The] actual self-limitation that Mr. Taylor operates under here seems clear enough. He must work from first-hand observation. This means that, though the facts of one man's life may be suppressed or changed at will or created entirely or in part out of the imagination, Mr. Taylor must have known someone who shared his cultural heritage. For though an individual life may be altered as the needs of the story dictate and to the degree truth permits, the way of life which produced that character is a sacred thing, not to be violated. The symptoms reported are the symptoms observed, or they serve as the fundamental data on the basis of which the unobserved moment (e.g., a Negro family's talk when no white person is around) is constructed. An eye that looks and an imagination that builds—these are essential to Mr. Taylor's way of work, as they are, of course, to every other writer with the slightest pretensions to seriousness. The fundamental difference in the present instance is their absolute inseparability…. [Without] closely observed details—the turn of phrase in a country-woman's mouth, the slightly offset quality of one man's chin as he sees it mirrored in his daughter's—without these things that at some point grew out of actual experience, Mr. Taylor does not write—at least not in any published book.

I believe that certain other matters excluded from Mr. Taylor's fiction up to now can be explained partially, but only partially, on this same basis, that they lie more or less outside of his experience. One such exclusion is that of violence…. (pp. 568-69)

[This] seems at first glance a serious limitation in Mr. Taylor's work, whether self-imposed or not. After all, physical violence is by no means the private possession of Mr. Mickey Spillane; it can reveal what is most uniquely human, as well as what is merely bestial, in us all…. But in Mr. Taylor, the absence of violence on stage is part and parcel of his general lack of interest in physical skills and physical experiences for their own sake. (p. 570)

Just as he avoids extremes in action, Mr. Taylor avoids extremes in characterization. He allows himself no male angels, no Alyosha Karamazov, and only a few female angels, who operate always in the restricted sphere of their own families—Laetitia Ramsey, Helen Ruth Lovell, the wife in "Cookie," the Flo...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Affable, persuasive, never glossy, never hurrying, steadily gaining ground, [the narratives of "The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor"] are not glamorous, or side-splitting, or desperate (they are not like the stories of Jean Stafford, or Eudora Welty, or Flannery O'Connor); they are what Macbeth calls "understood relation that bring forth—the secret'st man of blood"—they are connective tissue.

The short fiction of Peter Taylor takes the form of a holding action. Holding off, first of all, keeping at bay a faceless, unacknowledging world…. And then holding on, for dear life, to those linking pieties of the southern American town…. In the middle South of the last four decades anatomized by these stories, holding is an action, but also a passion; a movement, but also an emotion. (p. 4)

The early work, as titles like "A Spinster's Tale" and "The Fancy Woman" suggest, concerns outsiders, exiles and solitaries who peer covetously at the closed family circle within which the writer henceforth locates, immures himself…. The meaning, the true burden of Taylor's storytelling, is so shocking, so radical in its ultimate consequences, that it can be rehearsed and articulated only on prosperous occasions, only in what Peter Taylor, after Tolstoy, calls "Happy Families."

For just as there is no incandescence, there is no inadequacy in the world of Peter Taylor's stories. No failures of language or...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

William Peden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is time which is perhaps the most important force in Mr. Taylor's short stories, time and the past, a past which is like a ghost definitely uncomfortable in the clamour of post-Rooseveltian America, a past which for both good and ill lingers on in relatively few pockets of American life….

[For example, in the early stories of A Long Fourth and Other Stories, Mr. Taylor is] concerned with family relationships in respectable, urban, middle or upper middle class Tennessee. All of them depict the stresses and strains which are constantly undermining or threatening to undermine these family relationships. All of them are concerned with the confrontation of past and present and the deterioration of old standards of conduct. (p. 2)

[Confrontations] between past and present and their effects on family relations have continued to furnish subject and theme for most of Peter Taylor's best stories….

Most of Mr. Taylor's characters are … unable to escape from or forget the past; at the same time, they are not able to live very comfortably in the present. If in comparison to the world of much recent American fiction Peter Taylor's world is a relatively tranquil one, it is nevertheless a singularly cheerless one. Though it would be an over-simplification to label him either an optimist or a pessimist, his vision is extremely austere, increasingly so, it seems to me, as his career has developed and deepened.

Though some of his characters are treated with affection and sympathy—notably the kind of sensitive, honorable, and patiently suffering middle-aged women exemplified by the mother of "The Long Fourth" or perhaps his best known single character, Mrs. Lovell, from "A...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Christopher Ricks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peter Taylor offers slices of life. But sliced life often has the vapidity of sliced bread. Nutritious and unsensational. When Mr. Taylor evokes a family quarrel or a tragic loneliness or a dismayed nostalgia, he doesn't make a meal of it. This is scrupulous of him, but leaves us without a meal. Moreover his allegiances are the kindly liberal ones which sliced bread might epitomize: nothing poisonous or pernicious, much that is handy, decent, prudent, hygienic, fortifying. But this is not the staff of life, or the Eucharistic marvel, or anything which you could positively cast on the waters….

The best of Mr. Taylor's stories [in The Collected Stories] are those in which his guileless (but skilled) transparency meets people or situations which are opaque, not assimilable, not ones for the decencies. "Two Pilgrims" and "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time" explore such meetings, and their success is directly a matter of reminding us, finely to their creator's mild surprise, that moderation is at best a clearing whereas the world is immoderate. Naturally enough, any overt statements about the unliberalness of the world have the air of being in collusion with a masked optimism, so that when Mr. Taylor has one of his characters think, "Inadvertently, he had penetrated beyond all the good sense and reasonableness that made life seem worthwhile—or even tolerable," we narrow our eyes. You need to be a great deal more robust than that if you are going to take the bull by the horns. Too often Mr. Taylor pleads…. But sometimes Mr. Taylor's patient anxiety gives way and he becomes, as a liberal writer often does, a schoolmasterly scold…. (p. 22)

Christopher Ricks, "The Unignorable Real," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XIV, No. 3, February 12, 1970, pp. 22-4.

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Presences—the achieved works, the "intensely concrete, intensely exhibitional" plays, as James prophesied them to be—are by no means the masterpiece of Taylor's long and still-looming career. They are too ready to settle for indication ("Louis and Janet enter … both are fashionably dressed"), when it was—and is—Taylor's genius to enact precisely the rituals of dressing and of fashion otherwise. Those rituals, perhaps correctly elided here, have not been replaced…. Taylor is working out for himself, and for us, what had been merely implicit in his stories; and in the presentation of his presences he is a little intimidated by his trouvaille, by the ease of his own certainty about these people, and he forgoes that strangeness, that heightening (by ceremony, poetry, organized violence) which we thirst for. (pp. 45-6)

The presences in Peter Taylor's theatre are, certainly, the missing parts of the context from which they draw their delegated efficacy—they are absences in the life conceived as replete, the life delusionally figured as real. What is remarkable is that these dangers invest the consciousness from so many directions, that the vulnerabilities offered are so various. Tell me whom you haunt, André Breton once implored, and I will tell you who you are. The measure of Taylor's mastery—of his control of experience—is suggested, then, by the constatation that he sees all life as haunted: no relation, no alliance is exempt….

In art—and Taylor refuses to "help", he is only an artist—there is a worse choice than to be vulnerable and jeopardized and haunted—and that is to be invulnerable and safe and exorcised. Presences is Peter Taylor's choice, the right one. (p. 47)

Richard Howard, "Urgent Need and Unbearable Fear," in Shenandoah (copyright 1973 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1973, pp. 44-7.

Herschel Gower

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is in Middle Tennessee that Peter Taylor has found a setting for many of his stories. It is Nashville, the capitol of the state, that is often his locus operandi, the hub of his characters' actions. Nashville is often the place psychologically central to his first-person narrators. It functions as their point of reference, the place of established, stable values, the concentration of cultural mores. (p. 37)

Who, then, are Taylor's people—characters—individuals—the blood and flesh of the stories? It has frequently been noted that he writes only about upper middle-class Southerners who are not involved in acts of bloodshed, lust, or violence. Taylor's characters, therefore, put the...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)

Albert J. Griffith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Presences, Taylor has selected] the ghost play as the genre which will best permit him to objectify some of the prevailing influences he senses in his characters' lives. In reading these dramas, however, with full awareness of Taylor's prior accomplishments, we note two other kinds of "presences" emerge as well: the first, as palpable as any characters on the stage, are those remembered Taylor traits of theme and technique which are again embodied in these very plays; the second, like apparitions hovering in a background mist, are those traits so dominant in Taylor's fiction which have no counterpart in drama and must be banished from the stage, yet linger as after-images, felt absences whose loss or...

(The entire section is 1227 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In some Southern regional writing, there is a tendency to bypass the ordinary processes of individual development in favor of an aura of mystery, as if the shape of human action was determined primarily by occult forces in the atmosphere, climate or topography of a place….

"The Captain's Son," one of the more ambitious stories in Peter Taylor's ["In the Miro District"], is a fair example of this Southern syndrome….

When we learn that [Tolliver] has not yet consummated his marriage, that he has turned his wife into an alcoholic, we don't know what to think. There is no way to think about Tolliver, who is no more than a manikin in the window of his milieu. We have been told...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Jane Barnes Casey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] limitations Mr. Taylor sets on his work barely contain the shifting, probing attitude he constantly turns on his material. He is a great craftsman, but of a foxy sort, intent on working as much complexity as possible into the world behind his simple surfaces. In his best stories, his masterpieces, every detail is present in all its vital controversy; every part hums with its own inner fullness, as well as in its relation to every other part. He is a master of contradiction, though we have only to mention this quality when Mr. Taylor's single-mindedness must be accounted for. His work has always been concerned with the conflict between affectionate, civil society and chaos, regardless of whether the disorder is...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)