Peter Taylor’s first published collection of seven short stories, A LONG FOURTH AND OTHER STORIES, was described by Robert Penn Warren as the product of a “disenchanted mind.” This cool viewpoint has characterized much of his drama and short and long fiction. Taylor’s increasing literary stature, however, is based chiefly on the skill with which that view is expressed and the flawless technique of his short fiction.
The world that Taylor views, and expresses just short of social satire, is chiefly the modern upper South in its small-town or equivalent suburban setting. His middle-class characters consider themselves a cut above middle class since, on a small-town social scale, they are sometimes the next best thing to gentry and are probably charter members of the town’s first country club. They have, for example, the gentry’s adherence to blood and bone and family; but their plantations are likely to be neat houses on green lawns, and their ancestral memories may be conveniently short. The Old South fabric of family is still there, but fading and threadbare, in imminent danger of being chopped up by modern scissors and sewed into something for practical usage around the house.
In fact, one might view Taylor’s world as a recent island risen out of Faulknerian seas. The theme of land, that rural hold upon the heart, survives in Taylor; but the reader catches barely a sniff of the barnyard, now safely pushed beyond these city limit lines. The family, not merely falling into ruins now, is several generations along and better adjusted to commercialism, or at least it has more muted maladjustments. Tales of aristocracy and historical grief are still told by the old to the young but in a calmer voice. The role of the woman and the black in society remains unsettled, but in Taylor’s world the terms in which each is discussed have become less simple, less basic, more “civilized.” Taylor’s characters suspect that there are no easy solutions to find, no such thing as “woman’s role” or “black’s place.” The Faulkner themes have been updated, dragged forward a few years in time; and there is less despair when the Old Order clashes with the New in Southern society. It has already clashed and does clash, but despair slides over into what Warren called “disenchantment.” Taylor’s response to his contemporary South is less impassioned grief than melancholy, less rage than irony.
Some of these generalizations about Taylor’s fictional world were justified in his earliest stories. In “A Long Fourth,” the title story of his first book, a son brings into his Southern family household an “intellectual” New York girlfriend. The tensions of their holiday visit are set against the continuing hidden tensions between the mother and her black servant. Here is sentiment opposed to youth’s embarrassment by sentiment, familiar attachments set against uneasy independence. The author deals almost tenderly with all his characters, including that generation which has not and never will catch up with the times. He describes Harriet’s feeling that her children do not exist any longer; it is as if they died in childhood, never growing up at all.
Other stories that express this tangle of yesterday and today would include “A Spinster’s Tale,” the story of a motherless girl alienated in an all-male household; “The Scoutmaster,” a picture of domestic crisis performed against a backdrop of Southern nobility (this story includes near-comic creation Uncle Jake, who bears a certain resemblance to Harriet), and “The Fancy Woman.”
The latter story is probably Taylor’s best-known and most widely anthologized story. Written in 1940, it is the funny, bittersweet, pitiful account of Josie Carlson’s weekend stay on a plantation outside Memphis with an oaf named George. The “fancy woman’s” visit is interrupted and altered by the arrival of George’s two teenage sons and a set of shallow, good-time suburban friends. As one critic has said, this story holds intimations of a society disintegrating and of a tradition that was never wholly perfect or sustaining being replaced by something even less so.
The Taylor countryside, then, is one of Southern change. His characters are either changing or wearing under their refusal to...
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