Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” Flannery O’Connor commented when asked about William Faulkner’s influence on fiction writers from the American South. Faulkner’s eminence as the South’s greatest writer was perhaps less pressing for the young Peter Taylor (1917–1994) than for the two other most prominent Southern fiction writers of his generation, O’Connor and Eudora Welty. The “anxiety of influence” might have been more of a worry for Welty and O’Connor, whose territory was, like Faulkner’s, the rural Deep South. For himself, Taylor staked out the Upper South, particularly the three cities he grew up in—Memphis, Nashville, and St. Louis.
Taylor was the scion of a legendary Tennessee political family, and his grandfather served as a U.S. Senator, so there is also a Washington connection in some of his books. While his urban, upper-middle-class characters often trace their descent from Old South aristocrats, they navigate their way through a world that would hardly be recognizable to Faulkner’s Compsons and Sartorises or to the sharecroppers, small-town residents, and rootless drifters of O’Connor’s and Welty’s stories. In Taylor’s world, substitute a chauffeur- driven Packard limousine for O’Connor’s mule and wagon.
The family was always Taylor’s focus. Unlike John Cheever, whose family unit generally encompassed just the married couple itself—often adulterous, soon to be divorced, or otherwise troubled—Taylor’s purview took in the extended family of children, servants, grandparents, and distant cousins. The apparent stability and serene exteriors of these privileged clans can be deceptive. Part of Taylor’s studied approach relies on our readiness to accept those exteriors at face value and to believe what the narrator is saying. But his stories are a reminder that all narrators are “unreliable narrators.” We see his characters not during periods of stability, but in awkward and transitional moments, while they are moving, home on a visit or to attend a wedding or funeral, in a situation where someone goes missing, or involved in an accident or misunderstanding. The train stations in Memphis and St. Louis recur as settings in these stories. Homecomings are always a fraught affair.
But even as perceptive a critic as Elizabeth Hardwick missed the point when she wrote in the Partisan Review of Taylor’s 1948 collection A Long Fourth, that he “is even now a kind of A student, modest, corrigible, and traditional. . . . He is too serene, too precocious. In his stories one longs, now and then, for harshness, indiscretion, that large, early ugliness a young writer can well afford. . . .”
Ugliness and harshness are qualities Peter Taylor’s fiction reserves for particular effect, and their appearance is all the more jarring for that reason. Instances of indiscretion of one form or another are at the center of much of what he writes—as well as tensions and misunderstandings that lurk just below the surface. When serenity is glimpsed in one of his stories, it is usually illusory. “A Long Fourth,” the title story of that 1948 book reviewed by Elizabeth Hardwick, is one of the most searching studies of Southern paternalistic racism I have read—and that is remarkable both in view of the story’s early date and of Taylor’s reputation as a conservative, genteel Southerner.
Though it was published sixty years ago and takes place at the outbreak of World War II, the story’s insights into racial misunderstanding have not dated. “A Long Fourth” revolves around one Harriet Wilson’s attempts to get her husband to fire B. T., a black employee with questionable morals and poor personal hygiene, nephew of their longtime cook Mattie. Both Mattie and B. T. live on the place. “I’ve always told you that I’d be happier, Sweetheart,” Harriet says to her husband, “if B. T. were not even on this place now that he’s grown up.”
This domestic drama plays itself out during a visit home by Harriet’s son, known simply as Son, who works in publishing in New York and has recently joined the army. There is a parallel between Son’s situation and B. T.’s, because the young black man wants to leave his Auntie’s home and go to work in a munitions factory. So both Harriet and Mattie are threatened with the imminent departure of someone dear to them. Mattie “looked at her mistress with what Harriet acknowledged to be the sweetest expression she had ever beheld in a Negro’s countenance. ‘Miss Harriet,’ she said as though stunned at her own thoughts, ‘it’s like you losin’ Mr. Son. B. T. is gwine too.’ ” Rather than being comforted by this reminder of their common plight, Harriet is mortally affronted by her servant’s presumption. “Mattie!” she declaimed, “How dare you? That will be just exactly enough from you!”
When one thinks of a Southern racist, the gender is usually male. But “A Long Fourth” reminds us that bigotry is gender neutral:
The open comparison of Son’s departure to that of the sullen, stinking, thieving, fornicating black B. T. was an injury for which Son could not avenge himself. . . . [Harriet] even pictured Mattie’s being tied and flogged or thought of Mama’s uncle who shot all of his niggers before he would free them, and of the Negro governor of North Carolina and the Negro senate rolling whiskey barrels up the capitol steps, of the rape and uprisings in Memphis and the riots in Chicago . . .
Harriet later muses, “Could it be that she had always hated this black, servant race and felt them a threat to her son and her family? Such ridiculous thoughts!”
And yet Southerners will often say that a beloved servant is “like a member of the family.” That sentiment—as well as the innocent and patronizing affectation felt toward those servants—is as genuine as it is naive.
There was not, in those days in Memphis, any time or occasion when one felt more secure and relaxed than when one had given oneself over completely to the care and protection of the black servants who surrounded us and who created and sustained for the most part the luxury which distinguished the lives we lived then from the lives we live now. They did so for us, whatever their motives and however degrading our demands and our acceptance of their attentions may have been to them.
In “Bad Dreams,” Emmaline, the Tolliver family’s housemaid, and her husband, Bert, “houseboy and butler,” find themselves stuck with the “dirty, ignorant old fellow,” also black, to whom their employer gives a room in their garage apartment without consulting them. In the eyes of their employer, all three share the common denominator of being black (though the term “colored” was more current back then). Bert and Emmaline belong, in their own estimation at least, to a different class, they being privileged house servants with some education while he is a common lout. “A Friend and Protector” explores a relationship once quite common in the South, in which a black man would attach himself to a powerful white man who provided employment and protection in exchange for the black man’s loyalty. Jesse in this story is like B. T. in “A Long Fourth,” of whom Harriet’s daughter says: “he’s a gentleman’s nigger, Ann. He worships Daddy, and Daddy couldn’t live without him. It’s a very old-fashioned relationship, you know what I mean?” Peter Taylor certainly knew what she meant, and he also saw that the black man’s attachment to his white patron had less to do with worship and more to do with a powerless man’s need of protection in a world that accorded him little respect and little security.
The appearance in 2017 of the Complete Stories in a handsome two-volume Library of America edition, skillfully edited and commented on by Ann Beattie, gives us a chance to consider the dimensions of Taylor’s achievement. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 novel A Summons to Memphis. But among aficionados of the short story, he enjoys a reputation as a kind of American Chekhov—a master of the genre, particularly the longer story or novella. I think this reputation is not only deserved, but will continue to grow. As a short story writer he belongs in the company of Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Chekhov and Turgenev, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Hemingway, Caroline Gordon, and Joyce.
His characters and their milieux are always precisely delineated—not only in terms of social position but also in terms of how their stories relate to the history of their region. In the climactic ending of “The Old Forest,” Nat Ramsey’s fiancée, Caroline Braxley, having cleverly resolved the conflict that would cause their engagement to be canceled, asks him to take her for a long drive outside Memphis along the Bristol highway, which runs from the southwest corner of Tennessee all the way to its northeast boundary:
It was the road along which many of our ancestors had first made their way from Virginia and the Carolinas to Memphis, to settle in the forest wilderness along the bluffs above the Mississippi River. And it occurred to me now that when Caroline said go as fast and as far as you can she really meant to take us all the way back into our past and begin the journey all over again . . . from a point in our identity that would require a much deeper delving and a more radical return.
Beyond the history and culture of his native land, and yet inextricably related to it, are Taylor’s probings into what it means to be a man or a woman. The protagonists and heroic figures in most of Taylor’s stories are women. They clearly have the author’s deepest sympathies, while the staunchly masculine world is one the young male characters in Taylor’s many coming-of-age stories usually enter uncomfortably and with regret. “Uncles” revolves around the effort, ultimately successful, by the older men in the family to pressure the young narrator, home from college on a visit, into wearing a hat, as of course all men did in those days. When his father and uncles ultimately succeed in getting him to acquiesce and he tells his mother about it over the phone, he experiences an epiphany, a rather sad and reluctant one:
As I put down the receiver, it came over me that I would never again be able to talk to Mother . . . except in the specific role of a man. It suddenly became clear that everything clever, gentle, and light belonged to women and the world they lived in. To men belonged only the more serious things in life, the deadly practical things—constructive ideas, profitable jobs, stories with morals, jokes with points.
As one reads story after story in these two volumes, it becomes clear how increasingly adept Taylor became in employing fictional point of view. Nowhere is it more enjoyable to watch him ringing the changes on who the character is as opposed to who he thinks he is, what he knows and what he thinks he knows, than in the aforementioned “The Old Forest,” one of Taylor’s great triumphs. The narrator is Nat Ramsey—“he can be as annoying as a gnat,” Ann Beattie writes in her wise and briskly phrased introduction—a young man whose self-assurance is rivaled only by his lack of self-awareness. This is Nat a split second before the automobile accident around which the story revolves:
“Pull off the road, Nat!” Lee Ann urged again. And my incredible reply to her was “He’s on my side of the road! Besides, trucks are not allowed in the park.” And in reply to this Lee Ann gave only a loud snicker.
In “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” he gleefully employs the time-honored fictional trick of speaking for an entire community:
Here in Thomasville we are all concerned over the whereabouts of Miss Leonora Logan. She has been missing for two weeks, and though a half dozen postcards have been received from her, stating that she is in good health and that no anxiety should be felt for her safety, the whole town can talk of nothing else. . . .
A couple of years later, in “The Decline and Fall of the Episcopal Church in the Year of Our Lord 1952,” a story with one of Taylor’s drollest titles, worthy of one of his favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, he returned to that communal point of view, this time more comically: “Awareness of the birdbath’s presence in Sam’s side yard dawned slowly on everyone. . . . And the realization that the new birdbath could be nothing other than the baptismal font from the erstwhile Episcopal church came more slowly still.”
In “A Cheerful Disposition,” Taylor uses third-person narration to show how a character would speak if his speech were rendered directly, giving a glimpse into that character’s mind: “It all seemed very natural, very familiar, very much like the old days when hardly six months could pass without the family’s having to give an honorable burial to some old-timer amongst them. At any rate, it had positively done Frank Lacy’s heart good to see how little funerals had changed.” (It reminds me of the beginning of Joyce’s “The Dead”: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”) It will not occur to the blithely oblivious Frank till later in the story that he himself has now become one of those old-timers, and that his own funeral lies in the not-too-distant future.
TheComplete Stories ends triumphantly with “The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs: An Account of Her Remarkable Powers” and “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court,” two very long stories that revisit earlier themes and preoccupations in Taylor’s work while moving in previously unglimpsed directions. “The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs” is, I believe, Taylor’s only foray into Southern Gothic. One way to view the story is as a study in misdirection and displacement resembling, in a more literary and sophisticated way, the trick Agatha Christie pulled off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The narrator presents himself as a self-effacing, seemingly harmless little man fascinated by the attractive society girls who come to Owl Mountain Springs with their families: “I was a pumpkin-headed, freckle-faced boy,” he says, describing his early years at the resort, “my full height barely reaching the shoulder of some of those girls.” His narration is designed to focus our attention on one Lizzy Pettigru, the “witch” of the story’s title, rather than on his own weird and ominous self, dropping hints about his personality disorder but framing them so as to throw us off the scent.
“The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs” explores darker places in the psyche than Taylor had previously written about, while “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” deals with the occult, the world of séances, Tarot cards, and psychic possession in wartime Washington through the character of Mrs. Augusta St. John-Jones, the narrator’s Aunt Gussie, the widow of a Congressman from Tennessee who clings to the fringes of Washington life despite straitened circumstances but eventually comes home to Memphis to die. The life and career of Aunt Gussie’s husband so resembles that of Senator Robert Love Taylor, Peter Taylor’s maternal grandfather, that Taylor may have regarded this rounding off of his career as a homecoming of his own—a homecoming typically fraught with ambivalence and complexity.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 67
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