Taylor, Peter (Hillsman)

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TAYLOR, Peter (Hillsman)

Nationality: American. Born: Trenton, Tennessee, 8 January 1917. Education: Vanderbilt University, Nashville, 1936-37; Southwestern College, Memphis, Tennessee, 1937-38; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1938-40, A.B. 1940. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1941-45. Family: Married Eleanor Lilly Ross in 1943; two children. Career: Teacher, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1946-67; visiting lecturer, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1949, University of Chicago, 1951, Kenyon College, 1952-57, Seminar in American Studies, Oxford University, 1955, Ohio State University, Columbus, 1957-63, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964; professor of English, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, beginning 1967. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1950; American Academy grant, 1952, and gold medal, 1979; Fulbright fellowship, to France, 1955; O. Henry award, 1959; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1960; Ritz Paris Hemingway award, 1987; Pulitzer prize, 1987. Member: American Academy, 1969. Died: 2 November 1994.


Short Stories

A Long Fourth and Other Stories. 1948.

The Widows of Thornton. 1954.

Happy Families Are All Alike: A Collection of Stories. 1959.

Miss Leonora When Last Seen and 15 Other Stories. 1963.

The Collected Stories. 1969.

In the Miro District and Other Stories. 1977.

The Old Forest and Other Stories. 1985.

The Oracle at Stoneleigh (includes plays). 1993.


A Woman of Means. 1950.

A Summons to Memphis. 1986.

In the Tennessee Country. 1994.


Tennessee Day in St. Louis (produced 1956). 1957.

A Stand in the Mountains (produced 1971). Published in Kenyon Review, 1965.

Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces. 1973.

The Early Guest: A Sort of Story, A Sort of Play, A Sort of Dream. 1982.


Conversations with Taylor, edited by Hubert H. McAlexander. 1987.

Editor, with Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell 1914-1965. 1967.



Andrew Lytle, Walker Percy, Taylor: A Reference Guide by Victor A. Kramer, 1983; Taylor: A Descriptive Bibliography by Stuart Wright, 1988.

Critical Studies:

Taylor by Albert J. Griffith, 1970, revised edition, 1990; Taylor: A Study of the Short Fiction by James Curry Robinson, 1988.

* * *

Despite having written two well-received novels, A Woman of Means and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Summons to Memphis, and a clutch of plays, Peter Taylor's distinguished career was built on his short stories. He attended Kenyon College, where he was a roommate of Robert Lowell and a friend to Randall Jarrell, both poets having followed John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt University. After graduation Taylor began teaching English and creative writing, and his academic career permitted him to pursue the short story form during a time when it was neither financially nor critically popular. He had published three collections by 1969, the same year in which The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor appeared.

Influenced by Ransom and the conservative Agrarian movement as well as by his own southern background, his fiction tended toward the traditional. He favored first-person narratives, though he was obviously, sometimes heavily, aware of Freudian dynamics. What is absent or off-stage in his stories are the violence and fierce sexuality of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, though he shared the latter's obsession with the invidious impact of the new South on the old, and he was closer perhaps to Eudora Welty in his focus on subtle psychological revelations. His major characters are usually well-educated members of a faded or dying upper class in conflict with a present time and climate, and they search the past for clues to the self.

Both local and regional history threads together in many of Taylor's narratives, which can at times get buried under gossipy detail and a too careful, even loquacious expository structure. At his best, however, as in "Two Pilgrims" and "A Spinster's Tale," Taylor integrated social and character insights with a seamless craftsmanship that simulates the relaxed authenticity of a memoir. In the former story the familiar figure of an aged narrator scrutinizing a misunderstood past recounts an auto trip in which he drove his cotton broker uncle and his lawyer from Memphis to rural Georgia. En route they encountered a fire in a shack, and the uncle risked his life trying to save a child who had already been removed by the father. The husband slapped his wife in front of the men when he discovered that she had lied to them about the child's whereabouts. Most important, the event helped the protagonist span the generation gap. "A Spinster's Tale" also replicates a diary's easy flow. If it is too glib in its manipulation of psychoanalytic symbolism, it nonetheless has a more dramatic climax, an act of cruelty against a scapegoat drunk that leaves an old woman still uncertain of childhood's influence.

Taylor's next two collections, In the Miro District and The Old Forest and Other Stories, evinced a continuing mastery of a sophisticated regionalism intent upon preserving a way of life and a cast of characters disappearing rapidly from Tennessee's urbanized landscape. In the Miro District 's eight stories suggest a degree of impatience with the form itself, with four of them phrased in poetic terms, albeit without much success. "The Captain's Son," on the other hand, achieves a nagging power in its dispassionate depiction of an odd marriage between emotional cripples from upper-class Nashville and Memphis that deteriorates into alcoholic madness. Only "The Throughway" is eccentric enough to escape a formulaic feeling, although the long title story, digging beneath familiar excess, strikes occasional gold in unearthing the dramatic struggles and underlying similarities of a Civil War survivor and his randy grandson.

The notion of a hidden generational bond and of the need for one another's waywardness, a defiant male life force, animates both "The Gift of the Prodigal" and "Promise in the Rain" in The Old Forest and Other Stories, Taylor's ripest, surest-handed collection. Among its gems is "Allegiance," a minor Jamesian masterpiece that dramatizes a brief but momentous meeting between a soldier nephew and a hated aunt in wartime London. Although her crime is never revealed, the story peels away layer after layer of sensibility and covert motives without reaching a deliberately ambiguous core even as the soldier ends up viewing his idealized dead mother in an uncomfortably new light.

Similarly, in "Rain in the Heart" a sensitive young drill sergeant and his bride, both from genteel Memphis backgrounds, find their shared sense of union against a brutal world compromised by his lapse into existential chaos, "the sense that no moment in life had any relation to another." They are saved, however, by the arrival of rain and the prospect of a sensual bonding. Other stories, specifically "Porte Cochere" and "The Scoutmaster," are almost as effective, despite the former's tendency to rely again too heavily on a reductive Freudianism. But two stories with blacks as their focus are embarrassing in their provincialism, for in Taylor's fictional world blacks, however sympathetically drawn, are either deranged outsiders or are shackled by a servant's vantage point.

In The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, which contains one novella, 10 stories, and three one-act plays, Taylor tried to expand his range, at least in confronting more directly the "jolly corner" in which James's alter ego found the ghost of his own lost self and environment. Spirits and supernatural plot devices dominate, even if they are still hitched to an obsessive drive to tame the past's unruly psychological impact.

—Edward Butscher

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