Taylor, Peter Hillsman

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Taylor, Peter Hillsman

(b. 8 January 1917 in Trenton, Tennessee; d. 2 November 1994 in Charlottesville, Virginia), fiction writer regarded as one of America’s enduring masters of the short story and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Summons to Memphis (1986).

Taylor, the youngest of four children, was born on the ninth wedding anniversary of his parents, Matthew Hillsman Taylor, an insurance executive, and Katherine Baird Taylor, a homemaker. Both of his grandfathers were lawyers and politicians, and Taylor used the oratory of one, Robert Love Taylor, in his Tennessee Day in St. Louis (1957). Taylor’s family moved from Trenton, Tennessee, to Nashville in 1924 and in 1926 to St. Louis, where his father became president of the Missouri State Life Insurance Company. Taylor enrolled in Miss Rossman’s School, a private institution, and in 1929 he attended St. Louis Country Day School.

The family moved again in 1932, this time to Memphis. Taylor attended Memphis Central High School, from which he graduated in 1935. He won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York City, but his father vehemently objected to his accepting it because he wanted his son to attend Vanderbilt University, his alma mater. After a quarrel and a period of not speaking to his father, Taylor left home and worked his way to England on a freighter. He returned later in the year and took a job writing for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

In the spring of 1936 Taylor took courses under the poet and critic Allen Tate at Southwestern University. That fall Taylor enrolled in Vanderbilt University, where he studied with the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. Taylor also became friends with his fellow student Randall Jarrell, who later became an important poet and critic. When Ransom moved on to Kenyon College in Ohio, Taylor dropped out of Vanderbilt University in 1937. For a time he sold real estate and wrote book reviews for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. His first two short stories were published in River, a little magazine out of Oxford, Mississippi. In the fall of 1938 Taylor followed Ransom to Kenyon College and roomed with Robert Lowell. A poem by Taylor appeared in the Kenyon Review in 1939. Taylor graduated from the college with a B.A. degree in 1940 and enrolled for graduate study under Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana State University. His first mature story, “A Spinster’s Tale,” was published in Southwest Review that same year.

Taylor entered the U.S. Army in June 1941. He first served at Fort Ogethorpe, Georgia, and later served at Tidwell Camp in England as part of the Rail Transportation Corps. In 1942 he met Eleanor Ross, a poet from Norwood, North Carolina. They married six weeks later, on 4 June 1942, and subsequently had two children. Taylor was discharged from the army with the rank of sergeant in December 1945. That year he received the Partisan Review Award for “The Scoutmaster.”

In 1946 Taylor worked briefly in publishing in New York City, then he began teaching at Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (later the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). His first book, A Long Fourth, and Other Stories was published in March 1948. The first of a number of stories published in the New Yorker appeared on 6 November. He accepted a position as an assistant professor at Indiana University in 1948 but returned to the college in Greensboro in 1949.

After his first novel, A Woman of Means, appeared in 1950, Taylor was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for 1950–1951. During the spring of 1952 he taught at the University of Chicago and received a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. That autumn he took an associate professorship at Kenyon College, and in 1953 he began a six-year period as advisory editor of the Kenyon Review. In 1954 Taylor published The Widows of Thornton. During 1955–1956 Taylor pursued research in Paris with a Fulbright grant. A comedy, Tennessee Day in St. Louis, premiered at Kenyon College in April and was published by Random House in 1957. Beginning in 1957 he worked as an associate professor at Ohio State University from January to June of each year.

Taylor’s third story collection, Happy Families Are All Alike, appeared in 1959, and the story “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” received the O. Henry Award First Prize. In 1960 he received a Ford Foundation fellowship at London’s Royal Court Theatre and in 1963 rejoined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A compendium, Miss Leonora When Last Seen, and Fifteen Other Stories, was issued in 1964, and a second play, A Stand in the Mountains, was published in 1968 in the Kenyon Review. The next year Taylor was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters and his Collected Stories was published. In 1967 he became a professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he directed the creative writing program for many years. Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces, appeared in 1973.

Despite suffering a heart attack in 1974, Taylor remained productive. His later books include In the Miro District and Other Stories (1977), The Old Forest and Other Stories (1985), A Summons to Memphis (1986), The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court (1993), and a final novel, In the Tennessee Country (1994). His awards include the Gold Medal for the Short Story from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1978), induction into the academy (1983), a $25,000 senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1984), the PEN/Faulkner Award (1986), the Ritz Hemingway Prize for Fiction (1987), and the Pulitzer Prize for A Summons to Memphis (1987).

In July 1986 Taylor suffered a stroke, followed by several more in 1994. He died in the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville at the age of seventy-seven. He is buried in Sewanee, Tennessee, next to his mentor Tate.

The author of several novels and plays, Taylor is best remembered as an American master of the short story. Short on dialogue and long on psychological and sociological acuity, his stories pack emotional power. He dealt with regional materials, making them universal. At least one critic compared his work to that of Anton Chekhov.

Taylor’s papers are at Vanderbilt University. Hubert H. McAlexander, ed., Conversations with Peter Taylor (1987), gives many biographical and critical insights into Taylor, as does the first biographical chapter of Albert J. Griffith, Peter Taylor, rev. ed. (1990). Other informative books are Hubert H. McAlexander, ed., Critical Essays on Peter Taylor (1993); C. Ralph Stephens and Lynda B. Salamon, eds., The Craft of Peter Taylor (1995); Catherine Clark Graham, Southern Accents: The Fiction of Peter Taylor (1994); and David M. Robinson, World of Relations: The Achievement of Peter Taylor (1998). Special issues of the Sewanee Review (1962), Critique (1967), Shenandoah (1977), and the Journal of the Short Story in English (1987) are devoted to Taylor. An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Nov. 1994).

Robert Phillips

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