Highlights of a Life
Peter Taylor was born January 8, 1917, in Trenton, Tennessee, the youngest of four children of a privileged Southern family. He was born Matthew Hillsman Taylor, after his father, but from infancy on was called “Pete” or “Petie.” As a boy, his family’s long-standing Tennessee political connections fired his imagination. Over and over he heard stories about his grandfather, Bob Taylor, who defeated his own brother, Alf, in the 1886 campaign for Governor of Tennessee.
According to the Gale Contemporary Authors Online, Taylor admitted finding much of his inspiration for writing in recollections of his childhood. “My theory is that you listen to people talk when you’re a child—a Southerner does especially,” he said, “and they tell stories and stories and stories, and you feel those stories must mean something. So, really, writing becomes an effort to find out what these stories mean… The story you write is interpretation. People tell the same stories over and over, with the same vocabulary and the same important points, and I don’t think it ever crosses their minds what they mean. But they do mean something, and I’m sure that is what influenced me.”
Taylor attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1936, where he studied with poet Allen Tate. According to CAO, he said “Tate was simply my freshman English teacher, and at once he liked my writing, and he gave me the feeling that writing was important. That’s the big thing he did. . . . He made me feel that literature was important. And then he and I became great friends. I learned more from him as a friend than formerly as a teacher.”
Also at Vanderbilt, Taylor became friends with Randall Jarrell and Robert Penn Warren, who all studied with the poet John Crowe Ransom. Ransom was the acknowledged leader of the Agrarians, who advocated, among other things, a return to a non-industrialized South free of Northern influence and exploitation. Taylor was so devoted to Ransom that he followed him to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, even after dropping out of Vanderbilt in 1937 to sell real estate. “It was in the Depression, you know, and you got whatever job you could and, anyway I was always sort of interested in houses,” Peter Taylor told George Myers, Jr., of the Columbus Dispatch. (Later Taylor would indulge his love for real estate with his wife, Eleanor – the couple bought and owned more than 23 houses.)
Taylor enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio in 1938, where he continued his studies with Ransom, and roomed with the poet Robert Lowell. Taylor completed his Bachelor’s there in 1940. Also at Kenyon, Taylor officially changed his name, according to his biographer, Hubert McAlexander; Taylor decided he “would now be known as Peter Taylor: He had shed both the name he was christened with and the nickname given him shortly after birth.”
Taylor says he was influenced by Ransom: “I think [Ransom] had a real influence on the form my writing has taken. He made me write poetry and discouraged me from writing fiction. I think that made my fiction more compressed and made me turn to short stories more than to novels, because I did write poetry. And… some other fellow students who became my lifelong friends were poets—Jarrell and Lowell.” Critics also believe the fact that these writers were Southern Agrarians influenced the subject matter that Taylor would choose: a Village Voice reviewer observed, he “often writes about the decay of the gentrified South (something he has observed firsthand).”
Love, War, and Writing
After graduating from college, Peter enrolled in the U.S. Army, where he served from 1941 to 1945. He served in England, and became a sergeant. On June 4, 1943, he married the poet Eleanor Lilly Ross. Robb Forman Dew, in his review of McAlexander’s biography of Peter Taylor, writes: “It was a marriage of opposites… Taylor found in Eleanor a lovely and reserved woman, a teetotaler and someone who enjoyed and needed her privacy – the counterpoint to his own sometimes heavy drinking and his insatiable need for company. McAlexander makes a strong case for Elizabeth Hardwick’s assessment of the Taylor’s alliance: ‘She restrained him a bit, but no more than he wanted.’” The couple would have two children: Katherine Baird, and Peter Ross.
When Taylor returned from the service, he became a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He published his first collection of short stories, A Long Fourth and Other Stories, in 1948. His friend, Robert Penn Warren, wrote the book’s introduction. According to William M. Karis, in Contemporary Authors, “Warren’s laudatory introduction… has accurately oriented much subsequent criticism of Taylor’s work on two counts. First, Warren identifies Taylor’s primary material as the smaller crises and collisions of urban, middle-class life in the contemporary, upper south… Second, Warren describes Taylor’s “skeptical, ironic cast of mind” with which he treats his material. Taylor has never seriously deviated from either of these features of his work, and readers quickly become familiar with the characteristic slant of Taylor’s vision.”
But even though Taylor writes mainly about the South, readers and critics agree there is universality to his stories. Taylor lived in Ohio and overseas, in addition to the south. Alfred J. Griffith suggests that this has made Taylor, more than any of his southern contemporaries, “the one most capable of seeing Southern culture simultaneously both as insider and as outsider.” Taylor believed that he wrote in “response” to his experiences. “I don’t think of myself as a regional writer,” he told CA, “and I don’t really like it when people say, `He writes about the urban South.’ I’m writing about people under certain circumstances, but I’m always concerned with the individual experience and the unique experience of that story.”
Critical response to Taylor’s second collection of Southern-based short fiction, 1954’s The Widows of Thornton, solidified his reputation as a master in his field. Mack Morriss, in a Saturday Review article, called the collection of nine stories “as free of ugliness as the lingering nutmeg and as unpretentious as coldwater cornbread. . . . [Taylor] has created a wistful, clinging, but utterly non-depraved image of the Deep South that some of us, his regional contemporaries, have been trying to recall from our childhood.”
Returning to Ohio
Peter Taylor taught at Kenyon College as a visiting lecturer from 1952 to 1957. In 1957, he started teaching at The Ohio State University in Columbus, and he continued there, for six months out of every year, until 1963. He told Jenice Jordan of the Columbus Dispatch, December 6, 1959, that he ‘likes the students here [at Ohio State] better than anywhere else I’ve taught because here I have all kinds.’
Happy Families are All Alike, Taylor’s next collection of short stories, was published in 1959. ’Chatham,’ the fictional locale for several stories in the book, is supposedly a composite of Columbus, St. Louis, and Memphis. The book won him the Ohioana Book Award in 1960. One of its stories, “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” won first prize in the national O. Henry Awards.
Said the Ohioana Library about the award: “Peter Taylor’s stories have the agreeable characteristic of making the reader feel he is a pretty superior sort of person to be reading them… This is not to say there is anything snobbish or affected about he work. Far from it. He writes an unusually clear-cut, unobtrusive prose that is familiar and yet no commonplace. His subjects in the main are human relationships and the emotional problems of young people.”
Gaining Recognition… at Last
Taylor’s biggest award was still yet to come. A Summons to Memphis was, according to Taylor, “a story that got out of hand.” This novella won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, after Taylor had been writing for more than 50 years. Robb Forman Dew wrote: “After winning the Pulitzer Prize… Peter Taylor, at 70 years old, was caught up for the first time in his life in a flurry of celebrity that broadened his audience beyond his regular core of New Yorker readers and the many poets and writers who had always admired his work. But it’s too bad Taylor’s fame came with the publication of a novel, when he was arguably the past century’s best American practitioner of the short story. While the novel … is very fine, it is not one of his masterpieces… But in American letters there is often an odd sort of cosmic justice afoot through which much honor is conferred upon an artist’s lesser works in an attempt to make amends for the neglect of his most obvious triumphs.”
Taylor said in an article in the Columbus Dispatch, April 26, 1987: “I’ve always written regularly but have never had very much general attention. But I’ve had the kind of attention that I like most – that from other serious writers, from a lot of friends. That can keep you going, you know. Encouragement can be more important than anything.”
Taylor suffered a stroke in 1986, but was recovering by the time he won the Pulitzer. His later works reflect a growing awareness of his own mortality. The lives of his Southern nobility are drawn into a more ghostly milieu in Taylor’s The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, a collection of short stories published in 1993. As in gothic-inspired stories like “Demons,” in which a grown man looks back fondly on the inner voices he heard as a child, and “The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs,” about a jilted bride who lives in eccentric seclusion until she dies in a fire of questionable origins, the ghosts inhabiting Taylor’s fiction are not “floating wraiths and extraneous horrors,” according to Gail Godwin, in the New York Times Book Review, but are “all those ghosts we have to face before we can rendezvous with the ghost of the person we can still become.”
Taylor’s final novel, In the Tennessee Country, was published in 1994, the year of his death. In a Washington Post remembrance of the author, Jonathan Yardley described Taylor as a writer whose “world was not my own and whose narrative voice possessed an elegance to which I could never hope to aspire, yet who spoke to my innermost self with a depth of feeling and psychological insight that I had never before encountered… [Taylor’s] interest was kind rather than censorious; human faults were to be understood, even liked, rather than mocked or vilified.” Peter Taylor died of pneumonia on November 2, 1994, in Charlottesville, Virginia.