Book Essay - Autumn 2017

A Dream of a Writer

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Peter Taylor’s stories reveal an artist immersed in the quotidian who rose to the complexities of the heart and psyche

(Courtesy of Kenyon College Greenslade Special Collections and Archives)

By Ann Beattie

September 5, 2017


Matthew Hillsman Taylor Jr., nicknamed Pete, decided early to become simply Peter Taylor. The name has a certain directness, as well as a hint of elegance. Both qualities were also true of his writing, though his directness was reserved for energizing inanimate objects, as well as for presenting physical details. (His sidelong psychological studies, on the other hand, take time to unfold.) It was also his tendency to situate his characters within precisely rendered historical and social settings. His stories deepen, brushstroke by brushstroke, by gradual layering—by the verbal equivalent of what painters call atmospheric perspective. Their surfaces are no more to be trusted than the first ice on a lake.

Born in Trenton, Tennessee, in 1917, Taylor was a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” though he said his mother never showed favoritism among her children: he had an older brother and two older sisters. She was old-fashioned, even for her day. He adored her, and women were often objects of fascination in his fiction. The women in Taylor’s stories are capable, intelligent, if sometimes unpredictable in their eccentricities as well as in their fierce energies and abilities.

How wonderful that all the stories are now collected in two volumes in the Library of America series (Peter Taylor: The Complete Stories, 1,650 pp., $75). A reader unfamiliar with Taylor’s work will here become an archaeologist; American history, especially the Upper South’s history of racial divisions and sometimes dubious harmonies, is everywhere on full display. Taylor was raised with servants. The woman who was once his father’s nurse also cared for him. Traditions were handed down, as were silver and obligation. Though he seldom writes about people determined to overturn the social order, Taylor never flinches when presenting encounters between whites and blacks—whether affectionate, indifferent, or unkind—and dramatizes them forthrightly.

The stories, rooted in daily life, use the quotidian as their point of departure into more complex matters. Writers have little use for the usual. Whenever a writer takes the pose that the events of his story are typical and ordinary, the reader knows that the story would not exist if this day, this moment, were not about to become exceptional. Taylor mobilizes his characters and the plots that they create as if merely observing, as if capably evoking convention and happy to go along with it. To add to this effect, he sometimes creates a character, often a narrator, whom the reader can take for a Peter Taylor stand-in: a child, a college professor, or a young man like Nat, the protagonist of his novella-length “The Old Forest,” whose thwarted desires and covertness about tempting fate are at odds with what society condones and also with his inexperience. In that particular story, one woman turns the tables and, in the closing lines, another woman—Nat’s fiancée, Caroline—kicks the table right out of the room. It is one of the most amazing endings in modern fiction, with a revelation that rises out of the subtext:

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Ann Beattie whose latest book of stories is The Accomplished Guest, is the fiction editor of the Scholar.

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