Years ago, a writer who even today is respected as a critic told me he thought Peter Taylor had put his genius into his life and not into his work. The line was borrowed from Oscar Wilde, who wittily observed it about himself, but as applied to Taylor, it struck me as a surprisingly stupid thing to say.
Even leaving the work aside, Taylor did not live an especially vivid life, certainly not one that required any sort of genius. He was a writer of short stories, mostly, who taught at various universities, publishing in The New Yorker and the better literary magazines, but for the most part escaping broad public notice—at least until late in life, when he received a Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Summons to Memphis. He had only one wife, two kids, and zero public scandals. He was white and southern, perhaps a good thing early on, as the southern literary renaissance was in full swing. But he was also from the urban Upper South and upper middle class, which made him discontinuous with the more rural central figures of the renaissance.
If Taylor lived a fairly quiet life, a vibrancy enriched his own personality, expressing itself in an energetic sociability and an unusual gift for friendship. For his last 20 years, I was a beneficiary of both qualities, which is why the critic felt obliged to unload his opinion on me. In fairness, these qualities were undoubtedly what the critic felt were the elements of Taylor’s genius.
Despite my initial disdain for it, the critic’s remark nagged at me, especially in the years after Taylor’s death in 1994. Yes, those of us who knew Peter had been under the spell of his great charm. Was our devotion to him and then to his memory what made us so loyal to his work, and if so what would happen to his reputation when all of us were no more?
If it had been his good luck to be a southern writer when southern writing was being celebrated, what would be his luck now, when being white and upper middle class is, not unjustly, the opposite of a leg up?
The appearance this fall of Taylor’s complete stories, in two volumes from the Library of America, timed to the centennial of his birth, is the best possible answer to these questions. The understatedly handsome books from this series, with their sewn bindings and acid-free paper meant to last and last, do as much as anything to create a canon of American writing (now 300 volumes strong and counting)—not the narrow sort of canon that our literary culture has been in rebellion against for decades, but a robust and inclusive one. Inclusive enough, you might say, to welcome Peter Taylor, whose work might be superficially seen as old school, paternalistic, and immersed in a time and place better-off forgotten.
Robert Lowell once told Peter that he and their close mutual friend Randall Jarrell had been talking about who, of the three of them, was the smartest. (Lowell and Jarrell were among the most celebrated, and cerebral, poets of their time.) With the sort of affectionate aggression that Lowell often displayed, he eagerly reported that Jarrell had said, “I don’t know who is the smartest, but Peter is certainly the dumbest.” Taylor, understandably stung, asked Lowell how he had responded. “I said I agreed with him, of course. But then I said, ‘What does it matter? Peter has all the talent.’” It would not have been like Peter to tell me this story to preen over the complementary part of Lowell’s remark, but more probably to illustrate what a rough but loyal friend Lowell had been.
Lowell was right and the critic was wrong: the genius that Taylor did not need for his life was there all along in his work. Even the earliest of the 59 stories collected here are classics, Jamesian in their confident authorial presence and strong narrative voice, their careful and logical unfolding, their close observation of actions denoting character, and their patient pursuit of meaning, culminating in a moment of revelation or understanding.
Consider his story “The Fancy Woman,” written in 1940, when Taylor was just 23. It flawlessly stage-manages a cast of 13 characters, white and black, middle aged and young, and most tellingly for this story, members of three distinct classes. The narrative is closely associated with Josie, the fancy woman herself, a member of the lower-middle class whose older, upper-middle-class sugar daddy George has taken her to his country house for a week of dalliance away from his wife back in Memphis. Three black servants cook and tend to them. Soon three couples from Memphis, friends of George and his wife, arrive unexpectedly, and the next morning his two blond, polished, teenage sons also show up.
Josie has enough pride to be mortified by the situation, even though George seems content to bluster his way through it. The narrative follows Josie’s efforts to read the people around her, hoping to learn just what they make of her. Most of her observations center around class difference, and like so many characters in Taylor’s early work, those from the higher class behave badly, drinking too much and, in this case, indulging in dalliances of their own. Josie works hard to persuade herself that, “by God, nobody’s better than I am. Nobody can say anything to me.” But her own doubts are reinforced, at least in her mind, by what the servants must know and think, and tellingly, she wakes from a dream one night saying, “Thank your stars you are white!”
So the story is not only about class but also about race, and in this single statement is the story of race in white, middle-class America after the Civil War and up until the Trumpian present moment. The N-word gets tossed around frequently in these early stories, but the servants in “The Fancy Woman” are the only characters who are faultless, if not highly visible, and the use of the epithet is always descriptive of its user, which would be blatantly obvious in our time but far less so in the ’30s and ’40s settings of the early stories.
Although it works to create sympathy for its title character, “The Fancy Woman” does not sentimentalize her or let her off the hook. She, too, behaves badly, if mostly out of her own insecurity, which George does nothing to assuage. Throughout, the young author is surefooted, observant, and wise.
Taylor turned again and again in his long career to narratives involving imbalances of power between people—husbands and wives, white employers male and female and their black servants, parents and their young or grown children, city people and their rural kin, the well off and the poor. These are domestic stories, then, although like “The Fancy Woman,” they exist to turn domesticity on its head. Long before civil rights and women’s rights came urgently into focus, Taylor was quietly, almost secretively, undermining the power structure denying these rights, exposing the cruelty, heartache, and humiliation suffered by its victims. I say secretively because Taylor was from the class he was spying on, which gave him insight into the members of that class who were sometimes its victims as well as its perpetrators.
Many of Taylor’s later stories are so long and intricate in their structures that they are often said to be like novels. But when Peter actually started to write novels late in his 60s, he loved to say that they were so much fun “because you could put just anything into them.” What he meant was that the sprawling nature of the novel did not require, in his mind, the rigid discipline of a story, so much more like poetry in the demands it places on every word. Such stories as “The Captain’s Son,” “In the Miro District,” “The Gift of the Prodigal,” “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court,” and to my mind his greatest story, “The Old Forest,” do not sprawl like novels but carefully accrete, word by word, sentence by sentence, layer by layer.
In the years Taylor was working on most of these late stories, when we would meet for lunch or talk on the phone, he would sometimes be bubbling over with excitement, not because he had finished a story or The New Yorker had taken it, but because he had found a whole new layer for one he had been working on for weeks or months—perhaps a historical context or a counter-narrative or a subtle way to reveal the narrator’s unreliability. “I’ve just torn it apart,” he would say. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
Ann Beattie, in her perceptive introduction, admires how these late stories tend to undermine their narrators, creating “intrinsic doubt.” Keats found this quality in the greatest writers, calling it “negative capability.”
When I think of what constitutes genius in the few people I have known who have seemed to have it, the quality I first think of is plenitude. Peter had this gift for always finding more, for never wanting to protect or preserve his first effort as his best, but always being eager to enrich, to start again, to tap a spring that he knew would always be bold. What separates this quality from dreary writing-school maxims about revision was his excitement, his sense of discovery, his confidence in his powers—his genius.