Happy 100th Birthday, Peter Taylor

Kirsten Reach
January 8, 2017
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It is customary on a writer’s birthday, especially on a date so significant as his 100th, to grant his life and work a few moments of your attention.

Today we must pick up Peter Taylor’s stories. Whether you know him well or are about to enter the fictional town of Chatham, Tennessee for the first time, you’re in for a treat. In the New York Times in 1985, Robert Towers wrote, “Peter Taylor’s name still flashes its promise of something at once substantial and subtle, of fiction well grounded in its time and place, of a story well crafted.”

Peter Taylor was born January 8, 1917, and today is cause for celebration. We’re proud to claim him at Kenyon, where he completed an A.B. degree and eventually returned to teach; he arrived here in 1938 with a copy of the Southern Review tucked under his arm, wearing a fedora, and described by a friend from Memphis, at twenty-one, as the “world’s youngest middle-aged man.”

In an article about his undergraduate years, Hubert H. McAlexander describes Taylor’s “basic warmth and good spirits” as “disarming.” After his wife tired of students living in faculty housing alongside her family, John Crowe Ransom rounded up the students interested in literature and writing and sequestered them in Douglass House, with Randall Jarrell serving as “a sort of housemother.” (A gem from the article is that Taylor once submitted a story in Ransom’s class that contained a poem; Ransom gave him a B for the story, but an A for the poem within it.)

Taylor and Robert “Cal” Lowell roomed together behind Douglass House, considering themselves outsiders from even the literature students. Elizabeth Hardwick said that of all men, Lowell loved Taylor best. Ian Hamilton, Lowell’s biographer, wrote, “The two of them were allies in a huge, world-altering adventure.”

One Thanksgiving trip they took together found new life in Taylor’s story “1939” (published in 1955). As in the story, they returned home from the East Coast to find the students from Douglass House in their room, eating and sharing stories. These men included Robie Macauley (later editor of the Kenyon Review), Jack Thompson, John Nerber, and David McDowell (who had been inspired to pursue an English degree after studying with Father James Flye of St. Andrew’s School, the same Father Flye who mentored James Agee).

As David H. Lynn wrote in Blackbird:

Storytelling was not merely an occupation or a carefully acquired artistic practice for Peter Taylor. Rather, it lay at the very heart of living for him. That is why the act itself, highlighted as in “Dean of Men” and distinct in its own way from the internal narrative, is so central to his art. Indeed, storytelling, for Peter, is an essential part of the drama of his narratives, to a degree greater than any other author I know. We feel and hear the effort of his narrators as they struggle with their stories. That struggle is as central to the enterprise, in other words, as the internal dramas that are being recounted. The two parallel, shape, and shed light on each other.

Taylor returned to Kenyon to teach for a few years, but left after his housing fell through (read his fictionalized version of this story, “Dean of Men,” and this article by David H. Lynn about how much was based on real experience).

He spent most of his teaching years at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Virginia, but also taught for brief periods at Indiana, Chicago, Oxford, OSU, Harvard, and Georgia. He turned down a position at the New Yorker in 1956 so he could focus on teaching.

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” won him an O. Henry. He was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim, the NEA, Fulbright (to France, 1955), the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1979, the National Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters gave him a gold medal for literature; in 1987, Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award AND the PEN/Faulkner for Summons to Memphis.

He was a master of the form (the NYT called him “a master of the miniature novel”) who passed away in 1994. Please raise a glass and open a tab (in your browser) in his honor.

If you’re looking to begin with Taylor, here are a few places to start:

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” (Kenyon Review, 1958)

“In the Miro District” (New Yorker, February 1977)

Peter Taylor, The Art of Fiction No. 99” (Paris Review)

Cousin Aubrey” (Kenyon Review, Winter 1990)

Telling Irony: Peter Taylor’s Later Stories” (VQR, Summer 1991)

A Revaluation” (Kenyon Review, 1996)

Peter Taylor: The Undergraduate Years at Kenyon” (Kenyon Review, 1999)

Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley reviews ‘The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor” (Washington Post, January 2010)

Or check out his papers at the University of Virginia library.

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