Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley reviews 'The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor'

THE WAY WE WERE: Peter Taylor explored small-town life, epitomized by the fictional Thornton, and that in the big cities of Memphis and Nashville.
THE WAY WE WERE: Peter Taylor explored small-town life, epitomized by the fictional Thornton, and that in the big cities of Memphis and Nashville. (John Devivi)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Friday, January 1, 2010

The last of an occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Some 40 years ago I did something I never do: I wrote a letter to the editor. I was an editorial writer and book editor in North Carolina, so I was accustomed to being the recipient rather than the author of such letters. This time, though, I was deeply upset by a book review that had just appeared in a national publication I much admired, and I was determined to protest it. I had nothing in mind except to try to correct the record, but as it turned out the letter had consequences that changed my life, setting off developments that a dozen years later led to my becoming the book critic of this newspaper.

I'm returning today to the book that inspired that letter because this is the last of these Second Readings. More about that presently. The book was "The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor" and the review that so disturbed me, written by someone previously unknown to me named Barbara Raskin, was in the New Republic, which I then regarded as the best magazine of political and literary commentary in the country. Precisely why Raskin had been chosen to review the book I do not know, but the world of Peter Taylor was terra incognita to her. This was the fall of 1969, leftist radicalism was all the rage, and Raskin, who was in her early 30s and married to a prominent activist named Marcus Raskin, was totally caught up in all the causes of the moment.

Taylor, by contrast, was in his early 50s and writing, as he had for three decades, about the lives of genteel whites of the Upper South and the blacks with whom they coexisted uneasily and intimately. He was almost entirely unknown outside a small circle of ardent admirers, many of them fellow writers, so the publication of "The Collected Stories" in 1969 clearly was an attempt to get critical recognition in the mainstream press and perhaps even to sell a few books. The notices generally were positive, in some cases rhapsodic, but Raskin took off the gloves. She said that Taylor dealt in Southern stereotypes and that his work was "a return to the same insipid, if not insidious, situations, events, remembrances, and nostalgia that finally implicates and indicts the author as much as his work."

An entree to criticism

As it happens, I had only recently returned to the newspaper in Greensboro after a year of postgraduate study in which I had read deeply in Southern literature. I felt that Raskin's depiction of Taylor and his work was utterly wrongheaded. I fired off a long letter to the New Republic in which I noted "the fundamentally untenable premise that all Southern fiction is alike" and took Raskin to task for "racing Dixiephobia." I put the letter in the mail and went about my business, but that was only the beginning. A few days later I received a letter from Reed Whittemore, the distinguished poet who was then the magazine's literary editor, saying that he liked my letter, that it would be published in full, and that he wondered if I'd be interested in doing some reviews for him.

You could have knocked me over with a page from the New Republic. Would I be interested? I had just turned 30 years old, I had recently realized that book reviewing interested me far more than editorial writing, and here the best literary section in the country had invited me to become a contributor. It was my big opportunity, and I seized it with glee and determination. I began contributing regularly to the magazine, and the way of the world being such as it is, soon I was also contributing regularly to newspapers and magazines around the country, making a small name for myself in a very small corner of journalism that over the next dozen years led to a couple of book-reviewing jobs -- first at the Miami Herald, then at the Washington Star -- before landing me at The Washington Post in the summer of 1981.

The rest of the story is just a lot of work done pretty much in isolation, but a footnote must be added. Sometime in 1998, after I'd finally taken up residence in the District of Columbia, I met Barbara Raskin at a dinner party. I shook her hand, smiled and said, "I owe you a lot." She laughed and replied, "I know you do!" It was the beginning of a friendship that I valued enormously. Barbara was earthy, great-hearted, funny, loyal, smart and proud yet self-mocking. Alas, our friendship turned out to be far too brief. Barbara died suddenly the next year, aged 63, from post-operative complications. The informal memorial service that was held for her a few days later was jammed with people who were heartbroken by her death but joyful about her exuberant life.

More than once Barbara told me that she had been the wrong person to review Taylor's stories -- I don't recall her exact words, but they were along the lines of: What's a nice Jewish girl from Minneapolis doing writing about a genteel man from Tennessee? -- but she was kind enough to say that if her review helped jump-start my career, she was glad of it. So you can imagine that she was uppermost in my mind when, for the first time in four decades, I sat down to reread Taylor's "Collected Stories." Nothing that I rediscovered there changed my mind about either her review or Taylor's stories, but I was reminded that a great deal happened between 1969 and Taylor's death a quarter-century later. I realize now that "The Collected Stories," wonderful though the best of them are, were not the climax of Taylor's writing career, as at the time his publisher may have thought them to be, but the prologue to his finest work, the short stories and novels that secured his place among this country's greatest writers.

A gem of a collection

Certainly the 21 stories gathered here are far more than apprentice work, as among them are "Dean of Men," "What You Hear From 'Em?," "A Wife of Nashville," "The Elect" and "Miss Leonora When Last Seen," all of which rank with the finest work of his mature years. The themes that characterize his work are all to be found here: the confusion, uncertainty and self-doubt faced by people in times of great social, economic and cultural change, longing for "the old ways, the old life, where people had real grandfathers and real children, and where love was something that could endure the light of day"; the tangled, strangely loving relationship between white middle-class women and the black women who served them; loneliness, "the loneliness from which everybody, knowingly or unknowingly, suffered"; the life of small towns, epitomized by the fictional Thornton, and of the big cities, Memphis and Nashville, to which Taylor was drawn over and over again.

In the story "There," Taylor writes about a shipboard encounter between an "old gentleman" and the younger narrator, who turns out to come from the same small Southern town. The older man is a gifted raconteur. "He had a way of making you feel that he couldn't say what he was saying to anyone but you," Taylor writes. "From the outset I observed in him what seemed a mixture of masculine frankness and almost feminine gossipiness. It was this mixture which must always have constituted his charm for people." That story was written in the early 1960s, when Taylor was still in his 40s, and there is no way of knowing how much if any self-awareness went into those words, but one would be hard put to depict Taylor himself more accurately. He was a thoroughly masculine man, but he had a strong feminine side that resulted in, among other things, his delight in gossip and secrets and stories.

Thus "The Collected Stories" is dedicated to Taylor's mother, "who was the best teller of tales I know and from whose lips I first heard many of the stories in this book." Taylor was the most domestic of men, who shared with his wife, Eleanor Ross Taylor, herself a poet of high reputation, a love for houses and gardens and all the accouterments of domesticity. Over the many years of their marriage they bought, renovated and sold something on the order of two dozen houses, and apparently they loved every one of them.

A fond farewell

The stories in this collection are suffused with these things that Taylor loved, as is everything else he wrote before his death in 1994. Marvelous though the early stories are, it is this later work that will bring readers to him for generations to come. I think in particular of "The Old Forest," which I consider the greatest short story ever written by an American, and "A Summons to Memphis," the novel that at last he wrote -- people had been wondering for years why he hadn't written one, beyond the rather slight "A Woman of Means" (1950) -- and for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Throughout the years before these two triumphs Taylor bemoaned the obscurity in which he had for so long labored, but I believe that this freed him from the distractions of such celebrity as literary success offers and gave him time and space in which to grow. Unlike so many American writers, who soar early and then flame out, Taylor was at his best at the end of his writing life.

With that, this series of Second Readings comes to an end. It began in February 2003 and has covered nearly 100 books. Probably it could go on a while longer, but it's best to quit before you start repeating yourself. Let me say by way of wrapping things up that except for a couple of the books I've written, nothing in my career has given me so much pleasure as these reconsiderations, not least because they have elicited such warm, generous responses from you, my treasured readers. I hope that I've steered you to a few good books you might otherwise have missed, and that those books gave you as much pleasure as reading and writing about them gave me.

"The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor" is available in an FSG Classics paperback ($23).

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