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The Washington Post Book Club

Monday, September 27, 1999

Jonathan Yardley

Welcome to the first online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.

This month's selection is Peter Taylor's "The Old Forest," a collection of stories written over a 40-year period beginning in the early 1940s. Set mostly in Taylor's native Tennessee, they are deceptively quiet glimpses of domestic life within which Taylor explores basic questions about the family, about men and women, about race, about the fragility of life and the human connections that sustain it.

Jonathan Yardley, columnist and The Washington Post Book Critic, led the discussion. Yardley concentrates on the title story, which he considers one of the true masterpieces of American literature.

Yardley is the author of six books, most recently "Monday Morning Quarterback," and he has published articles and reviews in many magazines and newspapers. He was the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard University in 1968-69 and of a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 1981.

Following is the transcript from today's discussion.


Jonathan Yardley: Welcome to the inaugural meeting of the Washington Post Book Club. For the staff of Book World and others at The Post -- both the newspaper itself and -- your response to the club has been exhilarating and overwhelming. The last I heard we had 12,500 members, with no end in sight. Some people have e-mailed me to say that they haven't received their cards and other perquisites of membership; if you're in that situation, please bear with us, as we simply have far more to cope with than we'd bargained for. Others have complained about the 2 p.m. online time, which is inconvenient for many people who are at work, schoolteachers in particular. As I understand it, this was chosen by because response to the site at that hour is generally heavy, which self-evidently suggests that we can reach the maximum number of people then. But please be advised that this is very much a work in progress, and that we'll be adjusting any number of aspects of the club to suit the convenience and interests of as many members as possible.

I'll be online for an hour. I wish we had more time, but I'll try to get to as many of your questions and comments as possible. I'm a fairly speedy typist, but I use the old-fashioned hunt-and-peck method, so please bear with me.

Alexandria, VA: Jonathan - many thanks for introducing me to the elegantly exquisite craft of Peter Taylor. While his keen sense of the underlying human spirit and evolution of social mores are remarkable, his story telling talents create an almost mystical ability to keep a reader involved to the last word. The major changes of workforce, technology, etc., have created a new world, yet the old adage that 'the more things change, the more they remain the same' -perhaps with a subtle or covert twist- allows a reader to easily see herself in a more genteel era and place. Again, thanks for the recommendation of Old Forest, et al.

Jonathan Yardley: I'm glad to have introduced you to Taylor's work and am pleased that you've responded so positively to it. I've had many e-mails in advance of this meeting that have been similar in tone and observation. I believe that Taylor connects with readers across an astonishing line of class, race and gender (the holy trinity of political correctness!) precisely because he burrows so intimately into the innermost human heart and because he so well understands what I called, in my review of The Old Forest, "the fragile bonds of kinship, the injustice of arbitrary power, the infinite complexity and ambiguity of the human community, the sense of irretrievable loss that is an inescapable aspect of adult life."

N. Bethesda, MD: Taylor's sentences seem simple and short, yet his descriptions of people and surroundings are extraordinarily vivid and memorable. Technically, from a writing poit of view, how does he achieve this effect?

Jonathan Yardley: Believe me, if I knew the answer to *that* question, I wouldn't be writing for a newspaper. I'd be writing The Old Forest....

Palo Alto, California: Why is it that Peter Taylor has not enjoyed more notoriety for his wonderful stories?

Jonathan Yardley: Well, not many people read short stories now that the great old weekly general-circulation magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers) are dead. Though Taylor appeared in The New Yorker off and on over the years much of his best work came out in small literary quarterlies with small readerships. For a long time many readers completely misunderstood him, imagining him to be writing out of nostalgia for the moonbeams and magnolia South when in fact he was its fiercest (and subtlest) critic. It wasn't until 1985, with The Old Forest, that he began to find a real readership.

Rockville, MD: thank you for your choice of books -- my first Taylor. I would like to hear how people responded to your question on how he portrays blacks. I found this portrayal very interesting, but can't really decide if he was sympathetic with the servants' lot or not.

Jonathan Yardley: So far I haven't had any response to that question. I do think it's important to bear in mind that Taylor was writing about Southern blacks at a certain (vanished) time and place when the n-word was still used commonly, not always insultingly, and when most blacks occupied servile positions. Within that context, his deep sympathy becomes self-evident. For clarification of this point I especially recommend two stories in Taylor's Collected Stories, "What Do You Hear From 'Em?" and "A Wife of Nashville." At the risk of using a buzzword, Taylor saw both blacks and women as oppressed, and was powerfully drawn to them.

crofton, md: should Taylor have told us
whathappened to Lee Ann in the
OLd Forest, in otherwords, was
she found?

Jonathan Yardley: Have another look at the story. Yes, she was found.

bethesda, md: Having been raised in the south, I found myself imagining I HEARD some of the dialog, especially in A Walled Garden and Promise of Rain

Jonathan Yardley: Absolutely. I am not sure I've ever read sharper or more astute dialogue than Taylor's. It was my pleasure and honor to know him, in the way that a man knows another man two decades his senior, and to have spent many hours listening to him talk. He was the greatest story-teller I've ever heard, funny and loquacious and irrevent. He pronounced the word "stOHry."

Speaking of his humor, I hope some of you got the incredible sneaky wit of "The Gift of the Prodigal." I actually laughed out loud a few times.

Germantown, MD: I have not had the opportunity to read all of the stories, but I am intrigued with Taylor's "storytelling" style. He writes as if he is personally talking to the reader.Is this a consistent stylistic technique of his?

Jonathan Yardley: Thanks. See my answer to the previous question.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Yardley,
One of your correspondents refers to the world that Taylor describes as "genteel," whereas I often found the events and emotions described in this remarkable book as anything but genteel. Taylor's passions are evident, even fierce, though his language may be restrained. Can you say a little about this?
Your Fan

Jonathan Yardley: Many thanks. The number of people who'd sign mail to me as "Your Fan" could fit inside my kitchen pantry, which is *very* small!

Yes, you have got it right on the money. The people in Taylor's fiction are genteel, as was Taylor himself, but the emotions they feel and the situations they encounter are elemental. Taylor understood that quiet exteriors often mask ardent hearts. Some of his stories (again, I refer you to the two I mentioned from his Collected Stories) are absolutely heartbreaking.

Annapolis, MD: I've noticed an almost complete lack of metaphor in Taylor's stories. His writing is simple, unadorned, and disarmingly straightforward. In The Old Forest and Gift of the Prodigal -and others-, I get the sense that I'm listening to a wise elderly man, a storyteller, who might be Taylor himself. story.

Jonathan Yardley: That's because he understood what so many trendy writers do not, that storytelling is an art in and of itself and needs no elaborate literary devices to sustain it. As one of the previous questioners said, you feel as though you're in the man's presence.

Arlington, VA: I agree with all the praise of Peter Taylor and thank you for introducing me to him. But I have to admit, by the last story I was weary of reading about the socially stratified world of "Southern gentility." Is that because I'm from New England, or did others feel the same way?

Jonathan Yardley: Others have made that complaint in the past. But bear in mind that each of us has only so many arrows in his or her quiver. Taylor's was the South, and a particular class of the South, that he knew so well. But don't forget that he was a novelist (or short-story writer) of manners, and the best such novelists (Wharton, Marquand, Cheever) use the manners of a narrow class to illuminate those of us all.

Derwood, MD: In Two Ladies in Retirement I was struck by the apparent uselessness of Miss Betty. Please comment on Taylor's portrayal of single, elderly women in general.

Jonathan Yardley: You are right. Taylor made fun of these elderly spinsters hanging on at the edges of their families (see "The Death of a Kinsman," for example) but he also knew that -- damn it, here comes that word again -- they were oppressed, and he felt a powerful sympathy for them, too. He saw them, too, as sustainers and guardians of their families' histories and traditions.

Deale, MD: On the subject of blacks in this collection: Taylor makes a point of showing Nat's empathy toward servants in general and in particular, gratefulness for the Braxley's house boy, who offered "to help -his] plate" for Nat.

Jonathan Yardley: He expresses this sympathy, though, without condescending to his characters. Black house servants in the period where many of these stories are set were often, by force of circumstance, ill-educated and semi-articulate. Taylor presented them as they were, and let their humanity shine through. A useful and revealing comparison is Faulkner's Dilsey, in The Sound and the Fury.

Dallas, TX: What ties did Taylor have with the Agrarians, and why do you think his portrayal of southerners differs from a Faulkner or O'Connor?

Jonathan Yardley: Interesting question. Taylor was close to John Crowe Ransom and was educated at Kenyon, through which many Agrarians passed. But his closest literary friends were Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford, none of whom by any stretch of the imagination could be called Agrarian. I think he was far less nostalgic about the lost rural South (or for that matter the Lost Cause) than they were, but in his own fashion he certainly shared their chilly attitude toward the men of business who had taken over Nashville and Memphis.

Faulkner and O'Connor (both of whom I admire without reservation) were small-town Southerners. Taylor was of the town *and* the city, and was more cosmopolitan than they were. He always lived in smaller cities (Greensboro, Charlottesville, Key West), but he was comfortable in big ones (I remember a delightful evening with him in New York not long after The Old Forest came out) and he saw the South, I think, through an urbanite's eyes.

washington, dc: So much of Taylor's concern in these stories is more universal than strictly Southern, don't you think? He writes about the complexities of fatherhood -"The Gift of the Prodigal," "The Promise of Rain"-, for example, and the way in which his characters misjudge each other until some event reveals their true nature in an instant -"Bad Dreams," "Two Ladies in Retirement"-. Despite their setting, these stories are not simply Southern at all.

Jonathan Yardley: This gets back to what I said a few minutes ago about the novel of manners. After all, each of us is a human being no matter how different our circumstances may be, and each of us experiences in one way or another humanity's elemental emotions. So of course you're absolutely right.

Alexandria, VA: Please compare Taylor's storytelling ability and writing style in his novel -Summons to Memphis- with his short stories. PS I once knew a Jonathan Yardely in South Carolina--any relationship?

Jonathan Yardley: Last questions first. I was a Jonathan Yardley in *North* (the only one that counts) Carolina for about a decade and a half. I know of only two other JYs on the planet, both of whom (of course) are English.

A Summons to Memphis is merely (as if "merely" was the word!) Taylor's story-writing gifts at novel-length. It is a wonderful book. I think it took him completely by surprise. Somewhere in my files is a letter in which he told me, in so many words, that he was writing this story that just kept getting longer and longer and before he knew it he had what he thought he'd never have: a novel.

Fairfax, VA: Johnathan:
Of the stories inthe collection you chose, my personal favorite was Bad Dreams. This was a powerful piece, that would make a good one act play. The "old Negro man", the "old fellow" remained nameless to the end of the story, yet he moved from being unwanted to being accepted. Each of has Bad Dreams, the part of us we cannot reconcile to the world or our particular status.

Jonathan Yardley: I agree. I had completely forgotten "Bad Dreams" and was surprised at it when I re-read it. Your comments are astute.

N. Bethesda, MD: Why was Caroline so insistent that Nat not see Lee Ann again even though she accepted his assertion that the relationship was innocent?

Jonathan Yardley: I think it was because she sensed that the potential power of the attraction between Nat and Lee Ann was more than she might be able to handle, but also it was because it was time for him to become a Man of Memphis and put such pleasures and temptations behind him.

Manassas, VA: Was anyone else disappointed that we didn't get to find out what awful trouble Ricky had gotten himself into in Gift of the Prodigal?

Jonathan Yardley: No, no, no, no. One of the great pleasures of a work of serious fiction is that it leaves the reader hungering for more.

Johnson City, TN: In your response to Dallas,
TX, you did not mention that
Taylor came from a different
"Class" of Southerners than
O'Connor and Faulkner.

Jonathan Yardley: Well, Faulkner came from old Mississippi semi-aristocracy, Taylor came from Tennessee gentility and O'Connor was a small-town Georgia Catholic. This last, of course, was the rarest of the lot, which probably helps explain why freaks figure so large in her work.

Laurel, MD: A quibble regarding Robert Penn Warren. He was in fact an Agrarian, in the strict sence that he was a contributor to the primary document of the movement: I'LL TAKE MY STAND.

Jonathan Yardley: Your quibble was very well taken. That's the trouble with the Internet: no time to doublecheck. But of course Warren moved well beyond that as his writing developed.

Annapolis, MD: In response to your description of Taylor's being drawn to the oppression of women and Blacks, I found the secret world of the demimonde in The Old Forest very enlightening. Such a group of young women in the South during that time period having the degree of freedom and power that they did made quite a statement, so different than the stereotypes I expected to find in this collection. Perhaps I expected a more condescending, benevolent attitude--but was very pleasantly surprised to see the main character's envy of the girls of the demionde's freedom. All the men in the society seemed to admire and wish to preserve the lifestyles of these young women, instead of fearing or trying to restrict them. For this original and eye-opening glimpse into a female society I previously did not know existed, I am grateful to Peter Taylor and this collection of stories.

Jonathan Yardley: Another reader hits it right on the head. Many thanks. I suppose it's a risky thing for a man to say, but Taylor's liking for women was matched by his understanding of them. He was himself a decidedly masculine man, but like other men who like and are liked by women, he had a strong feminine side.

Sterling, VA: I hate to start with a probably misspelled word, but are there elements of The Old Forest that put others of you in mind of Chappaquidick? I'm not just talking about plot elements, but the idea of dividing groups of women into different arenas of acceptability, or is it usefulness?

Jonathan Yardley: Interesting notion. What were Mary Jo and her friends called? The boiler-room girls or something like that? I'm not sure they were the demimonde, but, yes, they probably were women with whom men such as the Kennedys and their hangers-on could associate free of the entanglements that wives and social peers present.

College Park, Md: I had a chance to read only one story, the one about the Fourth. With respect to black characters, I think Taylor's point is to portray the depraved responses of the Southern white woman to blacks. I am thinking, for example, of her dismay when her son is compared to the black servant. She is genuinely overwhelmed by such an implied similarity. It seems to me that Taylor does not begin to get inside or understand the black characters or that he is necessarily trying to. His portrayal of them is to some extent through the eyes of the other characters. Harriet, Sweetheart, etc. This may be a generous interpretation, but it is the only one that makes any sense and allows me to enjoy the prose.

Jonathan Yardley: Don't you think that seeing black characters through the eyes of whites is about as close as any white writer can hope to get? I do think Styron got pretty close in The Confessions of Nat Turner, but (a) what do I know? and (b) at the time many black intellectuals were infuriated that he had the temerity to try.

Rose Haven, MD: Which southern writers did Taylor particularly enjoy?

Jonathan Yardley: Peter was very catholic in his tastes. He taught writing before that had turned into an industry, and he encouraged his students to be themselves rather than imitations of himself. As I recall, he liked the Southern writers whom most of us like: Faulkner, Welty, Percy, O'Connor. But I do not recall that he saw himself as part of a "Southern" tradition. *His* South was Tennessee and its satellite, St. Louis.

Germantown, MD: Yet for all Lee-Ann's "freedom," she also felt the loneliness of knowing that Nat would not -could not- take her as his wife and, in that, lay Caroline's power. The freedom and the power still revolved around the conventions of marriage.

Jonathan Yardley: Absolutely.

sterling,va: Thank you for a nice read. I enjoyed The Gift of Prodigal especially. I know families like that and never understood why they "enabled" the black sheep. I have to admit that The Old Forest was not my favorite. As a young woman I couldn't understand the men's behavior toward the working girls or the the reaction of the social women. Did other women readers have similar feelings?

Jonathan Yardley: I'm putting this out without comment in the hope that other women will reply.

Palo Alto, California: Was there anything in Taylor's background or particular makeup that drew him to write of oppressed people -women, blacks, etc.-? Do you think he could identify with them on any level, coming from a stereotypically "dominant" class -i.e. white male-?

Jonathan Yardley: I wish I could answer this question because it is perceptive and interesting. I would guess that he grew up in the company of interesting, vivacious women and became comfortable with them at an early age, and that somewhere along the way a woman -- whether white or black, I don't know -- opened his eyes to the comparable situations of women and blacks.

Charlottesville VA: Thanks for introducing me to Mr. Taylor. As a Charlottesville native, I was particularly taken by the opening story. "The Gift of the Prodigal" captures perfectly the Charlottesville social caste. In a town of authors & would be authors, many have attempted to write this story, but none have done it so well.Some of his more specific references may have been wasted on non-residents, but were particularly amusing to me. Mr. Taylor obviously spent some time here, was he at the University?

Jonathan Yardley: Yes, he taught at UVA and stayed in C'ville to the end of his life.

Virginia Beach, VA: As a not young woman I can agree with 'Sterling VA' thoughts about the 'classes' of women in 'The Old Forest"

Jonathan Yardley: Here's one reply to that reader's observation.

Bethesda,MD: Yes, I agree with the person who wrote about the portrayl of women in The Old Forest. But that is society today as well. There are girls that you marry and girls that you have "fun" with. Fortunately, I would classify myself as the marrying type of girl.

Jonathan Yardley: Here's another.

crofton. md: thank you Mr. Yardley for your
comments. do you have a favorite story in this collectin

Jonathan Yardley: Oh, yes. "The Old Forest."

Clinton MD: As a follow up to the comment of portraying black characters through the eyes of a white writer, I have noticed a trend in literart criticism that only blacks can or should write about blacks, gays about gays, women about women. Any comments.

Jonathan Yardley: I think it's very hard to write about someone whose experience of the world is so different from one's own. But I don't think that should stop anyone from trying. Some writers (I mentioned Styron) have made bold efforts. So did Ralph Ellison.

college park, md: As a follow up to comment about portrayal of black characters, I think there's a difference between presenting a distorted view of some group through the perspective of a character and presenting a humane portrayal. White authors don't always present white characters with veracity since everyone's different. Being of a different "race" does not excuse sterotypical portrayals. I was trying to place these stereotypes within the minds of the characters rather than with the author.

Jonathan Yardley: Good point.

Jonathan Yardley: The clock downstairs in the dining room just chimed three times. Our hour is up. Thanks to all of you for participating, many apologies to those whose questions and comments I didn't have time to put on the board, and don't forget to come back on October 25 -- same time, same station -- when the discussion of another splendid book, Isabelle Allende's The House of the Spirits, will be led by Marie Arana.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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