THIS NEW collection by Peter Taylor contains one novella, one short play and a dozen stories. The 14 pieces were originally published over four decades, from 1941 to the present, and they display Taylor in his full range of themes, settings and moods. This is to say that they provide a generous, incomparably rewarding introduction to the work of the American writer who, more than any other, has achieved utter mastery in short fiction. By comparison with The Old Forest, almost everything else published by American writers in recent years seems small, cramped, brittle, inconsequential; among American writers now living, only Eudora Welty has accomplished a body of fiction so rich, durable and accessible as Taylor's.

The pity (not to mention the oddity of it is that he has done this almost entirely unnoticed by the larger world of serious readers, who simply have no idea what a treat they have missed. Taylor has won his share of honors, to be sure, and many of his fellow writers understandably hold him in awe. But not one of his eight previous books -- a novella, six story collections and a volume of plays -- has had a genuinely significant sale, and the mention of his name too often draws blank stares even from knowledgeable readers. In some measure, perhaps, this can be explained by his refusal to follow literary fashion; nowhere in his work is to be found the language of the gutter, his treatment of sexual business is subtle and reticent, his references to academic life are more often mocking than reverential, and he has not once in all these years corrupted a piece of fiction in order to advance his political opinions.

Rather, in all these years Taylor has quietly -- though not, I believe, without deep frustration at the neglect to which he is subjected -- gone about the business of transforming the small world he knows best into a place that has the look of a universe. This world is centered about the two Tennessee cities of Memphis and Nashville, with occasional forays to St. Louis and beyond. Its principal residents are white people of the middle and upper-middle classes, though this being the South there are also many black people who, in the self-centered and wildly mistaken view of the whites, are "completely irresponsible and totally dependent upon us." This world's central preoccupation, as stated by the narrator of the title novella of the collection, is with "the binding and molding effect upon people of the circumstances in which they are born."

PERHAPS MORE than any other it is this theme that gives Taylor's fiction its universality; no matter what world a person may be born into, his stories say, that is the world that shapes him, and this we all have in common. Read superficially, Taylor seems to be a chronicler and defender of the old Southern order, a society that suppresses women and oppresses blacks. Yet as the stories in The Old Forest make abundantly clear, from the outset his strongest sympathies have been with the powerless, and his abiding interest has been in discovering what strategies they devise for acquiring such power as may be available to them. He depicts the world as it exists rather than the world as we wish it might be, so some of the social settings and personal relationships in these stories may seem unfortunate to today's enlightened reader; but the truth is that his portrait of the white middle-class South, though drawn with sympathy and affection, is as withering as any we have.

All of the tales in this book can be used to prove the point, but the paradigmatic example is "The Old Forest," which I do not hesitate to call an American masterpiece. It was originally published in the late 1970s; it is one of four stories published over the past decade, the others being "The Captain's Son," "In the Miro District" and "The Gift of the Prodigal," that are arguably the finest Taylor has written. As is true of much of Taylor's recent fiction, it is narrated by a gentleman of moderately advanced years who is looking back into his own past with a mixture of nostalgia and puzzlement, attempting through the exercise of memory to understand an event that, however trivial on its face, had lasting repercussions in his life.

In this case the event is an auto accident that occurs in Memphis on a snowy day in the winter of 1937. The narrator, Nat Ramsey, is at the time 23 years old, "a young man who had just the previous year entered his father's cotton-brokerage firm, a young man who was still learning how to operate under the pecking order of Memphis's male establishment." He is a week away from his wedding to Caroline Braxley, like himself a child of Memphis society. But the person in the car with him when the accident takes place is not his fianc,ee; she is Lee Ann Deehart, a girl of "a different sort," a member of a loose confederation of young women who eschew society, dabble in literature and the arts, and are "liberated" by the standards of the day, though her relationship with Nat is not sexual.

THE ACCIDENT is "a calamitous thing to have happen -- not the accident itself, which caused no serious injury to anyone, but the accident plus the presence of that girl." Lee Ann leaps from the car and disappears into "the old forest in Overton Park," an "immemorial grove of snow-laden oaks and yellow poplars and hickory trees." It is a place that has deep meaning in the history and character of the city:

"It is a grove, I believe, that men in Memphis have feared and wanted to destroy for a long time and whose destruction they are still working at even in this latter day. It has only recently been saved b a very narrow margin from a great highway that men wished to put through there -- saved by groups of women determined to save this last bit of the old forest from the axes of modern men. Perhaps in old pioneer days, before the plantation and the neoclassic towns were made, the great forests seemed woman's last refuge from the brute she lived alone with in the wilderness. Perhaps all men in Memphis who had any sense of their past felt this, though they felt more keenly (or perhaps it amounts to the same feeling) that the forest was woman's greatest danger. Men remembered mad pioneer women, driven mad by their loneliness and isolation, who ran off into the forest, never to be seen again, or incautious women who allowed themselves to be captured by Indians and returned at last so mutilated that they were unrecognizable to their husbands or who at their own wish lived out their lives among their savage captors."

No such fate awaits Lee Ann Deehart. We know from the outset that in four days she emerges from hidg and that her presence in the car does not cause Caroline to break her engagement to Nat. The suspense of this story, as is always true of Taylor's work, lies not in the unfolding of its plot but in the disclosure of the circumstances, both actual and psychological, of its characters' lives. These discoveries will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that they have to do with "a world where women were absolutely subjected and under the absolute protection of men," a world in which women must "protect and use whatever strength (they) have." They also have to do with themes to which Taylor has devoted his entire career: 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.

"The Old Forest" is the best of the stories in this collection, and the most characteristic in that it so comprehensively summarizes Taylor's work: not merely his settings and themes, but the marvelous subtlety and ingenuity of his leisurely, humorous storytelling method. But it is the best of an exemplary group. Mention certainly must be made of "The Gift of the Prodigal" and "A Friend and Protector," both of which examine the vicarious life; of "Promise of Rain" and "The Little Cousins," stories about children and their parents; of "A Long Fourth" and "Two Ladies in Retirement," which have much to do with matters of race; and of the short play, "The Death of a Kinsman," which in its exploration of "family happiness" and "how well we know our roles and how clearly defined are our spheres of authority" is another paradigmatic example of Taylor's art.

Gathered together as they now are, all of these tales serve admirably as a supplement to Taylor's Collected Stories, first published in 1969 and now available in paperback. Like that earlier volume, The Old Forest is both a thorough sample of Taylor's work in all its diversity and consistency, and clear evidence of his steady maturation over these four decades. Unlike most American authors, he is a better writer at 65 than he was at 45, for further confirmation of which see his previous collection, In the Miro District, also available in paperback. It is significant that the two finest stories here, "The Old Forest" and "The Gift of the Prodigal," are also the two most recent; midway through his seventh decade, Taylor is still expanding his world and his understanding of it.

Taylor has been compared, by Randall Jarrell and others, to Anton Chekhov; certainly both are virtuosos of the short story and of human psychology. But in the literature of his own country, Taylor can be compared to no one except himself; he is, as every word in this book testifies, an American master. CAPTION: Picture, Peter Taylor. Photo copyright (c) by Wright Langley