The Old Forest and Other Stories appeared in February 1985, nearly four decades after Peter Taylor's first published short story. In those intervening years Taylor published eight books, received many admiring notices and achieved an enviable reputation but found few readers. It has never been wholly clear whether this was because he wrote stories, not novels; because he wrote about the lives of genteel white Southerners; because his fiction was quiet in manner and complex in psychological insight. Whatever the reason, he was as 1985 began the best unknown writer in the United States.
With The Old Forest that began to change, albeit slowly. The reviews were as favorable as ever, but this time readers outside Taylor's cult paid attention. The book sold rather well, at least for a story collection, and when it won the Pen/Faulkner Award it brought Taylor a few steps closer to the renown he so obviously deserved and so inexplicably had been denied. The process was completed the following year with the publication of his first novel, A Summons to Memphis, which not merely won the Pulitzer Prize but also against all odds became a national bestseller.
I have chosen The Old Forest for The Washington Post Book Club for two reasons. The first is literary: It is one of the great American books of the 20th century, and it should be read by everyone who aspires to a literary education. The second is personal: It is one of the few books I love without reservation, it has been too many years since last I read it, and I leaped at an excuse to read it again.
There will be an online discussion later this month in which we can talk about The Old Forest. Meantime, I would like to suggest that you keep a few questions in mind as you read these 13 stories and one short play:
Taylor can fairly be called a writer of manners, because the manners -- "social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs" of a society, to quote Webster -- of his Tennesseeans are the framework within which his stories are constructed. How would you describe the manners of this particular society? What do you think is Taylor's attitude toward those manners? Do the manners of Memphis and Nashville as Taylor depicts them have anything to say to people living, say, in and about Washington, D.C. in 1999?
Taylor was a man, to boot a man of a certain time (he was born in 1919) and class, yet as often as not the central figures in his stories are women, and a central preoccupation is with "a world where women were absolutely subjected and absolutely under the protection of men." Obviously, the response of readers who are themselves women will be of greatest interest: Is Taylor a knowing, sympathetic and persuasive portraitist of women? Does he transcend male attitudes and prejudices or does he in the end succumb to them?
Much the same question can be asked about Taylor's portraits of blacks. Though his most important stories about blacks are not in this collection, two of those here -- "A Long Fourth" and "Ladies in Retirement" -- strongly indicate the place that blacks play in his fiction. This time the question is asked especially of African-American readers: Are these portraits knowing, sympathetic and persuasive? If they are not, why?
Some of these stories, most notably "The Gift of the Prodigal" and "The Old Forest," are told from the point of view of white males who are pillars of the Tennessee establishment. What does Taylor tell us about these men? Does he ultimately take sides with them, or are his stronger sympathies elsewhere?
These are only four questions to think about. I look forward to talking with you about them and many others when we go online at http://www.washingtonpost.com, on Monday, Sept. 27 at 2 p.m. Send your written comments on the book to email@example.com or to Book World, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
Jonathan Yardley can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org
October: The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. Presented by Marie Arana.
November: Suder, by Percival Everett. Presented by Jabari Asim.
December: Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. Presented by K. Francis Tanabe.
January: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Presented by Michael Dirda.
February: Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean. Presented by Dennis Drabelle.