Peter Taylor has never won the Pulitzer or the NBA, but when his most recent collection of stories, "In the Miro District," appeared last year, the critics called him "the best short story writer in English," "the most underrated writer in America," "the American Chekhov." It's the kind of praise he's been hearing for over 40 years, since Allen Tate, his first college English teacher, said of him, "Peter Taylor knows more about writing stories at 19 than most people who've been writing 19 years."
Ask Peter Taylor about that, about having had all that praise and yet not having fame come to him on the grand scale that it did, say, to his closest friend, the late Robert Lowell, and it becomes clear that it's a question he's used to answering, though he shows no impatience at answering it again. "Well, you see, I never wanted a career for myself, only for my stories. I never had much desire for fame or fortune," he said.
But what supported him most over the years were his friends. His earliest teachers were some of the great names of 20th-century American literature - Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren - as were the two Kenyon College classmates who became his friends, Lowell and Randall Jarrell. "I had all those literary friends who respected me, and as long as I had that, I didn't feel any lack," he said quietly. At 61, Peter Taylor is at an age where one begins to lose friends. Both Lowell and Jarrell are now dead.
But there's another reason Taylor was never all that concerned about fame. "There were always so many other things I'd wanted to do," he said, smiling with both his wide mouth and light blue eyes, a smile that creased his already much-lined face. Those other things include teaching, farming, traveling, playing and "keeping a hand in real estate," a passion that is a "Taylor tradition," he said.
Taylor is a sociable man, well-known among his friends for the pleasure he receives from hosting parties. It is not just those old friends who are important, but newer ones as well, including his students. "Why, some of my best friends are 40 years younger than I am," he said, with something like amazement at his good fortune. He and his wife, the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, often play host to a wide variety of friends - "townspeople, country people, literary friends, students, friends from all over" - and one of the things he likes about Charlottesville is the variety of people there. Taylor might agree with the narrator of one of his recent stories. "Daphne's Lover," that "a healthy imagination is like a healthy appetite. If you do not feed it the lives of your friends, I maintain, then you are apt to feed it your own life, to live in your own imagination rather than upon it."
But Taylor's congeniality is not the "hail-fellow-well-met" sort. It's more a graceful courtesy that puts other people at ease immediately - good manners, not elaborate ones, the kind learned growing up in an upper-middle-class Nashville family in the '20s and '30s. That Tennessee boyhood is still very much with Peter Taylor, although he has been gone from there most of the last 40 years.
It is with him not just in his manner, or in the family antiques and oil portraits that people his Charlottesville home. It is also the world of his stories, most of which are set before the '60s and some much earlier, and which often turn upon his knowledge of the behavior of the upper middle class in Nashville or Memphis, or sometimes St. Louis. The characters in those stories often find themselves in some sort of conflict with the social world, sometimes a conflict between the old ways and the new, like the conflict between the boy and his grandfather in the affecting story "In the Miro District."
Taylor has long been adamant about his preference for the "tightness and drama" of the short story over the novel, despite the fact that it seems to be novelists, not short story writers, who win recognition these days. He thinks the attitude that a novel is somehow worth more has been responsible "for a lot of good short story writers wasting themselves on bad novels," and that "most novels would've been better off as short stories."
Although he once tried to write a novel, "it was so boring I tore it up after 250 pages." (Taylor is rather confusing on this: sometimes he calls "A Woman of Means" "my only novel"; at other times he refers to it as a novella.) Had he ever considered writing another one, perhaps as a way to gain the kind of public recognition that might preserve his stories? Well, yes, he admitted with a slightly sheepish grin, "I'm fooling around with one now." It's a novel based on one of the several long plays he's also written. "A Stand in the Mountains," and he's just going to see what happens, he said, see if he can keep it from being boring, too. "But, writing a novel -" he paused and leaned forward conspiratorially, "well, it's sort of against my principles."