For some reason or another the literary culture police failed for decades to bestow a major award on one of the living masters of the short story, Peter Taylor. The drought is over. Taylor, 69, is the winner of this year's PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
His latest collection, "The Old Forest," as well as "The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor," shows a writer who is worthy of his precursors in the art of short fiction -- Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant -- and his contemporaries -- Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Frank O'Connor, Bernard Malamud.
"I haven't lived in the limelight very much in my career and I've been rather happy about that," Taylor said yesterday from his home in Charlottesville. "Awards aren't all that important for serious writers, but, like Robert Penn Warren said when he became laureate, it can't hurt, I suppose."
The PEN/Faulkner Award, which is worth $5,000 and a bit of valuable publicity, has been rather enigmatic in its six-year existence. Its previous winners -- Tobias Wolff, David Bradley and Walter Abish among them -- seem deliberately surprising. Wolff, who won last year for "The Barracks Thief," had not received a single review for his short novel before the award announcement. PEN is an organization of writers, and the judges for the award are always novelists, poets and short-story writers.
Taylor stands apart from previous winners. A Tennessean and an early disciple of Allen Tate, John Crow Ransom and other southern agrarian movement writers who dominated Vanderbilt University and Kenyon College, Taylor learned from poets and spent most of his career writing in a form that is almost as compressed and lyrical as the best poems. So far his only novel has been a short one, "A Woman of Means," which was reissued by Frederick Beil publishers this year.
Taylor has even lived the life of a contemporary American poet, earning his living by teaching (until two years ago at the University of Virginia), winning grants and giving readings around the country.
"After all these stories, though, I've come to the novel late in life," Taylor said. "I have a short, 250-page novel coming out this September called 'A Summons to Memphis.' It began as a story about an old man who wants to remarry, but his children don't want him to, because he's a man with some money in his pockets. It's a novel but it has to do with my basic subject -- the family.
"To me the most interesting commune in the world is the family. I grew up in an extended family, full of parents, siblings, uncles and aunts and other characters. I'm one of those people who think the world will end not because of the Bomb or the death of God, but because of the family giving out."
Taylor lives with his wife, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, and in a recent interview with The Washington Post, he described their working days:
"She gets up before 6, but I sleep till 8:30. She loves having the whole house to herself, and when I start invading and come in to fix my breakfast she hurries out with her papers. We don't answer the telephone, and we don't speak if we pass in the hall. If we do, the morning is gone. I can't stand for her to be in the kitchen when I fix breakfast -- I'm so inefficient -- and when I'm finally sitting down to breakfast I ring a little bell and she comes back in."
"The Old Forest" ends with a typically poetic and true sentence from Peter Taylor:
"Though it clearly meant that we must live on a somewhat more modest scale and live among people of a sort she was not used to, and even meant leaving Memphis forever behind us, the firmness with which she supported my decision, and the look in her eyes whenever I spoke of feeling I must make the change, seemed to say to me that she would dedicate her pride of power to the power of freedom I sought."
The other nominees this year were Grace Paley for "Later the Same Day," Hugh Nissenson for "The Tree of Life," William Gaddis for "Carpenter's Gothic," Helen Norris for "The Christmas Wife" and Larry McMurtry for his Pulitzer Prize winner "Lonesome Dove." Taylor will receive his award at a ceremony May 10 at the Folger Shakespeare Library.