By JOHN MATTHIAS.
Complete Stories, vols. 1 and 2.
Ann Beattie, ed.
Hubert H. McAlexander
Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life
HOW TO WRITE an essay about a man writing a review in a novel? Such ephemera. The man in the novel writes the review about an actual person, the novelist and storywriter Peter Taylor, and he himself is an actual person, George Garrett, the novelist and poet. Garrett lived next door to Taylor in Charlottesville, Virginia, for ten years or so. His assignment is to write between eight hundred and one thousand words about Hubert McAlexander’s biography of Garrett’s former neighbor called Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life, published three or four years after Taylor’s death.
I’ve read the biography myself. I was drawn to it because, many years ago, Taylor was my teacher at Ohio State University. The book by George Garrett is called Double Vision. It was recommended to me by Thomas McGonigle, a phrase from whose essay “The Writer’s Life” is quoted in Garrett’s book: “the dead are always with us.” McGonigle is author of St. Patrick’s Day, winner of the 2016 Notre Dame Review Book Prize. I’m an editor of Notre Dame Review. When I was in Columbus a year ago, visiting Ohio State, I met the poet Nin Andrews, author of Our Lady of the Orgasms. This version of Our Lady is not celebrated at Notre Dame, where I taught for fifty years. But more to the point, Nin Andrews told me that her father was Peter Taylor’s “best friend,” and that they often met over drinks to tell each other stories. Some of her father’s stories became, in print, Peter Taylor’s stories. I once told Peter Taylor a story as well. He laughed and laughed but, as far as I know, never wrote it up. He told me that he thought my poetry was better than my fiction. That made me sad, as I had wanted to write a great American novel. But he was right. He asked me what poets I was reading. Yeats and Eliot, I said. He said he meant contemporary poets. I wasn’t reading any contemporary poets. He told me I ought to look up his Kenyon roommate. “Who’s that?” I asked. He said his Kenyon roommate was Robert Lowell. It was 1959 and Life Studies had just been published. Out I went and bought a copy at Long’s Bookstore, Columbus. It changed my life. In the end, everything gets tangled up with everything else.
In Double Vision George Garrett and Peter Taylor get tangled up with the fictional doppelgängers Frank Toomer and Aubrey Carver. Toomer, like Garrett, is suffering from double vision brought on by the neurological condition called Myasthenia Gravis. (I know a good deal about that as I did a lot of research about it when my wife was misdiagnosed with the condition some years ago.) Toomer lives next door to Carver, a writer only a decade older than himself, as Garrett lived next door to Taylor. When Garrett finds it difficult to write about himself and Taylor, he switches to Toomer and Carver. That sounds like a bit of contrived postmodern machinery, but it’s not. Toomer and Carver allow the author to say things about Garrett and Taylor that he couldn’t have said without recourse to the doubles. As for the review itself, Toomer is unable in the end to write his piece on the biography of Carver, and, in chapter 27, prints his apologetic letter to Colin Walters, books editor of the Washington Post. On the other hand, Garrett not only manages to write his review of Hubert McAlexander’s Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life but also prints it as it appeared in the Washington Post. This is a novel obviously full of play and games, but it is also very moving, especially for anyone who knew Peter Taylor or admires his work. For example, in a paragraph like this:
I paused from my efforts and read again some of my favorite short stories by Peter Taylor for the first time in many months, rejoicing in them even as I felt a heavy sense of loss and sorrow for the man and for his art. The contemporary American habit of ranking everything—the best living sculptors, the five worse-dressed formalist poets in the Western world—is utterly contemptible. But somewhere above and beyond all that foolishness all that expense of spirit and of common sense there are a precious few who are simply inimitable and therefore irreplaceable. Peter, we miss you.
So: I knew Taylor, though a very long time ago, and I have admired his work ever since I read some of it as an undergraduate. I am now roughly the age Taylor was when he died. Garrett thinks of his work as a “geezer novel,” and in fact uses the distressing word “geezer” again and again. He was old when he wrote it, and Taylor had died. So had an entire generation of writers, the contemporaries of both men, and the book is an elegy for that generation—perhaps the last one able to take something like a vibrant literary culture for granted. As we watch “literary fiction” dying off through the course of the narrative—a situation where John Grissom becomes a villain and Robert Pinsky reading poems on TV a joke—we realize that the literary generation to which Garrett, Taylor, Toomer, and Carver belong is, also, the last of the writers to have fought in World War II or Korea, after which the norm became “small war / on the heels of small war,” as Robert Lowell wrote.
Carver, Garrett reveals, had a naval career during which he suffered constant illness and absolute terror on convoy escort ships always vulnerable to torpedoes fired from German submarines. He never writes a word about these experiences and only speaks about them to the few friends who would understand—like Toomer. Garrett, who, like Toomer, was in Korea as an enlisted man, and who wrote a biography of James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, knows from the biography he is reading, if not from Taylor himself, that his neighbor shipped as sergeant first to Northern Ireland during World War II, and then to a camp near London. Following the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, Taylor escaped active fighting on the continent when, due to a minor scandal involving his commander, the order for a deployment in which he would have been included was unexpectedly rescinded. On V-E Day, he was still in London, “reading the works of Trollope” and writing “Allegiance,” in which an American soldier visits an expatriate aunt in England and “feels [himself] still a prisoner in [his mother’s] parlor at Nashville.” As he prepared to return home, he was on the verge of writing some of his best early work.
AT THIS POINT, as I write, there is a heavy thunk on my front porch. It’s the delivery I’ve been waiting for—two gorgeous volumes in the Library of America series, Peter Taylor’s Complete Stories—volume 1: 1938–1959 and volume 2: 1960–1992. So Taylor is canonized in the American Plèiade. But is he read? Not by many. Taylor, who was once revered as “the American Chekhov” and whose earlier volume of Collected Stories was called by Joyce Carol Oates “one of the major works of our literature,” gets somehow lost among other southern writers, all of them women more or less of his generation, when most readers choose stories by Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, or Katherine Anne Porter over his own. Among post-Faulkner males, he may be remembered as a junior member of the Southern Agrarians who taught him—Ransom, Tate, and Penn Warren. Once he got to the University of Virginia as writer-in-residence, he actually lived in a house once owned by Faulkner himself. He must have felt the burden of that. But I knew him, not in the South, but in the Midwest, where he came to Ohio State during a brief period itself interrupted by a year in Paris, about which he wrote one of his best stories, “Je Suis Perdu.” Among other things, that beautiful story is about a writer who has come to Paris too late—too late in the century, and too late in his own life. He is no longer thirty, and it is no longer the 1920s. But what did he do to deserve Columbus, Ohio? (As for me, I was born there, so I had no choice.)
The first thing I do with the vast number of pages in the LOA edition is to scan both the table of contents and the notes to discover what Taylor actually wrote when he was in Columbus—on the east side of town, to be exact, in Bexley, where some of the old money and the two prestigious private schools resided at the time. As far as I can make out, there is only one story written in Columbus and about Columbus, “At the Art Theater,” a short piece rejected, as many others were soon to be, by the New Yorker, with which journal he continued to have a “first reading” agreement and whose bankrolled largesse allowed him to ask for $1,000 on a fairly regular basis even when he wasn’t doing his best writing and when the editors began thinking he might even be something of a liability, a genteel white southern gentlemen who, like the Agrarians, had a disturbing nostalgia for the Old South and whose black characters were mostly servants or ancient retainers among some old households, almost apparitions living in and around the old Logan place in “Miss Leonora When Last Seen.” Anyway, I open volume 2 to “At the Art Theater.”
With a shock of recognition I find both the characters and myself at the arts cinema on the edge of Ohio State University. The “state university” is not identified as OSU, but anyone who has grown up in Columbus would recognize both the setting the specific movie theater. During the late 1950s and early 1960s I spent almost as much time at this cinema as I did at Marty’s 502, the local jazz club. This was, after all, the great era of international avant-garde cinema, and literary types of my own generation loved all of it—from Bergman and Fellini to Antonioni and Godard. In the story, an engaged couple have just seen a Bergman film; Taylor doesn’t say which one. The girl, a professor’s daughter, gets it, or at least thinks she does; her fiancé does not. Outside, after the showing, they meet an acquaintance (from Bexley), who has found the whole thing “creepy.” The professor’s daughter is annoyed by the Bexley girl’s response; the boyfriend is secretly sympathetic. In fact, there’s not much more to the story than that, except that Taylor tells us that the disagreement regarding Bergman prefigured a bad marriage. This might all seem a little exaggerated, except that I had almost the same experience at the same art cinema at the same time. In my case the professor’s daughter was the skeptical viewer and I, although certainly no sophisticated film buff, saw something in Bergman that immediately separated me from the world that my girlfriend inhabited. I might well have married her; but I did not. I’m not boasting about my superior sensibility; in other matters she was way ahead of me. But she didn’t get Bergman, and not getting Bergman turned out to be important.
I doubt that Taylor remembered me as an undergraduate student at OSU. Hubert McAlexander tells us that Taylor found his Ohio State students “the worst he had ever taught.” As for the city, Taylor said in a letter at the time that he and his wife “hate Columbus. I really think another year is all we’ll be able to take of it. Everything is so damned dull.” I certainly understand and sympathize. During Taylor’s “Je Suis Perdu” year in Paris, he wrote to my undergraduate advisor, Albert Kuhn, saying that he would not be returning to the university for the next academic year. I expressed some upset about this to Kuhn since I had already enrolled in Taylor’s creative writing class and was looking forward to it. Kuhn said, “I think Taylor will change his mind. Let’s keep you enrolled.” As it turned out, Kuhn was correct. Within weeks Taylor wrote to OSU saying that he had made a bad decision and wanted, if possible, to reverse it. To a nineteen-year-old “radical” like me, this seemed an act of cowardice. I was torn. I wanted to take his class, but I was also thinking, “if the guy had any guts he’d stay in Paris.” When I in fact showed up in his class, I was in a fairly aggressive state of mind. Why couldn’t he be like Hemingway and Fitzgerald? Who needs a job? Who has any children or needs to pay a mortgage? Who would actually choose to live in Columbus? I actually had a copy of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus in my book bag. I intended to put it on my desk, in full view of the other students. But then Peter Taylor started to talk.
It has been said of his fiction that much of it derives from the oral tradition, that one hears a speaking voice more than a writerly style in his major works. I think that’s very true. After a few months listening to Taylor talk in class, I finally condescended to read some of the stories that had won prizes, especially the great “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” (which I read in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker having rejected it). There he was, just like at some parties I attended, telling a story. I remember telling my girlfriend—the same one who went with me to the Bergman film—that “it sounds just the way he talks in class.” Beyond recognizing the voice, however, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The allegory escaped me entirely, and the setting just seemed “creepy,” as the Bexley girl had said of the Bergman film. I was, truth to tell, frightened by “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” in ways I couldn’t explain to myself. I read the whole thing aloud to my girlfriend who said, “I don’t get it.” I didn’t get it either this time, but I was of course unwilling to admit it. I’m not sure I get it now. I’m going to read it again in the LOA edition very soon. Perhaps canonization will make for clarity.
MEANWHILE, THOSE SEVERAL years when we were both at Ohio State. Poor Taylor had not too long before he managed to get tangled up in some unpleasant academic politics when he was at Kenyon. (That’s what his story “Dean of Men” deals with.) At OSU, the Sixties began to dawn in a number of ways that tossed that huge institution into turmoil. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee brought a speaker to town who was locked out of the building where he was meant to give his talk. There were demonstrations and, eventually, a faculty meeting called in order to censure the OSU president, Novice Fawcett (a wonderfully apt name) for abridging free speech on campus. I remember vividly a cartoon in the student paper, The Lantern, which showed a water faucet turning off the current of free speech. Following Fawcett’s lockout of the building where the talk was to have been given, the administration packed the faculty meeting by calling in all of the agricultural specialists from branch campuses around the state and outvoted the actual Columbus faculty. This outcome broke up a very fine English Department, many of whose members went to California the next year. In fact, I was taught by some of the same people at Stanford that I had been taught by at OSU. At the end of this tumultuous period, I went to see Taylor in his office. He asked me where I was going. I said I was going West and asked him where he was going. He said: “I’m going South,” and he did.
Taylor was not very political, which is another reason his reputation declined shortly after he left Ohio State. And he was not, on the face of it, very experimental during a later period when the rising star at the New Yorker was Donald Barthelme. But it was certainly right for Taylor at that point to have headed back to his roots. There he found the support of people like his old friend Randall Jarrell at the University of North Carolina and, when he ended up at Virginia, George Garrett. Even at southern universities, however, his political attitudes were, well, conservative—and quite aggressive toward “liberal” colleagues even in Charlottesville, of all places, where there couldn’t have been many of these. As he wrote in a letter,
My opinion of them gets lower every year. It is they who are responsible for all the upheaval in universities now. They love excitement, because they are timid men and it is the only excitement they have; and they love all the attention to academic life because it makes them seem important. They love the image of themselves as bold revolutionaries, yet they have chosen a very protected life, and how they cherish their tenure!
Then there were the crazies, the suicides, and the alcoholics—Lowell, Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, along with their students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. In this madhouse, Taylor was the one everybody counted on for sanity and stability, and he tried to provide that for both old friends and young students. At this late stage, it is distressing just to list the names. Madness and suicide had become fashionable. Taylor was perfectly aware of the dark side of things, wrote story after story in which the reader, at the end, realizes that he is sinking in quicksand. But Taylor began to be rejected, even by fellow New Yorker authors like John Updike, for stirring up “tempests in teapots.” Was Updike envious? He has many teapots of his own to account for. Taylor’s tempests were real enough, and all of the teapots were broken.
“Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” is chronologically framed by two autobiographical stories—“1939,” about a trip Taylor and Lowell made from Kenyon to New York on the eve of World War II, and that rare story with a foreign setting, the previously mentioned “Je Suis Perdu.” The former, published in 1954, probably influenced Lowell in Life Studies with its willingness to exploit the lives of both the author and his friends (and their girlfriends or wives). Lowell was at first offended by the piece, but later admired it. Also, Lowell could not have missed the warning to the autobiographically inclined with implications as much for himself as for Taylor:
…picture me for just a moment—much changed in appearance and looking at you through gold-rimmed spectacles—behind the lectern in a classroom. I stand before the class as a type of whom Trollope might have approved . . . . this . . . is a man who seems happy in the knowledge that he knows—or thinks he knows—what he is about. And from behind his lectern he is saying that any story that is written in the form of a memoir should give offense to no one, because before a writer can make a person he has known fit into such a story—or any story, for that matter—he must do more than change the real name of that person. He must inevitably do such violence to that person’s character that the so-called original is forever lost to the story.
A better-known passage came all but posthumously in Lowell’s “Epilogue” to his last book, Day by Day:
…sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
GEORGE GARRETT MUST have heard both of these passages, or something like them, talking to him when he sat down to write Double Vision. Taylor’s warning, or something like it, is responsible for the creation of Frank Toomer and Aubrey Carver. Lowell’s lament, or something like it, is responsible for Toomer and Carver reverting regularly to Garrett and Taylor. The vision is double, the emotions ambivalent, and the style an attempt to reconcile mixed feelings.
Garrett did not meet Taylor until the Charlottesville period when he lived in a house first acquired by Taylor and right next door to the larger Taylor home. Houses meant a lot to Taylor. He bought and restored many; sold some at a profit; lived sometimes in several at once. He had a near obsession about them. What I think of as his one revenge story, “Dean of Men,” is driven by his outrage of having been deceived and manipulated by colleagues at Kenyon out of the house there he wanted to live in. I’m surprised that none of his books were titled by the name or location of a house, some adult version of A House at Pooh Corner. Anyway, living in a small Taylor house and next door to a large one, Garrett invented his doubles.
I’m told by McGonigle—“the dead are always with us”—that Garrett always referred to “Mr. Taylor,” not “Peter.” I understand and approve. By the end of my teaching career, when I was over seventy, my students automatically called me “John” and referred to my wife and me as “you guys.” These assumed liberties make one nostalgic for old formalities. Even back in high school we were addressed by our teachers and called each other by our surnames. We were Matthias, Goss, Barkan, Whitaker, Brown. When I started teaching, once we had women in classes at Notre Dame, they were Miss Barton, Miss Cecil, Miss Wolfe (and now and then a Sister Immaculate or two). I liked that. Would I at eighteen have called Mr. Berryman “John”? It’s unthinkable. Peter Taylor’s family called him Pete. He nixed that upon his arrival at Kenyon. If you want to diminish greatness, blast it with the given names or nicknames reserved only for the closest friends. An Eliot hater at one of TSE’s American readings accosted the poet and said, “I didn’t catch the name.” Understanding well what was afoot, Eliot said his name was “Tom.” “Oh,” said the detractor, “are you English?” Tom said, “No, I’m from St. Louis.”
So: Mr. Taylor. That’s what I called him as well. And when I got lost in the “Venus” story, I had no idea what I should call him the next day. I had spent half a term listening to his genial comments on our miserable stories, which he read aloud in class as we all, anonymous author and his classmates, squirmed. To make things even more embarrassing, when he came to an obscenity or a expletive, he said “bleep.” Tough guys were so humiliated by this that they stopped writing tough guy stories entirely. But Taylor’s “Venus” story knew more about the world of erotic excess, including incest, than any of his students ever imagined.
That story, written in Bexley and published while Taylor was briefly living in Italy, is probably one of the best short fictions ever written by an American. Randall Jarrell hated it. The New Yorker turned it down. I am not going to summarize it here because I want to tempt readers to get hold of Taylor’s LOA edition and read it. The editor, Ann Beattie, gives it the attention that it warrants in her introduction. Only three or four other Taylor stories compete with it for top billing—perhaps “The Old Forest,” “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” and “In the Miro District.”
I HAVE JUST returned from another trip to Columbus after a visit to see my daughter and her family who are now living there. I tried to find the Lane Ave. Arts Cinema, but of course it is gone. There is an organization called Ohioana Library, specializing in books by Ohio authors. At their annual book fair, I asked many “Ohio authors” if they read Peter Taylor. Only one person remembered a story he thought he had read in a high school short fiction anthology. “Ohio authors” know about their contemporaries. I was asked if I meant “Tyler.” Perhaps I’d have had better luck in Nashville or Memphis or St. Louis, but maybe not. My two former students who teach at Ohio State both now work in film studies. I was told by one of them, “it’s almost impossible to get students to read.” But “creative writing” evidently thrives. The students are keen to write, but not to read. I asked one of my former students what his students write about. “A lot of them write about movies.”
When Miss Leonora was last seen, she was leaving Thomasville for one of her obsessive jaunts around the countryside that she begins making when her ancestral house, Logana, is scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new school. She drives only at night and spends her days as a guest at a series of old-fashioned tourist homes run by widows, retired farmers and other kinds of locals. The main object of her Logan forebears was to keep Thomasville a kind of private fiefdom and picturesque town sheltered even from new roads and railways. Thomasville is a kind of local colorist’s parody village, a Southern version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone. When Taylor left Columbus at the urging of Randall Jarrell and took up a job at a branch of the University of North Carolina he was happy at the prospect of homecoming, but must also have known that he was also taking risks. When “last seen” in Columbus, he was politely saying goodbye, but also, under his breath, good riddance.
Was Taylor in danger of becoming just a Southern “regional” writer? To some extent, the answer must be yes, and his region became a kind of triangle with points at Nashville, Memphis, and St. Louis. If one were determined to misunderstand him, one might say, like Miss Leonora, that he “was determined to populate [the region] with the sort of people [he] thought should live there.” After the move south to North Carolina and, later, Virginia, there were to be no more stories set in Paris or London or even Columbus. Although his master was Henry James, not William Faulkner, his region was in fact claimed as a fictive reality in the same way that Faulkner claimed Yoknapatawpha County as “sole owner and proprietor.” He didn’t, in fact, write about “the sort of people he thought should live there,” but about the sort of people who broke down the order of things in his special kingdom, and those who threatened the Old South about which his ambivalence produced ambiguous figures of all kinds, the incestuous pair in “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” being as representative as any other.
It was a good thing for literature that Taylor ended up living next door to George Garrett. And also that he helped hire the young Ann Beattie (only twenty-five) to teach with him at the University of Virginia, for she is the editor of these two magnificent volumes. She clearly loves the work and the memory of the man. So do I. In a more civilized time, Peter Taylor would have been a popular author, like Trollope himself. Since his death, the times have only gotten worse. It is very difficult for me to imagine an audience for these books at the present moment. Taylor had no desire to be “a writer’s writer.” After all, he published in the New Yorker whenever he could. I wonder how receptive that journal would be to his work now. And, if not in the New Yorker, where would he publish? Although he wrote three novels, one of them, A Summons to Memphis, a Pulitzer Prize winner, his major achievement was as a short story writer. He loved “telling stories.” I envy the uninitiated lucky few who will pay the (rather considerable) cost of these volumes. They will be reading an American master for the first time, and they will be getting a bargain. Joyce Carol Oates was right: These stories are “one of the major works of our literature.”
John Matthias is editor emeritus of Notre Dame Review, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman Books published his three volumes of Collected Poems, as well as the uncollected long poem, Trigons, two more volumes of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Acoustic Shadows and a novel, Different Kinds of Music. Tales Tall & Short— Fictional, Factual and In Between was published by Dos Madres in 2020 and The New Yorker recently published his widely read memoir, “Living with a Visionary.”