When Hubert H. McAlexander, a professor at the University of Georgia, first told Peter Taylor he wanted to be his biographer, Taylor replied, Oh, no, I haven't had a very interesting life. But Taylor, a 20th century master of the short story and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, in fact had many fascinating stories to tell.
As McAlexander relates in Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life, Taylor (1917-1994) was personally engaging, a keen observer of humankind who was devoted to his art. The future author was born in Trenton, a small town in western Tennessee, where his father was an attorney and politician. Soon the family moved to the city first to Nashville, then to St. Louis and Memphis. Early on, Peter developed a strong historical consciousness and literary bent. After studying at Southwestern (now Rhodes College) and Vanderbilt, he went to Kenyon College because John Crowe Ransom, a professor, poet, critic and founder of the Kenyon Review, was there. Ransom was primarily interested in poetry, and years later Taylor acknowledged that Ransom's teaching him so much about the compression of poetry was what led him to be a short story writer rather than a novelist. At Kenyon, he developed life-long friendships with Robert Lowell, his roommate, and Randall Jarrell, who would later be a teaching colleague in North Carolina. Taylor is often referred to as a Southern or regional author. In that regard, it is interesting to follow his development as a writer and as a teacher of writing not only in the South, but also at Ohio State, Kenyon and Harvard. About his own fiction Taylor once wrote, In my stories, politics and sociology are only incidental, often only accidental. I make the same use of them that I do of customs, manners, household furnishings, or anything else that is part of our culture. But the business of discovery of the real identity of the images that present themselves is the most important thing about writing fiction. Ultimately it is the discovery of what life is all about. Anyone interested in 20th century literary history will find McAlexander's book an absorbing work. His beautifully rendered biography should inspire readers to read or reread Taylor's elegantly executed fiction.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.