“Splendid. . . . McAlexander’s biography only makes it clearer than ever that Peter Taylor was our last great southern man of letters.”Chicago Tribune
“For those of us to whom Taylor’s writing is among the chief glories of 20th-century American literature, Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life has much to tell us about how he emerged from what he called ‘the small old world we knew...in Tennessee’ and explored that world with such acuity, clarity, and unsentimental love.”Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
“McAlexander has done a splendid job of tracing the progression of Taylor’s writing through the circumstances of a surprisingly frenetic life...Anyone interested in the evolution of fiction writing in the last century will be delighted to come upon this volume...fascinating, sometimes amusing, and often heartbreaking.”New York Times Book Review
Hubert H. McAlexander’s accomplished portrait of Peter Taylor (1917–1994) achieves a remarkable intimacy with this central figure in the history of the American short story and one of the greatest southern writers of his time. McAlexander knits together the facts of Taylor’s life in a compelling, seamless account: his deep and distinguished family roots in Tennessee; his close bonds with writers from three generations, including
Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, and James Alan McPherson; his establishment of the dysfunctional family as a force in American literature; and his perseverance as a writer, finally rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize at age seventy. Exhaustively researched and engagingly written, Peter Taylor presents a vivid picture of the man, the artist, and his literary milieu.
About the Author
Hubert H. McAlexander, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, is the author of The Prodigal Daughter: A Biography of Sherwood Bonner and editor of Conversations with Peter Taylor and Critical Essays on Peter Taylor.
Read an Excerpt
"A wedding of wide social interest throughout the state," the Nashville Tennessean called the marriage in Washington on January 8, 1908, of Miss Katherine Baird Taylor, daughter of Tennessee Senator Robert Love Taylor, to Matthew Hillsman Taylor, a promising young lawyer of Trenton. Nine years later to the day, the union would produce their fourth child and second son. Named after his father, but always called "Pete," the son would take the name Peter Taylor only years later. In retrospect it seems that the union provided the perfect background for a writer, tying him so closely to the matrix of a culture, the "long green hinterland that is Tennessee," as he spoke of it. A perfect background, of course, if one had the sensibility and the talent to know how to use it.
Both Katherine and Hillsman were great talkers, great storytellers, reciting the stories and legends of Tennessee, usually from the perspective of family. This union of Taylors, one from the eastern mountain region, the other from the western cotton country, encompassed the state and led back to its earliest days. The two Taylor families were no kin, the eastern one of Virginia extraction, and the western one of Carolina origin.
When Peter Taylor would speak of "the Taylors," as when he noted that "the Taylors were always careful to marry above themselves," he was nearly always speaking of his mother's family. They were clearly the more prominent, their history the more fabulous. The first recorded of these Taylors was one Isaac, alowland Scot who paused in northern Ireland before emigrating to America and settling in the Valley of Virginia about 1740. In the early years of the American Revolution, his son Andrew sold the family farm in Rockbridge County and moved beyond the fringes of civilization to a settlement on the Watauga River in the territory disputed between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina soon to become Tennessee. Thus the Taylors were present at the very dawn of Tennessee history. It was a son in the third American generation, however, who first gave luster to the name in the region: General Nathaniel Taylor (1771-1816). Sent back to Lexington, Virginia, for his education, there he married a daughter of the Patton family. He returned home to distinguish himself in a land now honeycombed with Taylor half-brothers, uncles, and cousins. In 1796, the first General Assembly of Tennessee appointed Nathaniel Taylor gentleman justice of the new county of Carter. He was subsequently chosen high sheriff, served in both houses of the assembly, and was named brigadier general under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. His brigade being stationed at Mobile, General Taylor unfortunately had no part in Jackson's great victory in New Orleans on January 8, 1815, an anniversary celebrated well into the twentieth century as "Jackson Day"and significant to Peter Taylor as the date of his own birth and of his parents' marriage.
The general's "family and social connections were rapidly increasing and all were ready to back him in any aspiration for preferment," noted his biographer. "Cut off at the age of forty-five, with many years reasonably in expectancy, and with a worthy record already to his credit, one wonders whether, had his been the normal span of life, the first Governor Taylor of Tennessee would have been Nathaniel."
The general's son James Patton Taylor (1794-1833) died even younger, and though he was a lawyer who served as district attorney, his major contribution to the family was his marriage into one of the most distinguished of Tennessee families. In 1816, he married Mary Cocke Carter. Her grandfather, Colonel John Carter, was a leader of the Watauga Association, chairman of the committee that in 1772 drafted the first written laws west of the Allegheny Mountains, and Secretary of the State of Franklin (1784-1789), the ill-fated attempt led by John Sevier and Carter to secede from the Colony of North Carolina. This John Carter, about whom almost nothing is known before his appearance on the Watauga, is reputed to have been of the family of Robert "King" Carter, the Virginia dynast. John, who left the largest estate west of the mountains at his death in 1781, did give a son the name Landon, one used recurrently in that Virginia dynasty. General Landon Carter (1760-1800), a soldier of the Revolution educated at Liberty Hall in North Carolina, served the State of Franklin as member of the Council, secretary of state, and Speaker of the Senate. In 1796, he was a delegate to the convention that framed the Constitution of the State of Tennessee. At the time of statehood, Carter County was named in his honor, and the county seat, Elizabethton, in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Maclin, member of another distinguished founding family, one of whom was Tennessee's first secretary of state. General and Mrs. Carter lived in the Carter Mansion in Elizabethton (built in 1772 by his father), a plain frontier dwelling on the exterior with fine woodwork in the Virginia manner within. In a strange turn, at the time of his son's marriage into the Carter family, General Nathaniel Taylor built his own mansion near Elizabethton and named it Sabine Hill, apparently after Sabine Hall, the estate of the distinguished Revolutionary figure Landon Carter of Virginia.
All of this early family history Peter Taylor knew as legend, some of it quite hazy. Though he was aware of his descent from General Landon Carter and relished telling that the general often signed himself "Landon Carter of Tennessee," he never knew just how he was descended. That was the stuff of dry genealogy. But beginning with the son of the Taylor-Carter union, the Reverend Nathaniel Greene Taylor (1819-1887), family stories and all the intricate family connections had been transmitted in full detail. This was the visitable past for him.
Nathaniel Greene Taylor, a Princeton graduate of 1840, followed the family pattern of marrying well, choosing for his wife Emmaline Haynesthe daughter of David Haynes, described by a biographer as a "plain, unlettered farmer," who amassed so much wealth that he came to be called "King David." The King's wife was Rhoda Taylor, a close relation of General Nathaniel Taylor. Emmaline Haynes' brother, who bore the name of a valued friend, Landon Carter, was Speaker of the Tennessee Senate, an elector for Breckinridge in the 1860 election, and a Confederate senator from Tennessee. Always in political opposition to Senator Haynes was the Reverend Nathaniel Greene Taylor, first a Presbyterian (the dominant religion of this frontier elite), then a Methodist minister, but also a merchant, lawyer, member of Congress both before and after the Civil War, and commissioner of Indian affairs under President Andrew Johnson.
This would have been a storied enough past for any family, but it was to serve often merely as background for the most celebrated of all the family figures, the best-known scion of this enmeshed group of Taylors, Carters, and Hayneses, fourth of the nine children of the Reverend Nathaniel Taylor and Emma Haynes, and Peter Taylor's grandfather-Governor and Senator Robert Love Taylor of Tennessee. "Our Bob," as he was known from the time of his 1878 election to Congress as a Democrat in an old Whig-Republican district, was poetic, expansive, generous, magnetic. At his death, the New York Times commented that "probably he was the only man who ever held high office and had uninterrupted political success for no other reason and with no other excuse than that people loved him." The statement, while oversimplifying his career and minimizing his accomplishments, obviously captures an essential truth. The favorite of his family and the pet of his parents, he had no real taste for the law in which he was trained. As his brothers admitted, he was "totally unfitted for the practical [and] everyday." In and out of politics all his adult life, he was also at various times a government pension agent, an editor, and a star of the lyceum circuit.
Bob Taylor and indeed the entire Taylor family gained national attention in the 1886 campaign for the Tennessee governorship, in which Bob, as a Democrat, ran against his older brother Alf, a Republican. The products of a musical family circle, the brothers took their fiddles on the campaign trail. They traveled together across the state debating each other, afterward often sleeping in the same bed. Their father, though he did not actively campaign, was also on the ballot as candidate of the Prohibition ticket. Called "The War of the Roses," the race was covered by every important newspaper in the country, some featuring a lithograph with portraits of the parents, the nine children, and Senator Landon C. Haynes, as well as sketches of the old homestead and scenes of the Watauga Valley.
The family had entered American folklore. Bob won the race and served three non-consecutive terms as governor (Alf finally held the office in the 1920s when he was in his seventies). Despite their political opposition, the two brothers were close. Bob was much the more worldly, but he always came to Alf in his times of trouble, whether affairs of the heart or his frequent financial difficulties. Very attractive to women, Bob was married three times. First, he married Sally Baird, of a prominent Asheville, North Carolina, family. It was both a wise marriage and a love match, and she was the mother of his five children. After her death, he made an unwise brief match with the daughter of an Alabama governor, and finally in later middle age he entered into a safe, unromantic union with Miss Mamie Love St. John, member of a family that the Taylors claimed as cousins.
Money was frequently a pressing problem both because of Bob's extreme generosity and his utter lack of pecuniary sense. In Alf's view, Bob's special genius was as an actor, and at Alf's urging, when Bob was almost bankrupt after his second term as governor, he took to the lecture circuit, becoming a phenomenal success with his lecture "The Fiddle and Bow." After Alf's own third term in Congress (from the old Taylor district, which both the Reverend Nathaniel Taylor and Bob had represented), Alf joined Bob on the circuit in 1895. Fiddling, singing, and giving a joint lecture named "Yankee Doodle and Dixie," the brothers took in $40,000 in seven months.
Still to come for Bob was a third term as governor of Tennessee and finally his dream, election to the United States Senate in 1907. In the five years before his death, he came to be known as the most popular man in the Senate. The other senators would watch for his entrance to the chamber and gather to listen to his stories. Though a Democrat, he was a favorite of President William Howard Taft and a member of the president's inner circle. At the senator's death, his body was taken in a special railroad car, first to Nashville, where the body lay in state at the capitol, then in a circling route to Knoxville for burial. Thousands thronged the stations along the way as well as the capitol and the cemetery at Knoxville. The cortege became legendary.
Senator Taylor hovered over Peter Taylor's childhood, a benevolent ghost, and Peter Taylor's last completed work, In the Tennessee Country, had its beginnings with that legendary funeral train. Senator Taylor was kept vividly alive by the many stories of his daughter Katherine, Peter Taylor's mother. Petite Kate was even more naturally musical than her father and from an early age entertained family and friends by dancing and singing and playing a variety of instruments, including the piano and the banjo. Having lost her mother early in life, she was reared "up on Chucky" (the Nolichucky River region in East Tennessee) by her Aunt Jenny, Mrs. Alf Taylor; in Greensboro, North Carolina, by Baird relatives; and in her father's household at various places in TennesseeJohnson City, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and recurrently Nashvilleunder the two stepmothers. She could play the banjo and perform mountain dances, but she had graduated from one of the most fashionable finishing schools in that part of the South, Belmont College in Nashville. She had a wonderful clear voice, almost that of an actress, and as her son later acknowledged, she was "the best teller of tales I know."
This charming young woman was introduced to her future husband by his Aunt Katty, an intimate of the senator and his last wife. Matthew Hillsman Taylor was already a young man of great promise. Known widely as Red Taylor, star football player first at the University of Tennessee and then at Vanderbilt University, the big, strapping, and bright Hillsman had gone on for a law degree. Afterward he returned to Trenton, the little West Tennessee town of origin, to practice in his father's law firm. At the time of his marriage, at the age of twenty-four, he became the youngest Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives in history.
Trenton was a place of a little over two thousand people, county seat of Gibson County, which lay in the center of the West Tennessee cotton country. A point of special pride for Hillsman was the courthouse, "a moorish looking edifice," as Peter Taylor described it, "with four steep-roofed turrets, a clocktower and dome, with high porches and various orders of red and yellow brick." A hideous structure to Peter Taylor, but beautiful to Hillsman because his father, Colonel Robert Zachary Taylor, had been the major force behind pulling down the old Georgian courthouse of the 1840s and erecting the moorish pile. The square surrounding the structure was ringed with two-story buildings, one containing the Taylor law office; and running southward for upwards of a mile were the three major streetsHigh, College, and Church. Trenton was a pleasant, prosperous town, with comfortable, substantial clapboard housesa few of them antebellum, most Victorian or turn of the centurylining the three long streets, which were shaded by maples and elms.
The first seven years of their marriage the Hillsman Taylors lived far out College Street at the edge of town in his father's house, a huge three-story structure of gables and encircling porches built for Colonel Taylor in the 1880s, every stick of wood in it, the family boasted, being oak. Hillsman's relationship with his father was a complicated one, a mixture of love, respect, and fear. He had brooked Colonel Taylor's wrath when he left the University of Tennessee to go to Vanderbilt, and he had been one of several young men expelled from the Baptist Church, of which R. Z. Taylor was a pillar, for drinking, dancing, and card playing. But he was the most talented of the colonel's three sons, and Hillsman felt a strong obligation to come back to his father's law firm, no matter what his own preferences were. His marriage was a great source of pleasure to his parents; Katherine was like another daughter. She would later say that the years in Trenton were the happiest of her life. For the girl who had moved over and over again and been in the care of various relatives, Trenton meant stability, and it offered all the warmth of a small town and a close family.
These West Tennessee Taylors were Marylanders who had come to the state by way of the Carolinas. A staunch Baptist, despite an old Catholic strain in his mother's family, Kenelm Taylor had emigrated to Tennessee in 1822, and his son Basil Manly Taylor (1811-1886) had later settled in Gibson County. Basil Manly was the father of eleven children. Nearly all had remained near Trenton, so by the early years of the twentieth century, Taylors abounded in Gibson County, of all classes and conditions.
Robert Zachary Taylor was the most distinguished of the eleven children, his biography and photograph occupying a prominent place in the illustrated history of Gibson County published in 1901. A lawyer, he also had farming and business interests and was active in politics. He had enlisted in the Confederate Army when just a boy, serving as a private under Nathan Bedford Forrest. But, a consistent delegate to Confederate reunions, he had eventually been "promoted" there to colonel.
Two of the colonel's siblings also loomed large in the extended family, Annie and Katrina, or Katty. Neither had children. Annie had married Lemuel Tyree, Confederate soldier under Forrest, Princeton graduate, lawyer, county judge, and mayor of Trenton. The Tyrees lived in a big brick house just off the square on High Street, from which Aunt Annie could keep an eye on everything. Tall like many of the Taylors, Annie was also sweet-natured and down to earth, the opposite of Aunt Katty, who was a personage long remembered in Trenton. Her husband, Samuel Beverly Williamson, an intimate of Governor Taylor, had benefited from the governor's patronage. Upon Williamson's death, Aunt Katty moved to Washington to be near the Taylors, taking a small apartment at Stoneleigh Court, where they lived. She maintained this fashionable address for decades, returning to Trenton at the end of the Washington season to live off relatives for several months, replying to all inquiries, "No definite place of abode. Just visiting around." When in Trenton she could be seen daily walking the mile out to the cemetery, where she held conversations with her husband, a manifestation of her dabbling in spiritualism while in Washington. Reared a Taylor Baptist, she had also become there a convert to Catholicism. It was she who had introduced Hillsman to Katherine Taylor.
This was the older generation of the family that Katherine had married into. In addition, living in Trenton were Hillsman's two sisters and two brothers. The young bride was immediately taken into the bosom of the town. She joined her husband's church, the Methodist, where she played the organ. She was in the ladies bridge club of four tables, and the Hillsman Taylors were in a young couples' dinner club. After the first year and a half of marriage, she was also kept busy with her growing family. The first child, Sally Baird, was born in October of 1910; next came Mettie Ivie, named for Hillsman's mother, in the summer of 1912. After the birth in the spring of 1915 of the first son, Robert Love, named for the governor and senator, the family moved from Colonel Taylor's house to a place of their own, one of a pair of Queen Anne cottages on High Street. There was born on January 8, 1917, Matthew Hillsman Taylor, Jr. A sickly baby, as his grandfather "Our Bob" had been, he received much doting attention, not only from his nurse and his family, but from the next-door neighbor Mrs. John Wade. In good-natured mockery of Mrs. Wade's baby talking to the "pete" (i.e., sweet) child, the family began calling the baby "Pete," and the name stuck.
In the early 1980s, when Barbara Thompson asked Peter Taylor about his first memories, he mentioned two. "Standing on the lawn of the house at Trenton and seeing a wild sunset, reds, a red-brick sunset," he said, "a thing which both exhilarated and terrified me, being out there alone. And another early memoryI was alone again, I played alone a lot, although I had [a brother] and sisters aroundwas of seeing the first airplane that I'd ever seen. A little one. They never landed near Trenton. Seeing that tiny plane up in the sky, knowing a man was in it, made me feel very lonely." This is a revealing statement from a man who as an adult was compulsively social.
Mettie, the sister who mothered him a great deal in his early years, remembers Pete as a shy child, who spent much time with an imaginary playmate, with whom he would have conversations. Peter Taylor's story "Demons" captures some sense of this imaginative childhood world so different from that of adults. Little Pete was also, in Mettie's view, a "big scaredy-cat," the older children having only to point to a dark corner and say menacingly, "What's that?" to elicit his screams. Mettie played upon his fears, and he was so sensitive that her pretense of choking herself always upset him badly.
Such intensity of attachment was even stronger in the case of his mother. At the time that the young man Peter Taylor learned that his wife was pregnant for the first time, he sent to a close friend a series of disconnected memories of his own life. Among them was the vivid recollection of his mother's having to go to a nearby town on some errand and of his running after her Ford sedan halfway to the edge of town crying, "I'll never see you again!" Another incident that he mentioned often was a time that he had fallen off his bicycle and hurt himself but did not cry until he saw his mother watching from a window. "I was a Mama's boy," he admitted to Barbara Thompson. But in his view, his mother "rejected my adoration to some extent.... She was very affectionate but she did not pay me any more attention than she did the other children." Then he went on to put the whole situation in decidedly Freudian terms: "If she had not been that way I think she might have ruined my life, because that is often the fate of little boys who adore their mothers. If the mother responds, it's a love affair for life. But my mother wouldn't have it so. She was much too interested in my father. He was the only man in her life. At an early age I had to look around for someone else." The conflicted feelings about his mother, however, were not actually so easily resolved.
Despite such submerged conflicts, Peter Taylor's childhood was generally a happy one, characterized by the sense of security and safety enjoyed by the privileged in an American small town in the early years of the century. Automobiles had come to Trenton about 1910, but buggies, figures on horseback, and wagons drawn by mules still dominated the scene. Children had virtually the run of the town, and Pete had all the toys and pets that he desired. A neighbor recalled Bob and Pete as long-legged young boys who "with their Shetland pony and cowboy paraphernalia kept things in a lively stir."
Excerpted from Peter Taylor by Hubert H. McAlexander. Copyright © 2001 by Louisiana State University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|2||Nashville and St. Louis||12|
|4||Vanderbilt and the Return Home||35|
|7||Marriage and War||74|
|8||Starting Out in the Forties||92|
|9||Bloomington and Hillsborough||106|
|11||The Middle Years||138|
|12||London and Ohio State||150|
|15||An Extension of Time||212|
|18||Art and Life||261|
What People are Saying About This
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 elegantely executed fiction.