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Biography Review   

                Peter Taylor : A Writer's Life
                by Hubert H. McAlexander
          Louisiana State University Press, 2001
          ISBN: 0-8071-2706-X (cloth)  



Having interviewed Dr. Hubert H. McAlexander, I was aware that he had done two previous books on Peter Taylor—that being on interviews and essays about the writer.  However, I am not easily impressed by statistics as some are, as I have found that quantity does not always equate with quality.

In this biography, though, the time spent interviewing, putting together the work and expressing it in a way conducive to literary tastes is time well spent.  At first rather dry, as the beginning of the biography deals with historical family records of Taylor’s family, by the advent of the fifth chapter the narrative quickly changes to an absorbing inspection of a personal life beset by the challenges of a life devoted to writing. 

Peter discovers his gift in a classroom and not via private circumspection.  He is not one who says one day, “I am a writer!”  He is a quiet person, never given to much verve or outspokenness.  His eureka is a surprise and an event.  At first he must battle his own father for possession of his gift.  Others in his family have already argued the old lawyer down and persevered in securing their own destinies in spite of the patriarch of the family, Hillsman Taylor.  Now, it is Peter’s turn.  His father scoffs at the two thousand-dollar scholarship offered Peter to go to Columbia.  He prefers that his son should go to Vanderbilt instead, where the elder Taylor had studied law and he prefers that Peter abandon his dream of being a writer.

Time passes, and indeed (as the fates would have it) Peter does go to Vanderbilt—as a writer.  After a brief stay, he fails, comes back home, then back to school, at Kenyon College in Ohio. Here, surrounded by literary friends, he comes into his own and flourishes.

Much later in his life, at the apex of his triumphs and failures, the drama in Peter’s life clues us into the author’s mindset. Take this criticism of his one of Peter’s short stories, “The Dean of Men,” by Roger Angell, of the New Yorker:

“Angell judged the story 'in some curious way, . . . both too long and too short' and found that “the connection between the young man to whom the tale is addressed and the events within the story. . . hard to understand.”

Surely, this estimation of Taylor’s story as “too long and too short,” as well as “hard to understand,” (after all this is the New Yorker!) must rate up there with the most stupid remarks in history.   As when Emperor Joseph II made the now infamous observation, “Too many notes, my dear Mozart” about the composer’s songs, whereupon the composer quipped, “There are as many as are necessary.”  In short, Mozart’s work would not be his own if it were another’s.  This is Peter’s mystic as well.  His work is his own, and he has no need to compromise it for anyone.  Some time later, he severed first reading rights with the New Yorker.

Then, there are the funny parts of Taylor’s life, as in this recounting, when his friend, the poet Robert Lowell, came to visit him at Charlottesville, North Carolina at a party given in his honor by Peter.

“Peter’s legendary tolerance of Cal (Robert Lowell) and good grace at his friend’s fame was sorely tested.  Known now as the greatest poet of his generation, his picture having appeared on the cover of Time, Robert Lowell was always lionized in Charlottesville.  As Cal sat and talked in a monotone surrounded by people hanging on his every word, Peter stood in a corner telling Steve Goodwin about Lowell’s first crack-up in Bloomington
twenty years earlier.  Finally, unable to bear Lowell’s dominating the party one minute longer, Peter walked to the buffet table, cut an enormous hunk of cheese, placed it on a cracker and shoved it in Cal’s mouth.”

Evidently, even Peter’s tolerance of his friend had its limits!

Taylor would change genre from short story to play and then to the novel toward the latter part of his life.  It was here, especially in Summons to Memphis, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize, that he found acceptance at last from a larger reading public and enjoyed the spotlight himself, when some others had enjoyed earlier in their own lives.  This was shown in the letters and telegrams that came to him from all over the country at the announcement.  From page 260, we read:

“One of the best came from Eudora Welty.  “I’ll toast you tonight with my dinner,” she wrote, “and the only thing I can think of to say now is Hot Damn!”

A pleasure to read and particularly germane to my own feelings as a writer and reviewer, I happily encourage you read Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life.


Robert L. Hall
Southern Scribe Reviews

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