By Robert L. Hall
If there can be such a thing as a man’s man or a writer’s writer, then there can be a biographer’s biographer—and Hubert H. McAlexander is one. Yes, I know that it sounds like a delicious double entendre: is this a person who (A) writes biographies about other biographers, or (B) is it a phrase meant to point to a person who is a model biographer for other biographers to follow?
In this case, the answer is (B). I mean, what would you call a person who has written not one, not two, but three different types of books about the same southern author, Peter Taylor? I, for one, would say that he probably knows quite a lot about the subject of his investigations. Wouldn’t you?
A professor of English at the University of Georgia, where he teaches (among other courses) the twentieth century American novel, a Faulkner course, and southern literature, Dr. McAlexander was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He attended the University of Mississippi, where he earned his Master’s Degree and eventually received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, with a concentration in British and American Literature from the first half of the twentieth century.
However, what made him take the leap to biographer of Peter Taylor is not just his education, nor his background (although there is no doubt that it prepared him well for what was to come.)
It was his meeting with the southern author himself, who had been invited by the University of Georgia to come speak to the student body for a week in 1984, and his own impressions of the writer.
McAlexander recalls that he had written his first biography a few years before.
I was at Burke’s Bookstore when you spoke about first meeting Peter in ’84. Can you recount that for me?
Oh, surely. He was so warm and cordial. He felt, that a writer should live a certain type of life. And he lived it, with his learned friends and colleagues. He wasn’t rowdy or uncontrolled as some of his friends were. In fact, he might be considered quite tame in comparison with some of them.
Anyway, after a while, I told him, “Peter, I want to write your biography.” He just smiled and held up his hands. “No, no. You shouldn’t do that,” he said. But, within a few minutes, he began to tell me such interesting and long stories about himself and those he had met in his life. It was as if he were giving me tacit agreement to begin the project. And, indeed, he was providing me with material even then.
That’s really funny. I heard a someone in the audience at the bookstore say to you, “We thought we’d all be dead before it was completed. You didn’t even pause when you responded, “Some of us are,” and followed with a few names of those who passed on since you interviewed them. How long did the book take you to write?
In 1993 I began interviewing for the book. It took a total of six years. I had already done a book containing interviews with Peter. It is called Conversations with Peter Taylor. I completed it in 1987. Then Critical Essays on Peter Taylor followed in 1993. Only then did I start the biography.
Tell us about Peter Taylor.
He had a very distinctive voice. To non-southerners it seemed very southern. It was a cultivated voice, an educated voice, about mid-range. But, when he would get excited, the words would just spill out. He would trip over words in his enthusiasm.
But, he told wonderful stories. All the people who knew him thought of him as really a storyteller. Peter would say to me a number of times, “I am not intellectual anyway, except as a writer.” And he was not an academic or a critic. He was an instinctive writer, and although he gave a lot of interviews, basically he didn’t like to talk about how he did what he did, and maybe he didn’t understand it anyway. He just knew how to do it. He was a very self-conscious writer--v-e-r-y careful! Revised a great deal. Sometimes he would tell a story in the third person and go back and rewrite the entire story in the first person.
Peter Taylor’s real significance is as one of the notable American short story writers of this century, although he won the Pulitzer Prize for a novel, Summons to Memphis, in 1987. A little biography of him: born in 1917 in Trenton, Tennessee in Gibson County. When he was six years old, the family moved to Nashville, where his father practiced law. He went into business with a big entrepreneur of the twenties, Rogers Caldwell. After two years, the Taylors moved to St. Louis, where Peter’s father was President of Missouri Life Insurance Company and they lived very high, going up with the Caldwell Empire. However, in 1932, it all came crashing down. The Taylors after living so high, were wiped out, then came to Memphis. Peter graduated from Central High in Memphis, graduated in 1935. Then went for one semester to Rhodes College (then called Southwestern at Memphis.) His freshman English teacher was Allen Tate.
Tate left Memphis after talking Peter into going to Vanderbilt to study under John Crowe Ransom. Peter did, but it was Ransom’s last year at Vanderbilt. He had been lured away by Kenyon College in Ohio. Peter returned to Memphis, sold real estate for a year, then went to Kenyon after Ransom arranged that Peter be given a scholarship. There he was thrown in with an unusually talented group of people—very literary, who remained close friends all their lives. The most famous being Peter’s roommate, Robert Lowell, who became the most famous American poet of his generation; picture on the cover of time Magazine, etc., etc. He was really Peter’s best friend. Peter by that time was already publishing short fiction.
Right after graduation from Kenyon, he published three notable short stories in the Southern Review, one of the editors being Robert Penn Warren. Peter went with Lowell and Lowell’s new wife to Baton Rouge. He decided that more college was not for him, however. He quit at Thanksgiving, went back to Memphis, then into the army. One weekend up in Monteagle, he met Eleanor Ross, a poet from North Carolina. They got married, and were an anomaly among the others of that generation, in that they stayed together for fifty-one years. Amazingly, he wrote a lot during the war. Afterwards, he made his living as an academic, moving from college to college. In 1948, The New Yorker accepted his first story at the time that his first volume was coming out, with an introduction by Robert Penn Warren. Peter was part of the stable of New York writers, from 1948 up into the 60’s.
Peter considered himself fundamentally a short story writer. Influences upon him were Henry James--Checkov is another one. Only towards the end of his life did he start writing novels. He said of novels, “Novels are for windy old men.” What he meant was that they were so much looser. He was used to working with short, tight forms. His most popular period came toward the end of his life, with Summons to Memphis, winning the Pulitzer Prize and all that. And then, as a result the later works had a much bigger sale. But, Peter made his living as a creative writing teacher, as many writers of that day did. He was quite self-consciously a writer, an artist, and he really felt that writers had to live in a different way. One striking thing he said, which his students talked about, was that you always judged yourself against the great writers. He was pretty relentless in that!
Although he never had a large reading public, he always was a writer’s writer. And, he won fellowships, awards, and was elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters…he taught at what is now University of North Carolina at Greensboro, then went to Indiana University, back to Greensboro, to Kenyon college, Ohio State, to Greensboro, then University of Virginia. Also, he went to Harvard for three different stints. Virginia was his longest stay. He went there about ’67, retired in ’83. He was a professor of creative writing at all those places.
Back to Peter’s being a storyteller. Peter’s fiction is very deceptive…you are reading along and then realize there is a story underneath that. One reviewer said that, “the experience of reading a Peter Taylor story is like finding clues.” Peter’s main theme is freedom and the lack thereof and how one negotiates his place in the social order. How much one can be free…how much one can’t. The stories are often concerned with how one establishes any degree of control in a shifting world; how one has to live in the world, no matter what that world is. When you don’t, it leads to unhappiness, grotesquerie, madness.
We finished the interview and as I was putting away my things, Dr. McAlexander stopped my fussing with my things to say:
“You know, I made this biography of Peter so that it would be accessible.”
I knew what he meant. His choice of the word, “accessible” was a politically correct way of saying he made the book easy to read and understand. I remarked back, “It’s not just a coffee table book, is it?”
He paused, then said, “It’s like Peter’s work. It is meant to be read, understood and appreciated.”I like that.
Hubert H. McAlexander bibliography