Editor’s note: As Memphis magazine is now in its Fortieth Anniversary year, each month we are publishing stories from our four-decade archives, stories that we think today’s readers of the magazine will find of interest and value.
This month’s selection, from our February 1987 issue, is especially relevant; every spring for the past three years this publication has hosted an event called “A Summons to Memphis,” which invites civic leaders from across the country to Memphis to discuss urban issues pertinent to both their communities and ours. (This year’s speaker is Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga.) The name of the event is drawn from the prize-winning novel by Peter Taylor (1917-1994), and the interview on these pages was conducted by staff writer Hampton Sides, who went on to literary fame as the author of Ghost Soldiers, In the Kingdom of Ice, and other best-sellers.
Most critics consider the 70-year-old Peter Taylor to be one of the masters of the modern American short story. A native of Tennessee, Taylor is the author of six books of stories, four books of plays, and two novels. His stories, which have frequently appeared in The New Yorker, have received numerous literary honors. In 1985, Taylor won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. A chapter from his most recent novel, A Summons to Memphis, was first excerpted in the September 1986 issue of this magazine. A few months later, the book was nominated for a National Book Award, along with E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair. Though Doctorow won the prize, Taylor created an enormous controversy within literary circles by his refusal to attend the ceremony after publicly denouncing the National Book Award nominating process. He argued that by naming several nominees but picking only one recipient, the judges were, in effect, setting up winners and losers, thereby creating the impression that writers are in competition with one another. Since the controversy erupted late last fall, Taylor has declined to grant personal interviews with national publications.
Much of Taylor’s fiction focuses on families, particularly aristocratic Tennessee families, living during the first half of the twentieth century, and the ways in which a particular locale shapes the dynamics of family life. That locale, as often as not, is Memphis. (“Any of Taylor’s books will serve you Memphis on a silver platter,” Esquire declared in 1985.) Of Taylor’s most popular story, “The Old Forest,” a tale of a Memphis debutante, Washington Post literary critic Jonathan Yardley once wrote: “By comparison, almost everything else published by American writers in recent years seems small, cramped, brittle, inconsequential; among American writers now living only Eudora Welty has accomplished a body of fiction so rich, durable, and accessible as Taylor’s.”
Born in 1919, Taylor grew up in Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis, and studied at Kenyon College and Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). He has taught literature at a number of universities, including Harvard, the University of North Carolina, and Memphis State University. Since 1967, he has been a Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Though he is now recovering from a stroke he suffered last summer, Taylor is still at work on a new novel and several short stories. This interview was conducted in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Taylor lives with his wife, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor.
Memphis: You managed to create quite a stir over the National Book Award back in the fall. Any misgivings?
Taylor: It was an absurd thing to do, I guess. But on the other hand, I think it is making the writer look ridiculous to have a number of people nominated with only one winner. It creates the impression of winners and losers. I just didn’t want to get up on a platform and be told, You’re good, but you’re not as good as Doctorow. It’s shallow treatment of people. They just ought to announce the winner for each category, and only one winner, like the Pulitzer. I wanted it understood that I think all competitions between writers are invidious. They create bad feelings. It’s treating a literary event like an athletic event or a Hollywood event.
I guess most people would share your view on this. What puzzled so many people in the literary world, though, was your timing. Why did you wait until after you had learned you wouldn’t be receiving the award to criticize the nominating process?
You see, I wouldn’t have had the chance to speak my mind at that group meeting, because only the winners are asked to speak. And so this way, by publicly turning down the second prize, I thought I might at least have some influence. I wanted it to have an effect on the National Book Award people to stop running a race among writers. I don’t take a high or lofty tone about it. It’s just a practical thing, a matter of good taste and good sense not to treat writers that way.
National Book Award or not, A Summons to Memphis has sold well and been extremely well received by the critics. What struck me most about the novel was the way you juxtaposed life in two different cities in Tennessee, Nashville and Memphis, and made those two places seem worlds apart, almost as if they had been two different countries. You talk in great detail about such things as the definitive Nashville suit, the trademark Memphis hat, the innumerable differences in accent and style and attitude. It occurred to me that today, with all the interstates and shopping malls and glass towers of suburbia, you’d be hard-pressed to make the same kinds of sharp contrasts between those two places. We’re getting more alike, it seems.
All places get more and more alike, of course. But there will always be subtle differences to be seen if you watch for them. Now, when I was a boy living in Memphis, I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint all these differences between life in Nashville and life in Memphis. It’s looking back on it that makes you see them. And then, too, in writing a book like A Summons to Memphis, I was probably more sensitive than normal to these differences. I exaggerated them for my own interest and for the sake of the book.
We are always hearing the cliché about how Southerners are supposed to have a strong sense of place, but in so many of your stories, the sense of place is truly pivotal.
I think the business of a novelist is to make the differences between places seem significant. So when you get to writing about “place” in fiction you want to make that place seem as distinctive as you can. You use the paraphernalia of life — the local color — to make the story seem real. As I was writing A Summons to Memphis, I had a lot of fun seeing how much I could get into the contrasts between two different places, and then making the story be one that made the use of those contrasts.
In the novel, you suggested that not only was Memphis vastly different from Nashville, but it was different in such a way that moving there irrevocably changed the lives of the protagonist and his family. And I understand that much of the book was autobiographical.
Well, I knew how tremendously different our family life was after we moved to Memphis. First of all, it was simply an uprooting experience leaving Nashville, especially for me, because I was 15 then. It would be hard for anybody at the age of 15 to pick up and go somewhere else. That’s when you’re first interested in girls, cigarettes, life. And then, too, my family had many, many ties in Nashville. So in the book I tried to look back at these two lives, and rather than seeing how alike Memphis and Nashville were, I tried to see how they were different and why it might be significant in the lives of my characters.
And what are — were — those differences?
Of course, Memphis is in the deep South, while Nashville tends to look eastward. My mother always used to complain that Memphis was really a part of Mississippi, and that the newspapers had all Mississippi news and Arkansas news and not enough Tennessee news. And historically, Memphis and Nashville have grown up very differently, against the backdrop of two very different agricultural pursuits. Memphis was always a cotton town, and the wealth was concentrated in those circles, while the agricultural economy around Nashville was, to a large extent, livestock — cattle and horses.
Throughout the book you were arriving at all kinds of odd and colorful distinctions.
I said somewhere in the book that the “high society” people in Memphis tended often to go to Marshall Field’s in Chicago to shop, while the people in Nashville would go to New York. The pull was in a different direction, you see. I like to try to reach some kind of generalization like that, to build up to it. I think it’s a very good trait to argue from the particular to the general. You find it in all literature. You find it in Proust, you find it in Tolstoy, and all the great people.
It does seem a very Southern characteristic to dwell on these kinds of contrasts between places, contrasts which the casual observer — or the outsider — might never notice.
I once stopped at a service station in Kentucky, and there was a man who was telling me how differently the people talked over in the next county, how “Southern” they were. Just one county over. Of course, he didn’t think his county was Southern at all. Well, you see, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
That same phenomenon, of exaggerating the differences between your home and the rest of the world, runs through a great deal of Southern literature. It’s the search for Southern identity or something such as that.
And in a very real way, that’s what great literature consists of: discovering what your life is like and why it’s the way that it is. It’s the way that the Irish have developed a great literature. Because here is this enormous British Empire right next to them. So the Irish have all been trying to assert their individuality. They want to say what it’s like to be a Dubliner or what have you. The same is true of the South. [Writer and literary critic] Edmund Wilson said the South was like a little Balkan state on the edge of a big and powerful empire. The South has always been trying to identify what it was about itself that was different from other parts of the country.
But you write about the South from the perspective of a person who has lived outside the South a great deal, traveling and teaching and studying all over the country.
A person whose point of view I like immensely is Robert Penn Warren — and maybe I’ve been influenced a lot by him. He’s a Southerner to the last ditch, and yet he’s one of the most liberal human beings in the world. He loves the South and yet he criticizes it as he pleases. One of the reasons I found myself so interested in the South was that I lived out of the South a lot when I was a boy in St. Louis, and later, at Kenyon College in Ohio. Nothing makes you a Southerner more than living out of the South. In school in St. Louis, my brother and I were teased a lot about our Southern accent. I was always made aware of my roots going back to Tennessee. I didn’t stand a chance of forgetting any of that when I was growing up.
Writing as you so often do about aristocratic families in the South, one of the characters that consistently crops up in your stories is the black servant — the maid, the nurse, the chauffeur. The relationship between white families and their black servants has always seemed to play an important role in Southern literature.
I have a very good friend named James McPherson who is a wonderful black writer. We used to joke about doing a book together that would be called Upstairs, Downstairs in the Old South. His mother was a maid and cook in Savannah, and he knew about racial relations from that angle. And, of course, I knew the other angle.
In the Twenties, we had four black servants. They were all from the same county in Tennessee where my father’s home was, and, as it happened, they were also named “Taylor.” And sometimes we’d pretend that we were all directly related to each other — one big happy family. We were allowed to bring boys home for lunch on Saturday, and I remember the black cook, Lucille Taylor, would tease my brother by calling him “Cousin Bob” right there in front of our white guests — because, well, here we all had the same last name. And the other little white boys didn’t quite understand. It would infuriate my brother, but the rest of us would always laugh about it.
It’s possible to idealize certain aspects of those old days when affluent families had lifelong black servants around the home — the closeness, the sense of shared family roots, the possibility for genuine friendships. But it also might be said that this was a paternalistic situation that left blacks no room for improvement.
Yes, of course, it was an inherently patronizing situation, and there was no future in it. And it’s all over and very different now. But the relationship our family had with our servants was in many ways more human and more real than the relationships that exist today between blacks and whites in other places, where the races are completely separated and hatred builds up.
You see, it was altogether different when the servants shared your own name, when they shared the same family history from the same little town [out] in the country. There was a great interplay between blacks and whites in our situation. For example, we had a woman who was called “Mammie” who had been a slave before the Civil War. She had been my father’s nurse, and my nurse. I remember she used to tell me little things about my father, things he did when he was a little boy. So there was a great deal of continuity there.
I can’t see how, growing up as I did, among the blacks looking after my greatest needs, and even talking to me about such things as poetry — I can’t see how one can grow up like this and then not be sympathetic to blacks. How can one be a racist? My feelings were deeper for the black servants than they were for my own mother when I was growing up. And they were so much a part of the family.
Your stories often do paint a benign portrait of the racial set-up in the South of several decades ago.
There are certainly other Southern writers — like Shelby Foote, for example — who are much more reconstructed than I am, and who are much more liberal in their thought. But in my work, I try to be interested in the human qualities in both blacks and whites and how their humanity sometimes overcomes the barriers that distinguish them. Often a black in my stories has responded by forgiving the whites for all they’ve done to him. Now, that’s an idealistic Christian view of things, and maybe an impossible one. But these things that seem so awful in our upbringing —like meanness to blacks — however bad they are, they sometimes help us to identify ourselves. They help us in seeing that there is good and bad in all people.
Just as there was some good mixed with the bad of the antebellum South?
I don’t mean to give a lecture on what the Civil War was about. But the difference between an old agrarian civilization and a new industrial civilization, and the difference in manners of these two ways of life, is a profound one. I of course recognize that any slavery is barbarous. On the other hand, the business of having slaves was terrible not only for the slaves, but, ironically, for the white Southerners, too. It had a terrible effect on their view of the world. The history of the South drives stupid people to enmity, but it’s important to realize that individuals were all trapped in this historical situation.
Not many people grow up in the South today feeling they’re trapped in a historical situation, or think about having lost a war.
No, of course not. It’s all an abstraction to your generation. But you see, my grandfather had been a Confederate soldier, and I remember that one of the great occasions when I was growing up was the Confederate Reunion. All those old Confederates would be there. And I vividly remember my uncle as an old man — he had had his hand shot through at Shiloh, and was paralyzed. He had this special fork made to fit on his wrist, and I remember how terrified I was by this awful looking claw of a hand. Well, you see, the war was very real to me.
You often write about old affluent Southern families, families that do feel a certain allegiance to that antebellum past.
That’s the world that I knew growing up, the world of the so-called upper-class people. I know everything that was wrong and wretched about them. But, on the other hand, they fascinate me. They represent an attitude toward the past that is terribly important to society. Also, as an author, I recognize that writing about the so-called high society and making it appealing to my readers is a challenge. In “The Old Forest” I deliberately made the heroine a society girl, a debutante, even though all of us might find another character much more admirable — someone who was attractive and went out to nightspots and was loads of fun. But I said to myself, it would be more interesting to see if I can make this society girl appealing as a human being and see what her life is. I wanted to see human beings set in certain historical situations from which they can’t escape.
In this case, the character realized that the only power that she had was to be a rich, married woman in Memphis, and that was all that was offered to her. In too many novels and movies, it’s that little girl who’s not in the establishment who’s the heroine. I wanted to see if I could make that other one appealing. That’s part of the power of writing fiction: You can cut through and make a person who’s normally unattractive do heroic things despite themselves and their situation.