Peter Hillsman Taylor

One of the most esteemed American writers of short stories in the twentieth century, Peter Taylor was born January 8, 1917, in Trenton to a notable political family. His maternal grandfather Robert Love “Bob” Taylor, a Democrat, served three terms as governor and as U.S. senator (1907-12), and his maternal great uncle was Alf Taylor, a Republican, who also served as governor and U.S. congressman. The brothers opposed one another in the 1886 gubernatorial election, which became known as the “War of the Roses.”

When he was seven years old, Taylor’s father, Hillsman Taylor, a prominent attorney, moved the family from Trenton to Nashville, then later to St. Louis, and finally to Memphis. Taylor’s childhood encompassed an era of migration of individuals and families from the country and its traditional life to the developing cities of Tennessee. This movement, particularly among people of property, is often the background and sometimes the subject of his stories. He is particularly interested in the transformation of the families of prosperous landowners into the fully developed urban culture of industrial and financial corporations. Taylor does not view the transformation of the Old South into the New South as the replacement of one class by another but as the transformation of the ruling class itself: the same men who ran the plantations led the new industrializing South. This transformation, however, does include deracination, particularly felt by women and the young sons of these families.

Taylor was educated at Southwestern at Memphis (where the poet Allen Tate was his freshman English teacher), Vanderbilt (where he became friends with many writers of the Agrarian movement and the southern literary renascence), and Kenyon College (where he studied with John Crowe Ransom). He also did graduate study at Louisiana State University, which had become a center of literary creativity because of the teaching of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army in England. In 1943 he married the poet Eleanor Ross of North Carolina.

Taylor returned from the war to teach at The Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (later the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), where he returned to teach at various times in his career. His first book, A Long Fourth and Other Stories, was published in 1948 with an introduction by Robert Penn Warren. His second, The Widows of Thornton, was published in 1954. His earliest stories were published in the Kenyon, Sewanee, Southern, and Virginia Quarterly Reviews. He reached his largest audience when he began to publish regularly in The New Yorker. By the early 1960s he had achieved a national reputation as a distinguished craftsman in the short story form, but he never sought a large audience as a popular novelist. The collections, which solidified his reputation, were Happy Families Are All Alike (1959) and Miss Lenora When Last Seen (1963). The title story of the latter book especially treats the movement of Tennessee families from the country to the city and cultural changes which attend that shift. Early reviewers of Taylor’s stories compared them to Chekhov’s because of their irony, humor, and intelligence–all of which keep nostalgia or sentimentality at bay. Taylor himself on several occasions remarked that as a young man he read not only Chekhov but also and particularly Turgenev. The Collected Stories (1969) was followed by In the Miro District (1977), the title of which alludes to an early name for part of Middle Tennessee. In 1979 the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him its gold medal for literature. In 1986 he won the PEN Faulkner Award for The Old Forest and Other Stories (1985); the title story has been adapted into a short motion picture of the same name, directed by Steven John Ross (Pyramid Films, 1984). His last collection of stories was The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court (1993), which deals with Tennessee families living in Washington, D.C., as members of his own family had done.

Taylor also wrote novels, which he tended to think of as extended short stories. They include A Woman of Means (1950), A Summons to Memphis (1986), and In the Tennessee Country (1994). He thought of the short story as a particularly dramatic form. Again like Chekhov, writing stories led him to try to write plays. In 1961 he was an associate of the Royal Court Theatre in London. His published plays are Tennessee Day in St. Louis (1956), A Stand in the Mountains (1971), and Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces (1973).

Taylor’s career as a teacher of creative writing led him beyond Greensboro to Kenyon, Ohio State University, and finally the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, which he made his home in the last years of his life. He was a visiting teacher at Indiana, Chicago, Oxford, Georgia, and Memphis State. In the late 1960s, he taught briefly at Harvard but turned down a permanent position there because he feared the public would view him primarily as a teacher rather than a writer. Nevertheless he headed the creative writing program at Virginia until his retirement. In 1984 he received a $25,000 senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to American literature. Throughout much of his career he maintained summer homes in Tennessee either at Sewanee or Monteagle Assembly, called Owl Mountain Springs in some of his stories. Taylor died November 2, 1994, in Charlottesville and was buried in Sewanee.

Suggested Reading

C. Ralph Stephens and Lynda P. Salamon, eds., The Craft of Peter Taylor (1995)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Peter Hillsman Taylor
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018