- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

PETER TAYLOR: A WRITER'S LIFE
By Hubert H. McAlexander

Louisiana State University Press, $34.95, 338 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY GEORGE GARRETT

Literary biographers face daunting challenges. Maybe the most troublesome is that, allowing the notable exceptions (Ernest Hemingway on safari, F. Scott Fitzgerald splashing around in the plaza fountain, etc.), writers are not in serious competition with captains of industry or action heroes. They are private people engaged in solitary performance. Outwardly and visibly, they sit quietly at desks. Inwardly and spiritually, they are busy casting spells designed to turn their lives (even themselves) into words on a page.
The best of them somehow become their work. Sometimes the work endures. And it is the work that matters most. The rest is mostly irrelevant. Hard as it is in our time an age which celebrates public life ("image") above all, an age grievously infected by the culture of celebrity for the writer to make the old magic work, it may be harder for the literary biographer to make good sense and lively copy out of the counter life of an artist.
Hubert H. McAlexander has done pretty well by Peter Taylor (1917-1994). Taylor, important, original and influential, especially in the art of the short story, arrived on the scene brilliantly with his first book, "A Long Fourth and Other Stories" (1948) and, overcoming the ups and downs of fickle fashion, retained a well earned place in the literary pantheon creating an important body of work 14 worthy books.
Mr. McAlexander, an English professor and editor of two earlier books concerning his subject, "Conversations with Peter Taylor" (1987) and "Critical Essays on Peter Taylor" (1993), gives a fascinating account of the facts of Taylor's life and a sense of his artistic accomplishment, and the richly intricate story of his family background, in "Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life." What a colorful crew Taylor's ancestors, his kith and kin were, Tennessee governors and senators, men of substance and character as well as wealth and privilege.
Mr. McAlexander has chosen not to clutter his story with much literary criticism. If that is a weakness, this biography has other and significant strengths. With primary access to the letters and papers of Taylor (and others), the author uses them well, quoting extensively and thus allowing the reader to enjoy pleasures of the prose of a writer who couldn't turn out a bad sentence at gunpoint. Mr. McAlexander's writing is appropriately clear and workmanlike and does not try to compete with that of his subject.
Taylor was a charming and courteous man, a social animal. His deep, long-lasting literary friendships with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, with Eudora Welty, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford and many others offer us some rare verbal snapshots of these people, taken by a sensitive and wholly credible witness. If there is only rudimentary literary criticism, there is plenty of literary history and lively gossip here.
The early pages dealing with family and Tennessee background are a real contribution. Mr. McAlexander is able to define the world out of which Taylor's fiction bloomed. Closely following the details of the writer's career stories accepted and rejected by magazines, grants and fellowships and awards and prizes won or lost, good reviews and bad, the labor of teaching at a variety of institutions, sometimes happily and sometimes not Mr. McAlexander produces an exemplary documentary of the changing literary situation in America in the second half of the 20th century.
Peter Taylor was a hard-working writer, courageously so in his last years when he suffered terribly from ill health. Off duty he liked to party down, and some of Mr. McAlexander's best attention and most engaged writing is devoted to his subject's social life. There are a whole lot of parties here. Taylor also enjoyed gardening and together with his wife, the poet Eleanor Taylor, who survives him, he bought and rehabilitated and sold (profitably) an astonishing number of houses. Taylor had a lot of fun. He was a witty and sometimes outrageously funny man, a world-class Southern gentleman with an irrepressible streak of rowdy hillbilly. People who knew him well will miss some of that quality in his biography.
Are there other weaknesses? Nothing serious. A sprinkling of minor factual errors and, perhaps more serious, self-imposed limits on the scope of the study. Even though Mr. McAlexander interviewed a large number of former students and colleagues and friends, he has missed any number of others whose testimony could have made for a fuller, more fully dimensional portrait.
The book seems a little hurried. What we have, then, is a readable first biography of one of our finest writers, and we can be grateful for it. Other books, biographical and critical, are said to be in the works. Meanwhile "Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life" is a helpful aid to the understanding and appreciation of a major American writer.

George Garrett is professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia.


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