Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life by Hubert Horton McAlexander.
"Peter Taylor is, in his 76th year, the best writer we have," proclaimed Jonathan Yardley in a 1993 issue of the Washington Post Book World. At that point, Peter Taylor had been publishing fiction for fifty-six years. His work had appeared in the best literary magazines--Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review. In the decades following World War II, he had been among those writers connected with the New Yorker who established America's ascendancy in the short story. In 1978, he received the Gold Medal for that genre given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Then, after resisting writing a full-length novel for decades, in 1985 he published A Summons to Memphis , for which he was awarded Italy's International Literary Prize Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore, the Ritz/Hemingway Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, he published his eighth short story collection, and in 1994, though in failing health, he finished another novel, In the Tennessee Country , testimony to the will and imagination of a man devoted to art.
Taylor's fictional milieu is the urban upper South as experienced by middle or upper class people, many from rural backgrounds. One of his major themes is change, which he treats without nostalgia, interested instead in just how individuals find their bearings, establish power for themselves, discover roles to fill while the world around them is in flux. This was a region and condition he knew intimately. Born in Trenton, a country town in west Tennessee, he spent his youth in Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis, moves dictated by the rising career of his lawyer father and then by the Great Depression.
Taylor said that of all his great good luck, the best was finding early sympathetic and supportive writer-teachers. Allen Tate taught Taylor in his freshman year at Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in Memphis and encouraged him to transfer to Vanderbilt University to study under John Crowe Ransom. When Ransom left Tennessee for Kenyon College in Ohio, Taylor followed him there, where he found a group of life-long literary friends, which included the poets Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. On the eve of World War II, Lowell and Taylor studied briefly at Louisiana State University under Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.
In 1940, Taylor was drafted into the army, serving until 1945. In 1943, before he was shipped to England, he married Eleanor Ross, a young North Carolina poet. After being discharged, he secured a teaching position at her alma mater, Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, at Greensboro. He served as a teacher of writing at a variety of colleges and universities over the next thirty seven years--most notably at Greensboro (three separate stints), Kenyon College, Ohio State University, Harvard, and the University of Virginia, where he retired as Henry Hoynes Professor of Writing. Young writers found inspiring his insistence that both he and his students be measured against only the highest literary models.
His first short story collection, A Long Fourth and Other Stories appeared in 1948, with an introduction by Robert Penn Warren. In the same year, he began his long association with the New Yorker. His work represented a departure in subject matter and in tone from the prevailing body of Southern Renaissance literature. Though most often seen in that context, he was primarily interested not in regional texture, but in how human character survived in the environment in which it found itself. As one reviewer commented of reading the fiction, "We see how the world spins out from Tennessee and closes its vast circles there"--that is, how the regional forms the universal. Taylor himself, however, found his obsessive interest in his native state rather a marvel. "My feelings are both that this region of the upper South is very much a part of me and that I am very much a part of it," he said in a Founders Day Address at the University of the South at Sewanee. "Why a writer should be so egotistical as to have such feelings about a whole region and so crass as to express these feelings is a mystery. But nearly everything about art is a mystery and must ever be so, and yet this is my mystery."
Peter Taylor is buried in the cemetery at Sewanee atop the Cumberland Plateau overlooking what he called "the long green hinterland that is Tennessee." In every regard it is fitting that this Tennessee award be named the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. -- --Hubert H. McAlexander, author of Peter Taylor: A Writer's Life, 2001; Prodigal Daughter, 1999; Critical Essays on Peter Taylor, 1993; Conversations with Peter Taylor, 1987.
Brian Griffin, Prize Committee chair and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee Library, said that naming the contest after Tennessee's own Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Peter Taylor "seems perfect for a competition administered in Tennessee, yet national in scope." Taylor is known nationally and internationally as a consummate master of the art of fiction. "During his lifetime," Griffin said, "Peter Taylor was always eager to assist other writers who cared about the craft of fine fiction. This Prize will continue that vital work, bringing new and exciting books into print."
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