The Lesson of the Master
from “Peter Taylor and the Lost World of the Modern”
AWP Conference Panel, March 1, 2007
In a letter home from England where Peter Taylor was stationed during World War II, Peter admired the English countryside—it reminded him of Tennessee. In a later letter he declared that he knew what his subject would be—should be—the people and country of Tennessee. I infer from this declaration and its tone that once he chose to write fiction, choosing a lifelong subject was to him the most important and basic choice.
In his instructions to younger writers he didn’t say anything directly about the marriage of writer and subject. He did once mention how much he admired Tolstoy’s owning Russia.
In the first several classes of the semester Peter would read aloud. I remember him reading Faulkner’s “Was,” Frank O’Connor’s “Brothers,” and J.F. Powers “The Female of the Species.” All rely on a bond to a territory and its people. In the case of JF Powers, the territory is geographically small—it is the parishes, churches and rectories of American Catholic priests.
The second instruction was more direct, although oddly arrived at. Perhaps someone was bold enough to ask, “What is a short story?” Peter said, “It’s like a lyric poem.” A week later he said, “No, it’s more like a one-act play.” A week later he said, “A short story should do the work of a novel in 15 pages.”
The third instruction came about because someone asked about poetry versus fiction. He said, “A short story should have as powerful an effect, but without the fireworks in the foreground.”
This instruction is consonant with his distaste for EXPLICIT sex scenes. Peter loved D.H. Lawrence’s short stories, but he didn’t like Lady Chatterley’s Lover at all. He said, “He might as well have written a sex manual.”
Years later, another instruction. A poet friend of Peter’s and mine wrote a short story and passed it along for comment. Peter and I were out for a walk. I said, “He certainly writes elegant prose.”
Peter said, “Mmm, yes.” He took a few more steps, stopped and turned. He said, “But he lacks that low vaudeville cunning.”
Is there a disparity between “no obvious fireworks,” and “no explicit sex,” and “low vaudeville cunning”?
I think the answer is that there ARE fireworks—more than fireworks—whole earthquakes—in Peter’s stories. There is cunning whether low vaudeville cunning or high artistic cunning in placing the largest forces just outside the frame of the story. The forces become elements of the story, and they come in all the more powerfully because their effects are felt. They are like a storm blowing open the windows of a room.
Take “In the Miro District.” At forty-four pages it’s longer than the prescribed fifteen, but it does the work of a novel, maybe two or three. There is a first-person narrator with a distinct and amiable voice remembering his relations with his grandfather from a point in the future, though he certainly relives his youth. The grandfather is a seventy-nine-year-old Civil War veteran; the boy is eighteen.
That is the domestic scene, with the addition that the boy is irritated with his grandfather—no, dislikes his grandfather. And he suspects his grandfather dislikes him, if only for the boy’s always having held out on him, keeping to himself.
But the grandfather keeps to himself as well—persists in living alone on his farm when his daughter and son-in-law want him to live with them in their Nashville house. The grandfather won’t play along with Decoration Day either, when all the other Confederate veterans dress up and get promoted and march. This in spite of the fact that the grandfather rode with General Forrest. There’s a first off-stage rumbling. The second grandfather story is that after the war he and his law partner were kidnapped by night riders, the law partner killed in front of the grandfather’s eyes, the grandfather escaped by diving into a lake and hiding in a swamp for ten days. It was during the ten days of hiding half-submerged that the grandfather had an hallucinatory vision of the New Madrid earthquake. That earthquake occurred in 1811. It made the Mississippi run backwards. The aftershocks were felt for weeks—“the earth trembled and vibrated for hours on end ‘like the flesh of a beef just killed.’”
All this material comes in with cunning, because the grandfather doesn’t tell stories. We get a combination of overheard scraps of hunting-camp talk, hearsay and something like an unnoticeable omniscience. It’s enough fireworks for an historical novel in itself, even a kind of epic. “[The grandfather’s] visions of the earthquake were like a glimpse into the eternal chaos we live in, a glimpse no man should be permitted.”
That’s something like what happens in the Hindu story, “Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War.” In the story, the hero Arjuna foolishly begs Krishna to show himself as Krishna really is, the force of the universe, both creating and destroying. It is more than Arjuna can bear. It is what turned the grandfather into a maverick. After that, the war, the night riders were as nothing.
The grandfather has a room in his daughter and son-in-law’s house, spartanly furnished with a fold-up bed and a single large wardrobe. The grandfather-grandson action takes place in three scenes. The boy’s parents are out of town. He invites his schoolmates to come over and raid the liquor cabinet. The grandfather arrives unexpectedly. He expresses outrage and contempt, but then settles into a not unpleasant gruffness.
Parents out of town again. Grandson has a party with pals, but this time also with girls who—there’s throat clearing on the part of the narrator—are not from Miss Lowe’s dancing class. The grandfather arrives at dawn. “I felt the first blow of his walking stick on my buttocks.” The grandfather has been to all the rooms and has whacked all the boys and girls on their bare buttocks. The girls scurry around getting dressed, looking for their things.
On one level this is a comedy of manners, or even French bedroom farce. But there is something fiercer. The narrator writes, “I felt there was nothing in the world he didn’t know or hadn’t been through.”
The third scene. The grandson is with a girl he’s serious about, is in love with. The two of them, falteringly and recklessly dizzy, go to the empty house. To the grandfather’s room. To the grandfather’s fold-up bed.
After a day and a night the bed is rumpled, strewn with poetry books and remains of meals. When they hear the grandfather’s old car the only course is for the nice young lady to hide, naked as she is, in the wardrobe. The grandson tries to stall the grandfather. The grandfather, after some words, simply moves the grandson aside and opens the wardrobe. In some way the grandfather recognizes the girl. “He turned on me a look cold and fierce and so articulate that I imagined I could hear the words his look expressed: ‘So this is how bad you really are?’”
The grandfather leaves.
For a moment everything seems clear. The grandson has at last declared his life, has moved it out of the grandfather’s—what?—clutches? No. The grandfather is perhaps an antagonist only in the grandson’s mind. Whose story is this? It turns out it is the grandfather’s, or as much the gruff grandfather’s as the boy’s.
When the grandfather leaves the house he doesn’t settle. He joins his daughter and son-in-law at their vacation hotel, a place he never would have set foot in. He’s shed his straw hat and old coat; he’s wearing a black serge suit, white shirt and tie. The grandson’s parents don’t recognize the old man at first. When they do, they kiss him on the cheek. “[He] stood there, ramrod straight, his cheeks wet with tears, like an old general accepting total defeat with total fortitude.”
He abandons his farm and moves in to the Nashville house, replaces the fold-up bed and wardrobe with finer things.
The narrator writes,“In those days in Nashville, having a Confederate veteran around the place was comparable to having a peacock on the lawn . . .”
He becomes a centerpiece of dinner parties. He tells his stories. He attends Confederate reunions. “And of course he was promptly promoted to the rank of colonel”—the sort of promotion he’d declared bogus.
Is it the breaking of an old double-standard taboo that has finished the old man? Was his own honor tainted? Or did the grandfather finally break into the boy’s life and see what the narrator doesn’t give full weight to—the room, the fold-up bed—the unstated but at last acted out sign of hatred?
The narrator slides away. Does he speak admiringly when he says the old man accepted total defeat with total fortitude? But that surrender was to his daughter and son-in-law—or does the boy gloat when he makes that remark about a peacock on the lawn? Does he feel that he at last has found in first romantic love a counterweight to the old man’s history?
Is there a plain solution to this simultaneous equation?
Donald Justice once gave a talk about how mystifying a poem may be. It certainly shouldn’t be mystifying in any private or gratuitous way; a good poem should be as clear as it can be in order to frame the hardest mystery at its core.
The last bit of “In the Miro District" is this:
I’ve left a lot out, but I hope there’s some sense of how well structured this story is and how much historical and social intricacy it contains. It starts in domesticity, even quaintness. And then the storm blows open the windows of the room. And then—? Now I can’t declare a final interpretation of the end—I think I was once on the grandson’s side, then on the grandfather’s. Now I don’t know who of the two has been, in the end, more afflicted. Now I simply admire how the two of them are suspended within the story.