blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



Peter Taylor and the Drama of Storytelling
     from “Peter Taylor and the Lost World of the Modern”
     AWP Conference Panel, March 1, 2007

An old man begins to tell a story to his son, very much a child of the 1960s. The old man is a former writer, a teacher, latterly a dean of students, and a college president, though whether he is still in office remains unclear. But for some reason he feels the need to speak to his son, to tell him a story about himself, about his own father, and his father’s father.

I am not unsympathetic, Jack, to your views on the war. I am not unsympathetic to your views on the state of the world in general. From the way you wear your hair and from the way you dress I do find it difficult to decide whether you or that young girl you say you are about to marry is going to play the male role in your marriage—or the female role. But even that I don’t find offensive. And I am not trying to make crude jokes at your expense. You must pardon me, though, if my remarks seem too personal. I confess I don’t know you as well as a father ought to know his son, and I may seem to take liberties.

However, Jack, I do believe that I understand the direction in which you—all of you—think you are going. I have not observed college students during the past thirty years for nothing. And I must try to warn you that I don’t think even your wonderful generation will succeed in going very far along the road your are on. In this connection, Jack, I want to tell you a story. I can tell you this story because even its most recent chapters took place a very long time
ago . . .

Well, from our much greater vantage of four decades we may have a better sense of how far that wonderful generation succeeded in going, but certainly the old man establishes himself as thoroughly priggish and pompous as he sets off to tell his tale—we can well imagine the son gritting his teeth—and the old man’s reliability is very much an issue throughout.

But why does he tell this story? And why at this moment? What is he after?

Questions like these haunt many of Peter Taylor’s stories, and this one, “Dean of Men,” from what we may think of as Peter’s middle period, anticipates many of his concerns that will recur again and again, culminating in the great late stories, “In the Miro District” and “The Old Forest.”

Before we get to addressing those questions directly, however, I want to talk about the storytelling itself, its own dramatic aspect. And at the heart of that topic is Peter Taylor himself. I have never known anyone who loved stories as much as Peter. First and foremost, there were the great stories from the past, those from Trollop to Chekhov, Maupassant to Katherine Anne Porter. He lingered on them; he returned to them over and over again throughout his life, like old friends; he studied them; and he learned from them. This may be why Alan Tate said that the teenage Peter Taylor knew more about the technique of the story than other writers decades older.

But it may be that Peter loved the act of telling as much or more than any particular tale. Imagine him at a party—and he adored parties—standing in a corner, a tumbler of scotch curled in his hand. There would always be two or three people gathered around, listening to stories about his family, about his friends, famous and not so, about the latest house he was thinking of buying. All the while his eyes would be watching the other little swirls and eddies around the room. He’d be eager for other people’s news as well. Nor did he shy from a little fresh gossip. All grist for the mill. And the mill was his imagination.

What I’m getting at is that storytelling was not merely an occupation or a carefully acquired artistic practice for Peter Taylor. Rather, it lay at the very heart of living for him. That is why the act itself, highlighted as in “Dean of Men” and distinct in its own way from the internal narrative, is so central to his art. Indeed, storytelling, for Peter, is an essential part of the drama of his narratives, to a degree greater than any other author I know. We feel and hear the effort of his narrators as they struggle with their stories. That struggle is as central to the enterprise, in other words, as the internal dramas that are being recounted. The two parallel, shape, and shed light on each other.

That said, and since the title of this panel is “Peter Taylor and the Lost Modern,” I’ll set my suggestions in here in a larger context: that the preoccupation with how a narrator tells a tale in order to make sense of it is a particularly modern concern. We see it in Conrad’s Marlow stories, such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Ford Madox Ford’s Dowell is a deeply moving and deeply flawed narrator in The Good Soldier. Nick Carraway struggles to make sense of his experiences of Jay Gatsby, and Jack Burden’s burden is to try and make sense of his own relationship with Willie Stark by recounting All the King’s Men.

Peter Taylor’s narrators share with these others, among other things, a sense of being haunted by the past. Not merely their personal pasts, though perhaps that as well, but also a cultural heritage, whether the Victorian certainties of Britain or the ante-bellum myths of the old South, that is slipping away beyond the horizon even as they gaze back longingly. Yet they also know that, for all its beauties and traditions, that past was deeply corrupt and fraudulent as well. The present, however, seems bleak and uncertain, and the future unknowable. So the narrator tells the tale almost as a desperate attempt to light the way forward.

One reason I get a kick out of “Dean of Men” is it reveals the degree to which Peter Taylor is drawing on his personal experience and family legends all in the service of creating a fiction. Like Peter, the story’s narrator returns to the small college in the Midwest where he had once been an undergraduate to take his place on the faculty. Like Peter, the narrator has a falling out with the college administration and ultimately leaves for a larger university and a very different life. In this story, however, the main character allows himself to be duped and betrayed by younger colleagues and is then punished by the Dean whom he has helped block from becoming President of the college, whereas in Peter’s case, the crisis was very much of his own contriving. He’d returned to the college, you see, with an expectation on both sides that he would, when the moment came, succeed John Crowe Ransom as editor of its literary magazine. But Peter decided, probably quite rightly, that to do so would be at the sacrifice of his own career as a writer.

I take great delight in adding parenthetically that in both cases, the story and the life, the ultimate dramatic crisis of this episode was sparked over the proper or, rather improper, bestowal of a particular house by the college dean. In those days, housing was assigned to faculty on a scale of strict seniority, and very little in the world mattered more to Peter Taylor than the house he lived in. Or, more accurately, the house he’d decided he wanted to live in at that given moment.

The narrator of “Dean of Men” draws on memories of his father, who was in fact betrayed in a business deal by a close friend during the Depression, and on family legends handed down over several generations—stories he’d happily recount in various iterations and elaborations while standing in that corner of the party, glass in hand. But here he puts them in the mouth of his narrator, as it were, who traces what he imagines as an all but fatal pattern of betrayal and weakness from father to son in his family going back three generations and more. “My grandfather,” he says, “was defeated, and he retired from public life to the bosom of his family, where, alas, I cannot say he was greatly loved and cherished.”

After recounting the story of his father’s own betrayal and withdrawal some years later, the narrator goes on to tell of his emotional response to losing the house he wants and believes is owed at the small college in Ohio.

I never for a moment believed our marriage could weather this new turn my life had taken. I don’t know why. As my mother would have said, the Old Nick himself seemed to have got in me. I wouldn’t be consoled, I wouldn’t be comforted, though I consistently made an effort to seem so.

This has been not just a powerful experience for the narrator but a turning point in his life, parallel to similar disasters for his forebears. He is haunted by this eerie pattern of betrayal and retreat he descries along the male line of his family. Of course, we may well ask whether any such pattern actually exists. Or is this part of the work of the narrative, given shape through the memories, obsessions, fears, and self-justifications of the teller of the tale? In any event, he ultimately leaves not only the college but his wife and children. He remarries and becomes, in his own right, the dean of men at a small college, and ultimately a college president. Typically, and as evidence of his unreliability and lack of self-awareness, he betrays no sense of irony about the choice of career, even as he tells the tale to his son.

Peter Taylor may have used the raw materials of his own life and family memories to reshape in this story. But if one wanted to draw the essential distinction between him and his narrator, other than the latter’s bitterness and self-satisfaction, it would be not merely the abandoning of his writing career and his wife—both unspeakable and impossible for Peter—but the delightful absurdity of imagining him as a dean or college president. That would have been fun to see.

The more serious point is to ask why, after all, this tale is told. What is the old man after? Surely, as I mentioned a moment ago, he is seeking no small measure of self-justification, explaining to his son decades after the fact why he abandoned his family. He claims to have led “a happy, active life” since then.

Yet again, why does he tell this now? Perhaps he imparts the story as a bizarre marriage gift to his son, one he feels estranged from, given both their personal history and the immense chasm of understanding between their generations, epitomized by a college administrator and a student in the 1960s. It may be an heirloom of sorts, passing along family history and ties to the past, as well as a kind of warning that there are emotional and psychological patterns that do not bode well for the men in their family.

Finally, however, his purpose may not matter. Nor do we need to know more about the son than a paper-thin glimpse of long hair and rebellion.

What matters is the growing sense of urgency and drama in the narrator’s efforts simply to have done what he does, telling the tale. As he speaks these final lines we sense, more fully than ever before, just how little he, unlike the author, perceives in all he’s telling, and of how desperate he has been to tell.

One may sacrifice the love, even the acquaintance of one’s children. One loses something of one’s self even. But at least I am not tyrannizing over old women and small children. At least I don’t sit gazing into space while my wife or perhaps some kindly neighbor woman waits patiently to see whether or not I will risk a two-heart bid. A man must somehow go on living among men, Jack. A part of him must. It is important to broaden one’s humanity, but it is important to remain a mere man, too. But it is a strange world, Jack, in which an old man must tell a young man this.  

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