Peter Taylor (1917–1994)


Peter Taylor was a short-story writer and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Summons to Memphis (1986). During a writing career that spanned six decades, much of which was spent in Charlottesville, he established himself as a master of short fiction, displaying elegance and lucidity of style in examining family life in the New South. Many early stories were published in the New Yorker, and after joining the faculty at the University of Virginia in 1967, Taylor experienced a mid-life second flowering and produced the fiction for which he is best remembered. In 1978, he was awarded the Gold Medal for the Short Story by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Wider public notice followed, although it may still have been true, as he proclaimed himself, that he was “the best-known unknown writer in America.”

Matthew Hillsman Taylor Jr. was born in Trenton, Tennessee, on January 8, 1917, the fourth child of Matthew Hillsman Taylor and Katherine Baird (Taylor) Taylor. (Named for his father, the younger Taylor eventually legally adopted his nickname, Peter.) Both Taylor families were prominent, with Taylor’s paternal grandfather, Robert Taylor, having served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). His maternal grandfather, also Robert Taylor, was a governor of Tennessee. Peter Taylor spent the years after early childhood first in Nashville, Tennessee, and then in Saint Louis, Missouri, as his father rose from small-town attorney to corporation lawyer to president of an insurance company. After finishing high school in Memphis, Tennessee, he studied first at Southwestern University in Memphis, then Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and finally Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He was graduated in 1940.

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Fortunate in his wide social exposure, both in the South and Midwest, both in small towns and cities, Taylor was stimulated by literary study with Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren and by friendships dating from college days with poet Robert Lowell and poet-critic Randall Jarrell. Taylor taught briefly after college before being drafted into the Army in 1941. He married the poet Eleanor Ross in 1943, and in 1946 accepted a faculty position at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. He taught at the University of Virginia from 1967 until his retirement in 1983.

The upper-class urban milieu of the upper South set Taylor’s fiction apart from the body of southern writing produced by writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, as did his restrained style and his dominant themes. These are evidenced in his most widely praised works. In the Miro District (1976) examines the opposed value systems of three generations of a Nashville family, and The Old Forest (1979) explores the issues of freedom and limitation endemic to a social order. A Summons to Memphis is a meditation upon influences and choices by a middle-aged man rationalizing his own lack of vitality. The same discursive, often unreliable narrator so characteristic of Taylor’s late fiction muses over his failures in his last novel, In the Tennessee County, published just a few weeks before Taylor’s death in Charlottesville on November 2, 1994.

Major Works

  • A Long Fourth and Other Stories (1948)
  • A Woman of Means (1950)
  • The Widows of Thornton (1954)
  • Tennessee Day in St. Louis: A Comedy (1957)
  • Happy Families Are All Alike: A Collection of Stories (1959)
  • Miss Leonora When Last Seen and Fifteen Other Stories (1963)
  • The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor (1969)
  • Literature, Sewanee, and the World, Founder’s Day Address, University of the South (1972)
  • Presences: Seven Dramatic Pieces (1973)
  • In the Miro District and Other Stories (1977)
  • The Early Guest (a sort of story, a sort of play, a sort of dream) (1982)
  • The Old Forest and Other Stories (1985)
  • A Stand in the Mountains (1986)
  • A Summons to Memphis (1986)
  • The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court: Stories (1993)
  • In the Tennessee Country (1994)

January 8, 1917
Peter Taylor is born in Trenton, Tennessee. Named Matthew Hillsman Taylor Jr., for his father, he eventually legally adopts his nickname, Peter.
Peter Taylor graduates from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
Peter Taylor is drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II.
Peter Taylor and Eleanor Ross marry in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Peter Taylor accepts a faculty position at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
Peter Taylor begins teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Peter Taylor retires from teaching at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
November 2, 1994
Peter Taylor dies in Charlottesville.
  • McAlexander, Hubert H. Peter Taylor: A Writer’s Life. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
  • Robinson, David M. World of Relations: The Achievement of Peter Taylor. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
APA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. Peter Taylor (1917–1994). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/taylor-peter-1917-1994.
MLA Citation:
Encyclopedia Virginia staff. "Peter Taylor (1917–1994)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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