Memphis Blues

Karl Miller

  • The Old Forest by Peter Taylor
    Chatto, 358 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3967 6

There is an occasion in Sense and Sensibility when the three sisters go for a walk and perceive, in the distance, the coming-on of an interesting horseman. His approach casts something of the spell cast by that long take in the film Lawrence of Arabia where a mirage shimmers on the horizon and sways towards the watcher in the stalls to be read in due course as a man mounted on a camel. The sisters in Jane Austen’s novel perceive a single rider, whom they eventually distinguish ‘to be a gentleman’: but this, too, could be called a mirage. The occasion is almost over by the time we are able to gather that there have been two riders, one of them a servant. An invisibility of underlings is among the features of her fiction which might encourage one to think of it as grounded in the delineation, and in the perceptions, of a social class. No such grounding, no such principle of invisibility, can be found in Dickens.

I am assuming that it may be all right to talk of classes with reference to the work of writers who did not themselves do so. Backward-ranging comparisons, and a risk of anachronism, are likely to enter into an experience of Peter Taylor’s fine stories, for his is an art which makes much of the existence of traditions, and of a deep past. At all events, it seems clear that the stories exhibit Austen’s dedication to a class, and that the class he is concerned with carries points of resemblance to the Austen gentry. His people are the gentlemen and gentlewomen of the Southern Midwest, in and around Memphis, Tennessee, and Nashville, during the Thirties and early Forties of the present century: the Second World War is approaching, though you would hardly suspect it until, here and there, it happens, and uniforms are worn. We are shown, therefore, a new Ante-Bellum South, in which the old one survives, at times preposterously, and in which the survival of a way of life is feared for. Taylor cares about the old-fashioned society girls of the region, about the ‘narrow natures’ among its monied males, about their ‘pantywaist’ prissiness. He imitates and impersonates the old-fogey father, or the shrinking young man who, even when he is called up into the Army, has yet to say goodbye to all that status and heritage, kin and kind, and class. The servants are black, and they supply the personnel for the firings which so often impend. But they are far from invisible to the author – unlike the region’s poor whites, who are very rarely seen: there is no white poor, and there is little sign of government – it’s as if affluence, and influence, rule. The servants are ill-treated by the whites they fascinate: but the author is not to be classed among these hard masters, with their talk of noblesse oblige and ‘good families’, of such-and-such a black being on, or off, ‘the place’ – in the sense of the estate.

This noblesse has in it a jeunesse which no doubt memorialises Taylor’s own youth, and some of its sprightlier members have learnt to speak of slavery in a high-souled manner which has perhaps been obtained from the Agrarian school of writers. Kate claims: ‘The Southern master was morally responsible, which is more than can be said for the industrial sweatshopper.’ She is arguing with her vehement brother, who has been reading Spengler, and believes that Kate has been reading those Agrarian ‘fellows at the University in Nashville’; he has brought to the family home, this ‘hotbed of Southern reactionaries’, his prig girlfriend, his ‘comrade’, a seeker of revolution. The household, that of an ear-nose-and-throat surgeon, is exercised by the projected firing of a negro handyman who is said to smell, and whose grim old aunt sends the wife, Kate’s mother – whose husband is known to her as Sweetheart, and whose Spenglerian son is known to her as Son – into a bravura fit of indignation. Here as elsewhere, Taylor’s style is reminiscential (‘The worst of it was ...’): he belongs to the fireside school of writers, but with few traces of folksiness or, in the British sense of the word, ingratiation. His black folks won’t please those prigs of the present day who are on the look-out for a revolutionary correctness in the matter of colour and class, and who are prepared to investigate the short story. But his black folks are intensely and humanely imagined – and, as we are bound to feel, remembered. At the same time, we are also bound to feel that the narrators who perceive them, and whom we may sometimes distrust and disapprove of, are parts of Peter Taylor, and that his imagination is in some measure controlled by the values he is remembering.

A case could certainly be made to the effect that the stories – with their yarning attention to the familial, tribal and provincial pieties and occasions of a Southern gentry – incorporate stereotypes built to protect the way of life that is feared for. The blacks are warm, kind, and seldom the enemies of their masters, who in turn are apt, when young, to be more dependent for affection on their nurses than on their parents. But the blacks are also like animals. One tale is about Jesse, who breaks out and disgraces himself from time to time and is then rescued by his affluent white couple: the two are failures of a sort for whom his disgraces are somehow talismanic. When Jesse gets drunk and devastates his master’s office, he is shown as a shambling simian, run amok. Elsewhere, in a soliloquy only nominally directed at her daughter’s beau, and nakedly expressive of her panic and anxiety and of her attempts to subdue that daughter, a snobbish female garden-freak remarks: ‘When I used to come back from visiting my people at Rye, she would grit her teeth at me and give her confidence to the black cook. I would find my own child become a mad little animal.’ Confidence is again at issue in another story, ‘The Scoutmaster’: ‘she was one of the few young girls who never – Never once! Aunt Grace could vouch for it. She had the girl’s confidence – never stepped outside the front door to say good night to her date.’ In this collection of stories, confidence is awarded to Aunt Grace, a strung-up white gentlewoman, and to black servants whose virtues are thought by successive narrators to be those of animal inferiors. Their thinking so is a story that is told in several of the stories. But we need not think that Peter Taylor thinks so, and a case could be made to the effect that he thinks very differently.

Aunt Grace’s assurance in ‘The Scoutmaster’ concerning her niece relates to what is perhaps the only episode in the collection where sexual behaviour is exposed and put at issue. By a family which has returned early from a rain-check ball-game, the niece is discovered to have been necking with her beau. This is deemed flagrant by the father, who expels the beau and calls him an animal, a ‘common dog’. The maidenliness of some of the narrators lets us know that this is not the South of Tennessee Williams. But it neither contradicts nor is contradicted by the works of Williams, who has his own sweet bird of youth, and his Aunt Grace.

A story which might seem to promise an account of sexual conduct is the one that gives the book its underweening title. The old forest is a grove of ancient trees – a numinous, sinister spinney in the midst of Memphis. The narrator drives up to the old forest with an old flame of baser stock than the society girl he is about to marry in an effulgence of rites and ceremonies. An accident happens. ‘Since the driver of the truck, which was actually a converted Oldsmobile sedan – and a rather ancient one at that – had the good sense not to put on his brakes and to turn off her motor, the crash was less severe than it might have been.’ It is maidenly of the narrator to make a maiden of the Oldsmobile, and to lend her the charm of antiquity. The ceremonies that surround the impending marriage are not of recent date. The forest is old. And the Oldsmobile is an old girl. The old flame slips off into the grove and the rest of the story is spent searching for her, under the threat of disgrace. The narrator’s fiancée conceives an understanding of the category of girl to which Lee Ann, the refugee, belongs. They are free women – despised and envied by the society girls.

The fiancée ends the tale in a state of bitter excitement which pays tribute to the way of life, the virtues, of these other less maidenly girls, of a class just below – and then on down – the gentry. Such free spirits read Malraux and go together to Classical concerts; they band together in a proud clandestinity. By the end, the narrator has decided to take a university degree and maybe proceed to teach – a rashness in the eyes of upper Memphis: ‘Though it clearly meant that we must live on a somewhat more modest scale and live among people of a sort she was not used to, and even meant leaving Memphis forever behind us, the firmness with which she supported my decision, and the look in her eyes whenever I spoke of feeling I must make the change, seemed to say to me that she would dedicate her pride of power to the power of freedom I sought.’ These last words seem overworked, and do not fully convince. Nor does Lee Ann’s weird sisterhood.

This is not the only story to close on an edifying note. It is fortunate on occasion, one story concludes, ‘to see the world through another man’s eyes’: ‘Because it is only then that the world, as you have seen it through your own eyes, will begin to tell you things about yourself.’ Such endings make one conscious of an unending South, and of the dispensing of a sententious Southern comfort. There are stories here which resemble certain poems by Frost in their delivery of morals – those things of the past, as they’re sometimes represented. It is possible to be fond of those things, given what we know of the quality of their absence and avoidance in strains of fiction contemporary with Taylor’s and very different from his. But it may be that they produce blemishes in the course of the collection. The work of both Frost and Taylor, moreover, is available to a nostalgic interest in past and place, to a touristic, ‘Janeite’ cultivation of old words and good old days – of passages like the following:

Once their father – the two of them would recall – had come through the strawberry patch behind the old house on the Nolansville Pike and found Uncle Jake and Father playing mumble-the-peg while Uncle Louis did all the berry picking. And when Uncle Louis saw his father stripping off his belt to give his brothers a whipping he ran to him and told him that he, the eldest brother, was to blame for not making them work and that he should receive the punishment. My grandfather had turned and walked to his house without another word.

Like Frost, Taylor may possibly have been subjected to polemical snubbing: he would seem to have been neglected by the journals of the urban American intelligentsia which date from, or recall, the era of comrades and reactionaries. Like that narrator of his, he took to teaching in the universities, where, in old age, he remains – a professor at the University of Virginia; both within the university system and beyond he has been honoured for his fiction. Nevertheless, there would appear to be many, on both sides of the Atlantic, to whom his name is unfamiliar. In writing about him, I have had to guess at the opinions of a very accomplished and fairly prolific writer, getting on now for seventy, who was effectively without a biographical identity, as far as I was concerned. For all I know – and it is evident that I should have known more – he could be a well-known Southern liberal.

Since it would take a real zealot among investigators to describe the collection as parochial, sentimental or trite, however, this is not the note on which the discussion should end. Old Ben should end it, and the skill with which he is evoked and remembered, and his soreness, his ‘orneriness’, dramatised. This Old Ben is one of Taylor’s patriarchs, a baby and a bully. He vexes his son, having been attacked by his own father for a juvenile delinquency – the firing of a cellar. Taylor remembers Ben, and Ben, become like some old brooding animal, remembers the fire: ‘For several moments, he stood motionless at the window, his huge, soft hands held tensely at his sides, his long body erect, his almost freakishly large head at a slight angle, while he seemed to peer between the open draperies and through the pane of the upper sash, out into the twilight of the wide, shady park that stretched from his great yellow-brick house to the pike.’ He is peering, not at his ‘place’, but at ‘the furious face of his father with the flames casting jagged shadows on the long, black beard and high, white forehead’. The story leaves him clutching the stick with which he’d once been struck, by the father whose features are carved upon its head, in the Southern long-ago.