“May not a man have several
voices . . . as well as two complexions?”

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

In George Garrett’s stories the conflict often arises between a wild lone Outsider and a generally conscientious but insecure Establishment figure; in Peter Taylor’s stories the conflict is likely to take place between generations, the revolt of the young against their elders.

The conflicts are similar in some respects, for in neither case is there a total rejection of values on either side. Garrett’s establishment figures often recognize the better qualities in their opposing loners, the desire for adventure, the strange angry pride and fierce refusal of society’s ordinary comforts. Taylor’s youths will often agree with the basic tenets of their parents and grandparents, but are impatient with the smug manner in which these customs are presented and with the hypocrisy by which they are maintained. The old values are quite clear in emotional outline; in “The Scoutmaster” Taylor represents many of them in a single figure:

He stood before us like a gigantic replica of all the little boys on the benches, half ridiculous and half frightening to me in his girlish khaki middy and with his trousers disappearing beneath heavy three-quarter woolen socks. In that cold, bare, bright room he was saying that it was one of our great misfortunes to have been born in these latter days when the morals and manners of the country had been corrupted, born in a time when we could see upon the members of our own families—upon our sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles—the effects of our failure to cling to the teachings and ways of our forefathers. And he was saying that it was our duty and great privilege, as Boy Scouts, to preserve those honorable things which were left from the golden days when a race of noble gentlemen and gracious ladies inhabited the land of the South. He was saying that we must preserve them until one day we might stand with young men from all over the nation to demand a return to the old ways and the old teachings everywhere.

Noble sentiments these, and hard to fault in abstract terms. But their articulation is occasioned by the scoutmaster’s late discovery of a little harmless parlor petting on the part of his niece and her boyfriend. Part of the irony lies in the uncle’s doleful overreaction to a breach of decorum. Another much darker irony is in the fact that these same sentiments were used to justify the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

There are some fine similarities between Taylor’s scoutmaster and Garrett’s Sheriff Riddle in “Noise of Strangers.” In this story the sheriff finds himself in familiar battle with the town drunk, an eccentric creature known as the Goatman:

The Sheriff is . . . the chosen protector of his little world, the elected hero who must go forth to battle dragons and dark knights for them all while the townspeople live quiet and secure in the vague shine of the hidden treasure—respectability. He sees himself as a lone sentry protecting the chaste virtue of those fine houses along the main street. Within may be madness, despair, rage, and the seven deadly sins guarding a captive princess, but he is concerned only with the public world. The Goatman is a fool without cap and bells, who is somehow needed to question the values of disguise and appearance. He is respectability turned inside out. I, too, am Man, he says. See for yourself.

Both of them are “half ridiculous and half frightening,” but neither the scoutmaster nor the sheriff is entirely obtuse. Though they see themselves as embattled defenders of a status quo, neither takes a glorious view of himself nor has much confidence in the ultimate rightness of things as they are. A strong strain of professionalism sustains Taylor’s self-appointed aristocracy as well as Garrett’s self-appointed Red Gross Knights, but they are all fatalists at heart and have grayly resigned themselves to an inevitable collapse of the order they uphold.

In Garrett’s “Texarkana Was a Crazy Town,” the professional soldier finds the civilian world a convocation of murderous lunatics; in “Unmapped Country,” a captain is almost unmanned by the naked sorrow of a remote hill farmer; in “Song of a Drowning Sailor,” a seaman’s ghost is befuddled by the mores of small-town society. Easy to draw similarities between these stories and some of Taylor’s—”A Walled Garden,” for instance, and “The Old Forest” and “The Little Cousins.” When Katherine Anne Porter, some decades ago, pointed out George Garrett and Peter Taylor as the two younger short story writers she had most faith in, she may have noticed their predilections for one of the themes she preferred in her own work: the conflict between the new-fledged independent spirit and customary authority and the eventual sad bargains they strike with one another. This is in some respects a Russian theme, memorably treated by Turgenev and Chekhov as well as by Dostoevski; but Taylor and Garrett are careful localizers. Garrett is indelibly American, in some specialized senses of the term; Taylor is relentlessly Southern.

But there are important differences. Garrett is, from a long way off, a recognizable troublemaker. His prankishness, his genial skepticism, his cheerful range of grotesque characters, mark him as something of a Pan figure, some kin to his Goatman. These qualities may distract attention from his deep conservative tendency, which is partly a product of his traditionalism and humane admiration of civilization itself. The status quo may be broadly corrupt, its foundations may be shaky or even rotten, its mechanical practices may result in injustice and cruelty—but it has been achieved; it nurtures and protects the greater mass of people, and its generous inefficiency enables it to produce and tolerate its wayward proud troubadours and mountebanks.

The opposite misperception operates upon Taylor. Because so many of his stories take place in an upper-class setting, because there is such flutter about decorum and good manners, because of the formal tone of his prose, his work is often seen as actually embodying the good traits of Southern gentility. But in truth his whole career has been one of steady subversion. His ethic is revolutionary in the setting he has chosen, and his irony unremitting and unremorseful. He has a Jamesian talent for being a somehow unobtrusive skeleton at the feast, and his stance is closely related to that of the morally severe Miss Bluemeyer in “The Death of a Kinsman.” Miss Bluemeyer’s genuine standards of charity arc so alien to those of the blithely respectable Mrs. Wade that the latter has to question her mental balance. “Oh, could a sane person possibly have been so critical and questioning of a happy family life?”

It is as if, in the minds of many readers, the respective positions of Taylor and Garrett had simply got switched about.

But this is no great matter. Passing time will clarify momentary confusions and also correct the mistakes I make in my estimate here. The likenesses and contrasts I have drawn between them might be drawn between any two writers of first rank. What is certain is that time shall preserve the work of these two and shall discard the work of other contemporary short story writers who are now more obtrusively in the public eye, less profoundly in the public mind. 


[An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories, by George Garrett (New York: Doubleday) $18.95]

[The Old Forest and Other Stories, by Peter Taylor (New York: Doubleday) $16.95]