A an author, Peter Taylor is more often praised than understood. The respect his work inspires frequently seems taken in by appearances, by the fact that in a formal sense, his material seems fixed. His stories usually take place in Tennessee—in Memphis or Nashville or Chatham; the characters are drawn from the upper middle class or from the Negro servant class; people are seen in terms of the family, rarely as isolated individuals or divorced ones or even single ones; the stories occur before 1960, and some take place around the turn of the century, while others are governed by the events and history of the 19th century, particularly, of course, the Civil War,
Yet the limitations Mr. Taylor sets on his work barely contain the shifting, probing attitude he constantly turns on his material. He is a great craftsman, but of a foxy sort, intent on working as much complexity as possible into the world behind his simple surfaces. In his best stories, his master-pieces, every detail is present in all its vital controversy; every part hums with its own inner fullness, as well as in its relation to every other part. He is a master of contradiction, though we have only to mention this quality when Mr. Taylor’s single-mindedness must be accounted for. His work has always been concerned with the conflict between affectionate, civil society and chaos, regardless of whether the disorder is sexual, drunken, or natural. From “A Spinster’s Tale” when this chaos appears in the form of Mr. Speed, who’s compared to a “loose horse,” through “There” when the theme is recast as all that’s mortally, tragically unattainable, through “In the Miro District” with its extraordinary descriptions of the 1811 earthquake, Mr. Taylor has never been far from his pre-occupation with the social world and the forces which threaten it,
The purpose of this essay is to discuss the way Mr. Taylor’s handling of his recurrent themes has changed and evolved toward his newest collection of stories, In The Miro District. The book invites us to look back. Tonally, particularly in the experimental prose poems, the book evokes the author’s earliest stories when he wrote out of oneness with the domestic context he so lovingly described. Reading “The Hand of Emmagene” with its casual, unforced pace, its love of furniture and china and cooking, it is impossible not to think of “A Long Fourth,” one of Mr. Taylor’s most lusciously written first stories, full of sympathetic descriptions of the characters, family routines, and relationships. Both “The Hand of Emmagene” and “A Long Fourth” have marriage at their moral center, but the difference between the marriages is enormous. In “A Long Fourth,” Harriet and Sweetheart’s happy union is what creates the fullness of tone. Their freshness and purity and unexamined goodness is the measure by which we know the problems in the story. As Harriet’s hysteria testifies, it is, in many ways, an inadequate measure. But much as Harriet wants to deny the connection between Son and BT, the black cook’s nephew, they are equivalents. BT is bestial and incompetent when compared to his aunt, just as Son is unfruitful in comparison to his parents. The South in which Harriet and Sweetheart bloomed has somehow been reduced to rampant carnality, on the one hand, and sterile respectability or sterile radicalism, on the other. We end by feeling both the sadness and confusion that Harriet and Sweetheart feel about the tragic problem of race and the inability of the younger generation to proceed. But just because the emotions we feel are in the old-fashioned style of Harriet and Sweetheart, we also feel Mr. Taylor’s oneness with them: his sense of the modern world as acid, biting into the soft medium he loves.
By contrast, in “The Hand of Emmagene,” the narrator’s marriage is stable and happy, but the narrator and his wife differ from Sweetheart and Harriet in having real knowledge of the world. Whereas Harriet has a romantic hope for Son and her daughters, one which skirts the issue of sex, in the prose poem, the narrator and his wife are good people, but they are not innocent. Though the poet is moved by horror, as well as sympathy for Emmagene, these are the wholesome emotions of someone who trusts reason, who sees extremism from the perspective of normal affection and sexuality. Between “A Long Fourth” and “The Hand of Emmagene,” marriage has grown tough enough to bear the stresses of the modern world, though the question of whether society can pass happy marriage from one generation to the next seems to have withered away, Emmagene is certainly a failure in this regard, but she is a freak too. In fact, she is all that is freakish and uncompromising in human experience, as opposed to what is unsuitable, say, or unacceptable,
Originally, Mr. Taylor seemed to give himself to Southern society, even though it was doomed, but his loyalty has undergone a transformation, While he continues to regard marriage as central, the conditions for its survival are more mythic than regional, What is interesting is that what appears to have made the reaffirmation of marriage possible is an avowal of sex as part of love; more importantly, this avowal is synonymous with an affirmation of masculinity.
In The Miro District is basically about men. In two of the stories, the central characters are young men involved in rites of passage. Until this collection, Mr. Taylor has written more from the female point of view, using it as a screen through which he has observed disorder. Almost without exception, disorder has been associated with men trampling the social restraints enforced or represented by women. In his earliest stories, in “A Spinster’s Tale” and “The Fancy Woman,” through Betsy’s frailty and Josie’s vulnerability, we see the destructiveness, the cruelty, the violence of the male. And in later stories, such as “At the Drugstore,” Matt Donelson subdues what is brutal and anti-social in himself out of a sense of duty to women.
“At the Drugstore” is nonetheless a melancholy story, written in a dry, analytical, even agonized style. In it strong moral impulses run neck and neck with disillusion, and the unresolved tension between the two gives the story its dominant quality—a haunting, straw fragrance like that of pressed flowers. It’s a story which shows what Mr. Taylor has gone through to arrive at the consonance of In The Miro District,and like “A Long Fourth,” it also takes place around a home-coming. Unlike Son, Matt Donelson has successfully gone on to have a family of his own, one which he thinks he is proud of, To his surprise, on his first day home, he finds himself on the way to the drugstore in a kind of numbed, neurotic fog. Once there, his apparent purpose—the purchase of shaving lotion—turns out to be an excuse for a deeper confrontation. On one level, his attention is caught by the relation of the pharmacist and his son; on another level, Matt is preoccupied with recollections of school days and the curiosity he felt about Mr. Conway and his female assistants. Matt identifies with the son’s difficulties with his father, but he is also jealous of him for being so at home in what is expected of him.
Matt’s disaffection with his family emerges in his awareness, while the causes of his alienation arise in his memory. He relives his terror and fascination as he recalls how a school mate once wrote “Mr. Conway sleeps with his mother” in full view on the mirror behind the counter, It’s not too much to say that Matt seems to raise up and resolve his Oedipal dilemma in the course of his visit to the drugstore. When he goes home, he brings with him an awareness of all the forbidden sexuality which underlies family life and conflicts with domesticity. At the same time, he assumes authority in and for himself, having come to terms with his father. Matt now views his life and his choices with his own eyes, without the aid or illusion of tradition, and though he conceives of his choice as bleak, lying as it does between a brutal, selfish self and a resigned one, he commits himself to continuity, society, and civil discipline,
BT’s carnality and Son’s radical ideas meet with a positive outcome in Matt’s dilemma. He becomes more suited to his life by realizing his nature, though this is one of Mr. Taylor’s most mercurial stories, and the closer we come to explaining it, the more mysterious it remains at the core. The question is: has the hero in fact realized his nature? Isn’t there a way in which he treats his carnal self to the same morality he finds so eroded in family life? He construes his inner outlaw as guilty of wanting to sleep with his mother, of wanting to despoil the relationship which is the basis for honor and purity and love in all other relationships. Yet to conceive of sexuality in terms of this kind of Freudian original guilt is to punish himself by a code he has come to doubt. The story goes to great lengths to suggest that marriage, for Matt’s class anyway, is a form being emptied of real emotional content. The contemporary world is seen as defined by change, by the exact undoing of the family though it represents “all the good sense and reasonableness that made life worthwhile—or even tolerable.”
What makes this story bleak is not that Matt has to choose between the lesser of two evils. That bleakness is present, but there is a deeper bleakness stemming from a sense that bourgeois morality is insufficient—it cannot embrace the whole complexity; nonetheless, it is all there is to see us through the chaos between birth and death. There is a flaw in this reasoning—perhaps snarl is a better word because Mr. Taylor has gone on to untangle it in his new book. The snarl, as I see it, is in the contradiction between the potential Matt discovers in himself and his impulse to label it critically. The story suggests that Matt is torn between two equally powerful parts of himself, one anti-social, the other not, and yet in fact, these impulses are not treated equally, or not experienced equally. Matt looks beyond taboo, but he suppresses what he sees. The story is structured in terms of a Freudian analysis of Matt’s experience, committing him from the start to a responsible, social resolution. The content of the story is not quite what it purports to be: Matt’s self-discovery is prejudged. It’s been found guilty of being savage before the narrative begins.
In “A Long Fourth,” Mr. Taylor wrote out of identification with the large-hearted goodness of Harriet and Sweetheart; they were emblems of a coherent social world in which the younger generation had gone astray. In “At the Drugstore,” the author writes from the point of view of the younger generation, struggling to find a morality which will enable them to do as much good for others as Harriet and Sweetheart were able to do, In The Miro District shows Mr. Taylor as having arrived at the goal he set for Matt Donelson. The interior conflicts have once more been realigned and subtly expanded beyond the scope of narrow Freudian arguments, though at the same time, In The Miro District seems specifically organized to recapitulate Mr. Taylor’s career, while demonstrating step by step his move from narrowest possible vision to the broadest, most humane one.
The first story in the collection, “The Captain’s Son,” appears to be a deliberate caricature of all the elements normally associated with “Southern” fiction: complex family ties, historical skeletons in the closet, dark sexual problems. Not only does it seem to be a deliberate caricature of a genre, but it also seems to be a wholly negative one. In an author who once treated the same society so sympathetically, it is hard not to feel that “The Captain’s Son” is literally a regional critique. The villain—though Tolliver proclaims it and Lila’s family deny it—is in everybody’s breast. The villain is snobbery in one form or another, though the guilt is equally divided between Tolliver, who wants to retreat by marrying, and his father-in-law, who allows him, even compels Tolliver to marry into the household.
Each man believes he represents good breeding; both act out of noblesse oblige, though they emphasize different aspects of it. Tolliver’s Deep South Planter background celebrates class differences and glories in its own privileges. His father-in-law, as a good liberal democrat, wants to mask inequalities in class and wealth. This doesn’t stop him from honoring them in his heart—so much so that he takes control of his daughter’s marriage lest Tolliver “turn out to be a high liver and a big spender and so, during times when nearly everybody was hard up, be a source of embarrassment to us all.”
Both Tolliver and his father-in-law want to preserve a way of life, but they are willing to do it at the expense of life itself: Tolliver, after all, is impotent. Not coincidentally, Tolliver will not or cannot find employment. His impotence and joblessness are reflections of each other, and the connection of the two is the most powerful expression so far in Mr. Taylor’s work of male despair in the modern world. Yet this depair is entirely associated with the rigid enforcement of Southernness—the deference of men to the social necessities of marriage. In “The Captain’s Son,” however, marriage is no perpetuation but a sacrifice of the couple who marry.
Looking back from this collection, it’s as if Southern chivalry toward women had been strained until it snapped, until what is Jamesian in Mr. Taylor’s sensibility had been revolutionized by a Laurentian awareness. For as long as women hold the moral reins in his stories, men suffer from emasculation. As opposed to the castrating women in much American fiction, the women in Mr. Taylor’s earlier stories do not undermine their men personally. There are, in fact, many real heroines, among them Miss Lenore and the amazing Aunt Munsie in “What You Hear From.” The problem is an historical or cultural one for men. Women’s lives are more meaningful because they remain morally potent in the domestic sphere; meanwhile the possibility of moral potency in the political sphere has been lost for men in a world where they have no real effectiveness. It is a world described in “Dean of Men,” in which the political power of the hero’s grandfather has shrunk to the paltry gray arena of college administration.
Women are not blamed for the demoralization of men, but there is a coincidence between strong women and unhappy men, at least until In The Miro District. To some extent, this condition prevailed as long as Mr. Taylor preserved the notion that the woman’s domain was the house and family, while man’s was the exterior one of commerce and politics. More precisely, this condition prevailed as long as Mr. Taylor accepted women as the carriers of the social conscience. The honor of Southern womanhood and her purity were once part of a successful ethical arrangement in which men let women have charge of the spiritual accounts.”A Long Fourth” is a portrait of that world in its final phase. But the trade off, the swapping of covert for overt power, ceases to be that; increasingly, as men’s crucial energy is no longer invested in the affairs of the world, the restraint exercised by and for women is entirely negative.
In “At the Drugstore,” the man’s problem is what to do about this energy. It is a source of potency and vitality, but in its disengagement from meaningful work, it is also lawlessly sexual. As a Southerner, Mr. Taylor seems to have been concerned with the question of how a man can go on being a man in the modern world without undermining the moral basis of society—without, in other words, rebelling against the woman’s role as it has been traditionally defined. Though the sexes are assigned roles in this dilemma, the problem is deeper than sex. It is the great modern problem of how to incorporate the most vital, but also the most anarchic urges into civilized life, Is it possible for the individual to be completely alive without adding to the existing chaos and suffering?
Tolliver’s failure as a man seems to be laid at the doorstep of a Southern conspiracy to perpetuate the most trivial, most murderous aspects of itself. The next story, “Daphne’s Lover,” returns to the theme of “At the Drugstore,” but treats it without bias, “Daphne’s Lover” is about sexuality and contrasts Frank Lacy’s life of affairs and marriages with the narrator’s devoted monogamy. Having admitted the power of male desire or passion, the next question is whether any sort of reasonably decent social order can survive it. Once the restraint of custom has given way, is there anything to stem the flood of erotic selfishness?
In “A Long Fourth,” the choice was between unleashed sensuality and arid abstraction; “At the Drugstore” brought the beast and the intellect together, but with a sense that both were aspects of the fallen nature of man—guilty and picayune—all there was in the absence of immutable truths and, simultaneously, not enough.”Daphne’s Lover” transcends these painful limitations, having at its core the image of Daphne eternally pursued by Apollo. Though Ode on a Grecian Urn is neither quoted nor alluded to, the story is haunted by its cultural ghost, by our inevitable association between figures frozen in the chase and Keats’s lines:
Mr. Taylor’s story lifts carnality into the realm of the imagination, into the timeless ideal which can only remain perfect in art. But as Daphne only escaped Apollo by becoming a tree, so Mr. Taylor suggests there is no escape from desire as long as we are human and for just as long, our experience of it will be incomplete. We are born with built-in restrictions on what we are capable of doing. Willy-nilly, we are types.
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy d;
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above . . .
This given is what replaces the restraints of Southern gallantry and good manners. It governs us more strictly that any psychoanalytic theory. Whether, like Frank Lacy, we give our urges their full expression or, like the narrator of “Daphne’s Lover,” we marry once and happily, we are only going to know one half of all there is to know of love, The whole is in our imaginations. We may find it rendered whole in art or we may try to complete our limited experience through friendship, as the narrator does with Frank; but we are born subject to the laws of our own natures which will rule us whether we want them to or not. For this reason “a healthy imagination is like a healthy appetite. If you do not feed it the lives of your friends, I maintain, then you are apt to feed it your own life, to live in your own imagination rather than upon it.”
But there is another dimension to “Daphne’s Lover,” one it is necessary to mention as it helps pave the way to the final story, “In the Miro District.” Frank Lacy, the rake figure in “Daphne’s Lover,” is also the most sympathetic. While the narrator is outraged by the little girl who dresses up and blows kisses out the window, Frank seems to understand and tolerate her wildness. When she writes her flirtatious graffiti on his back fence, Frank simply paints it over, unruffled by her teasing but moved to protect her from people who might misunderstand her (such as the narrator who calls her a “whore”). Frank is also friends with Janet Turner, another high-spirited girl of whom Mr. Taylor observes (in a line that contains a world of variation on decorum and goodness), “Alone with a boy she was a model of propriety, but in public she was difficult.”
As a character, Janet harks back to Josie of “The Fancy Woman,” a high-spirited, sexually unconventional girl who sleeps with a married man. Her problem is that she accepts the conventional male estimate of a girl who does what she’s doing. She sees herself as a slut, though the author sees her as a social victim who is unfairly made to think too little of herself. Though her lover’s son appreciates her romantic qualities (and is himself too young to understand why she does not), the society as a whole does not tolerate unmarried or extramarital sex.
In “Daphne’s Lover,” Janet is a freer agent than Josie, unafraid to be herself, though she also dies young: she remains an outsider. Unlike Josie, she is not a romantic figure. She is utterly independent, but in a way which makes her sexually unattractive (or threatening) to the men in the story. For the author, the question seems to be whether or not a romantic attitude toward women could survive without the system. Though Mr. Taylor had pictured the morality invested in women as more and more of a dead weight, still that stone shores up illusion. If family life and civilization might fall apart without the woman as its conscience, so would sweetness and imagination and fun.
But when the girl spends the weekend with the young narrator in “In the Miro District,” the event is both romantic and natural. It involves not the slightest social embarrassment for either the girl or the boy; being in love is enough to justify sleeping together (their embarrassment is only over being caught). Mr. Taylor writes as simply and directly of their weekend as if there had never been anything in his work to suggest that such an occurrence was ever forbidden. It’s as if the book’s progress were towards a full airing of things as they really were, beginning with a cry from the heart on behalf of the male, moving through a recognition of masculine passion and then, necessarily to the admission that women are passionate too. If Southern chivalry has snapped, it’s because in some way it was false or reduced to empty appearances. The easy atmosphere of the narrator’s love-making suggests that sleeping with respectable girls was something people did when they were in love, though society felt it was important not to admit what really went on. Yet Mr. Taylor himself seems to have waited to tell the truth and has only been released by finding a moral framework large enough to hold the broken pieces of the old order.
“In the Miro District” provides this in its profound and economic use of the narrator’s relation to his grandfather’s frequently repeated stories. These stories are the crux of Mr. Taylor’s story. They are unvarnished tales of “the eternal chaos we live in,” and the grandfather insists on telling them instead of the Civil War stories he is expected to tell. His account of seeing his law partner shot and his own surrealistic escape into the swamps, his recounting of the hallucinations which made him imagine he was living through the New Madrid Earthquake (described to him by his own father), these stories are his witness to the mysterious violence in which human history pathetically, frailly unfolds. The grandfather’s association with the earthquake links him with a time before his own, and through that time to the early American South when French and Spanish settlers were swept away “like so many Adams and Eves before the wrath of their Maker.” In this final image, his experience is associated with the human condition since the beginning of time. What he knows about it is terrifying, but he won’t suppress that truth. He refuses to submit to the stylized, domesticated version of chaos entertained by Southern society in its endless retelling of the Civil War. He lays no claim to his privileges as a Civil War veteran; he will not allow himself to be promoted in their artificial military ranks, and he will not let his real experience be altered so that it can adorn his daughter’s living room.
When the narrator drunkenly begs his grandfather to tell about Reelfoot Lake, he then goes on to mock the old man’s stories by telling them himself. But as he does, the boy— without realizing it—actually imagining the opposite—is acting out the moral of his grandfather’s tales. He is himself behaving crazily; but in this, as an outlaw, he also demonstrates his resemblance to the old man, The boy sees the beginning of his independence in the moment when he flings back what he’s listened to all the times the strange pair has been forced together. And yet it is precisely his defiance that shows him to be his grandfather’s equivalent. It is what sets them both apart from the generation between them—a generation living by a modified version of the code the grandfather still strictly observes.
By his code, an absolute distinction is made between public and private life. The grandfather, for instance, never drinks in public as his daughter and son-in-law do. To him, there is never any excuse for liquor, though he might indulge in it out of weakness. If he does, it does not make liquor any better. Between his generation and the boy’s, drinking has become socially acceptable in a way the grandfather finds appalling. And his grandson matches the old man’s absolute morality— by taking his parents’ liberalism to its natural conclusion—by doing whatever he feels like doing in public, to whatever extreme. The boy is willing to admit openly and completely what they will only half admit.
The grandfather and grandson clash on three occasions: when the old man arrives and finds him drunk, when he arrives and discovers the boy and a bunch of friends in bed with girls who aren’t so nice, when he arrives and interrupts the narrator and his best (nice) girl while they are making love in the grandfather’s bed. On the first two occasions, the grandfather is firm but sympathetic. When he finds the boy drunk, he tries to calm him down and sober him up. When he finds the girls in his daughter’s house, he sends them packing, but he treats them in an understanding fashion and even helps his grandson clean up. When he finds the respectable girl naked in his wardrobe, he leaves and is not seen again until he’s put on the social costume his family has wanted him to adopt all along.
The fact that he chooses to draw the line at the respectable girl creates an interesting ambiguity. Does the boy go too far when he denigrates Southern womanhood (as opposed to Southern tarthood)? Or does it finally become clear to the old man that the boy will continue to break the fraying rules until he finds moral zero? Will he try murder next to see if that’s rock bottom? It is not entirely clear whether the grandfather is disturbed by what the boy has done or of what he might do. Until then the grandfather has refused to stand for conventional wisdom, but now he moves into his daughter’s house and allows himself to be trotted out at dinner parties as a Civil War relic.
Given the drift of the whole collection, the grandfather’s resignation is probably meant as his acknowledgement that traditional moral authority, based on the Southern woman’s honor, is dead in his grandson’s generation. For him, the woman’s importance has been so deep he will not even speak of his wife by her first name. The absolute privacy of their relationship, its mysterious and sacred quality has been the balance to God’s mysterious and terrifying relation to man. In the old Christian world, at home and in nature, the male was ruled by powers higher than himself. The grandfather’s faith lay in a sense that the outer chaos was governed by a retributive God, and that the society which successfully brought his kidnappers to trial was one whose laws bore some real relation to what was just.
But just as woman’s honor is dead, so is God in the grandson’s generation. From the grandfather’s point of view, there is no stopping anyone from doing anything. When he sees his own code dismissed by his grandson, the old man assumes the entire world of spirit has collapsed. There are no beliefs, but there is nothing to inspire them either. At that point, the grandfather lays his authority at the service of the liberal society he regards as hypocritical. It is his way of demonstrating to his grandson that conventions, though they are only rules (not principles, not absolutes) are still better than nothing.
And yet this is not entirely a story of defeat. When Aunt Munsie in “What You Hear From ‘Em” puts on a bandana and “took to talking old-nigger foolishness,” when Miss Lenora puts on all but the rhinestone glasses of the silly old lady tourist, one feels they have really been broken in the tug-of-war between the old moral order and uprooted contemporary society.”In the Miro District” revolves around the same conflict, but the outcome is different: if one world has clearly passed away, another has come in its place. It has always been part of Mr. Taylor’s complexity that he saw how the new order brought new possibilities too. In “Mrs. Billingsby’s Wine,” his heroine profits from the inexorable democracy that undermines social order and high principles by making no one person or ideal better than any other. In part, the appeal of “Mrs. Billingsby’s Wine” is that it blithely contradicts two of the author’s most powerful stories—”What You Hear From ‘Em” and “Miss Lenora When Last Seen.” But it is also appealing because of what seems to be a mischievous reversal of what has come to be the obligatory progress of the modern short story. Instead of getting sadder and sadder as things move along, the heroine of “Mrs. Billingsby’s Wine” gets happier and happier and ends by realizing that she’d had what she wants all along.
Still, this very element of mischief makes the happy ending seem possible because anything is possible and not because the new world is run according to a coherent design. The method Mr. Taylor uses in “Mrs. Billingsby’s Wine” is the same one he employs elsewhere to point up a more demoralized truth. In “Mrs. Billingsby’s Wine,” he carefully shows how the young woman and the older one are humanly equal—alike in their vitality and goodness and in their being at ease in the experience of their different generations. The story—like so many of Mr. Taylor’s stories—is a tissue in which the parts of the subject become so enmeshed that we finally feel there is no difference between things that seemed opposite at the start. It is not that opposites become indistinguishable but rather that they become equivalents. Son and BT are an example, Tolliver and his father-in-law are another.
In “A Long Fourth,” the likeness of BT and Son suggests that it doesn’t matter which alternative one picks: they are equally bad. In “The Captain’s Son,” the opposing parties are equally to blame. The sources of tension in these stories are slowly transformed in a way which often emphasizes the futility of their having been distinguished in the first place, Mr. Taylor repeatedly raises moral dilemmas only to show they can’t be solved because there are no black and white moral categories. Yet when we come to “In the Miro District,” the equivalence of grandfather and grandson is ultimately what makes the story one of renewal.
The boy imagines that the greatest difference between him and his grandfather lies in their attitude toward love.”He might know everything else in the world, including every other noble feeling which I would never be able to experience. He might be morally correct about everything else in the world, but he was not morally correct about love between a man and woman.” Just as the boy wrongly imagines he is freeing himself by spewing back his grandfather’s stories, he errs when he congratulates himself on knowing more about women than the old man. In fact, for both of them, love is central, though the grandfather refuses to speak of it while the boy insists on being frank. The grandfather’s romantic silence about sex and his grandson’s open acceptance of it are mirror opposites, but this means the boy’s view is just as good as the old man’s and more: “In the Miro District” shows the boy to be as deeply and inescapably part of a universal order as his grandfather.
For the boy, this order is one that has developed through the collection—it is the one that governs Frank Lacy and the narrator of “The Hand of Emmagene.” It is an order in which the disruptive side of human nature is subject to the laws of human reason. The author’s willingness to trust fallible human reason seems to arise from a sinewy faith in the survival of an order larger than man and one which resembles the Christian universe, though the Christian vocabulary has been washed away,
Mr. Taylor insinuates this impression by having the boy as his narrator. He slowly circles through his grandfather’s stories, telling them again and again, each time with different emphasis, in a spare, almost heartlessly serene language that the reader unconsciously identifies with the old man’s voice. This, of course, contributes to the interchangeableness of the two characters, but even more remarkable is the way the device confuses our sense of the universes in which the two men dwell. The boy’s imagery stresses the Christianity of his grandfather’s world but in the broadest possible terms. It is not the Christianity of Christ’s Resurrection or compassion. It is actually only Christian in the sense that a God oversees the universe—that there is a Maker of an Adam and Eve. If we articulate all that’s implied in the boy’s tone, the Maker is a thoroughly disinterested One who tended to be identified with Christian terms in the grandfather’s day, but who always was and always will be a Force beyond our control. The hard edge of the boy’s voice seems to imply there has never been a hope of salvation, though there has always been a God. Beneath his boastful recounting of his youthful escapades, the boy speaks with an ancient sense of the helplessness of man, seeing it stretch backward to the beginning, feeling it there, undermining the present.
“Men, women and children, during the first bad shock, hung on to trees like squirrels. In one case a tree infested with people was seen to fall across a newly made ravine, and the poor wretches hung there for hours until there was a remission in the earth’s undulation. Whole families were seen to disappear into round holes twenty feet wide, and the roaring of the upheaval was so loud their screams could not be heard.” The horror of the scene is timeless. The soundless agony of the Earthquake’s victims is made to seem like the lost agony of all the victims in history, all those who’ve perished inexplicably and horribly from the first Flood through the holocausts of our own time. They die in the darkness that runs alongside the bright, lit, fragile world of unwitting survivors.
Human social life has always seemed precarious to Mr. Taylor, but at first its greatest threat was human violence. Gradually, his allegiance to a specific social order has yielded to his growing insight into the total insecurity in which custom must survive. In his most recent story, “In the Miro District,” custom itself is questioned as a stable vessel, or rather our need for it to be fixed is questioned.”In the Miro District” is about the revolution in custom between the grandfather’s day and his grandson’s. Both live according to entirely different conventions, but the difference is one of detail. For both men, custom has not changed in its essential reference to love. The woman who once had all value vested in her honor still represents all that’s important, Once her importance was expressed by not acknowledging her passionateness, now the opposite is true.
But there has been no loss of hope or of fulfillment. The ease attending the young lovers in “In the Miro District” derives from the eternal nature of love. Where Mr. Taylor once seemed to fear chaos, he now seems to trust the order inherent in experience: an order that does not depend on social restraint for its existence. Through his career, he has altered and refined his questions, viewing the problem of order and disorder from different, even opposing, perspectives, testing the sanity of reason and the vitality of the irrational, mixing them until his questions have given way— not so much to answers as to moral sureness.