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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Into the Woods

In the early 1990s--I don't recall the precise year--I drove six hundred miles, from Madison, Wisconsin, to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to hear the novelist and short story writer Peter Taylor read. He read from the opening pages of what would be his last novel, In the Tennessee Country (1994). In the front row of the room in the old student center at the University of Memphis in which the reading occurred sat several ladies who were contemporaries of Mr. Taylor; at several points during the reading it seemed clear to me that Mr. Taylor had written his manuscript explicitly for them, and the ladies exchanged smiles and knowing glances with nearly every sentence he read.

Unlike the ladies at the reading, the significant people in my life who have an opinion on the matter do not care much for Peter Taylor. My oldest best friend, who still lives in Memphis, loathes the well-born people who are at the center of so many of Taylor’s stories, and he thinks little of Taylor for bestowing so much attention on them. My dear departed mentor, Marcus W. Orr, who was a professor of history at the University of Memphis, did not quite loathe well-born people—after all, if he was not well born himself (and for all I know he might have been), he certainly lived a life similar to the one the Ramseys and Braxleys of “The Old Forest” lived—but he did find them “boring” as the subject of serious fiction and, much as my oldest best friend does, felt a keen exasperation over Taylor’s persistent interest in them. 

George Kessler's plan for Overton Park, ca. 1901
In “The Old Forest,” which takes place in Memphis in December 1937, Nat Ramsey, a young man in high society, is driving through a snowy Overton Park the week before his wedding when an oncoming truck collides with his car. Neither the driver nor Nat is seriously injured—and nor is the young woman who was riding with Nat and who, immediately after the collision, throws open her car door and disappears into the thick stand of virgin timber that covers the east side of the park—the old forest. The story follows Nat as he and several concerned personages—Nat’s father, the editor of one of the city newspapers, and the mayor, along with Nat’s fiancée and members of the police department—try to determine the whereabouts of the missing woman.

Along the way we catch glimpses of the Memphis that existed all those years ago—or at least the Memphis that existed in Taylor’s considerable imagination. We are told that beer gardens were popular in the city at that time; that professors at Southwestern (now Rhodes College) left their classrooms unlocked on weekends so students could use them as study halls; that one could feel safe walking at two in the morning from East Parkway to two miles away on Central Avenue. It is implied that the city would have possibly cleared snow from the roads that wander through Overton Park, and there is an incidental reference to Boss Crump, who, evidently, was too aloof from even high-society folk to be dragged into their business. There are references to the “old Memphis Irish,” to the “mercenary, filthy-mouthed whores on Pontotoc Street,” to the “certain unsavory characters” who loitered near the zoo. The Memphis skyline is distinguished by "two or three high-rise office buildings."

The old forest itself haunts the story. It is the last remnant of the wilderness that once crowded the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff upon which Memphis was built, the last link to the rough-and-tumble age of the city’s founders, Jackson and Winchester and Overton. The men who live in the Memphis of Peter Taylor’s story share with the generations of men who lived before them one unbroken existence and one unbroken memory of the old Memphis and of the old forest; the old forest troubles and discomfits the imagination of those men; it was in the old forest that many a man, and, even more horrible, many a woman, met their death at the hands of a fierce Chickasaw warrior; it is in the old forest that the innocent Lee Ann Deehart may have come to a grisly and premature end. The men are discomfited too by the thought that the old forest was the place where wives in the days of the frontier fled for sanctuary from the husbands who brutalized them back home; the old forest threatens the tyranny that men have long exerted over women, and as long as the forest remains, the Carolyn Braxleys and Lee Ann Deeharts of the world can hold on to whatever fragile and slender independence they may have. 

In “The Old Forest,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1979, we see a Memphis that does not exist anymore. Sure, Memphis still has its prominent families, families who play leading roles in the civic and cultural life of the city—the Belzes, the Turleys, and the Smiths are just some who come to mind—but I doubt very much if the mayor and the editor of the city newspaper would mobilize themselves if the scion of one of those families was involved in an embarrassing incident on the eve of his wedding.

Then again, “The Old Forest” is a work of fiction, so perhaps the concern demonstrated by the many adults in Nat’s life was just that—a fiction. Nevertheless, reading “The Old Forest,” I can believe—I want to believe—that, back then, seemingly the entire city would busy itself guiding the bewildered Nat Ramsey through the difficult days that followed and protecting the reputation and tranquility of the young women who were affected by the accident.  Making readers believe that the events described in a work of fiction really happened is the genius of any great writer. And Peter Taylor was a great writer.

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