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A Summons to Memphis ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1987)

Enjoying this book depends greatly on a capacity to feel empathy for the epic tragedy involved in a family moving from Nashville to Memphis.  Don't worry; I didn't feel it either.

Side by side with a healthy conservatism, the American South was plagued in the years following the Civil War by a retrograde yearning for the status quo ante.  The conservatism was a good thing because there were aspects of Southern Culture that were worth preserving--courtesy, manners, noblesse oblige, etc..  But the desire to move backwards in time was unhealthy, particularly in so far as it made it impossible to deal with the questions of race and class.  It was okay to keep having cotillions as long as you recognized that next year's could be hosted by the butler's son.

Peter Taylor's characters have a malignant love of their own romanticized past and it has resulted in locking them into a kind of stasis.   Philip Carver is a middle aged bachelor living with a much younger woman in New York City.  His two spinster sisters call and summon him home to Memphis to prevent the remarriage of their aged Father and the potential dilution of his estate.  Intentionally or not, the unmarried state of the four seems to symbolize a certain segment of the South that is incapable of moving forward, is locked in the past like the mosquitos in amber from Jurassic Park.  Their commitment is to the past, not to the present and certainly not to any future.  Unless the reader too appreciates this idealized past, the Carvers become little more than curios.  And even if they do earn your sympathy, the whole thing makes for extremely static fiction.

Peter Taylor was a renowned short story writer, who was somewhat dismissive of the novel as a literary form.  He apparently knocked this one off somewhat unwillingly, but knowing that it would secure him a wider readership and hopefully preserve the reputation of the stories that he considered his important work.  The finished product feels like a short story expanded beyond it's capacity to hold our interest and reads like a male version of Eudora Welty's equally boring Optimist's Daughter (see review).   I didn't like the characters, didn't care what happened to them and don't recommend the book.


Grade: (D+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW:  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Summons to Memphis, THE FAMILY GAME WAS REVENGE (Marilynne Robinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Summons to Memphis Ways Down South (Robert Towers, NY Review of Books)
    -A Subversive Sympathy:  The stories of Peter Taylor and the illusions they bring to life (Robert Wilson, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS by Peter Hillsman Taylor (Heather Grimshaw, Book Reporter)