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In Retrospect: Peter Taylor’s “A Summons to Memphis”


This week, the NBCC's In Retrospect series will be focusing on Peter Taylor's 1986 fiction winner, “A Summons to Memphis,”a wonderful, Jamesian novel that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The following essay comes fromPeter Schmidt, a professor of English at Swarthmore Collegewith a specialty in Southern American fiction. 

Like Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis (1986) focuses on the crisis caused in a southern family’s middle-aged children by their widowed father’s remarrying (or plans to remarry). These two masterpieces also both feature main characters who have left the South to live in larger northern cities and who return home with some ambivalence, for the journey back raises difficult and dramatic questions for the protagonists about buried family history and the meaning of the past. Taylor’s and Welty’s main characters have gone home ostensibly to defend their parents’ past against the depredations of the present, yet they find that their own feelings toward what they are defending are more mixed and volatile than they reckoned. Both dramas also appear to turn on the forgiving of parents and a dramatic reimagining of what family inheritance means. In the words of The Optimist’s Daughter equally applicable to Taylor’s novel, “parents and children take turns back and forth, changing places, protecting and protesting each other.”

Told retrospectively in the 1970s by Mr. Carver’s youngest son, Phillip, the narrative purports to render the dismay Phillip feels towards his sisters Betsy and Josephine when in middle age they use various stratagems to take revenge on their father for uprooting them from Nashville to Memphis when they were teenagers. Phillip has attempted to sever himself from such spats by moving to Manhattan, but he is repeatedly drawn back South both physically and emotionally. Phillip’s mixed feelings towards his past are made all the more acute because his sisters successfully recruit him into their plots by tapping his own long-buried and unacknowledged resentments.

In several interviews collected in Conversations with Peter Taylor by Hugh McAlexander (University of Mississippi Press, 1987), Taylor commented that such dramatic irony was a conscious focus: “t’s difficult to convey effectively the limitations of a narrator. I’ve just found a way to do that…. The narrator is much too serene.” Taylor has also said that the main question A Summons to Memphis raised for him was, “how successful are we ever in understanding what has happened to us? That’s what I want to suggest in the novel” (119, 127). Taylor’s narrator Phillip not only defers some of the most dramatic revelations of past and present events for later in the narrative; he sometimes consciously and other times unknowingly revises and contradicts his earlier versions of what happened and how it affected him and his family.

Taylor most often portrays just one class in his fiction, the South’s white, country-bred gentry who now often live in cities but whose roots go back to the land- and slave-owning rural elite; their language and family histories are his primary subjects, retold with a compassionate yet also wry, ironic distance. Yet Taylor makes such a relatively narrow focus seem infinitely deep: in this he is most like Henry James, whose work he greatly admired.

One of the governing paradoxes of A Summons to Memphis is that Phillip both dreads and admires his father and has trouble admitting how conflicted his emotions are (though we can see it). As he is flying back to Memphis to intervene at his sisters’ behest in his father’s courtship of a new fiancée, for instance, Phillip has a vision of his father remarkable for its equanimity and quasi-religious language, as if speeding at 30,000 feet has given Phillip more certainties about his past than he usually has.

“I had relived all the wrongs done me by my father, even those he had unwittingly done and those he had done merely in order to enable himself to go ahead with his own life. …I knew that after first protecting Father from my sisters, I must then convert the two middle-aged women to my own views on forgetting wrongs done them by their parents. …Our prerogative was to forget the wrongs done us in our youth and childhood, in order to know ourselves truly grown up. My new insight seemed a great light casting its rays everywhere” (132-134).

Note the willed objectivity and then the shift from speaking for himself to speaking for all the Carver children. The pieties also mask an odd elision at the start: why suggest that forgiveness extends “even” to the unintended consequences of his father’s acts? Isn’t it far easier to forgive these than what may have been done willfully? Also, “I had relived all the wrongs” suggests a possible tension between reliving and forgiving. Perhaps “reliv[ing] all” his father’s affronts to him has stirred up responses in Phillip that prompt the anxious meditations on maturity that follow. Taylor’s prose is hard to analyze because it is so often genial and generalizing, so serene, as Taylor said. Yet these qualities here are illusory; both the mood and conclusions of this passage soon prove unstable.

When soon after this scene Phillip praises his father’s adopted but “pure” Memphis style of dressing (137), he reveals that his father’s manly style is even more complex; it includes the entire history of the white Carver males in the South mixed with evidence of the authority they now wield in a modern consumer economy. Shoes from Nashville, hats from St. Louis, sporting equipment from Chicago, a coat with a cut that proclaims (to those in the know) a particular “black tailor on Beale Street” in Memphis—each item has its own provenance of personal accomplishment. But George Carver’s dress also signifies his family’s roots as part of the ruling elite in the slave-owning South. Phillip’s revelation about his father’s clothes suddenly becomes a vision of his father’s heavy and impressive wardrobes and the black help behind the scenes allowing for the creation of such a display of leisured power—“Harriet or Tommie May or Maud” shifting his clothes from one wardrobe to another depending on the season, or the heavy wardrobes themselves, which were made by black carpenters “‘on the place’ in his great-grandfather’s time” in the Tennessee countryside (141-42). Although Phillip tries to believe that his father’s sense of style was meant to be his gift to his family—his expression of the confidence and authority they should claim as well—Phillip ironically feels no such inspiration. He may be in awe of his father’s power but is also alienated from it; it is nothing he wants to claim. Instead of the equanimity and forgiveness that Phillip tried to will himself to feel upon his return home, what instead wells up is “dread” (138) and an immense sense that the son has many more memories of his father’s care for his wardrobes than signs of love for his family: “it is the wardrobes more than anything else I remember about all the physical removals in subsequent years. The wardrobes were always the last pieces of furniture to be loaded and the first to be unloaded, always with Father watching over them” (141). All of which proves to be an ironic opening for the primary action of this chapter and the next, in which George Carver’s plans for marriage are undone by his daughters, with Phillip standing by not as best man (as his father had hoped), but rather as a stunned and guilty spectator. It increasingly begins to appear that the great unrequited love affair in Phillip’s life is with his own father—familial love crossed by strong feelings of inferiority, abandonment, and even betrayal.

The tragicomic revenge plot in A Summons to Memphis reaches its second and third climaxes in the last chapters of the novel, when Phillip and his sisters thwart their father’s reunion with his old acquaintance Lewis Shackleford. A brief reading of a key moment may emphasize a second defining quality of Taylor’s style besides dramatic irony—his wily use of indirection or understatement. When Phillip is summoned back to Tennessee yet again by his sisters, he believes he is refreshingly candid with himself about his mixed motives, admitting “new feelings of resentment against my own father” while also asserting that “y this time of course I accepted [the] doctrine that our old people must be not merely forgiven all their injustices and unconscious cruelties in their roles as parents but that any selfishness on their parts had actually been required of them if they were … not to become merely guardian robots of the young” (194). Yet when Phillip arrives on the scene his vaunted objectivity becomes merely a way to distance himself from responsibility for the actions he takes. He parks his car in the driveway under the house’s porte cochere, blocking his father’s chance of exiting and meeting his fiancée. It is the one decisive physical act that Phillip makes in the novel, yet he professes full ignorance—or is it innocence?—about his motives: “I called out to Alex to come with me and to bring his car keys. What I said caused me to stop there for a split second longer. Because it was only when I had spoken to Alex about his keys that I became aware of my own intentions. And then I was filled with doubt again about what my intentions were. I cannot remember ever being less sure of my own aims” (195-96). The chapter ends with a parodic vision of family bonding masking family struggle: “Jo [one of Phillip’s sisters] got down on her knees and placed her hand on [her father’s], which rested still on the chair arm. ‘I’m sorry, dear,’ she said…. Presently he placed his other hand on top of hers. And then she placed her other hand on top of that hand. They looked at each other, dry-eyed and without much expression in their faces. With their hands like that it was as though they were measuring to see who would have the first turn at bat. I almost expected Father to pull out his bottom hand and place it on top…” (199).

Any reading of the novel’s irony and indirection must also consider the strange form of the narrative. It sounds very oral, as if Phillip is speaking after the events have all unfolded to himself or to a trusted friend safely within the confines of the New York apartment. Yet it turns out that the novel really exists as some sort of strange transcript of Phillip’s notebooks, a halting chronicle written in longhand as he tries to make sense of the turmoil of his family history (154). For all the freedom and security he persuades himself he enjoys in New York, Phillip’s work there is really just the endless collation of lifeless text. Phillip admits that he first got into book collecting as a teenager as an act of rebellion: his father “didn’t mind my collecting books but never liked my making reference to what was inside those books.” That rejection of his father’s values, however, became a failed act of imitation: “I was aware of and felt some shame over the fact that I had long since become more concerned with the value of the physical books themselves than with what was inside them. I did not speculate on how and why this had happened…” (91). Phillip assumes he once had a chance to respond to books differently, when in his youth he had the great love affair of his life, meetings with Clara Price that included much rapturous reading aloud of poetry (93). But blaming his father for breaking up this relationship, for Phillip, also means accusing his father of causing his son’s retreat into antiquarianism, the collecting of dead letters, as a poor replacement for experiencing the living word. Ironically, Phillip becomes revivified not through his staid New York identity, but through his private notebooks recording his protests at being dragged back into old family struggles and his own unresolved feelings. Instead of just collecting books, Phillip is now passionately writing one.

Yet Phillip discovers his father’s hand and inspiration even in this writerly enterprise he thinks is purely his own. Phillip’s chronicle is composed on the surface, but repeatedly opens to reveal an epic struggle for authority: who is the primary author of Phillip’s life and memoirs, after all, the son or the father? The text that we read—A Summons to Memphis—may be taken as Phillip’s heroic assertion of independence at last, wherein he forgives his father and finally understands him fully. But we could with equal plausibility demonstrate that Phillip feels both his life and his writing remain always already “authored” by his father, outdone by him, contravened by him, yet also infinitely affiliated with and made strong by him.

The last chapter of A Summons to Memphis is meant by Phillip to be an epilogue recording his relief to be finally free from all family complications. The much-praised freedom and serenity that Phillip and his partner, Holly, have built for themselves in an apartment high above Manhattan proves forlorn and dead: “I have the fantasy that when we get too old to continue in the magazine and book trade the two of us, white-haired and with trembly hands, will go on puttering amongst our papers and books until when the dusk of some winter day fades into darkness we’ll fail to put on the lights in these rooms of ours, and when the sun shines in next morning there will be simply no trace of us…” (208). Where Phillip really appears to live, and where he has left a trace, is in his notebooks, his chronicle of revenge and reconciliation revealing that such events are far more complex and interrelated than he ever imagined. As he once put it, with fine exasperation, “since I have returned something has happened that compels me to reopen my notebooks” (154).

The deepest and most understated irony of A Summons to Memphis is that Taylor’s readers may undergo Phillip’s discovery as well. Taylor’s world to some may seem as narrow and fusty as Phillip’s apartment. But whirling behind the novel’s seemingly old-fashioned manner is a narrative of dramatic clashes, unpredictable turns, and unintended revelations. A Summons to Memphis deceptively casts itself as a mere notebook-memoir by an antiquarian, but it raises radical and profound questions about the struggle between conscious authorial intentions and unconscious repressions and revolts that often marks great literature. Taylor’s best novel very well may continue to find readers long after a good deal more self-consciously contemporary writing has faded.

Peter Schmidt is chair of the English Department at Swarthmore College and author of “The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction,” and“William Carlos Williams: The Arts and Literary Tradition.” He co-edited “Postcolonial Theory and the United States” and will publish a new book,“Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920,” in 2008.