Like other Southern writers of his generation (Walker Percy and Shelby Foote come immediately to mind), Peter Taylor explores the lives of upper class Southerners searching for some clue to unlock the terrible allegiances Southerners of a certain background feel to family, home, and tradition – and for what it costs to free oneself of those allegiances.
After the sort of manic energy I encountered in Daniel Forbes’s Derail This Train Wreck, I decided that I wanted something more – at least seemingly – sedate. I found it in the first of my Southern authors from the 2015 reading list, Peter Taylor. Best known for his short fiction (every short story writer should study The Old Forest and Other Stories for examples of how the short story is done well), Taylor is a Tennessean from exactly that sort of upper class background I mention above – and he explores the pain associated with breaking free of such a background with all its attendant traditions and constraints – as brilliantly as do those contemporaries, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. A Summons to Memphis is in a very real way the story of a trial: the trial of being a scion of privilege in a place where such a plummy birth carries within it the seeds of destruction for all lucky enough to be such fruit.
Like most Southern, and, indeed, most modern literary fiction, what makes A Summons to Memphis special (and it is a fine writing accomplishment) is less the story itself than the telling of it. Based upon the “notebooks” (i.e., journals) of the youngest member of an upper class Tennessee family, the Carvers, A Summons to Memphis is about that moment when one comes to terms with who one is, where one has come from, and, most importantly, where one is going. Father George is really the focal point of much of the book; his life of striving to move beyond his family traditions – and his subsequent attempts to prevent his children from moving beyond theirs – provide the plot of the novel. In some ways George has continued his family’s line: like his grandfather and father, he is an attorney. Unlike them, he chose to study at Vanderbilt University rather than at one of the traditional choices for a Son of the South®, Princeton or the University of Virginia. He has broken with family tradition in another, more profound way: he has left West Tennessee (and its Deep South character) for Nashville (a city more in tune with the Upper South mores one might associate with Richmond, Raleigh, Charlottesville, or Charlotte). To make the separation more complete, he marries a Nashville belle. They have four children: two daughters, Betsy and Josephine, two sons, George Jr. and Phillip. The Carvers, thanks to their mother’s social status and their father’s professional success enjoy a privileged, pampered lifestyle.
Everything is changed when their father is nearly ruined by Lewis Shackleford, his friend and business associate who has involved Carver père in some disastrous bond trading business. George Sr. moves the entire family from Nashville to Memphis, uprooting them from their happy, ordered lives. Worse, he ruins the romantic prospects of both Betsy and Josephine, and they end up as lonely middle aged women full of spite and vengeance towards their father in his old age. Georgie, the elder brother, feels so stunted in his social and professional prospects by his father’s domineering and the family’s general dysfunction that when WWII begins he runs off and enlists and, Phil somewhat ruefully, somewhat cynically notes, gets himself killed in action on D-Day. Phil, the younger, also enlists but sees little action. He does, however, suffer from his father’s interference. Stationed near Chattanooga, he meets and falls in love with a girl from that city only to have his father interfere and end the relationship. Partly in retaliation at that indignity, partly to pursue his own professional dreams of being a rare book dealer and book editor, he, with the help of his sisters who have become well-to-do through their real estate business, runs away to New York where he finds, if not happiness, at least contentment in his work and in his relationship with a younger woman with whom he lives (but does not marry, scarred as he is by his father’s previous interference in his love life).
All this is really so much back story, of course. The real story of A Summons to Memphis is the “years later” story when George Sr. is an octogenarian planning to remarry after the death of the Carver children’s mother. And it is this story, really a short story, around which the chief theme of the novel revolves: how does one reconcile oneself to family traditions and the expectations of one’s culture while at the same time rejecting them?
The “summons” of the title has multiple meanings – and is a play on the legal term. Phil Carver, once summoned by his middle aged sisters to come to Memphis to assist them in stymieing their father’s wedding plans, goes home to confront not his father or his sisters but himself. In a classic use of the double, what Phil might have become had he remained in Memphis is depicted in the character of his closest “Memphis friend” (none of the Carver children with the exception of Georgie, most like his father and doomed as a result, finds social success in Memphis), Alex Mercer. Alex is a steadfast admirer of George Carver Sr. and would have made him a good, dutiful son. Unlike Georgie, who wanted to go his own way (as his father had with his father) and ended up destroying himself in the attempt, or Phil, who has, truth be told, simply slunk away to hide, Alex has remained in Memphis and become a professor at the local university. He has also been a dutiful correspondent with Phil, keeping him apprised of the hi-jinks of his sisters (who are, as it turns out, merely stunted adolescents whose vengeance against their father reeks of the sort of “mean girls” response one would expect from 16 year olds) and of his concerns for George Sr. – concerns that, when he confronts himself, Phil realizes he doesn’t really share. As he rejects the life his sisters – and Alex – have chosen (one of the most subtle, most key points of A Summons to Memphis is that the lives characters lead is the result of their choices more than of anything done to/for them) he rejects the traditions and constraints that have made those lives the sad wastes that the reader realizes that they are.
Phil’s distance is not pure alienation. He feels alienated, to be sure, but that is mostly, he discovers, because he has moved on with his life rather than because of what his father did to him in ruining his relationship with the girl he loved, Clara Price. Phil even, one suspects, feels a certain poetic irony that the woman his father is prevented from marrying is also named Clara. What Phil feels instead, I think, is that emotion many “displaced” Southerners feel: that feeling best summed up by the title of the South’s most poetic novelist’s final book – You Can’t Go Home Again.
For Phil Carver, George Sr., Betsy, and Josephine Carver are ultimately representatives of a world he no longer feels connected to, a world he has outgrown, a world that he is both part of and apart from. His life is elsewhere, as he notes at the end of the novel, imagining his old age with Holly, his companion, by his side:
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 simply be no trace of us.
Phil has been, after all, true to his calling – and, as a result, he has found, if not great joy, serenity. Most of us would settle for that.