Forgotten Classic: A Summons to Memphis

Editor's Note - A Summons to Memphis is a great choice for book clubs. It's an older title, so copies are readily available at many library branches. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

When George Carver was born in the early 1900s, the bells rang out and guns saluted welcoming the heir to a wealthy Nashville landowner. That sense of entitlement ran wild in his veins until his last breath.

A charmer from the first, his life flowed through gilded paths. He married a belle of Nashville’s social echelons, sired four promising children and achieved a business partnership with the charismatic Lewis Shackleford – what more could one ask for? Alas, Mr. Shackleford was a bit too quietly ambitious, and the company collapsed in financial ruin.

Rather than face the Nashville music, Mr. George Carver decided to wipe clean the whole slate of his life to that point and move the family to Memphis. Unfortunately, the move distorted the fabric of the family and like the child’s game of upset-the-fruit basket, each one ended up in a different, disquieting position.

Always a man whose thumb was firmly on the control button, George seemed to ratchet up his need for dominance in this new situation. He snuffed out the wills of each family member, particularly in the realm of relationships by jealously winnowing suitors from the scene. The original family circle, with the exception of young George who escaped to his death in the war, remained magnetized in an unhealthy love-hate dynamic. The sisters regressed into a bizarrely adolescence state, setting up housekeeping on their own and flaunting their status by inappropriate dress and behavior. Philip also went to war and on to New York City upon his return. All remained unmarried and when, later in life, George has a chance at re-marriage, the familial chickens come home to roost with a cackling vengeance.

The narrator of the story, Philip, through a journal-like account, attempts to assure us of his ascendance over family problems and particularly his father’s manipulation. He shows us how he has escaped it all by moving to New York City, establishing an antique book business and having a live-in companion. But like a tightly-stretched rubber band, he keeps zinging back to Memphis at every summons by his sisters. And upon return, the good intentions of forgiveness melt away at the first glimpse of his father waving on the tarmac – perhaps greeting, perhaps guiding the plane and his soul into submission.

It is a Southern tale of land, wealth, bondage, manners, dress and social standing. It moves from the acclamation of church bells to total humiliation. It embraces hope, revenge, forgiveness and disingenuous acceptance. Through it all, the reader recognizes that from the best of intentions, humans strive and fail and strive again – loving with heady blends of adoration and revulsion. And through the view from Memphis, Mr. Taylor summons us all to look into a mirror of past, present and imperfect tense.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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