Samuel W. Taylor
Aspen Books , 1994. Softcover:
Suggested retail price: $7.95 (US)
In both its form and its content, Samuel Taylor's new book, Taylor-Made Tales calls to mind two of the most important works of literature ever created from the Mormon experience: John D. Fitzgerald's Papa Married a Mormon (1955) and Virginia Sorensen's Where Nothing Is Long Ago (1963). All three books come from well-known writers who grew up in Utah and went on to considerable success in the national literary marketplace. All three are organized as autobiographical reminiscences of a childhood in Utah. And all three deal with the often-neglected "middle period" of Mormon history -- the time when the pioneer experience was quickly becoming a memory of the past while the prospect of an influential, international Church was nothing more than a dream for the future. Yet, beyond these surface similarities, Taylor's book has little in common with these earlier works. And, though it is very enjoyable in places, Taylor-Made Tales will probably not become -- as the other two already are -- an enduring classic of Mormon literature.
Unlike the other two books, there are very few of the elements of fiction in Taylor-Made Tales. The episodes of Where Nothing Is Long Ago are all elegantly crafted as short stories, while the narrative of Papa Married a Mormon is plotted and developed much like a novel. Taylor-Made Tales, on the other hand, is more carefully and self-consciously autobiographical. However, read as straight autobiography the book is somewhat disappointing, since its coverage of Taylor's life is extremely spotty. Some incidents are emphasized in great detail, while others -- particularly those relating to his career as an author -- are glossed over or altogether omitted.
The seventeen short chapters that make up the book can be roughly dividedinto three principal sections. The first section, consisting of the firstnine chapters, contains a series of stories from Sam's early lifegrowing up as one of the 36 children of John W. Taylor, the son of aprophet, an apostle in the Church, and the highest-ranking Church officialto be excommunicated for continuing to perform plural marriages after themanifesto. Though Taylor deals with his father directly in only the firsttwo chapters (John Taylor died when Sam was only eight years old), theelder Taylor remains a potent figure throughout the book. In the firstplace, John W. Taylor's take-charge attitude and picaresque spiritualityexercised a tremendous influence on his son's life, and in the second place, his excommunication provided Sam with a literary mission in life: clearing his family name and rehabilitating the practice of polygamy in books like Family Kingdom (1951), The Kingdom or Nothing (1976), and The John Taylor Papers (1984).
After reminiscing about his early childhood experiences with his father,and about his life at his mother's boarding house, Taylor describes thetime in his life when he made the decision to become a writer. in the fourchap ters that follow, he recounts his experience working in the HotelRoberts during the depression, his lengthy courtship and marriage, and,most interestingly, his work for the BYU student paper and his occasionalsuccess publishing stories in pulp magazines. The last two chapters inthis section tell of his work with the Army Public Relations Office duringWorld War II. In his war stories, Taylor writes as comicly, asirreverantly, and as poignantly as he does in his best fiction, andreminds us why he is considered one of Mormondom's funniest and mostimportant men of letters.
But while Taylor's war stories are as cogent and enjoyable as anything hehas ever written, they are the last things in Taylor-Made Tales that canbe so described. After telling the dramatic tale of a plane crash thatnearly took his life, Taylor loses both the focus and the sense of purposethat he had in the first two-thirds of the book. The remaining fourchapters -- which should cover the part of his life of most interest tostudents of Mormon literature -- consists mainly of scatteredautobiographical details punctuated by Taylor's familiar complaints aboutall of the injustices inflicted on the Taylor clan in the name of ReedSmoot's Senate seat. Taylor's descriptions of Walt Disney, and of his ownwork on The Absent-Minded Professor, are interesting, but the overalltreatment of his remarkable literary career is extremely unsatisfying. Asmuch as fans and students of Mormon literature would have benefited from asolid, methodical treatment of Sam Taylor's life in letters, this bookpresents nothing of the sort. While the editors at Aspen Books should becredited for their attempts to revive interest in Sam Taylor'scareer -- both with this book and with their reissue of Heaven Knows Why(1948), they missed an excellent opportunity to make Taylor-Made Tales auseful resource. Had they but included a brief bibliography of Taylor'smore important books and stories -- or at the very least includedpublication information on the occasional citation that Taylor giveshimself -- the book would have been an invaluable reference for students andscholars and a useful introduction to new readers interested in findingmore of Taylor's work.
None of this should be taken to mean that Taylor-Made Tales is notenjoyable or worthwhile. It is, in fact, both. But what it is not is a good introduction to Taylor's considerable literary work. And it does not compare favorably with Taylor's better works of fiction and non-fiction. Almost everything that Taylor-Made Tales does well is done better in another book. Family Kingdom is a better biography of the Taylor family; Heaven Knows Why is a better slice of Mormon life; and Rocky Mountain Empire (1978) is a better description of Mormonism's middle period. Those who pick up Taylor-Made Tales expecting a useful introduction to the life's work of one of Mormonism's most important authors will undoubtedly be disappointed. However, those who turn to it after reading Taylor's best work will certainly be glad to find that their old friend is still alive, kicking, and spinning yarns with his 90th birthday only two years away.
Mike Austin University of California, Santa Barbara
© 1995 Michael Austin