A Summons to Memphis | Skillshare Projects



A Summons to Memphis

Right. So immediately out of the gates, and so filled with designing zeal upon having just read A Summons to Memphis, I misread the original assignment where it said to choose a poem or short story....

I hope I am forgiven and allowed to participate in this discussion. A Summons to Memphis is a novel by Peter Taylor which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1987 and it is reallly good.  Mr. Taylor has become a hero to me for writing this. I love also his short story Porte-Cochere which I wish so dearly I had selected for this assignment and which deals with many similar themes and is haunted with the same ghosts.

I. Share your text

THE PLOT according to Wikipedia.

"It is the recollection of Phillip Carver, a middle aged editor from NYC, who is summoned back to Memphis by his two conniving unmarried sisters to help them prevent the marriage of their elderly father to a younger woman.

As the story unfolds, Phillip reflects on the major incidents in the life of his once well-to-do family, which was forced to leave Nashville during the time of the Great Depression after the older Mr. Carver, a distinguished lawyer, lost a great deal of money in failed investments with his then-friend and business associate Lewis Shackleford. Though this happened when the four Carver children were still in their teens, they recall the event as a great betrayal, and the resulting move had a major impact on them and continues to affect their abilities to build stable relationships and function as adults. Their lives were further dominated by their father as he ended romantic relationships for his children if he disapproved of them for any reason.

Ultimately, the oldest Carver son would join the army and die in WWII. Neither Phillip nor his sisters ever marry. His sisters maintain an odd continued adolescence well into their fifties, dressing as though they were still attractive teenagers. Phillip moves to New York and lives with a younger woman whom he will never marry. The "summons" to Memphis in the book's title refers to several events, but chiefly a call by Phillip's sisters to return and help them block their then-octogenarian father from remarrying after the death of their mother.

The book is a rumination on the responsibilities of parents, friendships between men, the relationship between the "old" and "new" south, the nature of revenge and the possibility of forgiveness."


''I cannot resist this opportunity to point out how the evil which men like Lewis Shackleford do, men who have come to power either through the use of military force or through preaching the Word of God or through the manipulation of municipal bonds, as was Mr. Shackleford's case, how the evil they do, that is to say, has its effect finally not merely upon its immediate victims (in the moment of killing or deceiving or cheating) but also at last upon myriads of persons in all the millennia to come.''

“One absolutely inviolable rule was that a girl could be presented simultaneously in two cities but could not come out in different cities in successive years. And these were important matters for people like us in the place where we were.”

“I think it might be explained here that Father’s elegance by this time was strictly a Memphis elegance and his fashion a Memphis fashion. This was a point I am sure my sisters did not grasp entirely. (They had lived in Memphis too long by then.) I think they did not realize that in Manhattan or even in Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga people on the street might have turned and stared at Father and remarked on the peculiar cut of his jacket and the width of his hat brim.”

“I had relived all the wrongs done me by my father, even thouse 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 he could not possibly have been aware, when he faced the very real necessity for himself of removing himself from the unhappy scene in which Lewis Shackleford had betrayed him, could not have imagined then that for the little thirteen-year-old boy in his household the removal would constitute a trauma he would in some way never recover from.”

“...whereas to my mind it seems almost a great beauty of my father’s character that from his earliest years the boy George Carver yearned for an individuality and for personal attainments that could be in no way related to the accident of his birth, longed to succeed in some realm that he had not yet heard of and could not have heard of, yearned for some mysterious achievements that could not be had on the Town Farm or on the Thorn County Courthouse square, yearned, as I heard him put it to Alex Mercer, “for an otherness to everything I had been taught was mine or might be mine.”

II. Share your annotations


A removal to Memphis, betrayals, revenge, forgiveness.


Manners, stasis/equilibrium, society/gentry, provenance, family/heritage, adaptation/assimilation.


There were many many object I pulled out of the story, including all manner of haberdashery, houses, equestrian accessories, rare books, four leaf clovers, armoires and cotton fields.


There were a lot of readers on Amazon and Goodreads who did not like this book. They said nothing happened. Let me tell you-- it is PACKED with action, internal and external, but is told so quietly by our (mostly) sane narrator and with so much truth and beauty, if you are not paying attention you could wake up at the end of it wondering what happened. You really have to give it your full attention.  So from this, I have decided the mood is restrained, subtle, elegant, and personal.

If you're still with me, and bless you if you are, here are some exercpts to give you a sense of the story and the storytelling.

(Here's a shot of the sheet with the same excerpts from above, so save your eyes by skipping the smaller type below.)

III. Share your sketches

Had a map concept as it seemed important to deal with the sense of place in the story-- the Nashville/Memphis relationship. Haberdashery seemed another good start-- the story is teeming with descriptions of custom made shirts, the proper collar for the proper age and city.  A family tree struck me at one point--to give witness to the family heritage and their place in society.  I also remembered the wardrobes that our main character's father had custom built for him and which for me seemed a symbol of provenance and the family's wealth and was dealt with a lot in the event of their traumatic "removal to memphis". I thought: The wardrobe is for packing away shirts, shoes and trauma from family betrayals. :)

The bottom left was a wallpaper design that included as many of the objects possible, and bottom right brings in the rare books our main character collected with some pressed four leaf clovers, which were all very nice but perhaps not essential to the most important themes.

More sketching, more casting about for something to stick... some lucky four leaf clovers, some brogues, some badly drawn horses, hounds and foxes...

Now I begin to hone in on the ideas of the contrast between the Upper South and Deep South that Peter Taylor deals with so heavily in the story. I'm liking the parallel metaphors that occur with the objects I remember from the story...armoire= the Upper South of Nashville and cotton=Deep South of Memphis.

The first sketch is an armoire in a cotton field. There is a sketch with an armoire between  bungalows. The bungalow symbolizes Old Town Mempis and the adaptation to a new culture that perhaps the father in the story was best able to do.

IV. Share your early designs

After deciding the best idea was the bungalow/armoire, I made this ink drawing combining the two objects. I chose the medium of hand drawing in the hopes of freshening up the book and give it an air of approachability for new readers. The bunglow is hip-roofed as described in the story and the wardrobe is 18th century but I added the top cut out to give it some interest, though that is probably not strictly accurate to the time and place.

I wanted also to give it an understated, classic color palette (the story is understated and quiet) and feeling while conveying how much fun the story is (sometimes you laugh out loud when you're reading about the internal workings of this family--  you previously thought only your family capable of...), gilding it with some handrawn type.


V. Share your final design

Per Mr. Mendelsund's excellent teaching advices, I tried here to remove elements, and boil it down its essence.

I came up with this simple, classic, cloth-bound book idea that (maybe better?) suits the story. The cotton is for Memphis and the saddle for Nashville, hoping to hint at a story of two places and the assimilation and forgiveness of a family. The cotton= Deep South, hard work, agricultrual connection. The saddle= Upper South high society/ gentry, leisure.

I'm not yet at all sure which book cover should represent my final cover. But MY GREAT THANKS to anyone who has perservered through this hard slog. It's been kind of hard for me to first do the work and then to put it out there for possible ridicule. I'm grateful to be part of it. Am in awe of the other work here and welcome and appreciate your criticism and help. Good luck to everyone.

Of course right before the deadline, I started having ALL kinds of ideas.

Another idea is a take on the Tennesse flag with the three stars representing the three terrains of the state, which, for me,  brings home the Upper South of Nashville vs the Deep South of Memphis with the handshake symbolizing the friendships forged, and betrayals forgiven.

But I have decided my FINAL design should be this one. It is redolent of an imperfectly hand-striked (struck?) return ticket back to Nashville, a place that, in the mind of the family, would fix a lot of their problems.

In summary.

This project made me feel very uprepared for the battle of designing anything whatsoever and called to my mind what Flannery O'Connor said about creating fiction in Mystery and Manners: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.”


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