Caroline Gordon’s second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, marks her first experiment with a first-person narrator. Seventy-year-old Alexander Gordon Morris Maury reminisces about his life, from his lonely childhood in Virginia to the solitary future he envisions on Caney Fork in Tennessee. The narrative, divided into eight chapters, seems episodic because in each chapter the focus is on Aleck’s hunting and fishing experiences, with the accounts of his family life relegated to a comparatively minor role. Gordon’s original title was “The Life and Passion of Aleck Maury,” and she always preferred the title of the English edition, Pastimes of Aleck Maury: The Life of a True Sportsman.
Gordon claimed her father provided the background material for this novel, as she induced him to tell her stories about his hunting and fishing experiences. Aleck and his family are closely modeled upon the Gordon family. Aleck’s name reflects his similarity to James Maury Morris Gordon, Caroline Gordon’s father. Classically educated by an inattentive father, Aleck is hired to tutor the children of the large Fayerlee clan, all of whom live at or near Merry Point, a family estate similar to Merrimont, the Meriwether estate near Clarksville, Tennessee. Aleck marries Douglas Fayerlee’s daughter Molly, just as James Gordon married Nancy Minor Meriwether. Their first child, a handsome, blond son named Dick, is his mother’s favorite, as Caroline Gordon’s older brother, Morris Meriwether Gordon, was Nancy’s special pet. The second child, a daughter named Sarah but called Sally, inherits her father’s dark coloring and “Maury features.” The novel’s final chapters gently poke fun at the intellectual Sally and her scholar husband, Stephen Lewis, obvious parallels to Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate.
At the time of the novel’s debut, its popularity was attributed to its vivid accounts of hunting and fishing, and Gordon was criticized for the almost photographic detail of her descriptions. Aleck Maury, Sportsman can be read solely for its description of fishing and hunting in the early twentieth century South. Before long, however, critics discerned the author’s impressionistic style and the novel’s symbolism. Interpretation then focused upon Aleck Maury as a modern epic hero, resembling Ulysses in his restless search for new experiences and fresh challenges, but also possessing Aeneas’s single-minded dedication to fulfilling his destiny and Davy Crockett’s capacity for boasting about his skills and accomplishments. Such criticism customarily links Gordon with the southern agrarians in her use of the hunt as a ritual that establishes order and meaning in a chaotic world.
Initially, Aleck’s perseverance appears heroic, and for much of his life, he seems to find sacramental value in his sport. As an eight-year-old boy on his first hunt, he experiences a mystic “delight” when he looks into the golden, glowing eyes of a possum just...
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