Caroline Ferguson Gordon was one of the twentieth century’s finest minor American novelists and short-story writers and an able literary critic. Her father, James Maury Morris Gordon, a classics scholar and country schoolmaster, had married one of his former pupils, Nancy Meriwether, and Caroline Gordon was born on her mother’s family estate in Kentucky in 1895. Both parents taught in various rural schools in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Gordon’s first formal education came in the classical preparatory school her father founded in Clarksville, Tennessee. After her father gave up teaching to become a Church of Christ minister, she attended Bethany College, from which she graduated in 1916.
After a brief stint as a society reporter for a Chattanooga newspaper, Gordon moved to New York City to continue a career in journalism. There she met an up-and-coming young literary man and fellow Kentuckian named Allen Tate. They were married in 1925, and their only child, Nancy, was born in September of that year. The Tates spent the winter of 1925 to 1926 living with the poet Hart Crane in a rented farmhouse near the Connecticut border, where Crane worked on his epic poem The Bridge (1930). Gordon, who was then writing her second novel, lived in the shadow of the men. Back in the city in 1926, Gordon became a typist for the prolific British novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged the Tates and other southern writers—including Katherine Anne Porter—to make full use of their cultural heritage in their writing. Ford took a special interest in Gordon’s writing and helped her by reading and criticizing her manuscripts.
In the summer of 1930 Allen Tate’s brother Ben, who had made a fortune as a coal dealer, gave his brother and sister-in-law ten thousand dollars to buy a country estate, which Gordon’s father promptly named “Benfolly.” It was in this mansion on the banks of the Cumberland River, within a short drive of her birthplace, that Gordon began her career as a fiction writer in earnest. That same summer two of her short stories, “The Long Day” and “Summer Dust,” were accepted for publication, and the Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins paid her five hundred dollars in advance for her first published novel, Penhally, which appeared the following year. Though an early work, Penhally aptly characterizes most of Gordon’s fiction. It traces the history of one family—obviously modeled on Gordon’s own—from its migration from Virginia to its homestead in Kentucky, through the...
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