Caroline Gordon Essay - Gordon, Caroline (Vol. 83)

Gordon, Caroline (Vol. 83)


Caroline Gordon 1895–1981

American novelist, short story writer, and critic.

The following entry provides an overview of Gordon's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, and 29.

Often associated with the Southern Literary Renaissance and the Southern Agrarian movement, Gordon is best known for writings which synthesize elements of mythology, Southern history, and Roman Catholicism. Gordon's fiction is remarkable for its evocation of nature, its historic focus on the Western frontier and antebellum South, and its emphasis on humanity's mystical connection with the land. Preoccupied with the classical concept of the hero's journey, Gordon sought to reveal the universality of human nature throughout history: "The proper work of fiction will be both timeless and temporal, temporal in its definition of a particular society at a given moment in history, timeless in its repetition of the archetypal pattern of behavior."

Biographical Information

Gordon was born on her grandmother's farm, Meriwether, in southern Kentucky near the Tennessee border. She was educated by her father, who taught classics, and was the only female student at an all boys academy in southern Tennessee. In 1924 she married poet Allen Tate, to whom she was introduced by writer and friend William Penn Warren. In the 1920s the couple made two extended trips to Europe, and while in Paris they associated with other expatriate writers such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ralph Cheever Dunning. While in Paris in 1929, Gordon worked as a secretary to her good friend and mentor Ford Madox Ford. Urging her to complete her first novel, Penhally, (1931), Ford typed parts of her manuscript for her, requiring that she dictate 5,000 words per day to him. During the 1930s Tate and Gordon frequently hosted such literary figures as Ford, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Lowell at their home, Benfolly, in southern Tennessee. During this period, Gordon struggled with her roles as wife, mother, and writer: "While I am a woman I am also a freak. The work I do is not suitable for women. It is unsexing. I speak with real conviction here. I don't write 'the womanly' novel." Gordon and her husband moved frequently as she served as teacher, lecturer, or writer-in-residence at various American universities. In 1947 Gordon converted to Roman Catholicism, which profoundly impacted her fiction. She believed that the artist had a moral obligation to serve, praise, and worship God through art. In her 1964 essay, "Letters to a Monk," published in Ramparts, she wrote: "I was nearly fifty year's old before I discovered that art is the handmaiden of the Church." Gordon died in 1981 at San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Major Works

Gordon's early fiction was influenced by her association with Southern Agrarianism—a literary movement, fomenting during the 1920s and 1930s, which resisted the encroaching industrialization on the South's traditional, agrarian society and emphasized the region's history. For example, the protagonist of her highly autobiographical second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), is a teacher of classical literature, a husband, and a father, who seeks refuge from the impingement of his responsibilities on his freedom through hunting, fishing, and communing with nature. This theme and character is also featured in such short stories as "Old Red," "One More Time," "To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet," "The Last Day in the Field," and "The Presence." Although she disliked the term "historical novelist," Gordon similarly focused on the South's past in such works as None Shall Look Back (1937), which focuses, in part, on the Civil War leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, and in Green Centuries (1941), which concerns the expansion of the Western frontier. Several of Gordon's works, particularly her later novels, reflect a more religious theme and her conversion to Roman Catholicism. The Strange Children (1951) concerns the Christian quest for salvation told from the viewpoint of a nine-year-old girl as she observes the adult world. This novel is noted for its utilization of the omniscient narrator, a literary device prominent in the works of Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Gustave Flaubert. The theme of redemption and salvation is also present in The Malefactors (1956). In this work, Gordon employs the Aristotelian device of peripety, the point at which the action changes as the protagonist undergoes a spiritual, moral, or intellectual transformation. In this novel, the transformation occurs when an unfaithful husband—tormented by what he perceives as the inexorable conflict between men and women due to their disparate natures and their inability to form a lasting bond—undergoes a religious conversion. Gordon's last novel, The Glory of Hera (1972), is a retelling of the Greek myth of Heracles, incorporating elements of Jungian psychology and Christian concepts of salvation and grace.

Critical Reception

Early in her career, Gordon often met with critical acclaim. Ford described her first novel, Penhally, as "the best constructed novel in modern America," and Gordon received Guggenheim fellowships on several occasions; her "conversion" works, however, were often faulted for their didacticism, elitism, and lack of conviction. Critics note that while her fiction remains distinctively Southern in character and theme—it is often favorably compared to the works of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter—it follows, stylistically and methodologically, the European literary tradition. Scholars have additionally commented, as did Gordon in her How to Read a Novel (1957) and The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, with Commentary (1950), that her work is informed by several philosophies and literary traditions: Aristotelian concepts of plot, classic Greek and Christian mythology, Jungian thought, and various levels of interpretation—literal, moral, anagogic, and allegorical—based upon Dante's Convivio.

Principal Works

Penhally (novel) 1931
Aleck Maury, Sportsman (novel) 1934; also published as The Pastimes of Aleck Maury: The Life of a True Sportsman, 1935
The Garden of Adonis (novel) 1937
None Shall Look Back (novel) 1937; also published as None Shall Look Back: A Story of the American Civil War, 1937
Green Centuries (novel) 1941
The Women on the Porch (novel) 1944
The Forest of the South (short stories) 1945
The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, with Commentary [with Allen Tate] (anthology) 1950; revised edition, 1960
The Strange Children (novel) 1951
The Malefactors (novel) 1956
How to Read a Novel (criticism) 1957
A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (criticism) 1963
Old Red, and Other Stories (short stories) 1963
The Glory of Hera (novel) 1972
The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon (short stories) 1981


Herschel Brickell (review date 27 September 1931)

[In the following review, Brickell praises Gordon's "polished and rhythmic" prose and thematic focus in Penhally.]

This skilfully fictionized chapter of American cultural history [entitled Penhally] deals with a theme that has a curiously ancient, almost archeological, ring, for it is concerned with the ownership of land and its influence upon the lives of people. Settlers in the colonies along the Atlantic brought with them a passion for broad acres, some of them because they or their families had owned broad acres, others no doubt, for exactly the opposite reason. With this consuming love of the land went other things, powerful family ties; the manor house a shelter for all the kin no...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Edith H. Walton (review date 21 February 1937)

[In the following review of None Shall Look Back, Walton faults the novel for its failure to focus on any character, but classifies the work as a classic example of Civil War fiction.]

By far the most ambitious of Caroline Gordon's novels, None Shall Look Back is a story of the Civil War which at first gives promise of outdistancing its numerous competitors. Miss Gordon, it is obvious at once, has many assets in her favor. Her style is distinguished—vastly superior, for example, to Margaret Mitchell's; in the clarity and brilliance of her battle scenes she is the equal of MacKinlay Kantor; finally, and this is perhaps most important, she is seldom unduly sentimental despite the...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Katherine Anne Porter (review date 31 March 1937)

[Porter was an American short story writer, novelist, critic, and educator whose fiction evokes the region and culture of the American Southwest. Her popular 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, derived from a voyage Porter took in 1931 from Vera Cruz to Bremerhaven, is often considered an allegory relating the moral malaise of the world prior to World War II. Gordon and Porter were well-acquainted; at one point Porter resided at Gordon's Clarksville, Tennessee, home. In the following review, Porter provides a highly laudatory assessment of None Shall Look Back.]

Fontaine Allard, tobacco planter, slave holder full of cares and responsibilities, an old man walking in a part of his Kentucky woods,...

(The entire section is 1207 words.)

Stephen Vincent Benét (essay date 2 November 1941)

[Benét was an American man of letters whose poetry and fiction is often concerned with examining, understanding, and celebrating American history and culture. The comic short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1936) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War epic John Brown's Body (1928) are his best-known works. In the review below, Benet praises Green Centuries for its accurate portrayal of American history, but questions the plausibility of its tragic ending.]

[Caroline Gordon's] excellent, sensitive and thorough historical novel [Green Centuries] deals with a period that presents peculiar difficulties for the writer of fiction. We all have a sort of...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

Richard Sullivan (review date 7 October 1945)

[In the following review Sullivan provides a highly favorable assessment of The Forest of the South, noting the collection's depth of feeling, wisdom, and appreciation for the American South.]

The Forest of the South is not a haphazard collection of stories but a carefully arranged exhibit of work by a serious artist in prose. Its first virtue is an almost ponderable integrity. For a book of seventeen short pieces unlinked by plot or character it gives a remarkable impression of completeness. It seems to say, abundantly and precisely, all it means to say; it leaves no gaps.

Caroline Gordon's writing is beautifully American. It draws its substance from that part...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Vivienne Koch (essay date 1953)

[Koch is an American critic. In the following essay, she provides an overview of Gordon's fiction through the publication of The Strange Children.]

The work of Caroline Gordon as a writer of fiction appears to have suffered a curious lack of appreciation when compared to the lively admiration which has greeted the efforts of some other Southern women writers during the last two decades. It is my impression that of the group of talented Southern women, including Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty, whose work is widely acclaimed not only by an intellectual élite but by a popular reading audience, only Miss Welty possesses in terms of actual achievement anything like the...

(The entire section is 4964 words.)

John W. Simons (review date 13 April 1956)

[Simons is a Roman Catholic priest and professor of English. In the following review of The Malefactors, Simons lauds the book's originality and successful rendering of religious themes in vernacular terms.]

Miss Caroline Gordon, whose novels and short stories have always been remarkable for their subtle poetic essence and vigilant craftsmanship, has never to this reviewer's knowledge attained the neon glories of best-sellerdom. It is barely possible that with the publication of her eighth novel, The Malefactors, she may be called upon to endure the wider success, for it deals with a theme which perversely attracts an age of almost official cynicism. It is the theme of...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

William Van O'Connor (essay date 1961)

[O'Connor was an American critic, editor, and educator who was a pioneer in the development of analytical criticism, a form of critical theory which examines historical, linguistic, environmental, and cultural influences on literary works. In the following essay, which provides an over-view of Gordon's fiction, he claims that Gordon is a distinctively American writer despite her allegiance to the European literary heritage.]

Caroline Gordon belongs to the generation of writers who spent at least part of their youth in Paris. The gods of the nineteenth century had fallen, but these young people found another: Art. Like most gods, Art had many guises, and was sometimes called Poetry, sometimes...

(The entire section is 3177 words.)

Brainard Cheney (essay date Fall 1963)

[Cheney is an American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and critic. In the essay below, he identifies Gordon's fiction as the artistic and personal process of "self-realization" through which she achieved her conversion to Roman Catholicism. According to Cheney, Gordon's career is "the revelation of ontological motivation" which realizes its apotheosis in The Malefactors.]

Modernity's extended time of transition has been one which few if any seers have been able to bring into perspective. This has been peculiarly true here in the United States—for historian, philosopher, artist—all the prophets of this land, this land conceived in the delusion of escape and born to innovation....

(The entire section is 4869 words.)

James E. Rocks (essay date 1968)

[In the essay below, Rocks discusses how The Strange Children exemplifies the pivotal point of Gordon's career, demonstrating the transition from the agrarian themes of her earlier fiction to her emphasis on Christian mysticism in her later works.]

Caroline Gordon's Catholicism, as presented in her two latest novels, The Strange Children (1951), and The Malefactors (1956), is of a rather special kind, one that advocates the practice of the highest theological virtue, charity or Christian love. Eschewing pride, which negates the kind of understanding and sympathy deficient in the characters of her earlier novels, her Catholics seek selfless devotion to man and God, even if...

(The entire section is 5192 words.)

Jane Gibson Brown (essay date Spring 1977)

[In the following essay, Brown explains the function of myth, mythical allusions, and history in Gordon's first five novels.]

Caroline Gordon is ONE of those writers whose work has received careful attention only by a handful of perceptive critics. Yet this body of commentary, wrought by some of the best critics of modern fiction, is nonetheless inadequate for a writer of Miss Gordon's skill and scope. For, as in the best fiction of Faulkner, the levels of meaning inherent in such novels as Penhally, Green Centuries, and The Women on the Porch mark these works as the creations of a master whose craftsmanship matches her complex vision of human life and community. Lesser writers...

(The entire section is 4041 words.)

Veronica Makowsky (essay date Spring 1990)

[An American critic, biographer, and educator, Makowsky is the author of Caroline Gordon: A Biography (1989). In the following essay, she explores Gordon's views about writing as a woman.]

Caroline Gordon has been known as a "writer's writer," one who is greatly respected by her fellow artists for her craft but who has not received popular or even academic acclaim. As I became interested in Gordon's work and began to explore the possibility of a biography, I frequently wondered why Gordon was a "writer's writer," rather than a universally renowned author like Faulkner. The answer, I found, was in the way she internalized her culture's attitudes toward women and writing, both in her life...

(The entire section is 3925 words.)

Larry Allums (essay date Spring 1990)

[In the essay below, Allums examines Gordon's later fiction as indicative of a "distinctly Christian imagination."]

The striking shift of artistic method at a certain point in the career of Caroline Gordon is familiar to anyone who knows her work. Also well known is the fact that the change occurs around the time of her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1947. Generally, the novels she published before that crucial event are epic in their sweep and tragic in their movement, whereas the later novels are more restricted in terms of time and action, with one notable exception, and they move toward comic resolutions. Although this change of focus is dramatically clear, what it implies, both for...

(The entire section is 2982 words.)

Further Reading


Sullivan, Mary C. "Caroline Gordon: A Reference Guide." In Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon: A Reference Guide, edited by Robert E. Golden and Mary C. Sullivan, pp. 193-308. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1977.

Annotated bibliography of Gordon's works and critical and biographical studies about her, including a chronological listing of Ph. D. dissertations.


Horsford, Howard C. "Letters of Caroline Gordon Tate to Sally Wood Kohn, 1925–1937." The Princeton University Library Chronicle XLIV, No. 1 (Autumn 1982): 1-24.


(The entire section is 857 words.)