Caroline Gordon’s reputation was firmly established by the publication of her first novel, Penhally, particularly after it was reviewed by the English writer Ford Madox Ford in Bookman. Ford hailed Gordon as one of the important contemporary novelists writing in the United States. The succession of novels and stories that followed Penhally, her marriage to the poet Allen Tate and her association with the Vanderbilt Agrarians, her lectures, and the short-story textbook The House of Fiction are all a measure of her significant contribution to the Southern Renaissance.
Gordon has been particularly admired for her craftsmanship, for the skill with which—in the tradition of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway—she is able to create impressions of life that are at once realistic and symbolic. Following her chief master, James, Gordon was a scholar of the novel, and her fiction emphasizes technique above plot and character, so much so, in fact, that with few exceptions, her books have never had popular appeal. Aleck Maury, Sportsman attracted an audience of hunters and anglers, partly because of its subject but also because the hero of the book is an appealing character. None Shall Look Back also attracted readers, particularly in the South, because of its evocation of the tragic heroism of the Civil War. Green Centuries dealt with material very popular in the 1930’s, hardship on the frontier and conflicts between American Indians and white settlers, though it lacks both the sentimentality and moralizing that often made such fiction popular.
The remainder of Gordon’s novels are demanding books that require of the reader alertness to symbolic meanings and close attention to the implications of technique. As a consequence of its special kind of excellence, Gordon’s fiction appeals primarily to other writers and scholars ofnarrative craft. Many novelists and short-story writers, including Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have acknowledged a debt to Gordon.