Study Guide

Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226237-Gordon.jpgMary Gordon Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mary Catherine Gordon was born in Far Rockaway, New York, on December 8, 1949. Her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, was the daughter of Italian and Irish immigrants and a devout Catholic. David Gordon, her father, was born in Ohio. He converted from Judaism to Catholicism in the 1930’s.

As a young child, Gordon was cared for by her father, who stayed at home with her while her mother supported the family by working as a legal secretary, despite the crippling effects of childhood polio. David Gordon, a lively and literate man, who was educated at Harvard University, enthusiastically fostered his daughter’s intellectual development. Although he died when she was seven, he had already begun to teach her French, Greek, and philosophy and had transmitted to her his devotion to Catholicism.

After her father’s death, Gordon attended Holy Name of Mary School in her predominantly Catholic working-class neighborhood in Valley Stream, Long Island. She had literary aspirations quite early. While in grade school, she dreamed of becoming both a poet and a nun. At Mary Louis Academy, a Catholic girls’ school in Queens, Gordon rebelled against the Church, but she continued her literary efforts. In 1967, Gordon won a scholarship to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she knew she could escape from the sheltered Catholic community in which she had been reared. She has stated that her experiences at Barnard, especially in the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick’s creative writing course, changed her life. At the time Gordon was writing nothing but poetry; Hardwick advised...

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Mary Gordon Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

From Final Payments to Pearl, Gordon’s literary technique has become increasingly complex and experimental, especially in her approach to structure and point of view. Her outlook on life broadens, deepens, and darkens. The fact that life is chancy and perplexing becomes successively more apparent in her fiction. While her characters’ futures appear less and less promising, those individuals nevertheless remain affirmative of human life on earth, as does their author. In the course of Gordon’s novels, the world of organized religion becomes less and less central, but the author’s religious perspective becomes more subtly implicit.

Mary Gordon Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mary Catherine Gordon was born in 1948 in Far Rockaway, New York, to a working-class, Irish Catholic family. Her father was an important early influence in her life, teaching her to read and encouraging her to write. She was only seven when he died, leaving her devastated. She thus grew up in a female household inhabited by her mother, an aunt, and her grandmother. The latter two were rigid in their piety and unsympathetic toward Gordon’s literary interests. Gordon attended parochial school and originally planned to become a nun.

Her rebellious nature began to manifest itself during her high school years, and she chose to attend Barnard College instead of Catholic Fordham University. During her university years in the 1960’s, she was exhilarated by the sense of freedom and experimentation on campus. Antiwar demonstrations, the women’s movement, and the life of the counterculture caused her to question Catholicism’s stance on sex and on the role of women in the church. After college she began graduate work at Syracuse University and participated in a women’s writers’ group. She began to publish poems and short stories while working on a dissertation on Virginia Woolf. When her third novel was published, she gave up her graduate work.

When Gordon began researching a biography of her father, she was forced to see that most of what he had claimed about himself was untrue. He had come from an immigrant Jewish family and had converted to Roman Catholicism; he had never attended Harvard University or lived in Paris; his writing was labored and pretentious, bigoted and anti-Semitic. These discoveries were painful for Gordon but confronting them marked a new direction in her writing. Gordon married and settled with her husband and children in New York City, teaching creative writing at Barnard College.

Mary Gordon Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary Catherine Gordon was born on December 8, 1949, to David and Anna Gagliano Gordon. As Gordon says in The Shadow Man, the death of her father when she was seven years old was the most influential event of her life. A convert to an extreme right-wing Catholicism from Judaism, David Gordon had idolized, and been idolized by, his young daughter. “I love you more than God,” he told her once, frightening the child with the ambiguity and the cosmic implications of that statement. He regaled her with tales of his days at Harvard and his experiences in Oxford and in Paris with other American expatriates, taught her to read at the age of three, and instructed her in French, German, and Latin. Gordon left his daughter with a paradoxical legacy of lies and a deep intellectual curiosity. Only as an adult, in researching The Shadow Man, did Gordon learn the truth about her father: that he was a naturalized American citizen born in Lithuania, not Lorain, Ohio; and that his claim that he attended Harvard and Oxford universities was false—he had never attended college. Although she knew that he had published soft-core pornography as well as poetry and critical analyses of other writers in publications such as The New Republic, Gordon did not realize how rabidly anti-Semitic he was until she began her research. In discovering the truth about her father, Gordon was able to separate herself from his influence and accept his loss.

Although Gordon attributes her vocation as a writer to the encouragement of her father, she also credits her...

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Mary Gordon Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Mary Catherine Gordon is a major Catholic writer of novels, short stories, and essays. She was born the only child of David and Anna (Gagliano) Gordon; both her parents were devout Catholics. Her mother was of Irish and Italian ancestry; her father was a convert from Judaism who, according to Gordon, romanticized working-class Irish Catholics. Gordon was reared by her father, while her mother worked, until his death just before her eighth birthday. It was her father who encouraged her, even at her young age, to always take her studies seriously. In The Shadow Man, perhaps her most important piece of nonfiction, Gordon chronicled her search for her father’s past.

Gordon attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. The pious atmosphere of both family and school deeply affected her, though not always positively. Determined to be a nun in grade school, she was equally determined to be a rebel in high school. Being reared Catholic provided her with a wealth of themes, characters, and images for her writing. In 1967, Gordon entered Barnard College of Columbia University and studied creative writing, though she wrote verse rather than prose; she would remain a practicing poet but would not publish her work. After receiving her B.A., Gordon enrolled in the writing program at Syracuse University in 1971. She completed the master’s degree in 1973 and a year later began teaching English at Dutchess Community College. She married James Brain in the same year. In 1975, she published her first story and began a novel.

Two years later, Gordon met the British novelist Margaret Drabble in London. Drabble read the manuscript for the novel Final Payments and put Gordon in touch with a literary agent who sold the book to Random House. At an editor’s urging, Gordon rewrote the third-person story as a first-person narrative. The novel was an immediate popular and critical success. A best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, Final Payments was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made The New York Times Book Review list of outstanding works for 1978. Reviewers were intrigued by Gordon’s evocation of Catholicism and charmed by her straightforward yet image-filled prose. The novel describes the midlife odyssey of Isabel Moore. Living at home until her early thirties to care for her zealous, indomitable father, Isabel finds herself liberated by his death. The responsibility for keeping up with modern mores (both career-related and sexual), however, proves too much for her. Isabel seeks out her father’s crotchety, pious housekeeper, now herself an invalid, and plans to dedicate her life once more to the care of another. The housekeeper soon proves a tyrant, and Isabel cannot...

(The entire section is 1121 words.)