Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224

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.

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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 before its death. His life is devoted to recapturing that excitement in new hunting grounds and fishing holes. Aleck does not measure success in terms of career advancement; he chooses to be a teacher because that occupation leaves his afternoons free for fishing. The only possessions he values are his hunting dogs, his guns, and his fishing rod.

According to the sportsman’s code, death in the hunt is heroic. For his favorite dog, Aleck provides the ideal death in the field: a shot through the head while the dog is on point. This code also demands that Aleck respect the birds he shoots and the fish he catches. He believes that he must thoroughly know his prey in order to take full pleasure in the life-and-death struggle. Thus, he devotes his life to studying these creatures, and generally he can anticipate their behavior, but he prefers to fish alone because he is unwilling to share his hard-won knowledge with others.

Gradually, however, Gordon demonstrates the limitations of the sportsman’s code, and Aleck’s failures of comprehension are seen to be an integral part of the novel’s meaning. In middle age, Aleck receives a symbolic warning: His vision becomes unreliable, and he has difficulty seeing his targets. Still, he rarely considers the effects of time. The ritual deaths of birds and fish allow Aleck to ignore his own mortality until Molly dies. He then must confront death as the ultimate enemy, and for two years he merely “goes through the motions” of fishing, becoming increasingly aware that his lifestyle is as obsolete as the classical Greek and Latin he teaches. For the first time he suspects that, though he may heroically battle time’s changes, probably time, in the form of the modern world, ultimately will defeat him. Actually, despite the fact that Aleck Maury, Sportsman ends with a temporary victory as Aleck escapes to his newest fishing hole, a later short story, “The Presence,” portrays the elderly Aleck forced to watch younger men enjoy the sports in which he can no longer participate.

Aleck draws emotional sustenance from what critic Louise Cowan calls “the secret life of joy and danger” in the rituals of his sport: Hunting provides him an escape from stress when Molly is in labor and from grief when Richard dies. Nevertheless, pursuit of his sport isolates him from his family, whom he repeatedly uproots as he pursues new fishing grounds. Aleck never manages to live up to Molly’s expectations, and he cannot understand a son whom he cannot teach to hunt, fish, or read Latin. Finally his preference for Caney Fork separates him even from Sally. In fact, Aleck needs the emotional distancing his sporting rituals provide; he comments that keeping in touch with family and friends becomes too painful for him.

Ultimately, then, Aleck’s sporting code proves inadequate. First, it fails to link him with society. Although Aleck admires legendary hunters and fishermen, he scorns the group ritual of the fox hunt, calling it an immature form of the sport. Thus, he becomes the solitary man, lacking any tie with his personal or regional past. Moreover, Aleck’s code is not strong enough to counterbalance the inherent selfishness of his nature. For example, when he wants a boat to travel up the Black River, he abandons his own principles and catches spawning bream to pay the rental fee. Likewise, he treats his superior casting skill as a subject for gloating; deciding that he deserves an excellent line more than Harry Morrow does, he steals Morrow’s one-hundred-foot black enameled fly line.

Thoroughly grounded in the classical tradition, Gordon bases her critical stance upon Aristotelian principles of unity. As she explains in How to Read a Novel (1957), she considers form important: For her, complication and resolution are essential plot elements, and the author’s role is to impose form upon complex human experience. In Aleck Maury, Sportsman, the title character’s experiences as a sportsman constitute the complication, and the resolution is the reader’s recognition that Aleck’s life was pleasant but ultimately inconsequential. Gordon adheres to her belief that a novel must present the complexity of life, as she portrays a character who seems both self-effacing and self-centered. Lamenting the absence of heroism in the modern world, Gordon turns to the classics to highlight humanity’s archetypal patterns. Ultimately, then, the key to Aleck’s character may be pride, the tragic flaw he shares with the heroes of Greek tragedy.

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