A modernist in style and technique, Caroline Gordon is decidedly antimodern in the themes of her writings. Among American authors, she is similar to Willa Cather in decrying the spiritual corruption of the modern industrial age and in lauding as an ideal a return to the humanistic values of an agrarian society. While the frontier serves as the backdrop for Willa Cather’s idealizations of pastoralism, the South and its heritage provide the setting for romantic explorations of Nature’s influence upon human beings’ ethical development in Gordon’s fiction.
The thematics of Gordon’s fiction and her own avowed interest in the southern gestalt identify her strongly with the literary movement known as the Southern Renaissance. Initiated around 1920 and encompassing the Fugitive writers, the movement worked to revive through art and literature a rebirth of interest in southern ideals and values, particularly those of the agrarian, pre-Civil War South. The renaissance in southern letters strove to eliminate from portrayals of the South the false sentimentality and excessive romanticism characteristic of the writings of the Old South and to uphold, instead, the view of the South as the repository of humanistic values and a viable alternative to the dehumanizing effects of modern materialism and industrialization. The views of the Southern Renaissance can be seen most clearly in Gordon’s choice of heroes in her fiction. Her heroes generally are emblematic of the southern agrarian ideal, individualistic, self-reliant characters exemplifying a deep love of Nature and a respect for the values of community and family heritage. A strong sense of place or devotion to the land as symbolic of higher spiritual qualities in human existence is also readily apparent, together with respect for those characters who shape their destinies in accord with ethical values.
A number of Gordon’s heroes in her fiction are sportsmen whose dedicated passion for Nature is the focal point of their lives and the source of their awareness of aesthetic and spiritual values. From their relationship with Nature, they learn moral lessons which inspire them to the higher values of courage, compassion, and sacrifice. Often, the sportsman hero is contrasted directly with those characters of lessened moral awareness who see Nature as only a means to an end of self-gratification or materialistic greed.
“The Last Day in the Field”
Typical of the sportsman hero is Aleck Maury, the protagonist of “The Last Day in the Field” and a character who appears in several of Gordon’s short stories in The Forest of the South and in the novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman, published in London as Pastimes of Aleck Maury, The Life of a True Sportsman. In “The Last Day in the Field,” Aleck Maury is presented to the reader as a once-vigorous sportsman now grown old and having to confront both his own physical limitations and his own mortality. Aleck is like “the fall when the leaves stayed green so long”; in watching the progress of the frost on the elderberry bushes, he sees symbolized his own existence: “The lower, spreading branches had turned yellow and were already sinking to the ground but the leaves in the top clusters still stood up stiff and straight.” Thinking of how the frost creeps higher out of the ground each night, Aleck remarks to himself, “Ah-ha, it’ll get you yet!” aware that old age will take its toll upon him soon—but not before he has his “last day in the field.”
Aleck’s wife, Molly, urges him not to hunt this year, reminding him of the pain in his leg from a previous hunting injury; at first Aleck agrees to her wisdom, but when the killing frost comes, bringing with it the scents and colors of the perfect hunting day, Aleck is off before dawn to awaken Joe Thomas, the young man next door, and go quail hunting. The two men experience the ritualistic pleasure of preparing for the hunt, with Aleck making some sandwiches and coffee to take on the trip while Joe hitches up the buggy and gathers up the hunting gear. When all is ready in preparation, the men get the dogs, Bob and Judy, a matched set of liver-and-white pointers and two of the finest hunting dogs in the country.
The ride from Gloversville to Spring Creek takes more than an hour, and when the men arrive the dogs are eager to track down some quail. Joe sets the dogs free, and they find their first bevy of quail in the bottomlands of a corn field. Joe takes the easiest shot and bags a bird; Aleck, characteristically, takes the shot requiring the most skill and patience and gets the best bird of the lot. After several more shots at singles, the men stop to eat lunch. Aleck notices Bob, the hunting dog, and senses an empathetic comradeship with his spirit. Aleck reflects, “I looked at him and thought how different he was from his mate and like some dogs I had known—and men, too—who lived only for hunting and could never get enough no matter how long the day was.” The men walk through several more fields, and Aleck feels the pain building steadily in his leg. He wonders if he will be able to make it through the day, at the same time that he laments deeply that the day is going by so quickly and soon the perfect hunting day of this season will be over. Joe misses an easy shot, and Aleck shares with him some of his accumulated wisdom gathered through many such days in the field. An empathy develops between the two men, and Aleck feels even more keenly his own age and a deep longing to be young again and have so much time ahead.
At twilight, the men begin the walk back to the buggy. Aleck’s leg is hurting him badly, and he fears that he cannot make the journey back. At that moment, the men climb a fence and come out at one end of a long field, “as birdy a place as ever I saw,” Aleck thinks to himself, and Aleck knows that no matter how much pain he is in he has to hunt that field, “leg or no leg.” Aleck and Joe shoot two quail, and, as Aleck is retreating from the field, he spots Bob making a perfect sighting and points on the last quail from the last covey of the day. “Your shot,” Aleck tells Joe, but Joe replies, “No, you take it.” In the fading light, Aleck gets the bird with the third shot. “I saw it there for a second, its wings black against the gold light, before, wings still spread, it came whirling down, like an autumn leaf, like the leaves that were everywhere about us, all over the ground.”
“The Last Day in the Field” is a descriptive story, working to capture a mood and a setting as a man who loves hunting faces the fact that he must soon give it up and seeks to draw all the beauty, feeling, and meaning he can from his last experience. The story’s action line is a simple one, and there are no major plot twists or conflicts to be resolved. What gives the story its effect and power is its sustained tonal qualities of mood, imagery, and setting that subtly suggest much about...
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