Caroline Gordon Gordon, Caroline (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gordon, Caroline 1895–

An American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic, Gordon writes about rural southern life, paralleling the decline of the family and its traditions with the disintegration of the South following the Civil War. Her novels are historically precise, painting a representative picture of her native Kentucky. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Ashley Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Miss Gordon] is a conscious heiress to what is probably the central tradition of modern fiction, which we can refer to, following some of its great practitioners, as the Impressionist novel…. Miss Gordon is more than the follower of a tradition; indeed, her innovations are bold and far-reaching. But she often works out her devices with an eye on the masters whom she honors. (pp. 279-80)

Her method, if we may call it that, consists in subtly adjusting her prose medium to her subject. If she were a Renaissance poet we would say that she obeys the ancient rhetorical principle of decorum, with the several styles adapted to the levels of subject. And indeed the old term is being revived today, notably by the most astute students of Joyce, who in Ulysses systematically exploits the possibilities of multiple style. Miss Gordon, however, does not plunge from one style to another; we might say she modulates the tone from a fixed position within each novel or story. (p. 281)

Penhally is a completely "rendered" novel, as [Ford Maddox Ford] would have said. Its method of presentation—the shifting post of observation in the line of succession among the Llewellyns—allows a remarkable degree of control for such a large subject. Its author has seldom written better. But she was not content with the perfection of a method, and her subsequent books have realized her subject by a variety of means. Her second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), for instance, is based on the convention of the old-fashioned memoir. Aleck Maury is the only one of her major characters whom Miss Gordon has granted the privilege of telling his own story, and she thus departs from what with her is a virtual principle. This, the most popular of her novels, can stand by itself, but it gains something from those written after it, as though it were cutting across a territory whose outlines are more fully revealed later on. Many readers are familiar with the Aleck Maury stories which group themselves round the novel ("Old Red" for instance frequently appears in anthologies) and so I shall point to only one leading feature of the book. Aleck Maury is of course the sportsman par excellence, and his book can be enjoyed simply as something pleasurable, like The Compleat Angler. But the author has deftly complicated things by introducing the image of Aeneas, fleeing the ruins of Troy with his decrepit father on his back. Aleck himself is a Virginian, the son of a Latinist who undertakes his boy's education by teaching him to read the Aeneid. The image is occasionally alluded to later in the book, but never insisted upon…. [It] suggests that Aleck himself is an Aeneas, who will leave the ruins of his father's house, but not under the aegis of any Venus who will guide him to another Troy. He has only the memory of a civilization to perpetuate. Dispossessed almost from the start, he is thrown back upon his sportsman's instincts for survival. (pp. 283-84)

[None Shall Look Back and The Garden of Adonis] complement each other in various ways. Both deal with the break-up of a family estate, and apparently the same family, the Allards, at different periods in their history. These are longer and more ambitious than her first two books, and they pose certain problems of structure and meaning. None Shall Look Back has for its model nothing less than War and Peace. In adapting her practice to the subject of some magnitude, she has had to use an economy of rendition in order to compose larger scenes than she tried to manage in her first books, and at times one can scarcely believe that None Shall Look Back was written by the same person who wrote Penhally. Like Tolstoy, she has written a novel of war and peace which has seemed to some readers to fall into its component parts. She has, to start with, taken a Kentucky family, the Allards, with their various connections, through the vicissitudes of the Civil War. Under the impact of the war their fortunes undergo a decline; they are almost ruined; in the end we know they will somehow survive. But the novel is also about the war in its Western theater. We follow not only members of the Allard family, but the highest officers of the Confederate and Federal forces as they direct the operations. The war exists as something beyond any individual's comprehension of it, an enveloping action; everyone's destiny is shaped by it; no one escapes. The problem is to relate the two levels of action. Miss Gordon does this by having the young soldier Rives Allard, who now is in love with his adversary Death, shot from his horse. The author quickly takes the point of view from Rives to Bedford Forrest, a procedure which would ordinarily violate the structure of a scene. As Rives dies and falls to the ground, he becomes merely a "body" which the fleeing infantry must avoid in their rush. But Forrest sees the body, he recognizes it; then, as though there were a continuum of consciousness between the dead man and his commander, the focus moves entirely to Forrest, for the first and only time in the novel. Rives' tragedy is caught up in the larger action of which Forrest is the representative. This austere and remote figure participates in the pathos and is thus humanized…. The effect Miss Gordon gets is tragic, and it...

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Louise Cowan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Caroline Gordon's angle of vision—the vantage point from which she regards the moving configurations of human existence—is primarily epic. As an intrinsic structure, that is, as one of the fundamental generic patterns, the epic is concerned with the ongoing of history. Within its broad expanse everything is sacrificed to an essentially eschatological thrust; for nothing less than the outcome of the human enterprise hangs upon the success of its heroic quest. Domestic life must be set aside for epic endeavors, even though the feminine spirit encloses the action as guide and goal. (p. 7)

If Miss Gordon's characters hurtle into the abyss, they do so as epic and not tragic figures. Epic heroes do not struggle as tragic heroes do against the gods. Theirs is not a lonely battle within themselves, a striving to find interior dimensions of being; rather, epic heroes endeavor to maintain manliness and courage in a communal and cosmic realm, obeying whatever divine imperatives are given them, following a code of honor in a society that is in perpetual disorder.

But though the world about which an epic poet writes is frequently disunified and confused, and though the hero himself may be blinded into taking a fatal false step, it is nonetheless a requisite that the imaginative light by which the writer views his scene be clear. No moral ambiguities must cloud the poet's—the novelist's—mind if he is to depict the heroic. (pp. 7-8)

Miss Gordon's chief effort as an artist—like that of most other significant twentieth-century writers—has been to find a usable sacral system—a myth—in a society increasingly secular and consequently detached from the major symbols within its own cultural heritage. The Christian structure, which, for Western society, appropriated the mythic house of the gods and provided for centuries our major cultural figures, has gradually lost its imagistic concreteness and become associated in the modern mind with a set of moral principles by which one ought to live or with fossilized phrases and gestures. (p. 8)

No writer in our time has been more concerned with [the reconciliation of pagan myth and Christian faith] than Caroline Gordon. Her early novels deal overtly with neither pagan myth nor Christian mystery; but, concerned with the polarities of thinking and feeling, they dramatize the feminine and masculine principles in a devastated society that cannot surrender itself to love and integration, where death is the over-arching enemy. (p. 10)

One can only speculate on Miss Gordon's choice of title [for an early story, "One against Thebes"]; but since it speaks quite clearly of the life dedicated to following "an insistent voice" it seems possible to consider her story a parable of the artist, following a vocation in the path of the serpent, seeking the crystal palace, encountering undeserved suffering, and redeemed finally from the doomed city of Thebes to bless the fortunate and just city of Athens. It is the child herself who will become the "one against Thebes"; but at the same time her father, Aleck Maury, like the aging Oedipus, is also in a sense pitted against the forces of death and destruction. The child—in the earlier story Sally Maury, the daughter of Aleck—is here referred to simply as "the child." She is the young artist, called by an inner voice to a life of observation, of absorption, of remythologizing. Like the little girl in "A Narrow Heart: The Portrait of a Woman,"… she is preoccupied with the qualities of things, with trying to know them as they are and as they establish themselves in consciousness. As an Anti-gone figure, she will have to guide and direct the humbled Oedipus and later take the part of the gods in struggle against the rationalistic edicts of Thebes. She will stand, like her father, as one against Thebes and will help to keep the city safe from the dragon's sons. But the artist is not, in Miss Gordon's view, the hero. The artist—the poet—is a seer, whose consciousness gives form to the total history of man. True, he observes the hero and appreciates him, understanding his courage and his mission because both have an inner voice to guide them, both are aware of dragons, both stand solitary over the abyss. Nevertheless, the artist has a different kind of toil: to construct an image of that essentially epic struggle. And though in this story Miss Gordon's referential imagination allies the child's father with the tragic figure of the old Oedipus, her view of him throughout the Aleck Maury stories has been cast in an epic, not a tragic, mold. (pp. 12-13)

One can speculate a bit...

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Robert S. Dupree

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The twentieth century has been blessed with a number of excellent artists who have also been significant critics. The best of these have gone beyond the kind of activity which consists of mere apology or justification for their own work and have explored major questions of import to society as a whole in both their imaginative and discursive writings. Typical of this concern at its most intense among writers and critics of fiction is the work of Caroline Gordon, who has been emphatic in her insistence on the close unity between technique and vision, craft and moral implications in a work of art.

In an important study published in 1961, Wayne Booth takes Miss Gordon to task for arguing in favor of...

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Thomas H. Landess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Gordon's [early] stories rest on what were, at the time of their composition, relatively secure philosophical foundations, while her later works, including novels as well as short stories, are both structurally and texturally more complicated as a defense against those hostile armies which have appeared at the gates in ever-increasing numbers since the publication of The Forest of the South….

The philosophical assumptions to which I refer are ontological and define man's place in the natural order of being. They are assumptions which informed the South of Miss Gordon's early years and indeed, for society at large, remained unquestioned in Western civilization from preclassical times...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)