Caroline Gordon Gordon, Caroline (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Caroline Gordon 1895–1981

American novelist, short story writer, and critic.

Gordon was affiliated with the Southern Literary Renaissance, a movement composed of authors who were united by their belief in the traditional agrarian values of the American South and by their common practice of formalist literary techniques as defined by the New Critics. The loss of morality, dignity, and family unity associated with the pre-Civil War South is a major theme of Gordon's fiction. Stylistically, Gordon's works display the formalist influence in her precise word choice, objective narration, and subtle presentation of themes. In addition, Henry James is often cited as an important influence on Gordon, particularly in her complex character portrayals, use of multiple levels of meaning, and in her mastery of James's technique of relating a story from the viewpoint of a perceptive central character. The novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934) is recognized by most critics, including the eminent Southern author Robert Penn Warren, as Gordon's finest work.

A recurrent theme in Gordon's works is the search for a principle of moral and social order similar to that which existed in America before the Civil War. Critics have found that Aleck Maury, the protagonist of Aleck Maury, Sportsman and several short stories, is Gordon's most successful vehicle for developing this theme. Maury is presented as a representative of the agrarian South struggling with the moral and spiritual vacuousness of the modern, industrial order. A classics teacher and avid outdoorsman, he seizes art and nature as a defense against the moral decay that he perceives in his contemporaries. While some critics find that the importance of the agrarian way of life to Maury makes him a specifically Southern character, others hold that the mythological symbolism employed throughout Aleck Maury, Sportsman and the short stories is intended to convey Maury's universality as a character. In Gordon's other novels as well—including Penhally (1931), Green Centuries (1941), and The Glory of Hera (1972)—critics have emphasized Gordon's use of mythological allusions and have used Carl Jung's theory of universal archetypes to illuminate character motivation in her works. In 1947 Gordon converted to Catholicism, and critics stress the impact of this conversion on her subsequent novels The Strange Children (1951) and The Malefactors (1956), which depict emotionally stifled characters who find fulfillment through religious experiences. The publication of Gordon's Collected Stories (1981) has renewed critical and popular interest in her work.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981.)

Andrew Lytle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It will be my assumption that writers of Miss Gordon's vision have but one subject. On one level hers is in the fullest sense traditional and historic. By this I do not mean what is commonly understood as the "historic novel": that is, the costume piece or the arbitrary use of certain historic periods dramatized through crucial events. The costume piece can be dismissed as offering a special kind of entertainment; dramatized history is often, not always, too eclectic, suffering from a structural split between the scene and the action, obscuring the poverty of the performance and the actors' inhumanity by its pretensions to historic truth. Historic personages, when they appear, appear not as men or women but in a quasi-mythical clothing. (pp. 567-68)

The legitimate illusion, on the other hand, once established, will always give the sense of contemporaneity, of happening before the reader's eye. To manage this successfully the author must first absorb the period of his scene so thoroughly that the accidental restraints of manners and customs become the medium of representation of what is constant in human behavior. The tension between form and subject then becomes right in its strain. But the sense of watching the action as it is taking place, although the primary test, is not enough. There must be for the definition under consideration also some historic image of the whole, which will serve as a center of reference and the selective cast to the author's vision. (p. 568)

This historic image of the whole allows for a critical awareness of a long range of vision, by equating the given period to the past and future, sometimes explicitly, always implicitly. This makes the period at once the setting and the choral comment. Such a restriction upon the imagination adds another range of objectivity to the post of observation, another level of intensity to the action (as if the actors while performing expose to the contemporary witness, the reader, the essential meaning of their time). This is literary irony at a high level. It is the nearest substitute for the religious image. In a time of eclecticism, such as ours, while it will not directly solve the writer's simplest technical problem, it gives him balance and lessens the risk of a faulty vision in that it keeps the scale of observation from being entirely private, or of seeming so.

It has allowed Miss Gordon in Green Centuries to relegate the usual American interpretation of the frontier to its proper place as evidence of a social phenomenon of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—not an easy thing to do for, spurious as it is, its pretense as the most common inheritance in the American tradition obstructs at every angle the clear view. As a myth it stands for a vague but persistent belief in a mystical vitality which will overcome nature, whether it be the wilderness, a business opportunity, or through science the very secret of life itself. (pp. 569-70)

It must be emphasized that there can be no absolute sense of contemporaneity in the presentation of any age, or segment of an age, anterior to the time in which the author writes. Indeed, if this were so, the principal value of using historic material would be lost: the value being just this illusion of the contemporary within a context of historic perspective, so that while an act takes place it is rendered in terms larger than those of its immediate appearance. This is, I believe, the furthest extension, and it is just that, of the aesthetic distance taken by writers concerned primarily with the formal, objective view. It is not equivalent to the mask of Greek tragedy but allows for dramatic effects of equal intensity, assuming the difference in the audience. The Torch Bearers, for example, could assume a knowledge of the myth at every degree of perception in the audience, out of a cultural unity expressed through an active religious belief. Neither Miss Gordon nor any other writer of fiction can count on this kind of reception. She must assume contemplation and some measure of critical apprehension on the part of the reader; these are her limits and her freedom. The reader, in turn, cannot ask of her absolute historic truth (if such there be) but that her myth of which the image is the concrete surface will be coherent within its own terms. With the exception of Green Centuries [Miss Gordon] narrows her scene to the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, as that fragment of time more nearly comprising the clearest opposition of forces which is her general reference and dramatic impetus, the moment of equilibrium before the shattering of a social pattern, when the very air is charged.

Penhally, her first novel, covers the entire period. It is the progress, in a closely related set of miniatures, of the disintegration of a family, coincident with the disruption of a culture whose virtues are stable...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Qualities that we associate with the southern mind dominate Miss Gordon as they do writers as various as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren. Like these distinguished contemporaries of hers, she has made creative use of the tragic dimensions of human life, the aborted aspirations of most human beings, the sense of evil infecting the good and true, the glories and the burdens of a legendary past, the sense of cultures and individuals in conflict, and a feeling for place that becomes a muted passion.

It is the strength of Miss Gordon's work to suggest continually new facets of significance as one lives through the books in his mind. The characters and the incidents form new configurations with the result that the significance of any one of her books enlarges constantly as one reviews it. Her purpose has been from the beginning to suggest that reality is spiritual as well as empiric, immaterial as well as material. Accordingly, she has presented the experience of her characters in time and then again as it reaches beyond time. The ineffable dimensions of her materials she suggests through a discerning use of myth; and in her later books Christianity reinforces their universal implications. In the first instance, however, her books are faithful to the requirements of art, no matter where they lead philosophically. Only in the most general sense, then, are the books doctrinal. As a writer Miss Gordon is the inquiring moralist even before she is the religious writer. Because of her passionate concern with the way life should be, her books are rooted in social realities even as they look toward the visionary. Intelligence, compassion, psychological insight, depth of vision, and stylistic distinction inform a canon of work that impresses always by its comprehensiveness and strength. (pp. 44-5)

Frederick P.W. McDowell, in his Caroline Gordon (American Writers Pamphlet No. 59; © 1966, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1966, 48 p.

W. J. Stuckey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite the praise, the reputation, and the acknowledged importance of Miss Gordon's work, her fiction has not received the kind of critical attention one might have expected it to attract, particularly in an age so productive of literary criticism. To date, there has been only one thin pamphlet and a half-dozen or so articles about Caroline Gordon's eight novels and her two collections of short stories. One reason Miss Gordon's fiction has not attracted much critical attention is that her novels have never been popular; for, though we may prefer to think there is no significant connection between book sales and critical acclaim, popular "serious" writers like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway have received more...

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Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon] may be divided into the central and peripheral. The peripheral are relatively few, with two long examples, "The Captive" (the story of a white woman captured by Indians) and "Emmanuele! Emmanuele!" (laid in North Africa and France), and some several short pieces involving the Civil War. The central stories, more numerous, refer to the land [of southeast Kentucky] …, and in these the enclosing sense of the land combines with the enclosing sense of family and kin. It is true that, at all levels of society in the South, the sense of kinship, of the clan, of the family, hung on long after it died elsewhere, and hung on with so strong a sense of obligation that to the...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Caroline Gordon's] territory is the South—specifically Kentucky, in that time not so long ago when families still kept track of first cousins twice removed, and when the men spent their days hunting while the women, left behind, sat langorously on the gallery.

The extraordinary vigor of her "Collected Stories" arises from the fact that Caroline Gordon's heart lies more with the hunters than with those women on the gallery. No scent of faded lavender drifts from these pages. Instead, there's the smell of frost and blood and wood smoke. Dogs bay at possums, hooves clatter past, a child calls, "Honey, Honey, Bee Ball…. I cain't see y'all…." There's the taste of home-cured ham, the sight of fish...

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Margaret Dickie Uroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mood of Caroline Gordon's short stories [in The Collected Stories] is just this side of elegiac. Here is not a lament for the dead, but rather an evocation of a world that is passing away, a celebration of things enjoyed in every particular precisely because they will not come again. It is not just the inevitability but the propriety of time's passage that Miss Gordon's narratives acknowledge. For her the changing world is cherished in its details, arrested for a moment in an image or a comment but then released to its flux. (pp. 789-90)

Written over a span of some forty years, Miss Gordon's stories reveal from first to last a reverence for specificity, the feel and look of things. Even in...

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Jennifer Uglow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From the start one is aware in Gordon's fiction of a decisive, directing set of values. Indeed, her insistent conservatism seems to demand a personal response, and although it is hard to resist the narrative strength which compels sympathy with her protagonists, I confess to a deep unease at the nostalgia for past certainties which pervades each story. This traditionalism embraces both a Faulknerian yearning for a lost relationship with the land, and also a social vision, of a world where men led and women followed (although unhappily), and where one could celebrate the closeness of black and white without questioning the juxtaposition of cabin and colonial mansion….

At times the individual voice...

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Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It seems auspicious that two works representing the best of Caroline Gordon's art, The Collected Stories and a new edition of Aleck Maury, Sportsman, should be published so close together and so near the time of Gordon's death. These two books are the ones for which we will most likely remember her. Aleck Maury is clearly her masterwork, and The Collected Stories is, with a few exceptions, a collection of superb, often flawless short fiction. Any doubt that Gordon was a master craftsman is laid to rest with these two volumes, particularly The Collected Stories, where, in one finely wrought story after another, she captures the exquisite complexity of life and the imagination.


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