Caroline Gordon 1895–1981
American novelist, short story writer, and critic.
The following entry provides an overview of Gordon's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, and 29.
Often associated with the Southern Literary Renaissance and the Southern Agrarian movement, Gordon is best known for writings which synthesize elements of mythology, Southern history, and Roman Catholicism. Gordon's fiction is remarkable for its evocation of nature, its historic focus on the Western frontier and antebellum South, and its emphasis on humanity's mystical connection with the land. Preoccupied with the classical concept of the hero's journey, Gordon sought to reveal the universality of human nature throughout history: "The proper work of fiction will be both timeless and temporal, temporal in its definition of a particular society at a given moment in history, timeless in its repetition of the archetypal pattern of behavior."
Gordon was born on her grandmother's farm, Meriwether, in southern Kentucky near the Tennessee border. She was educated by her father, who taught classics, and was the only female student at an all boys academy in southern Tennessee. In 1924 she married poet Allen Tate, to whom she was introduced by writer and friend William Penn Warren. In the 1920s the couple made two extended trips to Europe, and while in Paris they associated with other expatriate writers such as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Ralph Cheever Dunning. While in Paris in 1929, Gordon worked as a secretary to her good friend and mentor Ford Madox Ford. Urging her to complete her first novel, Penhally, (1931), Ford typed parts of her manuscript for her, requiring that she dictate 5,000 words per day to him. During the 1930s Tate and Gordon frequently hosted such literary figures as Ford, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Lowell at their home, Benfolly, in southern Tennessee. During this period, Gordon struggled with her roles as wife, mother, and writer: "While I am a woman I am also a freak. The work I do is not suitable for women. It is unsexing. I speak with real conviction here. I don't write 'the womanly' novel." Gordon and her husband moved frequently as she served as teacher, lecturer, or writer-in-residence at various American universities. In 1947 Gordon converted to Roman Catholicism, which profoundly impacted her fiction. She believed that the artist had a moral obligation to serve, praise, and worship God through art. In her 1964 essay, "Letters to a Monk," published in Ramparts, she wrote: "I was nearly fifty year's old before I discovered that art is the handmaiden of the Church." Gordon died in 1981 at San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Gordon's early fiction was influenced by her association with Southern Agrarianism—a literary movement, fomenting during the 1920s and 1930s, which resisted the encroaching industrialization on the South's traditional, agrarian society and emphasized the region's history. For example, the protagonist of her highly autobiographical second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), is a teacher of classical literature, a husband, and a father, who seeks refuge from the impingement of his responsibilities on his freedom through hunting, fishing, and communing with nature. This theme and character is also featured in such short stories as "Old Red," "One More Time," "To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet," "The Last Day in the Field," and "The Presence." Although she disliked the term "historical novelist," Gordon similarly focused on the South's past in such works as None Shall Look Back (1937), which focuses, in part, on the Civil War leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, and in Green Centuries (1941), which concerns the expansion of the Western frontier. Several of Gordon's works, particularly her later novels, reflect a more religious theme and her conversion to Roman Catholicism. The Strange Children (1951) concerns the Christian quest for salvation told from the viewpoint of a nine-year-old girl as she observes the adult world. This novel is noted for its utilization of the omniscient narrator, a literary device prominent in the works of Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Gustave Flaubert. The theme of redemption and salvation is also present in The Malefactors (1956). In this work, Gordon employs the Aristotelian device of peripety, the point at which the action changes as the protagonist undergoes a spiritual, moral, or intellectual transformation. In this novel, the transformation occurs when an unfaithful husband—tormented by what he perceives as the inexorable conflict between men and women due to their disparate natures and their inability to form a lasting bond—undergoes a religious conversion. Gordon's last novel, The Glory of Hera (1972), is a retelling of the Greek myth of Heracles, incorporating elements of Jungian psychology and Christian concepts of salvation and grace.
Early in her career, Gordon often met with critical acclaim. Ford described her first novel, Penhally, as "the best constructed novel in modern America," and Gordon received Guggenheim fellowships on several occasions; her "conversion" works, however, were often faulted for their didacticism, elitism, and lack of conviction. Critics note that while her fiction remains distinctively Southern in character and theme—it is often favorably compared to the works of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter—it follows, stylistically and methodologically, the European literary tradition. Scholars have additionally commented, as did Gordon in her How to Read a Novel (1957) and The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, with Commentary (1950), that her work is informed by several philosophies and literary traditions: Aristotelian concepts of plot, classic Greek and Christian mythology, Jungian thought, and various levels of interpretation—literal, moral, anagogic, and allegorical—based upon Dante's Convivio.