Critical discussions of Caroline Gordon often focus on her economy of style, classic simplicity, and thematic complexity. Most of her finest stories are histories, told through a few selected and carefully employed details. These stories may recall family reunions, as in “The Petrified Woman,” or preserve family anecdotes about an eccentric such as Aleck Maury. They may re-create the thought of a pioneer woman who struggles to survive after seeing her children murdered, as in “The Captive.” They may chronicle the dissolution of a Southern family as in “The Forest of the South.” Even in her story about Tom Rivers, Gordon carefully roots her Texas hero in Kentucky family history.
In her loyalty to Southern tradition, Gordon might be called an unreconstructed Southerner. She, like the Southern Agrarians among whom her husband Allen Tate was numbered, believed that the Northern victory in the Civil War was not a victory for humanity but a sad defeat. It destroyed one of the last vestiges of a society that, as her title “The Forest of the South” suggests, was intricately connected, deeply rooted, and irreplaceable. In that story, the idealist Northern lieutenant John Munford woos Eugenie Mazereau, daughter of the Southern family whose home he and other Union officers occupy. Although plots featuring Northerners and Southerners intermarrying were used by writers in the 1880’s and 1890’s to suggest that the country could successfully be reunited, Gordon is far more skeptical. Munford is too blinded by his abstract conception of the righteousness of his cause to notice the impossibility of what he proposes. After all, one of his fellow Union soldiers murdered Eugenie’s father with an ax just inside her own front door. Munford’s blindness to the complexity of the situation is symbolized by his being unaware that Eugenie is insane until he has already committed himself to her. Munford cannot see the forest (of the South) for the trees.
Perhaps Gordon’s best-developed family chronicle focuses on Aleck Maury. She wrote a novel entitled Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), and in the six stories of her collected stories devoted to him, she continues to track his life from youth to old age. At least partially modeled on her father, the cantankerous Maury seeks a life unfettered by obligations. He loves to hunt and fish, and he chafes at women’s efforts to tame him. “The Burning Eyes” describes his first hunting trip, undertaken in spite of his...
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