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 mother’s reservations. The story “Old Red” refers to a legendary fox that Maury hunted in his youth and suggests that his crafty attempt to avoid the funeral of the family’s eldest member so that he can spend the day fishing is his own foxlike avoidance of social conventions. “To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet” is a story in which, after the death of his wife, Maury is pursued by a widow. Again, he escapes on a fishing trip. “The Last Day in the Field” describes him in his old age taking one last bird-hunting trip, and “The Presence” depicts him as a seventy-five-year-old, doing his hunting and fishing vicariously through his conversations with a younger man. Gordon sees Maury as a man in a race against time, trying like an epic hero to outwit death. Indeed, in “One More Time,” an elderly friend, forbidden to fish, drowns himself in a favorite lake rather than face incapacitation.
In her collected stories, Gordon also treats a wide variety of female characters, from a young girl to an elderly spinster. In “The Petrified Woman,” young Sally Maury is the central consciousness. At a family reunion, she observes her alcoholic cousin Tom’s rocky relationship with his unsympathetic wife, Eleanor, whose cold blue eyes suggest that she is the petrified woman of the story rather than the circus freak with whom Tom claims to fall in love. Sally’s is again the viewpoint in “One Against Thebes,” which focuses on the youngster’s growing awareness of gender roles...
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