The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon is characterized by meticulous craftsmanship; by clarity of style and vividness of detail; by subtle nuances of allusion and imagery; and, in the main, by a strongly Southern sense of place.
As a short-story writer, Caroline Gordon is perhaps best known for her cycle of Aleck Maury stories. The classic story of this group, and probably the most frequently anthologized of all her stories, is “Old Red.” Here the various facets of Aleck’s character are set forth. A highly intelligent classical scholar and teacher, he has chosen to forsake his gifts, his potential for academic achievement, and devote himself to the appreciation and enjoyment of life. For Aleck Maury, this means good food, good hunting, and good fishing. In “Old Red” the reader learns that he has outlived his wife, a worthy and loving adversary, who had struggled unsuccessfully for years to persuade him to conform to the imperatives of society. She failed, and with her passing he has been set free, only to discover that he must constantly be on the alert to escape the snares of convention. In the course of making a reluctant and long-deferred visit to his family, he finds himself being pressured to attend a relative’s funeral—what is for him a meaningless ritual which will deprive him of an afternoon of pleasure in the field. He leaves the bosom of his family on the pretext of the need to see his physician but with every intention of moving to new fishing territory where he will not be subject to the disapproving eye of social custom.
Though Aleck Maury is not cut from the mold of Falstaff, he has something in common with him—a subtle, devious intellect and a capacity for cherishing his own existence that seduces readers into admiration, amusement, and affection. What redeems him as a man, however, and makes him something more than a charming, irresponsible loafer is the intensity of his imagination and his feeling for nature. The most remarkable and moving passage in the story occurs when, on the point of slipping away from family ties and social responsibility, he slips the bonds of humanity and, through a brief flight of the imagination, becomes one with nature.
“To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet” is an amusing, if minor variation, on the theme of “Old Red.” During his sojourn at an inn while on a fishing expedition, Aleck falls prey to vanity and shows off his erudition and magnificent speaking voice. In so doing he unwittingly hooks a handsome widow. Now in the December of his days, he is far more interested in the inventiveness of a fishing genius whom he has just met than the charms of the widow, who has in subtle ways begun an attempt to reshape him according to the code of society. So it is that he decides to join the fishing genius for a trip to virgin fishing territory; as he slips away at nightfall he quotes to himself a line of poetry which identifies him with Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy. Like the Scholar Gypsy, Aleck will remain elusive, on the run, vigilant to escape the perils of polite society.
The weakest of this group of stories involves Aleck’s encounter with an old fishing companion who has returned “One More Time” to a favorite fishing resort—this time accompanied by his wife because he is in the last stages of a terminal illness. This story is not, like “Old Red” or “To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet,” carried by the charm of Aleck’s personality, and its startling climax is not moving enough in itself to make the story memorable.
The two final Aleck Maury stories are more subtle and powerful in their effects. “The Last Day in the Field” is a description of Aleck’s last hunting trip. His situation is made more poignant because of his young companion’s cheerful obliviousness to the pains and physical limitations that come in the twilight of life. The theme of mortality is subtly underscored throughout the story in ambient descriptive details that suggest the inexorable movement of natural law.
The final story of this group, “The Presence,” though less well known than “Old Red,” may be the finest of the set because of the greater resonance of its themes. The reader sees the rogue scholar with all his old charm and wit enjoying vicariously the sports which have made up his life because he can no longer participate physically; he soon becomes subject to a set of circumstances that accentuate the vulnerability of old age. In this last view of him, the reader finds that, though Aleck is capable of affection and friendship, his basic concern is, as always, his preoccupation with himself. At the story’s end he is haunted by a vision from his youth, “The Presence”—a harbinger of death.
Three of the more impressive stories in the collection reflect in different ways Gordon’s sympathy with the plight of the Southern blacks in pre-Civil Rights America. “The Enemies,” a powerful story which explores the world of the primitive black imagination, has a sensationalistic ending, but it is far superior to a story such as “One More Time.” The primary impact comes not so much from the grisly actions with which it concludes but from the thematic repercussions of those actions. They reflect a fierce sense of pride and justice, strong feelings to which it is clear the white characters are oblivious and which are ironically juxtaposed with the posture of obsequiousness assumed by the black...