The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon Analysis

Caroline Gordon

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A consummate artist, Caroline Gordon was one of several Southern women writers born around the turn of the twentieth century who created brilliant portraits of Southern life. More than a local colorist, however, Gordon maintained a philosophy deeply influenced by her Southern upbringing that carried over into all of her works. Although she seemed as comfortable creating male characters as female ones, those stories that do focus on women explore areas of female sensibility often overlooked in depictions of the South.

The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon consists of twenty-three stories grouped into four parts. Except for one story, part 1 confines itself to the early twentieth century and the south-central Kentucky region in which Gordon was born. Six of the stories—“The Burning Eyes,” “Old Red,” “One More Time,” “To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet,” “The Last Day in the Field,” and “The Presence”—concern Aleck Maury, classics professor and sportsman, who persistently resists the tug of social obligations to pursue a life as hunter and fisherman. Two stories, “The Petrified Woman” and “One Against Thebes,” are told from the vantage point of Maury’s child, Sally, who struggles to discover her feminine role in a world of adults. “The Enemies” and “The Long Day” concern infidelity between black men and women and the resulting violence. A final story in this section, “Tom Rivers,” shifts the scene to...

(The entire section is 580 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Caroline Gordon’s productive career had a strong impact on the history of women’s literature. The author of nine novels, three volumes of short stories, and two of the most influential books of criticism of the twentieth century, Gordon never allowed the fame of her better-known literary husband, Allen Tate, to discourage her own writing. She was deeply concerned with preserving a history of the South and particularly women’s roles in it. To that end, she portrayed a diversity of feminine personalities, many of whom struggled under duress and without the support of men. Gordon believed strongly that women occupied a special space in the Southern community, and in many subtle ways she explored the perimeters of that space.

The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

ph_0111207084-Gordon.jpg Caroline Gordon Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Booklist. LXXVII, March 1, 1981, p. 916.

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 79.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, June 24, 1981, p. 18.

Fraistat, Rose Ann C. Caroline Gordon as Novelist and Woman of Letters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. Emphasizes Gordon as someone who devoted herself to the vocation of letters, both as novelist and critic. Includes a thorough bibliography.

Hudson Review. XXXIV, Autumn, 1981, p. 457.

Landess, Thomas H., ed. The Short Fiction of Caroline Gordon: A Critical Symposium. Irving, Tex.: University of Dallas Press, 1972. A collection of six essays dealing with the short stories. Particularly strong in analyzing Gordon’s technique and her conservative philosophy.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 576.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. Caroline Gordon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966. A good introduction to Gordon and her fiction, this fifty-page pamphlet also provides a bibliography of works by and about the author.

Makowsky, Veronica A. Caroline Gordon: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. The only book-length account of Gordon’s life, this work sometimes is frustrating because of its lack of dates, particularly in the early years of Gordon’s life. Contains short analyses of the stories.

Ms. X, July, 1981, p. 89.

Nation. CCXXXIII, July 4, 1981, p. 25.

National Review. XXXIII, July 10, 1981, p. 789.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 19, 1981, p. 6.

Saturday Review. VIII, July, 1981, p. 78.

Stuckey, William J. Caroline Gordon. New York: Twayne, 1972. A useful short account of Gordon’s life and works. Although limited by its being written a decade before Gordon died, it nevertheless provides many thoughtful analyses of her works, with an entire chapter devoted to the short stories. Also provides a useful chronology of important dates in the author’s life.

Warren, Robert Penn. Introduction to The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1981. This friend of the author and fellow Kentuckian focuses primarily on the realistic and specific details of her fiction, particularly as she describes Kentucky.