Mary Gordon 1949-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Gordon's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13 and 22.
Mary Gordon emerged as a highly respected contemporary novelist with the enormous critical and popular success of her debut novel, Final Payments (1978). Drawing heavily upon her own Catholic upbringing, Gordon examines the problematic and often contradictory claims of universal and particular love, Christian morality, domestic responsibility, sexual desire, and emotional fulfillment in the secular world. Distinguished for her well-crafted prose and engaging evocation of cloistered Catholic lives, Gordon focuses on the private struggles of modern women whose personal needs are sacrificed to the demands of selfless care-giving, marriage, motherhood, and religious conscience. While Final Paymentsand The Company of Women (1981) figure largely around Catholic themes, in subsequent novels such as Men and Angels (1985) and Spending (1998) Gordon expanded the settings and subjects of her novels to include female academics and artists who explore their conflicted feelings about romantic love and independence.
Born in Long Island, New York, Gordon was an only child raised in a devout Catholic home by her mother, a legal secretary of Irish and Italian descent, and her eccentric father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and avowed anti-Semite who wrote speeches for Joseph McCarthy and published a string of unsuccessful right-wing Catholic magazines. Gordon shared a strong emotional bond with her doting father, who taught her Greek, French, and philosophy before suffering a fatal heart attack when she was seven. Gordon attended a Catholic parochial school and graduated from Mary Louis Academy, an all-girl Catholic high school. As a child she wrote poetry and considered a monastic life, though eventually rejected the Church as a teenager; Gordon still considers herself a Catholic despite objections to papal strictures against birth control, abortion, and the ordination of women.
In 1967 Gordon received a scholarship to attended Barnard College of Columbia University in New York. While at Barnard, Gordon studied writing with novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, an important early mentor who encouraged her to switch from poetry to prose. After graduating from Barnard in 1971, Gordon attended Syracuse University, where she earned a master's degree in writing in 1973 and started an unfinished doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf; Gordon counts Woolf, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Ford Madox Fordamong her most important literary influences. While at Syracuse, Gordon met her first husband, James Brain, an anthropologist. From 1974 to 1978 Gordon taught English at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she began work on her first novel, Final Payments, which appeared in 1978. Gordon taught at Amherst College in 1979 and, during the same year, remarried to Arthur Cash, an English professor. During the 1980s, Gordon published several additional novels, The Company of Women, Men and Angels, and The Other Side (1989), and the short story collection Temporary Shelter (1987). She has taught English at Barnard College since 1988. Many of her critical essays and reviews are contained in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1992). Gordon has since published novellas in The Rest of Life (1993), the memoir The Shadow Man(1996), and a fifth novel, Spending.
Final Payments introduces many of the recurring motifs and preoccupations in Gordon's fiction: the struggle to reconcile conflicting aspects of charitable and romantic love, emotional dependency, spiritual and family debts, and individual conscience and religious morality; rebellion against patriarchal authority; and the perverse allure of self-abnegation for the benefit of others, particularly among women. Set in working-class Queens, Final Payments is narrated by Isabel Moore, a thirty-year-old Irish Catholic woman who has devoted eleven years of her life to the constant care of her invalid father, a conservative Catholic and former professor of medieval literature; his debilitating paralysis stems from a stroke suffered after discovering Isabel in bed with one of his students. Upon her father's death—the novel opens at his funeral—Isabel is freed of her responsibilities and thrust into the world to establish an independent life. She finds an outlet for her long repressed sexual desire in two affairs—both with married men—which result in humiliation and self-loathing. To atone for her deep-seated guilt, Isabel resolves to care for her father's former housekeeper, Margaret Casey, an unlovable wretch whom she despises though views as a means to salvation. However, after enduring a period of penitent care-taking, Isabel abandons Margaret for a new life, leaving her a large sum of money from the sale of her father's home as a “final payment.”
The Company of Women involves a group of five middle-aged, sexually dormant women who share a profound emotional attachment to Father Cyprian, a right-wing Catholic priest who has renounced his clerical order in protest to liberal church concessions. Much of the novel figures around Felicitas Taylor, the daughter of one of the widowed women, whom Cyprian cultivates as his spiritual disciple. Felicitas eventually rebels against Cyprian and enrolls at Columbia University, where she encounters the student radicalism of the late 1960s and enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with her professor, a self-styled revolutionary by whom she becomes pregnant. Returning to the unconditional love of the women and Cyprian, Felicitas and the others relocate to Cyprian's Upstate New York home, where Felicitas raises her daughter and resigns herself to a simple life of ordinary pleasures. Men and Angels focuses on Anne Foster, an art historian and working mother whose husband, a professor, is on sabbatical in France. Uncomfortable with her new independence, Anne hires Laura Post, an emotionally scarred religious zealot, to help care for her children while she works on a catalogue of artwork by Caroline Watson, an obscure early twentieth-century painter. Anne's research reveals that Watson was a callous mother who neglected her son, mirrored by Laura's own unhappy childhood and consequent insecurities. Laura's fanaticism, which ultimately leads her to suicide, wreaks havoc in the Foster home and threatens Anne's domestic security. Though Catholicism is absent from this novel, the themes of selfless love and renunciation come to the fore as Anne questions her inability to care for the unlovable Laura, as well as the responsibilities of motherhood and married life.
In The Other Side Gordon returned to the New York Irish Catholic milieu of her first novel. Set over a period of twenty-four hours, this generational saga revolves around the homecoming of Vincent MacNamara, an elderly man who returns to his Queens home and dying wife, Ellen, after several months in the hospital with a broken hip. Drawing upon the fragmentary, transcontinental experiences of a large cast of characters, Gordon reconstructs the complex web of infidelity, parental neglect, alcoholism, divorce, and sibling rivalry that has shaped the immigrant MacNamara family since the early years of the twentieth century. Spending features Monica Szabo, a witty, middle-aged artist, mother, and divorcee who enters into an ideal romantic arrangement with “B,” a wealthy Wall Street trader and admiring collector of her paintings who offers unlimited emotional and financial support to facilitate her art. With “B” as her devoted lover, muse, and model, Monica produces “Spent Men,” an acclaimed series of paintings that depicts Christ in a state of post-orgasmic exhaustion after his crucifixion. In addition to problems associated with her new celebrity, fortune, and controversial art, Monica reflects on the artistic process and the exigencies of modern life.
The Rest of Life contains three novellas, each of which features women who obsess over love, death, and isolation. The first, “Immaculate Man,” involves a middle-aged female narrator who runs a shelter for battered women. She is entangled in an intense affair with Clement, an unchaste priest who she fears will leave her for a needier woman. In “Living at Home,” the female narrator is a psychiatrist who works with autistic children. She lives in constant fear of losing her beloved third husband Lauro, an Italian photojournalist who frequently travels to dangerous foreign locales to cover war and revolution. The third novella, “The Rest of Life,” involves Paolo, a septuagenarian who returns to her native Italy where, as a teenager, she failed to fulfill her half of a suicide pact with her boyfriend, Leo, and was ostracized by the community for his death. Though able to forgive herself and others, she laments her unrealized passion and Leo's untimely death.
Gordon's collection of short fiction, Temporary Shelter, contains twenty stories that previously appeared in publications such as Granta, Antaeus, Redbook, and Mademoiselle. As in her novels, these stories involve female protagonists—both young and adult—who relate the fragile security of loving relationships, particularly those between parents and children, spouses, and lovers. Good Boys and Dead Girls consists of book reviews, essays on literature and contemporary issues, and Gordon's personal reflections on diverse subjects such as abortion, Andy Warhol, the Gospel of Saint Mark, and writing. In The Shadow Man Gordon retraces her effort to come to terms with the powerful memory of her long deceased father. Through painstaking research into the factual content of his biography, Gordon discovers that her father has lied about much; she learns, among other things, that his real name was Israel not David, he was born in Lithuania not Ohio, he never attend Harvard, or any college, as he claimed, and he edited a pornographic magazine during the 1920s. After scrutinizing his life and legacy, Gordon finally lays him to rest in a symbolic reburial that signifies closure.
Gordon is highly regarded for her penetrating studies of self-denial, Catholic consciousness, and guilt-stricken women who are torn between external obligations and private desires. Final Payments was hailed as an impressive first novel and enthusiastically praised for its remarkable maturity, psychological depth, and unusual discussion of self-sacrifice and filial piety—concerns that seemed to run counter to the 1970s “me generation.” As Pearl K. Bell notes, Final Payments “was acclaimed not only for the dazzling intensity of her prose, but for the indisputable authority of her portrayal of the Irish-Catholic working class in Queens.” The Company of Women, which received mixed assessment, is considered by many an elaboration of the themes and personalities in Final Payments. Gordon garnered favorable reviews for Men and Angels, The Other Side, and the novellas of The Rest of Life. Along with Final Payments, Men and Angels and The Other Side are regarded as Gordon's most ambitious and accomplished works to date. Gordon is often compared to Victorian novelists Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, as well as Virginia Woolf for her subtle perception of female emotions, and to Flannery O'Connor for her interest in extreme religiosity. Best known as a novelist, Gordon has also received positive reviews for her short stories, essays, and memoir The Shadow Man. Though critics have cited flaws in Gordon's reliance on stereotyped characters, tenuous narrative structures, and faulty plots, she is consistently praised for her finely tuned prose, vivid descriptions, and keen insights regarding the complexities of reciprocal love.