Nationality: American. Born: Todd County, Kentucky, 6 October 1895. Education: Bethany College, West Virginia, A.B. in Greek 1916. Family: Married Allen Tate in 1924 (divorced and remarried 1946; separated 1955; divorced 1959); one daughter. Career: High school teacher, 1917-19; reporter, Chattanooga News, Tennessee, 1920-24; secretary to the writer Ford Madox Ford, New York, 1926-28. Lived in Europe, 1928-29 and 1932-33. Writer-in-residence, University of North Carolina Woman's College, Greensboro, 1938-39; lecturer in creative writing, School of General Studies, Columbia University, New York, from 1946; visiting professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle, 1953; writer-in-residence, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1956, University of California, 1962-63; writer-in-residence, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, 1963; teacher of creative writing, University of Dallas, after 1973. Joined Catholic Church, 1947. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1932; O. Henry award, 1934; American Academy grant, 1950; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966. D.Litt.: Bethany College, 1946; St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1964. Died: 11 April 1981.
Collected Stories. 1981.
The Forest of the South. 1945.
Old Red and Other Stories. 1963.
Aleck Maury, Sportsman. 1934; as The Pastimes of Aleck Maury: The Life of a True Sportsman, 1935.
None Shall Look Back. 1937.
The Garden of Adonis. 1937.
Green Centuries. 1941.
The Women on the Porch. 1944.
The Strange Children. 1951.
The Malefactors. 1956.
The Glory of Hera. 1972.
How to Read a Novel. 1957.
A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford. 1963.
The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937, edited by Sally Wood. 1984.
Editor, with Allen Tate, The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story. 1950; revised edition, 1960.*
Flannery O'Connor and Gordon: A Reference Guide by Robert E. Golden and Mary C. Sullivan, 1977.
Gordon by Frederick P.W. McDowell, 1966; Gordon by W.J. Stuckey, 1972; The Short Fiction of Gordon: ACritical Symposium edited by Thomas H. Landess, 1972; Gordon as Novelist and Woman of Letters by Rose Ann C. Fraistat, 1984; Close Connections: Gordon and the S'ern Renaissance by Ann Waldron, 1987; Gordon: A Biography by Veronica A. Makowsky, 1989; The Underground Stream: The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon by Nancylee Novell Jonza, 1995.* * *
Equally skilled as a novelist and a short story writer, Caroline Gordon made the complex social, psychological, and political transition from the Old South of the nineteenth century to the New South of the twentieth century her special topic. Her studies of middle-class Southerners and the passing of the old cultured agrarian squirearchy link her with writers like Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, or Robert Penn Warren, although she has a distinctive voice and vision.
Gordon's short stories tracing the life of Aleck Maury are among the finest studies of an American sportsman and are as insightful and meticulous as the hunting and fishing tales of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. The episodic novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman contains most of this material, excepting such brilliant independent stories as "Old Red," "The Presence," "One More Day," "To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet," and "The Last Day in the Field," which complete the saga of Maury, an insouciant classics teacher, gentleman farmer, and devoted sportsman. The stories draw on Gordon's family experiences and include fictionalized glimpses of her and husband Allen Tate at the thresholds of their literary careers.
The region defined by most of Gordon's stories is southeastern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee, a borderland of small tobacco and horse farms, and the fields and streams of the Cumberland River valley. Many stories focus on family and social relations in the first half of the century, following the extended family and neighbors of Professor Maury. But the past—historical and literary—obtrudes into the present culture, and the stories contain many allusions to mythology and literature, ancient and modern, and to the Civil War as the great determining pivot of Southern society.
A few stories rove to the past: "The Captivity," which retells Jenny Wiley's tale, perhaps the most famous Indian-captivity story; "Hear the Nightingale Sing"; "The Forest of the South"; and "The Ice House." All are Civil War tales, detailing the impact of the invading Union Army on civilians in the rural South. "A Walk with the Accuser" treats Huguenots in sixteenth-century France, and "The Olive Garden" and "Emmanuele, Emmanuele!" treat modern French culture.
Gordon's characters are typically highly educated in the literary classics, dwelling in what she called "the forest of the South," like Shakespeare's courtly exiles in the Forest of Arden finding a pleasant, seductive pastoralism in the isolated backwoods. In "The Burning Eyes" we learn of Aleck Maury's late-nineteenth-century childhood and initiation into hunting (by a black tenant farmer and "headlong hunter" of possums). The rural microcosm of Maury's youth is described:
There was a broad pasture immediately in front of the house, its edges already encroached upon by old-field pines. To the right was a curving stretch of dark woodland. To the left wound away the old red road that led, I knew, to Brackets, and beyond that to Hawkwood and Grassdale. I had visited at these and various other family places in the neighborhood, knew even the savor of the houses, but I could not take these features into my landscape. For me the world as seen from my dooryard was always those woods and the pasture and the old red, winding road.
The woods and roads become means of retreat and escape from family and civilization. In Gordon's stories characters seek asylum from society in nature, dealing with the simple certainties of the seasons and animals. She details the intense knowledge and technique necessary for the dedicated hunter or fly fisherman. These skills and knowledge, born of observation and deep emotional experience, contrast with the literary learning—scraps of poetry, myth, the classics—that define the manners of the genteel, feminized household. Aleck Maury spends his life evading the responsibilities of home and hearth by fleeing to the fields and streams, devoting himself to the specialized learning of shotgun and flyrod, so his title of "professor" is especially ironic.
The forces defining Gordon's characters include social duties, family ties, and the weaknesses of the flesh. Marriage is one prison, in a society highly conscious of genealogy and social status. Aging is another, as chronicled in "The Last Day in the Field" when Aleck Maury realizes he has lost the eye-hand skills for wing-shooting. He can still turn to fishing, the less physical but more contemplative art. A parallel story, "All Lovers Love the Spring," describes an aging, unmarried woman raised among boys in the country. She tends an aged mother and takes up the risky hobby of mushroom-hunting and discovers the tension between her family duty and her freedom in nature:
On a mound of earth, in that black, swampy water, a tame pear tree was in bloom…. Most of the blossoms hadn't unfolded yet; the petals looked like seashells. I stood under the tree and watched all those festoons of little shells floating up, up, up into the bluest sky I've ever seen, and wished that I didn't have to go home. Mama's room always smells of camphor. You notice it after you've been out in the fresh air.
Gordon's men and women are shaped by forces of their culture but make profound connections with the earth. The basic tension in her short stories rises from the conflicting desires and needs of people and from the constraints of modern, urban civilization. "The Brilliant Leaves" tells of a failed elopement, in which a young man looks down from a mountain at the settlement below: "They looked alike, those houses. He wondered how his mother and his aunt could sit there every afternoon talking about the people who lived in them." His girl friend plummets from the mountain by Bridal Veil Falls, and Jimmy must run through the autumn woods for help:
He did not see the leaves he ran over. He saw only the white houses that no matter how fast he ran kept always just ahead of him. If he did not hurry they would slide off the hill, slide off and leave him running forever through these woods, over these dead leaves.
Caroline Gordon's stories chronicle the choices between individual liberty and social responsibility that defined the Southern culture that was her background and her richest subject.
—William J. Schafer
See the essay on "Old Red."