Gordon, Mary Catherine

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GORDON, Mary Catherine

Born 8 December 1949, Far Rockaway, New York

Daughter of David G. and Anna Gagliano Gordon; married James Brain, 1974 (annulled); Arthur Cash, 1979; children: Anna, David

Described as a "humane, masterly novelist," Mary Catherine Gordon combines a rich moral imagination with a prose style whose sentences "burst with metaphoric energy." Writing within the contexts of Roman Catholicism, the Irish-American experience, and feminism, Gordon's work poses increasingly complex problems, often centering on the struggle to balance the competing claims of the sacred and the profane, of particular and universal love, of the need for personal freedom and connection. "The Church of my childhood that was so important for my formation as an artist," she noted in 1988, "is now gone." Although she regrets the loss of connections with the past—in The Other Side (1989) the power of the Irish immigrant experience has been dissipated by the fourth generation—she often looks to children as the hope of the future.

The only child of an Italian-Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism, Gordon attended Catholic schools in Valley Stream, Long Island. Her father died when she was seven, but his faith and commitment to the intellectual life were long-lasting influences. In 1967 Gordon entered Barnard College (B.A. 1971), where Elizabeth Hardwick encouraged her to write fiction rather than poetry. After Barnard, Gordon earned an M.A. (1973) at Syracuse University and began work toward a Ph.D. in English. While teaching freshman composition at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York, she began writing Final Payments (1978), which was accepted for publication after Hardwick suggested she change the point of view from third to first person.

Gordon's work often chronicles the attempt to find a moral center in a decentered age. In Final Payments, Isabel Moore, an Irish-American woman, puts her own life aside to minister to her ailing father. When he dies, she reenters the world and adapts to the new sexual mores, but seeks expiation for the guilt this causes her by taking responsibility for the care of her father's former housekeeper, a selfish and difficult woman. Ultimately, Isabel frees herself from the moral imperative of "loving the unlovable" by making a less costly but hopefully final payment.

The demands of charity are also addressed in Men and Angels (1985) but with greater complexity and outside the Catholic context. Anne Foster, who is not religious, hires Laura, a fundamentalist Christian, to care for her children while she works on an exhibition catalog. Anne tries to like Laura, but cannot; Laura, out of affection, plots Anne's religious conversion. The chapters alternate between Anne's and Laura's points of view, providing a compelling counterpoint between and among the requirements of the flesh and the spirit.

Gordon's characters are also faced with the social expectations of women in a patriarchal society. Anne struggles to balance motherhood with scholarship, Isabel to escape the grudging self-sacrifice of the caretaker role. In The Company of Women (1980) five women are united in friendship by their devotion to a conservative priest, Father Cyprian, who grooms Felicitas, the daughter of one of the women, to be his intellectual heir. At college, however, Felicitas joins another company, also led by a male guru, a professor who believes in free love. When Felicitas becomes pregnant, she returns to the company of women, though no longer an acolyte, and her child becomes the group's hope for the future.

Good Boys and Dead Girls (1991), a collection of more than two dozen reviews, essays, and journal entries written between 1978 and 1989, manifests clearly what the Economist 's reviewer called Gordon 's "fierce intelligence" and her own struggle to define the moral life. Her ambivalence toward Catholicism—a rejection of authoritarianism and patriarchy but an acceptance of mystery—as well as her insights into contemporary social and literary issues are evident here. The title essay extends Leslie Fiedler's observation that in literature by American males, men avoid domesticity by heading for the frontier in the company of other men. In a review, Wendy Martin pointed out antinomianism, "the conviction that subjective experience is as important as religious doctrine," not only explains this phenomenon more fully but also reflects Gordon's own tendency to trust experience over dogma. Gordon has also written introductions for reprints of writings by Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, and Edith Wharton.

Gordon's short fiction, most of it collected in Temporary Shelter (1987), has been received somewhat less enthusiastically than her novels and criticism. Several of the short stories, including the title story, are memorable, however, as are the three novellas included in The Rest of Life (1993).

The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1997) presents Gordon's quest to "know" her father, who died when she was seven years of age. The book details the results of the author's agonizing journey and the surprising results of her research. The man with whom Gordon had spent most of her first seven years (father and daughter were inseparable) was not the Harvard-educated intellectual she believed him to be, but rather a high school dropout and rabid anti-Semite who had been supported almost exclusively by his disabled wife, a victim of polio. Gordon summarizes her feelings: "I confronted that ghost, and he is both more terrible than I had thought and not as terrible as I had feared. And I think in giving up an idealized father, I stopped being, most importantly, a daughter."

Praised by critics as "erotic and highly intelligent," Spending: A Utopian Divertimento (1998) takes the protagonist, Monica Szabo, on a ride to the heights of the art world. Szabo, a painter in her fifties, jokingly laments in a public lecture that female artists are rarely the beneficiaries of a "muse"—one who offers physical and financial support to the career artist. When a handsome, wealthy audience member challenges her statement and offers his services, she is launched into the most productive period of her career. True to the religious overtones of Gordon's work, Szabo's rise to fame results from a set of eight paintings that depict Christ's condition after removal from the cross as postcoital rather than dead. In order to create her subject in realistic terms, Szabo enthusiastically embarks on appropriate research. If there is a message here, it is that despite her lifelong quest to experience "the REAL thing" in life, Szabo ultimately learns that the real things in life are some of the simplest.

Mary McCarthy, Ford Madox Ford, J. F. Powers, and Virginia Woolf are among the writers Gordon admires, John Updike among those she finds dispensable. Although a few critics find some of her plotting a bit contrived, some of her characters lacking in development, and some of her prose uneven, Gordon's intelligence, her deep and passionate moral sense, and her keen eye for nuance and detail have earned her a large following among the reading public. She received the Janet Kafka Prize for Fiction in 1979 and 1982 and her books have been widely translated. She is currently the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard College and teaches there three times a week, stating that her students give her hope.


Cooper-Clark, D., ed., Interviews with Contemporary Novelists (1986). Day, F., ed., Mary Gordon (1996).

Reference works:

CA (1981). CBY (1981). DLB (1980). DLBY (1981). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

America (14 May 1994, 15 Aug. 1998). Christian Century (20 Nov. 1985). Commentary (June 1985). Commonweal (12 Aug. 1988, 17 May 1991). Critique (Summer 1986). Cross Currents (Summer/Fall 1987). Economist (15 June 1991). Essays in Literature (Spring 1990). Literary Review (Fall 1988). Newsweek (1 Apr. 1985). NYTBR (31 Mar. 1985, 28 Apr. 1991, 8 Aug. 1993). Ploughshares (Fall 1997). Poets and Writers (July-Aug. 1997). PW (8 Aug. 1994). Sewanee Review (Spring 1979). Signs (Autumn 1988). Time (27 May 1996). TLS (1 Sept. 1978).



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