Patton, Frances Gray
PATTON, Frances Gray
Born 19 March 1906, Raleigh, North Carolina
Daughter of Robert L. and Mary S. MacRae Gray; married Lewis Patton, 1927
Doubtlessly influenced by her family's literary bent (her father and brothers were journalists, and her mother published occasional pieces), Frances Gray Patton began writing for her high school newspaper and continued on through a playwriting fellowship at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She wrote the Carolina Playmakers' opening play in 1925, and another play published in a volume that also contains Thomas Wolfe's first known work. A fourth-generation North Carolinian, Patton married a University of North Carolina English professor in 1927, had three children, and continued to reside in Durham until her death.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Patton's short stories appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker, Harper's, and McCall's. Her first book, The Finer Things in Life (1951), is composed of reprints of these simple stories of smalltown Southern life. Whether openly employing the first person or relating the problems of the Potter family—college professor, wife, and three children—these tales are primarily low-keyed autobiographical sketches lacking energy, substance, or depth of character. Only when Patton places some distance between herself and the subject does she succeed in generating a feeling of involvement through a fine use of dialogue and local color. "A Nice Name" won a Society of Intercultural Education award for its fine portrayal of the reactions of a group of young Southern matrons when they learn that the charming, intellectual "pen-pal" they had all thought "wonderful" and "bril-l-iant " is black. "The Terrible Miss Dove" is the seminal episode of the subsequent novel and is highly successful in characterization and tone.
Patton's second volume of short stories, A Piece of Luck (1955), shows a greater mastery of form and language. The autobiographical strain has been submerged, and the Southern setting serves to illuminate rather than define the characters, as in the first volume. The various shifts of narrative perspective and the ironic detachment give this volume considerable substance. The masculine revenge of "The Homunculus" and the sorrow at the end of "The Game" of Maria, who has "nothing pure and beautiful left to love," are delicately depicted and sensitively rendered. The fine use of dialogue, gentle irony, and vivid delineation of character convey "a time when life, for all its troubles, had been sweet and juicy in the mouth."
Patton's greatest achievement is her only novel, Good Morning, Miss Dove (1954). Highly successful in both America and England, this work has been justly dubbed a minor classic. Although the story is overly sentimentalized, the great force of the general impression is sustained through the successful depiction of both smalltown life and the monolithic character of the "terrible Miss Dove"—the sixth grade geography teacher who "caused children to flex their moral muscle." As "the public conscience of Liberty Hill," Miss Dove has placed her stamp on almost every person in town. Each of them has spent a period under her tutelage, "where no leeway was given to the personality," and in her room one was "sustained by the classic simplicity of inflexible rights and wrongs." Miss Dove is a dedicated pedagogue who believes each child's character is in her keeping. She attempts to prepare the children for the "inescapable perils of independent thinking" and to show them "life demanded all the disciplined courage and more, that one could bring to it." Through the use of flashbacks, rhetorical questions, and multicharacter psychological intrusions, the personality of Miss Dove, her life, and the impact on her pupils are portrayed in a matter-of-fact tone with occasional ironic thrusts balancing the sentimental tendencies of the narrative.
Although Patton seeks to illustrate the "vein-structure of human life" through a moment of illumination, most of her stories fall short through a lack of substance—the mundaneness of the insight or the inconsequence of the character. At her best, Patton judiciously balances the simultaneous planes of humor and tragedy while ironically exposing the foibles and nobility of human nature. These successful moments in a half-dozen stories and her novel have secured Patton's place in American letters.
Twenty-Eight Stories (1969). Stories in "May Your Days Be Merry and Bright": Christmas Stories by Women (1991), Women's Friendships: A Collection of Short Stories (1991).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
NYHT (9 Dec. 1951, 2 Oct. 1955, 31 Oct. 1954). NYT (16 Oct. 1955). North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (video, 1997). SR (6 Nov. 1954). San Francisco Chronicle (8 Nov. 1951).
—FRANCINE SHAPIRO PUK