Gordon, Caroline (1895–1981)

views updated

Gordon, Caroline (1895–1981)

American novelist, short-story writer, critic, and major figure in the Southern Renaissance, whose work described the conflict between industrialism and agrarianism, the tension between the pre-Civil War and post-Civil War South, and humankind's struggle to impose order on an unstable world. Born Caroline Gordon on October 6, 1895, on Merry Mont (or Merimont) farm, Todd County, Kentucky; died onApril 11, 1981, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico; daughter of James Maury Morris Gordon and Nancy (Meriwether) Gordon (both teachers); Bethany College, West Virginia, B.A., 1916; married Allen Tate, in May 1924 (divorced 1945); remarried Allen Tate, in 1946 (divorced 1959); children: Nancy Tate (b. September 1925).

Spent early childhood at Merry Mont farm; at age ten, attended her father's school of classical studies; after graduation from Bethany College, taught high school in Clarksville, Tennessee; moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee (1920) and worked as a reporter for the Chattanooga News; after marriage, moved with husband and child to Paris (1928–29); published first short story in Gyroscope (1929); returned to the South (1930); published first novel, Penhally (1931); began moving frequently (1937) to fill temporary academic positions, including teaching creative writing at the Women's College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (1938); moved to Princeton, New Jersey (1939); converted to Catholicism (1947).


Penhally (1931); Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934); 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). Selected short stories: "What Music" (1934); "A Morning's Favor" (1935); "The Women on the Battlefield" (1936–37); "Frankie and Thomas and Bud Asbury" (1939); "The Olive Garden" (1945); The Forest of the South (1945); "The Waterfall" (1950); "The Feast of St. Eustace" (1954); "A Narrow Heart: The Portrait of a Woman" (1960); "The Dragon's Teeth" (1961); Old Red and Other Stories (1963); "Cock-Crow" (1965); "Cloud Nine" (1969); "A Walk With the Accuser (Who is the God of This World)" (1969); "Always Summer" (1971); "The Strangest Day in the Life of Captain Meriwether Lewis as Told to His Eighth Cousin, Once Removed" (1976).

Selected critical works:

"Notes on Faulkner and Flaubert" (1948); "A Virginian in Prairie Country" (1953); "How I Learned to Write Novels" (1956); How to Read a Novel (1957); "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood" (1958); (with Allen Tate) The House of Fiction (1960); A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (1963). Awards: O. Henry prize (1934); honorary degree from Bethany College (1946).

In her fiction, Caroline Gordon captured the essence of the American South during the first half of the 20th century, when many struggled to maintain a distinct cultural identity as industrialization began to make inroads into the region. Among the Southern Renaissance intellectuals who emerged to protest the rapid and profound changes brought by industrial development, Caroline Gordon spoke with special eloquence of the bonds of family and tradition. Many of her novels and short stories were based on her Southern childhood, and she remained deeply attached to her heritage. In her fiction as well as in her literary criticism and teaching career, Caroline Gordon was a significant figure in the Southern Renaissance and made valuable contributions to 20th-century American literature.

Caroline Gordon was born on Merry Mont farm, on the southern border of Kentucky, in 1895. Although a number of relatives and extended family peopled the farm, it was Caroline's grandmother, Caroline Meriwether , or "Miss Carrie," who dominated the place and for whom Caroline Gordon was named. In her unpublished memoirs, Gordon described Merry Mont as a "golden world," a place that produced "a stirring in my heart which no other name can evoke."

She spent her early years interacting with her brothers, Morris, who was older, and William, who was younger, as well as her two cousins Mildred ("Mannie") Gordon Meriwether and Marion Douglas Meriwether , who also lived on the property. These two female cousins, though slightly older than Caroline, were "like sisters" to her, and she remained close to them throughout her life. Much of Gordon's later fiction was based on experiences and relationships formed during these years in Kentucky. Her close bond with her cousin Mannie, for example, became the basis for the friendship of Agnes and Daphne in Gordon's 1944 novel, The Women on the Porch.

Yet the person who appears to have had the most influence on Gordon in her youth was her father, James Maury Gordon. A teacher and occasional preacher in the Disciples of Christ Church, James was known for his charm and his restlessness; he moved his young family around the South nearly every two years and, on one occasion, left them to take a solo trip to Europe for a year. Gordon's memories of her father were good ones, and throughout her life she cited the education in the classics and in composition that she received at his college preparatory school in Clarksville, Tennessee, as an important part of her intellectual development. She later immortalized her father in short stories and in her 1934 novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, which traced the life of a Southern gentleman whose abiding passion was the outdoors. During her childhood Gordon did not enjoy such a close bond with her mother, and despite Nancy Meriwether Gordon 's reputation as a "passionately intellectual" and devoutly religious teacher, Caroline Gordon never mentions her having any influence on her early education.

I think of a novel, in a way, as a piece of sculpture, I feel that I am molding the material.

—Caroline Gordon

In the early 1910s, Caroline left home to attend Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia, where her two Meriwether cousins, Marion and Mannie, were also enrolled. Gordon's college years were apparently happy ones. She studied Greek, Latin, and English literature, and joined a sorority and the college literary society. In 1916, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in classical studies and a teaching certificate, she set about finding employment. After a few years of teaching high school in Missouri and Tennessee, Gordon landed a job writing for the Chattanooga News, a medium-size daily in Tennessee, in 1920. Despite her lack of journalistic experience, Gordon did well at the paper and was soon given a weekly book-review column. In 1921, she relocated to Wheeling, West Virginia, and began writing for the Intelligencer, a smaller paper than the News. Although she became the first woman writer to receive a byline in the Intelligencer and was given credit for helping to revamp the newspaper's image, Gordon's tenure there was short. A little more than a year later, for reasons that are unclear, she quit her Wheeling post and returned to Chattanooga and her job at the News.

Back in Chattanooga, Gordon continued to explore the literary culture of the South through numerous book reviews and essays. In 1923, she published a review essay on the condition of Southern literature that brought her to the attention of some well-known Southern writers. At this time, Southern letters was part of a "Renaissance" that included new work in the fields of sociology, history, and political science. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, this rebirth produced what some historians have labeled a "literature of revolt" that self-consciously opposed the nostalgic, "moonlight-and-magnolia" yearning for antebellum Southern life that had characterized much of the region's literature. In the vanguard of this movement were members of a philosophical discussion group that called themselves the "Fugitive Poets." The group included, among others, the writers John Crowe Ransom, Stanley Johnson, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren, and Alan Tate. Ransom, Warren, Tate, and others also identified themselves as "Agrarians," which meant that they were philosophically opposed to the encroachment of industrial society in the South. Their manifesto, entitled I'll Take My Stand, was published in 1930.

Caroline Gordon first encountered these writers in the 1920s while reviewing their work, much of which was published in their aptly titled magazine The Fugitive. In 1924, while visiting her parents in Kentucky, she met Robert Penn Warren and Alan Tate, who were also visiting the area. Soon thereafter, she and Tate, whom she had pronounced "the most radical member of the group" in her reviews, were deeply involved. That fall, Gordon, who had always found New York City's literary culture appealing, moved there and rejoined Tate. Although she maintained throughout her life that she and Tate married in November of 1924, in fact they were wed at City Hall in May of 1925, after Gordon found out that she was pregnant. Their daughter Nancy Tate was born in September.

Gordon plunged into the literary culture of New York and formed friendships with many resident writers, including the English novelist Ford Madox Ford. She worked as Ford's secretary for a short time to make ends meet, and he, along with Tate, encouraged her to pursue a career as a writer. Gordon's association with Ford left an enduring impression. In 1963, she would publish a critical interpretation of his work entitled A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford.

In 1928, Tate received a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed the small family to move to Paris, where Gordon began to work on a novel. Looking back, she remembered that "in France, where the living was cheaper than in the United States, I was able to hire a nurse for my child. Otherwise I would not have been able to write the novel." Her first published work was a short story called "Summer Dust," which appeared in the magazine Gyroscope in 1929. When the fellowship expired, Gordon and the family returned to the States, and in 1930, the year that the Agrarians' manifesto was published, they relocated to a farm in Clarksville, Tennessee, close to Merry Mont. Surrounded by the familiar landscape of the South, Gordon completed the novel. Published in 1931, Penhally traced the fortunes of a family through several generations on their Kentucky estate. Drawing on her childhood memories of life at Merry Mont farm, Gordon explored the decline of pre-Civil War

Southern agrarian life. Many of her fellow writers and some critics considered her debut auspicious and suggested that her work was "far above the ordinary" with a "true feeling for the dramatic" and a unique insight into the South. However other critics found Gordon's plot hectic and confusing, with "much fine feeling… but very little judgment." A few even suggested that Gordon's real intent was to air the grievances of the Agrarian movement in her novel. This suggestion upset Gordon a great deal, for her purpose in this work, as in others that followed, was not to promote a particular movement, but to explore a larger dilemma: the possibility of maintaining Southern traditions in a world that seemed hostile to them.

In 1932, Caroline Gordon received a Guggenheim fellowship that allowed the family to travel to Paris once again. Throughout the 1930s, she published a number of short stories as well the novels None Shall Look Back, The Garden of Adonis, and the work based on the life of her father, Aleck Maury, Sportsman. The latter work was "a labor of love" for Gordon, although it painted a portrait of her father that was not entirely uncritical. The novel told the story of a Southern man whose overwhelming passion was the pursuit of sport, namely fishing. Gordon treated the protagonist's zeal as both heroic and selfish, and she alluded throughout the story to the sacrifices his family was forced to make because of his actions. Gordon had high hopes for the novel, which she felt was her best chance for "a popular sale." She was encouraged by the positive responses she received from Ford Madox Ford and other friends, but reviewers offered little praise for the book. Gordon suggested that the "small, inconspicuous review" that appeared in The New York Times Book Review had been written "by someone who hadn't read the book."

Although Gordon worried about the absence of critical praise for some of her novels, she never lost her desire to create fiction. In fact, throughout her career she struggled to find enough time to write. In the years following the publication of Aleck Maury, Sportsman, Gordon and Tate frequently entertained other writers at their Southern home, and this fact, combined with the close proximity of so many of Caroline's relatives and the commitments involved in raising young Nancy, made writing difficult. By the late 1930s, both Tate and Gordon were ready for a change, and in 1937 they left the farm in Tennessee for the first of many untenured academic appointments. In 1939, they settled temporarily in Princeton, where Tate had received an offer to teach creative writing.

While Gordon's professional success continued in the 1940s, her marriage to Alan Tate began to deteriorate. In 1945, they first separated, then divorced. But this separation was short-lived, for in 1946 they reconciled and decided to remarry. As Gordon biographer Veronica Makowsky has noted, they established a new pattern in their married life. "Unable to make a clean break, they were equally unable to live together contentedly for more than a few months at a time." According to speculation, many of their difficulties stemmed from Tate's pattern of infidelity. After their remarriage, they settled again in Princeton, though their relationship continued to be stormy. Furthermore, Gordon took on a full teaching load at Columbia University, which brought added pressures. At this difficult juncture, Gordon found inspiration for her personal life and her fiction in religion.

In 1947, Gordon converted to Catholicism. Robert Brinkmeyer, one of her biographers, has suggested that the horrors of World War II "prompted her to consider more seriously the flawed nature of humanity and the existence of the divine." Two other factors may have influenced her decision as well. First, her husband Alan Tate had flirted with the idea of joining the church for many years; he converted three years after Gordon. Second, several of Gordon's biographers claim that she met the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain while she was at Princeton in the early 1940s and was impressed with his strong beliefs. According to Brinkmeyer, Maritain and others were at the center of a "revival" that was "renewing interest in the Church for many intellectuals," including Gordon.

Gordon's conversion to Catholicism had a significant effect on her work. Indeed, several of her biographers have suggested that although she went through other artistic phases, her decision to join the church produced the most dramatic change in her fiction. Gordon's focus shifted from secular themes to the divine. For example, in her novel Malefactors, published in 1956, she envisioned salvation from the destructiveness of life through an embrace of the Catholic faith. Of her beliefs, Gordon once said:

I have lived most of my life on the evidence of things not seen—what else is writing a novel but that?—and my work has progressed slowly and steadily in one direction. At a certain point I found the Church squarely in the path. I couldn't jump over it and wouldn't go around it, so had to go into it.

Like her literary contemporary Flannery O'Connor , Gordon henceforth included distinctively Catholic themes in her fiction.

Unfortunately, as her biographer Nancylee Jonza noted, Gordon's faith became "the only fixed point in her life" in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She continued to have serious problems in her marriage to Tate, and she despaired of finishing her current project, a novel titled The Strange Children, because of her teaching responsibilities. In 1959, Gordon found out that Tate was seriously involved with another woman, the poet Isabella Gardner (b. 1915), and asked for a divorce. Following the breakup, Gordon remained in Princeton and continued teaching and writing.

She was an active writer and beloved teacher well into her 80s. Through Princeton's University Speakers Bureau, she lectured at many colleges on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Her health eventually began to deteriorate, however, and in 1978, at the urging of her daughter, Caroline Gordon moved to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. It was there that she continued to work on the second of a double-novel project that explored the heroic figures of classical history and mythology, and it was there that she died, after a series of strokes, on April 11, 1981. "I am a novelist by profession," Caroline Gordon asserted in an address before Georgia College in 1974. As reviews of her work demonstrate, her novels were well-regarded. Gordon's short stories also received praise. Contemporary critics have compared her to the writers William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter . As Thomas H. Landess noted in a symposium on Gordon's short fiction, Gordon was able to "crowd into her stories more than their formal limitations would seem to permit: the total experience of a region's history, the hero's archetypal struggle, the complexity of modern aesthetics." Caroline Gordon's lifetime in literature left a legacy beyond her novels and short stories. She produced compelling portraits of the richness of a region and the complexity of human experience. As she noted, "We are moved to imitate our Creator, to do as he did, and create a world."


Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. Three Catholic Writers of the Modern South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Gordon, Caroline. Aleck Maury, Sportsman. NY: Scribner, 1934.

Jonza, Nancylee Novell. The Underground Stream: The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Waldron, Ann. Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance. NY: Putnam, 1987.

suggested reading:

Wood, Sally ed. The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924–1937. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.


Correspondence and papers located at Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Christine Stolba , Ph.D. candidate in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

About this article

Gordon, Caroline (1895–1981)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article