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
The Forest of the South, 1945
Old Red, and Other Stories, 1963
The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon, 1981
How to Read a Novel, 1957
A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford, 1963
A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon and Ford Madox Ford, 1999
The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, 1950 (with Allen Tate)
Caroline Ferguson Gordon was one of the twentieth century’s finest minor American novelists and short-story writers and an able literary critic. Her father, James Maury Morris Gordon, a classics scholar and country schoolmaster, had married one of his former pupils, Nancy Meriwether, and Caroline Gordon was born on her mother’s family estate in Kentucky in 1895. Both parents taught in various rural schools in Kentucky and Tennessee, and Gordon’s first formal education came in the classical preparatory school her father founded in Clarksville, Tennessee. After her father gave up teaching to become a Church of Christ minister, she attended Bethany College, from which she graduated in 1916.
After a brief stint as a society reporter for a Chattanooga newspaper, Gordon moved to New York City to continue a career in journalism. There she met an up-and-coming young literary man and fellow Kentuckian named Allen Tate. They were married in 1925, and their only child, Nancy, was born in September of that year. The Tates spent the winter of 1925 to 1926 living with the poet Hart Crane in a rented farmhouse near the Connecticut border, where Crane worked on his epic poem The Bridge (1930). Gordon, who was then writing her second novel, lived in the shadow of the men. Back in the city in 1926, Gordon became a typist for the prolific British novelist Ford Madox Ford, who encouraged the Tates and other southern writers–including Katherine Anne Porter–to make full use of their cultural heritage in their writing. Ford took a special interest in Gordon’s writing and helped her by reading and criticizing her manuscripts.
In the summer of 1930 Allen Tate’s brother Ben, who had made a fortune as a coal dealer, gave his brother and sister-in-law ten thousand dollars to buy a country estate, which Gordon’s father promptly named “Benfolly.” It was in this mansion on the banks of the Cumberland River, within a short drive of her birthplace, that Gordon began her career as a fiction writer in earnest. That same summer two of her short stories, “The Long Day” and “Summer Dust,” were accepted for publication, and the Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins paid her five hundred dollars in advance for her first published novel, Penhally, which appeared the following year. Though an early work, Penhally aptly characterizes most of Gordon’s fiction. It traces the history of one family–obviously modeled on Gordon’s own–from its migration from Virginia to its homestead in Kentucky, through the changes in plantation life wrought by the Civil War, to the dissolution of the estate and its sale to a Northern industrialist, an outcome concluded by a fratricide that ends the family line. Gordon derived the theme of the demise of the Old South and its land-based culture and economy not only from the experience of her own family but also from the economic views of the Agrarians, a group of southern men of letters with whom her husband was associated.
Gordon’s other novels are less didactic, perhaps, but just as firmly rooted in family history and rural southern culture. None Shall Look Back, which centers on the Civil War battle at Clarksville, tried to take advantage of the sensation created by the publication and film of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). The Garden of Adonis delves into the lives of white Kentucky sharecroppers, and Green Centuries traces the migration of a family of Revolutionary-War-era frontierspeople through the Cumberland Gap. Both novels, informed by Gordon’s careful historical research, remain clearly though marginally related to her family history. The Women on the Porch and The Strange Children, which recounts a year in the Tates’ life at Benfolly from the point of view of their daughter, mark Gordon’s attempts to understand her own generation and in particular the nature of her own marriage.
Gordon’s second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, which was reissued in 1980, may prove in the long run to be her most interesting. The story is a fictional biography of Gordon’s father, whose professions were teaching and preaching but whose passions were hunting and fishing. This novel may, in fact, be unique in its attempt by the literary daughter to recount her father’s interest in the sporting life from his own point of view. Many critics believe that Gordon’s later novels do not live up to the early promise of Aleck Maury, Sportsman and Penhally. The Malefactors, which Gordon herself considered her best work, was written after her conversion to Roman Catholicism. The plot focuses on workers at a Catholic resettlement home, and one of the characters is based on Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic activist, who was a friend of Gordon in her early years in New York. The Glory of Hera, the first volume of a projected two-part experimental novel, recites the mythical events of the life of Heracles. The sequel, which Gordon intended to be a modern version of the Heracles legend, was never finished.
Gordon’s short fiction resembles her novels; here, too, she usually depicts upper-middle-class, rural, white Southern life. It is worth noting, however, that Gordon made significant contributions to American letters in two other fields, American New Criticism–represented by her manual How to Read a Novel–and teaching. Gordon, along with her husband and other writers of their circle, belonged to the first generation of creative writing teachers in the American university system. Early in her career she had known the likes of Ford, Crane, Porter, Malcolm Cowley, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and Flannery O’Connor. Later, in Princeton, Minnesota, Kansas, and Dallas, she was able to show students at first hand what is meant by the lesson of the master.
Caroline Gordon followed Henry James’s belief that the writing of fiction is a craft. The value of her writing lies in the obvious care she took to produce it: care with research, care with observation of the life she lived and others lived, care with the structure of her plots, episodes, and incidents, and care with the sentence and with each word in the sentence. By means of her craft, she captures and conveys a living picture of life in the American South in the middle of the twentieth century.