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A Southern Mandarin

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990
Caroline Gordon and The Southern Literary Renaissance. By Anne Waldron. Putnam. $14.95.
Caroline Gordon: A Biography. By Veronica Makowsky. Oxford. $21.95.

Caroline Gordon wrote. Although 50 years ago many of the United States’ most notable people called her friend, she possesses small fame today. She deserves reexamination. She begins to get it.

Born in 1895, Gordon published her first novel, Penhally, a genealogical romance, in 1931. A second novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, (her only novel still in print) followed three years later. Two of her novels appeared in 1937, The Garden of Adonis and a Civil War fiction, None Shall Look Back. She did another historical novel in 1941, Green Centuries; Women on the Porch came out three years later. In the remaining 38 years of her life, she published three more novels, three collections of short stories, and three exercises in literary criticism, most notably The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story, which she coauthored with the poet-critic Allen Tate, her husband. In addition to this public ouvre, she produced nearly as much and perhaps better writing in private letters. One collection of these has been published, too. In 1984, one of her friends, Sally Wood, published a collection of letters, under the title The Southern Mandarins, that Gordon had written to her between 1924 and 1937.

Critics received her early work well, if without great passion. It helped, of course, that she numbered many of her friends among reviewers—Ford Maddox Ford and Katherine Anne Porter, among them. After None Shall Look Back in 1937, her work attracted less attention altogether, and even this grew increasingly negative. She never sold well. She made profits on few of her titles. The earliest criticism still stands. Her strength lay in technique, style, and form; she scanted characterization, narration, and dramatic action. In 1957, reviewing her volume of criticism, How to Read a Novel, the young Louis Rubin noted, “It is barely possible that there are other considerations than method in the enjoyment of novels. What they might be, Miss Gordon does not say.” The criticism applies generally. Her plots lack force, narrative power, and dramatic tension. Her characters move less under their own impulsive, inherent power than by dictation; they fail generally to capture the imagination. Her first novel, the family chronicle Penhally, represents these characteristics in classic form. This novel also illustrates the fundamental temper of Gordon’s imagination as well.

As with almost her entire ouvre, she based the novel itself on a fictionalized account of her own experience, in this case, her own genealogy. She disguised her mother’s very notable people, the Meriwethers, as the Llewellyns, and the novel traces the complicated connections of the clan from the 18th century down to the 1920’s. It centers on the eponymous family estate in Kentucky at the Tennessee state line. Gordon introduces a welter of characters who appear, then vanish, only to crop up again as fading names on some descendant’s second- or third-hand memory when their final dispositions are revealed long after the fact. The same sort of motive inspired William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom!, but Gordon carried it off far less successfully. For all the fragmentation of the Sutpen-Coldfield-Compson story/stories, Miss Rosa, Quentin, Clytie, and Thomas Sutpen himself possess their own peculiar and distinct vitality. Gordon’s actors never really live; at the same time, she makes far, far less of the idea of fragmentation and half-told tales than did the Mississippian.

The history in Penhally is important, too. The past serves novelists, especially novelists of Gordon’s generation of Southerners, a variety of purposes. As the Stanford University literary historian George Dekker has indicated, history allows novelists a window and perspective on one’s own society and on one’s self. It allows the recasting of both the past and the present. It encourages the possibility of change but affirms the preservation of antique virtue, too. It permits nostalgia and romance for a grander, nobler time, but by the same token it measures contemporary declension. It measures loss as well as gain. Gordon’s history serves none of these ends. Her history fails either to delight or edify. It is grim repetition from which neither the characters nor the reader learn anything. Penhally opens in the 19th century with a second generation of Kentucky Llewellyns. Two half-brothers argue over the estate, and the difference divides them permanently. This conflict anticipates the family’s origin in Kentucky, narrated after the fact, when the original settler immigrated to the West after his father left his Virginia lands to an older son. The half-brothers’ war also presages the final alienation of the lands and the mindless fratricide in the latest generation that ends the volume. This history offers neither hope nor even knowledge but rather fatal repetition. Gordon could read classic tragedy in the Greek, but she foundered on the paradox of the form. As author, she never allows these characters free will or even the illusion of freedom which might excite pathos and identity.

If a competent and even gifted writer, Gordon lacked literary genius. By the same measure, the significance of her career and life remain something of an open question. If no artistic Prometheus, what was her significance? Neither of her two biographers deals directly with the problem, and this difficulty defines some of both the merit and liability of these two good books of interest to a variety of readers: Anne Waldron’s Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance and Veronica Makowsky’s Caroline Gordon: A Biography.

Each of these books has its own particular virtue, but they fascinate as a package, too. Most extraordinarily, neither repeats the other, or rarely, even when they treat the same episodes, events, and characters. They make, then, great tandem reading.

The great strength of both these biographies lies in their detailing of Gordon’s life. The material they cover possesses almost intrinsic interest. Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate knew virtually every citizen of the Republic of Letters in that extraordinary explosion of literary culture in the United States between the two world wars. Name the writer, and odds are Gordon fed him, corresponded with her, shared a house, or slept in their sheets at one time or another. Both biographers fill their pages with this most remarkable company, and their work offers an engaging read for anyone interested in the literary culture of the twenties and thirties.

Both writers also chronicle the mad dynamics of the Gordon-Tate marriage. Tate’s habitual infidelities played off against Gordon’s violent jealousies. The couple fought almost obsessively and engaged in drunken screaming fits and physical abuse during their entire relationship. They married and divorced twice, but almost from their first meeting, they separated, came back together, and then separated again with disastrous consequences. The couple’s refusal or inability to light and stay in one place complicated the impossibilities of the union. Lacking any sense of stability, they gypsy-camped for 50 years from Paris and the South of France to California, from Michigan to the interior of Mexico. Both biographers also detail the economic difficulties that the couple created and endured as well. What they did to pay and escape their debts makes chilling reading. Both turned reluctantly to teaching, for example, and Gordon even volunteered for an offering at Columbia called “remedial creative writing,” an extraordinary offering by any measure. It never came into being, thank God.

Of the two biographies, Makowsky’s is tighter and more focused. She moves rapidly, even summarily, through Gordon’s life. Intended first—obviously—for an academic audience, Caroline Gordon contains all the scholarly accoutrements of primary and secondary sources, and all the rest. Waldron, conversely, is broader and more discursive. Aiming—again obviously—for a more general readership, she dispenses with numbered notes and eschews secondary sources except those bearing immediately and directly on a given circumstance. Her primary sources, however, are particularly extensive, especially interviews with surviving friends. She also quotes very extensively from Gordon’s large correspondence, so that the novelist’s epistolary style lives for itself. At the same time, the quotations often lose their point, and Waldron’s failure to justify her inclusions makes the work flabby, especially in the painful last three decades of Gordon’s life. In general, Makowsky’s liabilities reverse Waldron’s. Where the first moves too rapidly through the material, Waldron sometimes slogs. Both use the familiar address with Gordon, Tate, Cowley, Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Day, and all the other characters in the drama, and the usages of “Caroline,” “Allen,” “Malcolm,” “Edmund,” and “Dorothy” wear very thin very rapidly. But both books possess more notable liabilities as well.

Without minimizing the worth of either of these good biographies, both possess the same, significant shortcoming. Both lack breadth. Most critically, neither argues a convincing frame for understanding the novelist. The data overwhelms the context. While Waldron subtitles her volume, “the Southern literary renaissance,” her study betrays no real knowledge of that most extraordinary episode in Southern intellectual history. Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and all the rest are there, but they figure almost exclusively as individuals rather than a collectivity, movement, or indeed, context, for appreciating Gordon’s motives, achievements, or even failures.

The failure of either author to integrate psychological insights into their study is especially curious. Makowsky begins with a rendering of Gordon’s genealogy and a retelling of the novelist’s first memory—a supposed attempt at suicide when she was four, but she fails to follow through these insights in any consistent and obvious way. She encapsulates her judgments neatly in those first pages, and they hardly affect the presentation of the data that follows. Yet even without offering a psychobiography, the material veritably yowls for analysis. Gordon went through lengthy psychotherapy, and in her letters she regularly psychoanalyzed herself. She adored her father and made his life the subject of one of her novels—Alec Maury. Her regard for her father inverted her attitude toward her mother whom she always professed to loathe; at the same time, however, she worshiped her mother’s family and made the Meriwethers the subject of almost every fiction she wrote. Further, even if her alcoholism had no deep-seated sources, it produced its own pathologies. These elements provide almost too evident tools for exploring conflicts of her inner life, but neither biographer makes much of this mother lode.

The scanting of history in both biographies stands out for a Southern historian, but Gordon’s own preoccupation with the past, tradition, and historical fiction demands more than either author gives. Neither evidences knowledge of regional culture. To cite the grossest evidence, Makowsky mispells General Albert Sidney Johnston’s name; Waldron allows a silly definition for Henry Grady, one of the most important figures in post-War Southern history. In the absence of regional social, economic, and political history, both books also skew regional religious culture. While both authors treat Gordon’s conversion to Catholicism, neither gives what would seem proper weight to the furious sectarianism of the fiercely puritanical Cambellite religion that dominated Gordon’s childhood. This seems inexplicable. Both, for example, dealt with Gordon’s relation with Flannery O’Conner, and both know the Georgian’s renderings of the bizarrest versions of Southern evangelical Protestantism; they fail, however, to connect that vision with the very sort of religion that haunted Gordon’s life. Mr. Motes dogged Caroline Gordon’s imagination, and this offers one source of the grim fatalism that both inspired and blighted Gordon’s fiction.

Also odd, given the proliferation of feminist biography and feminist biographical and autobiographical theory, neither author pays much attention to gender issues as the driving theme of Gordon’s career. Makowsky’s references to Gordon’s need for male mentors might illuminate the theme, but she develops it in no significant manner.

These two books whet the appetite. They offer full descriptions of Gordon’s life and brim with good, useful, and important data, but one longs for whys to explain the whats of a life and personality. While both biographers fall short in broad explanations or analyses of Gordon’s life, to the credit of both, their examinations allow and even encourage this sort of criticism. They have laid more than a good foundation. If they have exhausted the potential of literary criticism of a second-category novelist, they have prepared the way for historians, feminist critics, and analysists of regional culture to reach still deeper into Gordon’s character. The fields remain white unto harvest for Caroline Gordon studies and for explanations of the way this strange, constricted figure fits the larger patterns of 20th-century culture.


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