Caroline Gordon | Jane Gibson Brown

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Caroline Gordon.
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Jane Gibson Brown

Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.

Caroline Gordon is ONE of those writers whose work has received careful attention only by a handful of perceptive critics. Yet this body of commentary, wrought by some of the best critics of modern fiction, is nonetheless inadequate for a writer of Miss Gordon's skill and scope. For, as in the best fiction of Faulkner, the levels of meaning inherent in such novels as Penhally, Green Centuries, and The Women on the Porch mark these works as the creations of a master whose craftsmanship matches her complex vision of human life and community. Lesser writers of the twentieth century have commanded greater attention, one suspects, only because Miss Gordon demands more of her readers than many are willing to give; and one must remember that the tremendous body of criticism devoted to Faulkner's work grew, like Alice, to such enormous proportions only after he had been "sanctified" by the Nobel Prize committee. Shortly before that award, all of his books were out of print. Fortunately, Miss Gordon's earlier works—including The Forest of the South—have recently been reprinted by Cooper Square Press; and this event must be regarded as having major significance in restoring her art to that place in the public eye it so richly deserves. Yet critics and scholars must be apprised of the rich resources this art preserves for their discovery if they are to overcome the natural reluctance of any human being to engage in hard work.

For Miss Gordon writes in "The Great Tradition" of English fiction, a tradition whose masters are such old puzzlers as Henry James, Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce. All of these writers share in common an insistence that consciousness be fully rendered through finely wrought texture. Thus every image, every syntactical turn, indeed every word, must be weighed in terms of the overall thematic implications of the action. For to read such novels is difficult for the lazy, impossible for the dull-witted or imperceptive. These restrictions eliminate many of those scholars who might otherwise devote their attentions to Miss Gordon's work: thus the small number of articles in print and the exceptionally high caliber of her more admiring critics.

Miss Gordon has provided potential commentators with some help in their difficult task by publishing two important books on the techniques of fiction, The House of Fiction (with Allen Tate) and How to Read a Novel. The former contains a collection of short stories with commentary and an appendix which is devoted to the technical problems faced by the writer in addressing his subject matter. How to Read a Novel is a collection of essays on the art and craft of fiction, most of which make the point through the analysis of some specific model, in some instances held up as a negative example. Combined, these volumes provide a reader with a wide avenue of approach to Miss Gordon's own novels and short stories.

Yet she does not tell everything on the printed page. In the classroom the student can learn even more about her craft, and thus far she has kept many of her secrets to be imparted only by way of the oral tradition. As a "specialist in fictional techniques"—she refuses to be called a teacher of "creative writing"—she stresses eighteenth and nineteenth century rather than contemporary models; and her most fundamental ideas concerning plot are derived from Aristotle, with some footnoting by Flaubert and Henry James. Most important to her, in this respect, are the Aristotelian concepts of complication and resolution. In teaching the structure of action she draws on the blackboard a circle and then bisects it: all that happens on one side of the circle is complication and all that happens on the other side is resolution; the peripety, that moment in which the central character "is turned around," is a wedge which she drives into the side of the resolution with a stout piece of chalk. The peripety, she insists, is an action rather than an idea or insight, an event which changes the course of the main character and moves him in the direction of the resolution.

In addition to her reliance on Aristotle, she also is indebted to Dante for her view of the polysemous nature of fiction. For her there is the central action (the "literal level"), the enveloping action (akin to the "allegorical level"), and the archetypal or "mythological level" (akin, perhaps, to the "moral level"). Miss Gordon insists, in the best critical tradition, that all levels must be contained in the literal level, otherwise the work is flawed, either propagandistic or else improperly didactic. She further states that all good works of fiction have meaning on at least two of these levels and a masterpiece has meaning on all three levels.

Her reliance on Aristotle and Dante suggests the radically traditional nature of her view of art in general and of the practice of her own in particular. For Aristotle's paradigmatic plot is rooted in a view of human nature which informs all of Western civilization, a view which stresses man's finitude in the face of divine cosmic order. Complication in any action results from conflict, whether internal or external; and such conflict can only be the consequence of human flaw, a failure on the part of one or more characters to measure up to his own standards or to someone else's. Given this quality of complication, then, the action that precedes the moment in which any fictional conflict is overtly revealed is nothing more than the conditions that lead up to such a revelation and hence is a logical part of the complication. Resolution, the unraveling of the complication, involves either victory or defeat in terms of the conflict (and sometimes both). Thus what occurs on either side of the conflict grows out of the nature of the human condition as fallible and temporal.

Likewise, the existence of meanings on more than one level is a concept which grows out of the assumption that what was true of man in Aristotle's time is true in every other time, including the present. Thus when any individual is engaged in certain actions, he repeats the pattern of Aristotle's plot, whether he exists in the fictional world or the real world. These actions Miss Gordon calls "archetypal," and it is about such patterns of behavior that the master writes.

But however universal such actions may be, they always occur in a particularly social and historical context; and it is this context which Miss Gordon calls "the enveloping action." In this respect it is important to understand that the enveloping action does not alter the nature of Aristotle's structure but simply imparts to it the credibility of a particular time and place. In addition, the enveloping action performs other functions, which Andrew Lytle discusses, using the term "historic image" [in his "Caroline Gordon and the Historic Image," Sewanee Review LVII, (Autumn 1949)].

This historic image of the whole allows for critical awareness of a long range of vision, by equating the given period to the past and future, sometimes explicitly, always implicitly. This makes the period at once the setting and the choral comment. Such a restriction upon the imagination adds another range of objectivity to the post of observation, another level of intensity to the action (as if the actors while performing expose to the contemporary witness, the reader, the essential meaning of their time). This is literary irony at a high level. It is the nearest substitute for the religious image. In a time of eclecticism, such as ours, while it will not directly solve the writer's simplest technical problem, it gives him balance and lessens the risk of a faulty vision in that it keeps the scale of observation from being entirely private, or of seeming so.

Thus if the enveloping action is fully rendered, the proper work of fiction will be both timeless and temporal—timeless in its repetition of the archetypal pattern of behavior, temporal in its definition of a particular society at a given moment in history. When one understands this point, Miss Gordon's attitude, as revealed in the following exchange with Louis Rubin [in "Recent Southern Fiction: A Panel Discussion," Bulletin of Wesleyan College LXI (Winter, 1961)] is made clear:

[RUBIN]: What about you, Miss Gordon; do you have a tradition you go back to when you are writing? You told me today you are writing an historical novel.

[GORDON]: All novels are historical. I don't think I told you I was writing an historical novel; I said it went back to 1832.

Well, that sounds pretty historical.

The word has become so debased. I wrote two novels, one in Civil War times and one in pioneer times; but people didn't know how to read them. I wouldn't like to be accused of writing what is known as an historical novel.

What Miss Gordon is attempting to explain is merely her belief in the necessity for a good writer to create an enveloping action for any central action, whether it occurs in the present or in the past. A work of fiction in which the author simply attempted to re-create with character the aura of a particular time and place in the past would not, for her, exist on any level at all; for the enveloping action has no real meaning that does not grow out of the literal level. In this respect, then, The Garden of Adonis, where the action occurs in the same decade in which it was written, would be just as "historical" to Miss Gordon as would be None Shall Look Back, in which the action takes place during the Civil War and highlights such features as the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

To say that she is not "an historical novelist," however, is not to suggest that her fiction does not reveal a definite view of history which informs every one of her earlier novels, those set in the twentieth century as well as those set in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. For if individual men repeat certain archetypal actions, so do nations and even civilizations. Again Miss Gordon is consistent, for her view of American history, and more particularly the history of her own region, is essentially traditionalist, indeed understandably so for one who has always held the classical world in such high regard.

As she sees her country's (region's) history, it marks a final stage in the collapse of Western civilization and hence is a tragedy in every sense of that word. As Lytle suggests, the frontier world, rendered in Green Centuries, is peopled with the descendants of Europeans "released from the restraint of Christian feudal forms,… able now for the first time to find [their] antagonist in the absolute state of wild nature." Miss Gordon might well agree, along with such historians as Frederick Jackson Turner and Henry Nash Smith, that the frontier was the crucible of democratic sensibilities and practices, but she would not view with the same cheerful optimism this American phenomenon. For her, the freedom of the wilderness led to pride and its inevitable consequence, tragic humiliation. The loss of hierarchy she would also see as catastrophic in its implications, for in feudal society every man has his place in a social and cosmic order, always under the protection as well as the authority of someone above. In such an order, where freedom is limited by responsibility, pride is reined and human action controlled by custom and ritual. Thus in Green Centuries Miss Gordon tells the story of Orion Outlaw's plunge into the green wilderness of Kentucky and his ultimate realization that, in rejecting the more traditional community for a greater freedom, he has lost not only those whose love he has desired but also any sense of meaning in life.

This same story is retold in Penhally with a different cast of characters and with a more panoramic view of history. Here Miss Gordon confronts for the first time the Old South, as represented in the house Penhally and the succeeding generations of Llewellyns who inhabit it. Unlike Orion Outlaw, Nicholas Llewellyn, the patriarchal figure, is not a "modern" promethean but a man who understands the older hierarchical vision and therefore exhibits a traditional European sensibility. Once again, however, "democratic" ideals, as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, begin to intrude upon Nicholas' world; and Miss Gordon traces the collapse of that world into the industrial twentieth century and through four generations of Llewellyns. Thus the tragedy of the Old South is the tragedy of Europe reenacted, the loss of a formal social structure which has existed for thousands of years, in one place or another.

In None Shall Look Back, Miss Gordon focuses more sharply on the Civil War, which is treated less fully in Penhally. Here the older order is represented most clearly by Fontaine Allard and his young kinsman Rives, while modernism, the industrial mentality so destructive to agrarian traditionalism, is best understood in the corporate person of the Yankee army, though there are "home-made" Yankees among the ranks of the Allards as well. Not as artisticallysatisfying as Penhally, None Shall Look Back nevertheless dramatizes more powerfully the conflict which Miss Gordon sees working itself out in Southern and American history.

The Garden of Adonis, set in the 1930s, depicts the plight of the Allard family as they try to remain on the land after the triumph of an industrial economy. Ben Allard, the protagonist, must struggle as surely as did his ancestors to preserve the farm he inherits. However, his enemy is not William Tecumseh Sherman or the Yankee army, but an invisible economic machine whose agent is the local bank, which renews Allard's mortgage loan each year only after placing him and his tenants under the most terrible kind of pressure. The result of that pressure is a mutual distrust leading to conflict and death. Thus again Miss Gordon finds herself revealing the breakdown of an older hierarchy, or more precisely, the ultimate consequences of that breakdown.

In Aleck Maury, Sportsman, the last of five novels treated in this study. Miss Gordon creates a character out of the twentieth-century hunter, a contemporary counterpart of Orion Outlaw who is saved from Orion's aimlessness by a classical education which reminds him all too painfully of what has been lost. Maury is akin to other heroes of twentieth-century fiction in that he finds a private code to give his life meaning in a society dominated by industrial "robber-barons." Forsaking family and community, the essential ingredients of a traditional order, Maury allows himself to be absorbed by hunting and fishing, cherishing the activity for its own sake rather than viewing it as a means to some economic end. Thus, though he does not live as a good man would in the Old South, he does flee from the coarse pragmatism of his age into an activity affording him a kind of dignity and discipline which his more modern friends and family lack.

In reading these novels with emphasis on their historical implications, one can see the extraordinary similarities between them: similarities which result from Miss Gordon's precise understanding of her heritage, an understanding which is most specifically defined in I'll Take My Stand, the controversial symposium by twelve Southerners, among them the four Fugitives for whose work as a young reporter she felt an immediate affinity. She was at the time married to Allen Tate, one of the twelve; and it was during their years together that she created this important body of fiction, which well may be the greatest literary monument of the so-called "Agrarian Movement."

Several critics—among them Andrew Lytle and Ashley Brown—have recognized and explored the relationship between Miss Gordon's historical vision and the structure of her novels. And other critics—notably Louise Cowan, Thomas Landess, and Howard Baker—have talked about her use of mythology. No one, however, has defined or discussed the manner in which she uses myth to define the archetypal nature of the central and enveloping actions in her first five novels, a set of books which form a self-contained drama of the decline of the West. One could not argue that her particular use of the classics is unique; Faulkner used mythological allusion in many of his novels. No modern writer of fiction, however, has utilized classical mythology more subtly or extensively to unite action and enveloping action into a meaningful whole.

The function of myth in these novels can be understood most readily by reference to Miss Gordon's ideas about action and the various levels on which it finds meaning. For if the same actions—whose paradigm is described by Aristotle—occur in all ages, then they have their purest and most ancient statement in myth. Myths, like fairy tales, survive and have meaning to people in a later age because these stories contain the essence of actions and experiences which are familiar and meaningful even to the illiterate. Thus when a fictional action is rendered in terms of myth, the myth serves at least two important functions, one for the writer and one for the reader. First, it tends to purify in the writer's mind the action he wishes to render, so that he can see clearly those elements which are archetypal as opposed to those which are extraneous to the true meaning of his narrative. And second, it tends to emphasize for the reader the broader implications of the narrative, lest he think that what he is reading is no more than "a slice of life" uninformed by larger significance.

In novels whose actions are set in remote times, the presence of a mythological framework further reinforces all of those functions which Lytle attributes to the "historic image." And in addition, whatever view of history pervades the narrative is further validated, since it must support the action in the mythological as well as the enveloping action. To put it another way, no view of history—including the Marxist view—can be above suspicion if it does not in some way explain the conduct of Orion, Adonis, the Trojan warriors, and the other characters who inhabit the world of mythological antiquity because that world holds up when measured against the modern, personal experiences of everyone who reads the classics, whether he lives in the North or South, America or Europe.

Miss Gordon's view of history is essentially tragic; for her, modern American experience can be viewed as having the same structure that Aristotle found in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and in Homer's great epics. But to reinforce the archetypal nature of her historical vision, Miss Gordon renders it through allusions to myth, and more importantly, through characters who have their counterparts, whether ironic or heroic, in those classical works best known to Western man. Indeed the tissue of myth which underlies each of these five novels, uniting and elevating their central and enveloping actions, is so firm and intricate that it emerges as a major structural element.

To be sure, that tissue is more explicit in some novels than in others. In Green Centuries, for example, the hero's name is obviously allusory. Orion Outlaw, like his mythological namesake, is a hunter; and his brother, Archy, is an opposite in much the same way as Arion in some versions of the Greek story. Orion's last name, however, suggests the irony with which Miss Gordon invites the reader to consider her characters in terms of their classical counterparts. In making such an allusion she reveals to us the true nature of the story she is telling; but in the ironic undercutting of her characters she makes us understand more fully how much has been lost in the historical tragedy she defines in the enveloping action.

In Penhally, the tissue of allusion is derived from several connecting myths, including those of Orion, the Pleiades, the House of Atreus, and Aphrodite. Here the archetypal substructure is less obvious; but Orion and the Pleiades are mentioned at a crucial moment in the action so that all the complex relationships on both levels are brought together and made explicit. The reader—or scholar—must then trace the parallels between the story and the myth backward and forward in the action. When he does so, however, he will find that there is a surprising correspondence of structure in both, one which defines the relationship between the two as something more than accidental. And again, the generic nature of both the central action and mythological action is tragic, in conformity with Miss Gordon's interpretation of the South's collapse.

In None Shall Look Back, Miss Gordon supplies the reader with no overt references to her mythological counterpart, the Trojan War, and it is possible that she herself was only dimly aware of its existence, though too many critics and historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have discussed the Civil War in this light to make such ignorance likely. In a sense the point is irrelevant, given the archetypal nature of the action. For both Homer and Miss Gordon are depicting an old and tragic story—the fall of the ancient city; and whether that city be Troy, the Old South, or Nineveh (to which her title alludes) the essential elements are the same. However, we know nothing of the dramatis personae of the Biblical city, and Homer provides prototypes for virtually all of Miss Gordon's characters, from the figure of the old patriarch to the warriors in battle, both heroic and cowardly. Thus, though never overt, the mythological tissue of None Shall Look Back is as pervasive as those of the other novels, and defines as tragic the enveloping action.

In The Garden of Adonis, Miss Gordon once again makes her use of myth overt, both in the title and in an epigraph from The Golden Bough. Here, as in Green Centuries, the use is ironic, for Ben Allard, the modern counterpart of Adonis, is cut down, never to rise again as does the god of the old fertility myth. The virgins who indulged in ritual prostitution as a sacrifice to the mythological Adonis are also ironically rendered in a number of promiscuous young women who give themselves out of lust, greed, or simple lack of concern. Thus does Miss Gordon again, by the juxtaposition of modern life against mythology, make explicit her tragic vision of history.

In Aleck Maury, Sportsman, the classical education of the hero, a teacher of Latin, allows Miss Gordon to introduce unobtrusive references to The Aeneid and therefore to give ironic form and meaning to the aimless journey of Aleck Maury through a life devoted to blood sport, a man whose renunciation of his family and community is the very antithesis of the ideals which motivated Aeneas to endure danger in order to found the New Troy. Maury, presented in a word of materialism, is a hero only by default; and his private code of conduct, so narrow when compared to the heroic vision of Rome and the Old South, is the accommodation of a good man with all that has happened to the West as Miss Gordon understands this historical catastrophe.

It is in myth, therefore, that Miss Gordon unities all the diverse elements of her fiction: the shape of the central actions, the enveloping actions, and the view of history which her enveloping actions imply. The coherent works of art which are the final product of this synthesis represent a major achievement in modern literature and define a place for Miss Gordon in the pantheon of modern writers which she does not yet occupy. For this reason, a careful examination of each of her five novels should prove useful, not only to those who would understand Miss Gordon's achievement more fully, but also to those who would understand more fully the nature of fiction itself; for as one of its greatest contemporary practioners, she has much to teach others about its techniques and mysteries.

Jane Gibson Brown, "The Early Novels of Caroline Gordon: Myth and History as a Fictional Technique," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 289-98.

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