Caroline Gordon | Critical Essay by Brainard Cheney

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Caroline Gordon.
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Critical Essay by Veronica Makowsky

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 has been known as a "writer's writer," one who is greatly respected by her fellow artists for her craft but who has not received popular or even academic acclaim. As I became interested in Gordon's work and began to explore the possibility of a biography, I frequently wondered why Gordon was a "writer's writer," rather than a universally renowned author like Faulkner. The answer, I found, was in the way she internalized her culture's attitudes toward women and writing, both in her life and in her work.

In her later years, Gordon herself attempted to explore what she perceived as the contradictions between being a woman and being a writer. When she was about sixty years old, she offered four explanations in a letter to her friend Ward Dorrance:

While I am a woman I am also a freak. The work I do is not suitable for a woman. It is unsexing. I speak with real conviction here. I don't write "the womanly" novel. I write the same kind of novel a man would write, only it is ten times harder for me to write it than it would be for a man who had the same degree of talent. Dr. Johnson was right: a woman at intellectual labour is always a dog walking on its hind legs. When you add to that the task of running a house, serving dinner that seems to have been prepared by an excellent cook, and all the while trying to be a good hostess—which means trying to make every man in the room have a good time—oh well, I am inclined to self-pity now and I don't deserve any pity at all, for I have a good time in this life. But I do have a lot on my hands. I bite off more than I can chew all the time.

She attributes her dilemma to biology which made woman a lower species like a dog, to society's requirement that woman be a nurturer, to literary conventions about the proper subject matter for a woman and, ultimately, to her own willfulness in biting off more than she can chew despite her knowledge of a woman's destiny. For Gordon, however, the essential enigma remains: is she a "freak" because of uncontrollable forces or because she chooses to oppose those forces?

In her unfinished and largely unpublished biography, A Narrow Heart, Gordon examined each of her explanations in the context of her childhood discovery of her vocation. Although young Caroline created her own creation myth, she relegated creativity to men. Gordon remembers that as a small child she concluded that "the world had been created as a plaything by a group of men, who, tired of sporting with it, had gone on to other pleasures, leaving it to roll on the way it would." In young Caroline's cosmology, men were by nature the creators; women, presumably, were universal housekeepers, left to make do with the world men have made and abandoned.

In accordance with this view of nature's pattern, Gordon believed that society allocated strictly determined roles for men and women. Men have not only created the world, but assigned themselves the starring roles as heroes: "A hero—any hero—spends his life in combat with the common, the only enemy, Death. When a man is faced with death, energies which he was not aware he possessed are rallied in the effort to preserve the life which, until that instant may not have seemed to him as precious as it truly is." While men are "rallied," ennobled and enlivened by their role, women's task is acquiescence to the suppression of their powers.

The women, going to and fro in their daily work, overhear the men's talk in snatches and, acting hastily and ill-advisedly, as women always act when not restrained by the proper masculine authority, neglect their household duties and, as frenziedly as Cadmus' daughters, taking off for the mountain, set about putting … half-heard pernicious doctrine into effect. Cadmus' daughters and the other Maenads suckled gazelles and kids and wolves on the heights of Cithaeron.

Women who reach beyond their proper roles are associated with the bestial; they are freaks, whether they are suckling animals or are animals themselves, such as dogs walking on their hind legs.

The masculine hero, however, does need to have his exploits recorded and praised by those who "recit[e] his glorious deeds, pausing between recitals, to meditate on the mystery that set him apart from his fellows." Gordon concludes that the "novelist, like the soldier, is committed by his profession to a life-long study of wars and warriors" [emphasis added]. The woman who wishes to be a novelist, then, is attempting to penetrate masculine mysteries which she herself could never experience. The "womanly novel," the novel of domestic life, is therefore a second-rate subject and the woman writer faces the dilemma of trying to create art from an inferior subject or attempting a masculine subject to which her powers are ill-suited.

With such a negative attitude toward the potential of women writers, one can only wonder why Gordon wrote nine novels and many short stories. In A Narrow Heart, Gordon herself tries to account for this phenomenon as she presents her portrait of the artist as a young girl and attempts to absolve herself of the charge of willfulness or hubris. Gordon claims that as early as her fourth year, she felt she had a vocation, "the composing of fiction." She continues, "I did not call my work by that name in those days[.] I thought of it as 'stories' which I told myself as I went about my ordinary affairs and I cannot remember a moment of my life when the telling of those stories did not seem an obligation that had been laid upon me and one which it would be dangerous to evade."

After she has carefully established that she did not lust for her task and its potential glories, but believed that they were imposed upon her, Gordon illustrates the danger of evading her vocation with the memory of her fourth birth-

Benfolly, Allen and Caroline's home near Clarksville, Tennessee, where such writers as Katherine Anne Porter, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert Lowell visted during the 1930's.Benfolly, Allen and Caroline's home near Clarksville, Tennessee, where such writers as Katherine Anne Porter, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert Lowell visted during the 1930's.
day when she found herself alone in her grandmother's bedroom, "reflecting disconsolately that I had not done any work that day." As she stood in the chamber,

a cry came from outside the room. A bird, perhaps, calling from some bough to its mate, or the sharp plaint that breaks from a domestic animal when it realizes that it is being led to slaughter or even the muted, soaring lament that Negro "hands" in those days lifted as they worked in the fields…. I remember how that hoarse sound speaking of some unassuageable distress, suddenly sounded again in the room and how the shadows, which up till then had lurked in the corners, massed themselves as if to sway forward…. I gave way to panic and ran across the room and thrust my face down into the water in the basin. It seemed to me deep enough to drown in. One of the sharpest memories of my life is the surprise I felt when my childish visage raised itself, apparently of its own accord, and I knew that I was still there in that room, with only shadows for companions.

The young Caroline feels guilty for evading her task of telling stories of the life around her, yet the nature of that life, her subject, is terrifyingly painful: the loss of the bird's mate, the slaughter of the animal, and the bondage of the black worker. Her gift or burden is so much a part of her, however, that she can only escape it by killing herself. She cannot bring herself to do so, lifts her face "apparently of its own accord," and is back to her original dilemma of confronting a subject, "shadows," for which she feels she is not suited.

Gordon's memories in A Narrow Heart repeatedly turn to images of various kinds of freaks who cannot reconcile their vocations with their natures or with society's expectations. Young Caroline would often play "Robin Hood" with her brothers and cousins. She was not assigned the feminine role of Maid Marian or the heroic masculine role of Robin or one of his merry men, but the more androgynous part of Allan-a-Dale, who, as her older brother points out, "was the only member of the band who could write."

Young Caroline was also fascinated by the legend of a female ghost named Tink who supposedly inhabited the woods near her grandmother's house. Tink lived in "the crotch of [a] sycamore tree" and "had her baby under one arm and her head under the other." Tink is a perfect illustration of the woman writer's dilemma. She sits at the parting of two branches or roles, that of the masculine intellect, exemplified by her head, and that of feminine nurturance, symbolized by the baby. Tink is also a freak; she cannot resolve her conflict so she can never be at rest.

Even more horrifying is Gordon's comparison of herself as woman writer to the devil. She remembers an occasion when she believed she saw the devil in the eyes of a close friend, and she begins to muse upon the reasons for the angel's fall. In the standard version of the legend, the once perfect Lucifer has become the freak Satan because of his hubristic challenge of God's power. Gordon, though, does not dwell upon the usurpation of heaven's territory, but upon a struggle over the word. She cites various sources whom, she asserts, attribute Satan's fall to his refusal "to transmit the message" and the fact that he "wanted to be an author." As Gordon looks into the eyes of her friend, she believes Satan is vowing that "he would never leave me—until the heart which, no matter how steadfastly averted my gaze from his, beat faster at the sound of his dreadful laughter—until that heart itself, stopped beating." Once again, she sees herself as a freak, part human and part demon, with no reconciliation possible in this life.

Gordon realized that repeated images and patterns like these originate in childhood. In A Narrow Heart, she wrote, "Every one of us—even the foundling or 'the test tube baby'—has had a father and a mother. And therein lies the tale, the tale each one of us spends a life time spinning." Gordon's parents, James Maury Morris Gordon and Nancy Minor Meriwether, provided their only daughter with a tale rich complexity and implications, one strand of which comprises Gordon's view of the woman writer. Gordon's father was a man well educated in the classics who made his living as a teacher and preacher, but who preferred hunting and fishing to either of his livelihoods. In Aleck Maury, Sportsman and the Aleck Maury short stories, Gordon aligns herself with her father whom she portrays as pursuing sport with the devotion and craft of an artist.

Gordon clearly identified herself with her father, but in order to do so, she had to erase the unhappy image of her mother. Nancy Gordon was locally known as an intellectual, a "bluestocking," who could perform the Tink-like balancing act of cooking dinner with a ladle in one hand and a French novel in the other. Nancy Gordon also taught in her husband's school, but Caroline does not credit her mother with her own instruction, possibly because she more highly valued the masculine intellect. In Caroline's reminiscences, however, the learned Nancy Gordon seems to retreat from her mutually exclusive roles as intellectual and nurturer by enveloping herself in silence. In A Narrow Heart, Caroline Gordon remembers her as an enigmatic woman who in her last years found "there was hardly anything she cared to read. She said that she found all the imaginings of men vain." One wonders if the corollary for Nancy Gordon would be that all the imaginings of women were impossible, as they would become for her daughter.

Her education, Gordon believed, was partly responsible for her status as freak, although she was also proud of it. Rather than sending her to a girls' school, her father kept her in his own academy. Like her character Sally in "The Petrified Woman," Gordon could observe that "I had to go to school with the boys. Sometimes I think that that is what makes me so peculiar," and, as this biographer would argue, a "petrified" woman in both senses of the word.

Gordon herself remarked that "it is strange how, in this life, patterns of human conduct repeat themselves, like a recurrent motif in music, or a figure in a tapestry" (Narrow Heart). For Gordon, this pattern of conflicting roles with its consequent feeling of freakishness appears both in her life and in her writing.

In the memories of others and her own letters, Gordon often appears as a latter-day Tink, frantically attempting to keep her roles of writer and woman in equilibrium. Her friend Sally Wood recalls that when Gordon was in labor before the birth of her daughter Nancy, she "was grimly talking about her novel, her white face flinching now and then." During her father's last illness, Gordon was at the hospital, working on The Women on the Porch "by hand, standing at the dresser between vomitings." When Gordon and her husband Allen Tate were boarding a ship to Europe, she states that she had Nancy by one hand and a baby doll in the other while Allen carried The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy. Caroline, however, was not reconciled to her clearly signified role and complained when some Rhodes Scholars aboard referred to her as "the wife." During the winter in which the Tates shared a farmhouse in New York's Tory Valley with the poet Hart Crane, Caroline managed to keep writing, but her "study" was the kitchen table.

The tension from these conflicts affected Gordon's attitude toward her writing as well as her ability to write. She often said that writing was a "torment" to her, in contrast to the effortless imaginings of her childhood. In the early 1920s when she left home to become a newspaper reporter in Chattanooga, Gordon tried to write her first novel in her spare time while living in her aunt's attic. Although she had all the requisite romantic props, a garret, an autobiographical subject and a Keatsian title, Darkling I Listen, her novel did not pour forth with the nightingale's effortless lyricism. Instead, she said that her attempt to write led to a breakdown from which she was nursed to recovery by her aunt.

Writing was a "torment" to Gordon because she had lost her early confidence in her female imagination. Throughout her life, she needed male mentors to validate her efforts or she could not finish her work. Two of her principal mentors were Allen Tate and Ford Madox Ford. Gordon destroyed Darkling I Listen because as she watched Tate's face as he read it, she concluded that it wasn't any good. When she had been working on what would become her first published novel, Penhally (1931), for several years, Ford compelled her to finish it by dragging her to the typewriter and sometimes making her dictate to him. After her second and final divorce from Tate in 1959, she published little and left several uncompleted manuscripts.

Although her lack of confidence and her sense of herself as a freak stemmed from her status as a woman in a patriarchal world, she often deflected her hostility away from the masculine literary world and on to other women writers, particularly Katherine Anne Porter, whom she regarded as the grasshopper to her ant. Gordon envied Porter's ability to alternate her roles as woman and writer, rather than attempt Gordon's own perpetual balancing act. She wrote of one of Porter's stays at the Tates' Clarksville home, Benfolly:

She couldn't write here—life was so distracting, what with the cats and all the fruits of the earth needing to be preserved, pickled or made into wine. She made mint liqueur, preserved peaches whole, made five gallons of elderberry wine, brandied peaches and would have brandied and preserved bushels more if I had provided her with them. All this, of course, partly out of domestic passions, partly out of charitable concern for our welfare and a good part I wickedly believe just to get out of work. She has to sever every earthly tie she has before she can do any work, go off to a hotel somewhere usually. [The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally, Wood 1924–1937, ed. Sally Wood, 1984]

Porter could play her feminine role to the hilt with her fabled beauty and charm, and, to Caroline's chagrin, without apparent guilt over writing not accomplished. Although the anecdote is amusing, it also illustrates Gordon's need to punish herself for her hubris by attempting to maintain both roles at once and by denying herself a supportive, sympathetic identification with her fellow women writers.

Her ambivalence toward her role as a woman writer also affected the way she wrote, particularly her emphasis on factually correct settings, her stress upon technique and her tone of high seriousness. She loved to do research for her novels and zealously pursued obscure details, whether for her Civil War novel, None Shall Look Back (1937); her novel of Indians and pioneers, Green Centuries (1941); or her retelling of Greek myths, The Glory of Hera (1972). Not only did her pursuit of the facts sometimes become a means of procrastination, but it once even led to a charge of plagiarism when an executive from the company which published Battles and Leaders of the Civil War wrote to Gordon's editor, Scribner's legendary Max Perkins, to accuse Gordon of verbatim borrowings in None Shall Look Back. Perkins, another excellent masculine mentor, soothed the publisher's ruffled feelings, and there is no evidence that he even told Gordon of the incident. It does, however, illustrate the way Gordon, unlike her "master" Henry James, was afraid to renounce the details and trust her imagination to work upon the "germ" or essence of a situation.

Gordon's mistrust of her imagination is also indicated by her stress upon technique. She praised and thanked Ford Madox Ford for his instruction in the Flaubertian search for le mot juste and sometimes seemed to emulate the French master's agony over each word, sentence and paragraph. When Gordon herself became a teacher of writing in the late 1930s, she conveyed her belief in the primacy of technique to her students. In particular she emphasized the importance of point of view and concrete details through reading and analyzing the works of masters such as Ford, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Joyce and James. In that the imaginative part of writing is a mystery and essentially unteachable, Gordon drilled her students in what they could master, technique, and most were grateful for what they had learned. In terms of her own writing, though, the privileging of technique seems an overcompensation for her ambivalence toward her female imagination and partially explains why her works are praised for their craft, not their imaginative vision.

Gordon is always remembered by others as a woman of great wit who could turn a depressing or frustrating incident into a comic anecdote with a malicious poke at herself or others. Her letters are delightful because they are full of humorous episodes such as her double-edged account of Katherine Ann Porter's "domestic passions" at Benfolly. In contrast, Gordon's fiction is characterized by solemnity and her comic genius is rarely to be found. This excision of the comic can be partially explained by Gordon's sense that real life is the tragic struggle of the hero against death, but when Gordon discusses heroes and tragedies she is referring to men while in her letters she is relating a woman's struggles against the toils and confines of domesticity. Her writing self is split into two personas, the "masculine" self who writes tragedies of mankind and his posterity and the "feminine" self who writes humorous, even grotesquely comic, accounts of domestic life in letters she considers of so little consequence that she rarely even dates them. If she had been able to unite these selves, her work may have had the universal appeal which would have carried her beyond the status of "writer's writer."

Women artists in Gordon's fiction are rarely seen, and when encountered they are presented as freaks. In The Strange Children (1951), the unbalanced poet Isabel Reardon is responsible for the destruction of her husband and her poet lover because she is selfish and will not efface herself as a woman supposedly should. She is associated with freaks, mermaids and sirens, to reinforce her unnatural proclivities. Cynthia in The Malefactors (1956) is a siren who leads the poet-protagonist Tom Claiborne away from the truth embodied in his wife Vera in order to advance her own poetic ambitions. As her name suggests, she is associated with the moon, a fickle and lesser illumination, and so is guilty of hubris in attempting to become a literary light herself.

Perhaps the most striking example of Gordon's loss of faith in her woman's imagination is her revision of her first published story "Summer Dust." In the original version, the young Caroline appears as Sally, a small girl who learns the bitter lessons of sexism and racism as she encounters men and women and blacks and whites as she travels around her family's properties. Her brother tells her that "she who calleth her brother a fool is in danger of hell fire," and she herself is relieved to acknowledge that "I'm not a nigger" when she witnesses her family's attitude toward their black servants. Sally finds surcease in her imagination as she fantasizes about "a dark woman with a crimson scarf bound tightly about her head, and two round gold earrings as big as saucers, swinging out from the scarf as she walked." Like a successful woman artist, the gypsy woman is defiant, vibrant, and free in her self-expression. Gordon, though, deleted her from "One Against Thebes," the version of "Summer Dust" she published some thirty years later, indicating that this possible role model had been similarly eradicated in Gordon during her thirty years' attempt to function as woman and artist.

If one regards the inscription Gordon chose for her tombstone as her final work, it may seem that she offers little hope that "woman writer" could become anything but a contradiction in terms. Indeed, her "final" words are not hers, but those of the male theologian Jacques Maritain, which she had already used as an epigraph for The Malefactors: "It is for Adam to interpret the voices which Eve hears." In one sense, this is an admission of defeat and a warning to other women: Eve had no business writing all those novels. In another sense, however, there is a faint glimmer of hope: Eve persists in writing, even to the verge of the grave, although she must use a masculine "voice" as authority and permission. However grotesque this mimicry appears, it attests to the truth Gordon felt that her life and work revealed: the female voice can be subverted and distorted into that of a freak, the male voice speaking from the female corpse, but it cannot be completely quelled or denied.

Veronica Makowsky, "Caroline Gordon on Women Writing: A Contradiction in Terms?" in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 43-52.

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