“It is the words. They have grown light and anybody can pick them up. There are too many of these wordmen and now they can fly and they cloud the skies over the oceans and a man on one continent has less chance of communicating with another than when the letter was brought by sail and carried in a leather breeches pocket five hundred miles through the wilderness.”
Caroline Gordon: The Women on the Porch
Caroline Gordon was born in Kentucky in 1895, her ancestors on both sides having come to Virginia and then moved to Kentucky in the colonial period. On her mother’s side she was descended from Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). Her father was a preacher, though he much preferred hunting and fishing (he is vividly portrayed as Aleck Maury in Aleck Maury, Sportsman.) She became a competent Greek scholar and Greek literature has a clear influence on her work, not only in The Women on the Porch, a conscious reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but in many of her other novels.
She started her writing career as a journalist in Chattanooga and then in Wheeling, West Virginia. While recovering from an illness back home, she met two young writers who were to become famous – Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Gordon and Tate fell in love and moved to New York, where both tried to jump-start their literary careers. However, their relationship waned and they broke up. However, when Gordon found that she was pregnant, they got married. This was the beginning of a stormy relationship. During the course of their marriage, they argued and fought frequently, in part because of Tate’s infidelities. Tate constantly put Gordon down and she accepted that, as the man, he was the superior person in the relationship. They split up more than once before the final break and divorce.
During the course of their marriage and literary careers, they constantly had money troubles. Neither was able to produce work which sold. Gordon was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons under the famous editor Maxwell Perkins but none of her books sold well. They eked out a living with teaching, loans and what little their literary work brought in. They managed to spend time in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Later in their marriage, both converted to Catholicism (though this did not stop them from getting a divorce) and Gordon’s later work (e.g. The Malefactors) is very much influenced by Catholicism.
Gordon had a lot of contact with many of the famous writers of her day. Andrew Lytle, Katherine Anne Porter, Josephine Herbst and many others were close friends. Faulkner threw up all over her at a conference. One of her first jobs in New York was as secretary to Ford Madox Ford.
Her writing now seems to have faded away. Even while she was alive, Scribner’s sold the copyrights to all her books. Many other books are out of print and those that have been reprinted have only been reprinted by smaller presses. Her writing is often austere and does not conform to what is expected of a Southern writer, particularly a Southern woman writer. She is, fortunately, no Margaret Mitchell but that may well be her undoing. None Shall Look Back, Gordon’s Civil War book, written before Gone With the Wind was published but only published later, is a far superior book but contains no Southern belles like Scarlett O’Hara, Lucy Allard being much more restrained, and few of the Southern clichés littered around Gone With the Wind. As a result, it was long out of print and only republished by a small Southern publisher. That is a pity because her work while not fun, like Gone With the Wind, places her at the forefront of mid-century writers and ahead of writers, like Hemingway, whose writing does not justify their reputation. She died in 1981.
Books about Caroline Gordon
Veronica Makowsky: Caroline Gordon – A Biography
Marylee Novell Jonza: The Underground Stream – The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon
Ann Waldron: Close Connections – Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance
1934 Aleck Maury, Sportsman
1937 None Shall Look Back
1937 The Garden of Adonis
1941 Green Centuries
1944 The Women on the Porch
1946 The Forest of the South (short stories)
1950 The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story (with Allen Tate)
1951 The Strange Children
1956 The Malefactors
1957 How to Read a Novel
1957 A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford
1963 Old Red and Other Stories
1972 The Glory of Hera
1981 The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon