Caroline Gordon was that rare literary creature, a writer’s writer. Even during her lifetime, the readership of her books was small, smaller than that of other writers of her accomplishment, certainly, including her Southern sisters Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. Today her books are kept in print in small press and university press editions, usually in a category labeled “neglected masterpieces.” Gordon’s most numerous and appreciative readers, in fact, were other writers, fellow laborers in the literary vineyards who admired her quiet craftsmanship, her gentle control of plot, and the sense of place that made her books come so vividly alive.
But it was her generosity to other writers, young and old, especially those seeking guidance from her with their works-in-progress, that she was most noted for in the literary community. She and her on-again-off-again husband Allen Tate (they gave up on their tumultuous marriage after the second divorce) were socially active and circulated among the best writers of their time, not only in their native South, but in New York and in Europe, where they rubbed elbows with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane, and broke baguettes with the members of Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris. Back home, Caroline (she is sometimes referred to in the literature about her as Carolyn) was a literary midwife to many Southern writers, most significantly to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, with whom she shared the conviction that technique is a central concern for a writer. They also shared a deep belief in the teachings of the Catholic faith and its core notion that humans must accept that God created the universe and that it was their task to find a place in it.
Gordon’s best-known work, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, was itself written as an act of generosity, a homage to her then still-living father. He had grown up in the Rivanna River environs of Virginia, the son of a discontented barrister whose real passion was the Greek and Roman classics and not the law, a devotion that caused him to quit a going practice in Charlottesville and move his family to a rustic habitation in Louisa County that had been inherited by his wife. In Gordon’s novel, he passes on his fervor for the classics to his son, whose birth name was Alexander Gordon Morris Maury, Aleck to friends and family. In addition to mastering the classics (out for walks in the countryside, he timed his gait to Homer’s hexameters which he recited out loud as he hiked), young Aleck, under the tutelage of a black handy man on the property, is introduced to blood sports. He responded enthusiastically to the pursuit of game in the tangled underbrush of the Rivanna River Valley, accompanied by the baying of hounds who, in the midst of the hunt, merged with their masters as mental and physical appendages. He also fell under the spell of angling, finding a kind of mathematics in the careful calibrations involved in reading rivers to snare the fish that thronged them, bream and bass lying silent under submerged ledges and in shallow eddies.
As Aleck grew to adulthood, to the pursuit of a profession, to marriage and the fathering of children, his affinity for the field and stream began to eclipse all other concerns. His first real job had been as the tutor of the children of a wealthy farmer, a situation straight out of the novels of the Brontës, with the genders reversed. The youngest daughter of the family, Molly, catches Aleck’s attention by the way she construes a passage from Cicero’s essay on aging. They’re soon married, and the mating is harmonious but without passion. Aleck’s heart is more excited by his growing collection of rods and reels and by his Greener shotgun. He teaches Classics and Greek and Latin at insignificant institutions, even founds a school of his own, but predictably neglects his duties or is bored by them and moves on to new locales for the lure of their rivers, for the challenge promised by outwitting his finned and feathered quarries. Molly is quietly disapproving of his lack of ambition, but she doesn’t complain, seemingly content to find her own life in the domestic arts she’s learned over the years. After twenty years of marriage, she still calls her husband Professor Maury, as she did when she was his student. He calls her Mother. When a stunning heartbreak finally befalls their marriage, Gordon chronicles it in measured prose that is poignantly accurate, but also an effort to confer dignity on the couple’s toppling bereavement.
Aleck Maury is a novel of pain and loss, of place and wildness, of believable characters accommodating themselves to the world as it is. Its animal characters are but the first examples of its specificity, where their individuality rivals that of the humans. The hunting dogs especially, a long succession of them, are so well-drawn they could have been Gordon’s own, a family of bird dogs sprawled on the steps of a broad country porch. She knows every ruse an angler must use to catch every possible kind of fish. (They strike “out of curiosity and not appetite,” she has one character say.) Her instructions for the care and use of fishing tackle, the way a line must be cast to put a lure in front of a trout, knowing the wiles of fish concealing themselves in their own cool habitats—all are described with such thoroughness, a novice could take to the nearest stream after reading her novel and fill his creel with writhing bluegill. She makes certain a sassafras tree won’t be confused with a sweet gum. The latter’s leaves falling on an autumn day are variegated, she writes, “pale mauve, clear scarlet, a strange bluish color shot with purple.”
Perhaps Gordon’s most singular achievement in Aleck Maury, Sportsman is the way she so fully inhabits her father’s self as she makes him a character in her novel. She takes his body and habits, his moods and tones, the accumulating forces he drew inside him as he lived, and makes him an actual man. The novel is told in Maury’s own voice, with Gordon as ventriloquist, a unique instance in fiction of a child becoming his or her own parent. At a certain point, when Aleck and Molly produce a daughter, Gordon becomes a character in her own novel. Only she knows what she actually observed of her father and what she made up for her novel. It’s difficult to believe though that a reader finishing Gordon’s book can believe anything other than that they’ve just become intimate with one of Southern literature’s most memorable characters.
If Gordon was a writer’s writer, she was also a bit of an enigma. The photograph of her that is most frequently reprinted on her book jackets shows a woman of porcelain stillness, with large dark eyes looking inward, her hair as close-trimmed as a nun’s: a paradox of sensuality and severity. In her head there surely danced the extravagant and tragic theatre of a vanished South. In her eyes she shows its sadness.