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Nashville Scene A Way With Words

Collection highlights novelist's considerable talent

By Charles Wyrick

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Kentucky-born novelist Caroline Gordon was no stranger to praise. In an often-cited letter from The Habit of Being, Flannery O'Connor directly quotes a descriptive passage from one of Gordon's short stories to a friend. O'Connor then wrote the following: "This is real masterly doing, and nobody does it better than Caroline. You walk through her stories like you are walking in a complete real world. And watch how the meaning comes from the things themselves and not from her imposing anything."

This is high praise indeed, coming from a master like O'Connor, but not surprising. Though better known for her novels, Caroline Gordon was a superb short story writer. Now, thanks to a noteworthy Franklin-based publisher, we can once again survey the "masterly doing" that is Gordon's art.

Earlier in the summer, J.S. Sanders & Co. reissued Gordon's Collected Stories. This long out-of-print collection boasts an introduction by Robert Penn Warren, along with a selection of Gordon's short fiction. Four of Gordon's novels also bear the JSS imprint. The Collected Stories thus helps round out a portrait of this important writer's craft.

As O'Connor attests, Gordon possessed an acute sense for structuring her narratives. Her writing relies on subtle effect for its power, and her creations exude a calm, beguiling grace. Her talents found devotees in many of the great Southern writers of the time: O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom all valued Gordon's opinion and admired her work.

Caroline Ferguson Gordon was born on Oct. 6, 1895, in Merry Mont, Ky. Her father was a schoolteacher, and her mother was a member of the prominent Meriwether family of Kentucky. In 1925, Gordon married poet Allen Tate; the pair would marry twice in their lives, only to be finally divorced in 1959. But the troubles in their relationship are less interesting than the good years they spent together. Allen and Caroline engaged an ever-widening circle of remarkable friends. At Benfolly, their residence east of Nashville, the two played host to a wide array of writers and artists, and their devotion to literature led them on many adventures at home and abroad. Allen and Caroline visited Paris in the late 1920s, where they became acquainted with the great Gertrude Stein and the then soon-to-be-great Ernest Hemingway. Years in New York City led to friendships with the poet Hart Crane and radical journalist Dorothy Day.

Though her life was distinguished by great travels and powerful acquaintances, Gordon mainly drew on her relationship to the South for her stories. As Robert Penn Warren points out in his introduction, "Caroline Gordon's world lies in southeast Kentucky along the Tennessee line."

Gordon's devotion to the South is embodied in one of her most memorable characters. It is well documented that Gordon based the protagonist of her novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman on her own father. She spent hours recording her father, who loved telling hunting and fishing stories in his old age.

Mr. Gordon proved to be such an inspiration that Aleck Maury, his fictionalized self, made his way into his daughter's short stories as well. These tales thankfully make up a strong part of the Collected Stories. In his introduction, Robert Penn Warren waxes poetic about the character of Aleck Maury. To Warren, Maury is a symbol of humanity's relationship to the world of nature; he is a kind of transcendental spirit, a force connected intimately to the flow of life.

Several of the Maury stories find the elder sportsman reflecting on his life as a hunter and fisherman. "The Last Day in the Field" is tinged with a note of sadness as Maury considers his waning powers as a hunter in the later years of his life. In serious tales such as this, Gordon shows great sagacity in rendering her character's difficult ruminations. But the writer gave Maury a comic side as well. On reading "To Thy Chamber Window, Sweet," one cannot help but be humored by this charming gentleman. Here Maury appears as something of a buffoon as he rakishly sneaks out of a date to go fishing.

Of course, The Collected Stories contains many more offerings than those involving lovable Aleck Maury. "The Ice House" shows Gordon tackling the legacy of the Civil War in a gruesome tale that involves two young men hired to excavate a mass grave. Also in a historical mode, "The Captive" deals with the harrowing story of a pioneer woman taken from her home by a warring band of Shawnee Indians.

Caroline Gordon's Collected Stories displays writing of a truly wide breadth. Having this fine collection in print again is cause for celebration. Thanks to J.S. Sanders & Co., readers can enjoy the fascinating work of a woman who helped shape several generations of Southern writing.

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