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Caroline Gordon

Born into a farm family in Todd County, Kentucky, on October 6, 1895, Caroline Gordon grew up in the comfort of the plantations of the Old South where women served as gracious hostesses to their husbands and fathers.  The slow, methodical rhythm of southern life influenced both Gordon and her work.  She was the perfect southern belle who played hostess to some of the world's greatest writers, including Ford Madox Ford, who was one of her most ardent supporter, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, T. S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. 

Everyone looked forward to visiting the Gordon home. In turn, Gordon offered her literary friends anonymity and a safe harbor from the often cruel and demanding sea in which they lived, a place where they could create their future masterpieces without fear of rejection or ridicule.  She is considered an early feminist because of her Bohemian lifestyle and the fact that she published her work under her maiden name.  But, in reality, she was far more comfortable tending to the needs of the men in her life than in competing with them.  

Gordon received her education at her father's Classical School for boys in Clarksville, Tennessee.  She learned from James Morris Gordon the importance of being well educated.  That lesson resulted in her being accepted to Bethany College, where she was a member of the graduating class of 1916.  After graduation, she moved to Tennessee to work as a reporter for the Chattanooga Reporter.  Her reporting there consisted mainly of the Society news.  She left the newspaper in 1924. 

Upon her arrival home, she met Allen Tate, the love her life and her future husband. Gordon and Tate were married on May 15, 1925, at City Hall in New York.  At the time of the wedding, Gordon was five months pregnant with the couple's first child.  In order to avoid the social stigma that accompanied such things in that day, she said later that her marriage had taken place secretly several months earlier.  She also adopted the fashion popular in New York that married women should retain their maiden names, not so much as a feminist statement, but more as a means to save face with relatives back home.

Gordon's marriage was rocky from the start.  She was searching for her literary soul; he was scratching around for his own literary success.  In their early years together, they traveled through France, New York, and Massachusetts before finally settling in Clarksville, Tennessee, where they lived in a rambling house christened Benfolly because it had been a gift from Tate's brother, Ben.  Tate always considered his brother's act of generosity sheer "folly."

Shortly after setting up house, Gordon's writer friends came calling.  As always, she played the gracious hostess.  Often she would put off her own writing in order to help create an atmosphere in which her literary counterparts could work most comfortably.  Ford Madox Ford took an interest in Gordon's work and went so far as to coerce her into finishing her first novel, Penhally (1931), by prohibiting her from doing anything else until she had dictated at least 5,000 words to him each day.

Gordon went on to publish ten novels, including Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), a novel which is said to be about Gordon's father, None Shall Look Back (1937), a Civil War novel, and The Women on the Porch (1944).  She also published three collections of short stories and three other books, including How to Read a Novel in 1957.  Although she showed great talent, she never felt comfortable as a writer, something she attributed to being a woman.  "It is certainly much harder for a woman to write than it is for a man," she said.  "It is so much harder that I am in a panic half the time fearing that something will happen to prevent me from writing."

As much of an independent thinker as Gordon was, she was also a victim of her own insecurities.  She seemed to be writing about her inability to command her life, which, in The Petrified Woman, is tied to her dependence on Tate, where young Susie grows up in a traditional southern atmosphere.  When she is forced to accept her uncle's drinking problem, she speaks of her Aunt Hilda's displeasure with her husband.

"She better get used to it," Susie said.  "All the Fayerlee men drink."

In 1947, Gorden converted to Catholicism--an act that would be both tormentor and savior for her in the coming years.  Her marriage to Tate was crumbling.  His infidelities eventually led to divorce.  Yet, while Gordon could not forgive his indiscretions, she could not live without him in her life.  In classic "can't live with him, can't live without him" style, Gordon divorced Tate in 1945, remarried, and divorced him again in 1959.  Tate eventually married a total of three times, but continued to correspond with Gordon throughout his life.

Even though Gordon won the Guggenheim Award in 1932 and the O Henry Award in 1934, she had difficulty thinking of herself as a talented writer.  She always looked to male role models to draw the words from her so that they could be written down.  Ford Madox Ford should have been given credit on Gordon's Penhally.  This is not the picture often conceived of the dedicated feminist writer, but rather of a woman so  insecure with her own talents as to be near virtual paralysis.

At one point, Gorden--feeling surrounded by fame and unable to cope with its demands--wrote in a letter to 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." 

On March 1, 1981, Caroline Gordon suffered a stroke from which she never recovered.  She died on April 11, 1981.  Ever the perfect southern hostess and foil to her male counterparts, her tombstone bears a quotation from Jacques Maritain, summing up her life:

"It is for Adam to interpret the voices which Eve hears."


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