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
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,
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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