October 6th – Caroline Gordon

“As a rule, one must write a great many words before one learns to write well.”

Caroline Gordon

Caroline Gordon was a notable American novelist and literary critic, the recipient of two prestigious literary awards, a 1932 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 1934 O. Henry Award.

Caroline Ferguson Gordon was born on October 6th, 1895, on her family’s plantation in Todd County, Kentucky. Gordon received an education at her father’s Clarksville Classical School for Boys and afterward attended Bethany College in West Virginia. She graduated in 1916 with a bachelor’s degree in Greek, and went to work for the Chattanooga Reporter as a writer of society news for eight years.  

When she was twenty-nine, she met Allen Tate, a free-spirited poet four years her junior. They were married in May 1925, and their daughter Nancy was born four months later in September. The couple lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, in a house named after Allen’s brother, who helped them purchase it. They entertained many impressive visitors at “BenFolly,” including Robert Lowell, who famously camped on their lawn, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and T.S. Eliot. They were incredibly hospitable and acted as mentors to many young writers. 

Gordon’s first novel, Penhally, was published in 1931. She would publish eight other novels, two works of criticism, and two short story collections during her lifetime. Aleck Maury, Sportsman, published in 1934, is considered her finest novel. 

In 1945 Gordon and Tate divorced, then remarried the following year. In 1947 she converted to Catholicism, which informed her later work, The Malefactors (1956). In 1950 they released an anthology of short stories together – The House of Fiction.

The Strange Children (1952) was nominated for a National Book Award.

Tate and Gordon divorced again in 1959, but remained friends.

Gordon worked for a brief time as the secretary to Ford Madox Ford and later wrote a critical study of him, A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (1963).

Her book How to Read a Novel (1957) focuses on craft and style, lessons she used as a teacher, influencing writers such as Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. 

She suffered a stroke in 1981 that left her crippled. She died six weeks later, on April 11th, 1981, at the age of 85, in Mexico, where she lived her later years. The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordonpublished the same year of her death in 1981, was a New York Times notable book. Anne Tyler’s review of the work in the New York Times on April 18th, 1981, doesn’t mention the author’s death. 

First edition of Collected Stories for sale by Dividing Line Books on Biblio.com

For a time many of her books went out of print, and her name all but forgotten. Yet, it continues to break through like a steadfast light. 

Some novels have been brought back into print in recent years, and in the 1980s, two critical biographies were written on the writer: 

Close Connections: Caroline Gordon & the Southern Renaissance (1987) by Ann Waldron & Caroline Gordon (1989) by Veronica A. Makowsky. In 2018 The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, edited by Christine Flanagan was published. 

Lesson from Gordon:

True art never goes away. Gordon felt called away from the limited expectations of a Southern woman in the early 20th century. She wanted to be a wife and a mother and engage intellectually in prestigious writing circles and be a successful writer. Although she couldn’t control her husband’s side of the marriage, she didn’t let the heartbreak take her down. She turned to faith and writing and bravely pursued the life she wanted. 

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