Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Caroline Gordon, Aleck Maury, and the Heroic Cycle

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Caroline Gordon, Aleck Maury, and the Heroic Cycle

Article excerpt

OVERSHADOWED DURING HER LIFETIME by her better-regarded husband, Allen Tate, because of her continued association with him and other white, male, Fugitive/Agrarian colleagues, Caroline Gordon is excluded by recent critics from the ongoing revision of traditional Southern fiction that has resurrected lesser talents. Certainly, Gordon's canon does prove somewhat cumbersome, often uneven, and occasionally uncomfortable in terms of reconfigured considerations of gender, race, and class. Many recent critical reflections reduce her long, productive career to a footnote, while even her best novels now go unread for the most part. The reasons for this unfair criticism and unfortunate neglect aside, the fictions recreating her father in the persona of Aleck Maury locate Caroline Gordon 's greatest literary achievement in her translation of the heroic cycle from classical to modern Southern narrative.

At her father's University School in Clarksville, Tennessee, just across the state line from her maternal family's seat at Merry Mont farm in Todd County, Kentucky, Caroline Gordon enjoyed the classical education that usually privileged only well-off white males. Except for young Caroline, the school's student body was all male, but as it was founded by and presided over by her father, James Maury Morris Gordon, an early effort at coeducation was made in her case. A distant Virginian relation of her mother's extended yet insular family, "Professor" Gordon was educated at "Mr. Jefferson's university" and was called by his Kentucky connections to tutor its younger generation, later marrying Nancy Minor Meriwether. Like Aleck Maury, his fictional counterpart in Gordon 's best-known works, her father was a fascinating yet contradictory figure, one divided between his attractions to the heroism discovered in classical learning and to that lived in outdoor sports. This tension eventuated in frequent absences and removals as he changed jobs and even careers, trying his hand at farming and finally becoming a peripatetic Church of Christ preacher and evangelist in search of a better balanced life in the body and in the spirit (Makowsky 31-32). Under her father's tutelage, Gordon began Latin at age eight and Greek at ten, so she was able to advance her education on each of the family's subsequent sojourns. Four years of Latin and two of Greek qualified her for admission to the church-affiliated Bethany College in West Virginia. Although its fundamentalist doctrine derived from the nineteenth-century Restorationist Movement led by Alexander Campbell, who founded Bethany in 1840, the loosely organized Disciples of Christ believed that their preachers should be educated in the biblical languages. In this belief, these Brothers and Sisters in Christ were dedicated to the restoration of the first-century church in all its aspects including scriptural inerrancy and authority. Gordon was able to extend both her Latin and her Greek at Bethany, taking year-long courses focused on Homer, Plato, Thucydides, and the dramatists (Makowsky 33-34).

After college graduation in 1916, Caroline joined her parents as they returned to Todd County from a church assignment in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, securing for herself a place as a teacher of English and Classics at the Clarksville Central High School, the public successor to Professor Gordon's collegiate academy. Evidently, a "nervous breakdown" ended her teaching career, and required almost a year of rest. After her recovery, she spent several years as a newspaper reporter and book reviewer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Visiting home in 1924, Caroline was greeted by another Todd County native, indeed a recent graduate of Clarksville High School, Robert Penn "Red" Warren, accompanied by his friend and Vanderbilt roommate, Allen Täte. Like Gordon, both men were classically educated and literarily ambitious (Waldron 34-36).

Gordon and Tate were married the following spring, thus creating one of the most productive households in modern American letters, though the ceremony did not anticipate the birth of their only child Nancy sufficiently to escape the supercilious notice of the Meriwether family (Waldron 44). …

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