Mythic Consciousness, Cultural Politics: The Early Novels of Caroline Gordon
Lewis, Nghana tamu, Southern Quarterly
THIS ESSAY PRESENTS THE CASE OF CAROLINE GORDON, to amplify critical insight into the complexities of Gordon's aesthetic politics in her early novels of Southern history: Penhally (1931), None Shall Look Back (1937), and The Garden of Adonis (1937). Gordon's case is particularly noteworthy because of its apparently laden contradictions. Famously antifeminist, especially for maintaining in her later life that women should not have been granted the right to vote, Gordon has also, in more recent years, been read as a Southern woman whose writing often undercut Southern notions of heroism and machismo as well as the plantation romance. By contrast, I propose that Gordon's reduction of black characters and privileging of aristocratic white Southern women's experiences, perspectives, and growth in her early writing amplify Gordon's advocacy of the materialist interests of aristocratic white Southern women, at least throughout her early career, which began in the undertow of encroaching modernity. Drawing from a range of Gordon's work, I recuperate the relations between Gordon's aesthetic politics and her status as an aristocratic Southern woman writer. I investigate Gordon's mythic consciousness, or as one critic puts it, the technical "shifts and expedients" she uses in her writing to resuscitate the past as if it "were our world of today and here" (Collins 500).
Whereas Gordon's life, from her distinguished ancestry to her careers as journalist, academic, and writer, has been widely documented and theorized, Gordon's critique of Southern history and ideologies within determinants of her cultural identity has only recently been interrogated.1 In Revising Flannery O'Connor (2001), for example, Katherine Hemple Frown points up the materialist implications of Gordon's views on Southern "racial, sexual, and class-based hierarchies," but in so doing, casts Gordon as a victim, more or less, of (white) male-determined cultural circumstances rather than an agent of objectionable racial and class ethics (78). In accounting for Gordon's identity politics, Prown appears to follow in the suspect footsteps of Sally Wood who, in her 1984 introduction to The Southern Mandarin, ironically underwrites Gordon's racial conservatism by asserting that Gordon's views on blacks were "dated" because she was "a woman of her time and place." Wood proposes that Gordon "largely shared the southern notions about blacks that were prevalent in the first, half of [the twentieth] century. While she felt responsible for all of the blacks in the county, she looked on them as recalcitrant children. Yet she trusted them, enjoyed their society, and recognized differences among them in talent and intelligence." Wood claims further that while "we can repudiate some of [Gordon's] views from the vantage point of the late twentieth century," she did not think it "proper to pretend that Caroline Gordon was more advanced in her thinking about race than most, of her contemporaries" (xx, emphasis added). Like Wood, Prown admits finding it "hardly unusual, given [Gordon's] age and . . . background, that racist themes should appear in both her fiction and her letters" (81).
In truth, Southern conservative opinions of blacks in the first half of the twentieth century were far less stock and stable than either Wood or Prown implies. In letters to Wood, Gordon objects to the "radical" intervention of "northern agitators" into the affairs of Southern planters, registering her familiarity with efforts by black and white Southern small farmers, tenants, and wage laborers to unionize with the assistance of Northern labor organizers, so as to challenge the increasing power of white planters over post-Reconstruction Southern politics and economic policies (169-70, 183). The first three decades of the twentieth century saw the acceleration of mass black migrations from the South to northern and midwestern urban centers, the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the flowering of black cultural nationalism, and a host of several if short-lived and unsuccessful movements by black and white Southern farm and industrial laborers to counter the deep socio-economic problems plaguing the South. …