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Rose Ann Fraistat's study of Caroline Gordon is an unusual critical book. Instead of twisting her subject to fit a thesis or using it to demonstrate her own cleverness, she sets herself the task of understanding her subject by attempting to discover what kind of novelist Caroline Gordon is and then of explaining her subject's novels in light of that discovery. One may wish to quarrel with an occasional judgment, but in general her method is sound and her writing a pleasure to read and to contemplate.
Fraistat begins by establishing Gordon's place in the world of letters, making connections to other writers—to James, Eliot, Tate—and to movements: impressionism, agrarianism, symbolism, myth. In a brief space she deals with Gordon's religious point of view and the importance of that in her criticism. Gordon's role as a teacher is also emphasized, as is the fact that Gordon never set up to be a formal critic. Her critical writing was always an adjunct to her interest in [End Page 400] correcting what she thought misconceptions about the nature of fiction.
The remainder of the book is divided between examinations of the early and the late novels, the latter being those published immediately before and, after Gordon's conversion to Catholicism: Women on the Porch, Strange Children, The Malefactors, and The Glory of Hera. These later books are also the most difficult and, for many readers, the least interesting of Gordon's fiction. Fraistat illuminates them all in a clear and interesting way. Of the first three she writes that Gordon "had focused on modern individuals who marshal the resources of the intellect and psyche in order to overcome the monsters within the self, then, having triumphed, seek to love and guide others." The Glory of Hera, Gordon's last novel, she views as another examining of "the individual's maturation" but "in a larger social context."
Gordon's earlier novels—Penhally, Aleck Maury, Sportsman, None Shall Look Back, Green Centuries, The Garden of Adonis —are not so difficult and have already received fairly extensive analysis, but what Fraistat brings to her discussion of these early books is a perspective shaped by Gordon's later religious development; this enables her to make judgments about the implications of those early books that would not otherwise be possible. One might argue, of course, that a religious view of the early novels is inappropriate since at the time the books were written Gordon's viewpoint was explicitly secular, but Fraistat makes her case without distortion and gives to Gordon's entire literary career a convincing continuity.
Caroline Gordon as Novelist and Woman of Letters is a superior work of practical criticism. It is based on a close reading of the texts and of relevant scholarship and is written in a clear authoritative style. It is certainly one of the best books on an American novelist published this year.
The subtitle of Lewis Lawson's book is somewhat misleading. Instead of a survey of important writers of the postwar period, what one actually finds in Another Generation: Southern Fiction since World War II is a gathering of Lawson's previously published essays on a handful of books, two of which, on the evidence offered, are very minor productions indeed. Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker and Mitchell F. Jayne's Old Fish Hawk are thesis novels of an obvious kind, the first about a fearless Kentucky mountain woman who is obliged to give up hand-carving dolls in order to mass produce them, the second about an Indian outcast who retains primitive virtues of the kind made popular by William Faulkner. Other essays are on the grotesque in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, the philosophical use of movies in Walker Percy's...