restricted access Caroline Gordon: A Biography, and: Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love (review)
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Reviewed by
Veronica A. Makowsky. Caroline Gordon: A Biography. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 264 pp. $21.95.
Richard Giannone. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. 268 pp. $24.95.

A Jacques Maritain quotation—"it is for Adam to interpret the voices that Eve hears"—serves as epigraph to Caroline Gordon's last completed novel, The Malefactors, as epitaph on Gordon's tombstone and as key to Veronica Makowsky's recent Caroline Gordon: A Biography. Authorized by Gordon before her death in 1981, Makowsky's study acknowledges this declaration of female subordination, [End Page 240] chosen by Gordon as a final and, one might say, prescient commentary on her literary fortunes. The author of nine novels and two collections of stories, Gordon had, until recently, vanished from critical view, remembered, if at all, as Flannery O'Connor's mentor or, despite a 1959 divorce, as Allen Tate's wife. Yet several recent dissertations, Ann Waldron's 1987 biography Close Connections, and Makowsky's biography suggest a long overdue change in critical assessments of Gordon.

Makowsky portrays Gordon's life as a constant struggle to satisfy the oxymoronic demands she felt the term "woman artist" entailed. In an excerpt from one of her letters, Gordon refers to herself as a "freak," doing work "not suitable for a woman," which is "ten times harder for me to write . . . than it would be for a man with the same degree of talent." She adds to this difficulty "the task of running a house, serving dinner that seems to have been prepared by an excellent cook, and all the while trying to be a good hostess—which means trying to make every man in the room have a good time." Such ambivalence is not surprising given Makowsky's documentation of the Tates' almost pathological hospitality, which, she argues, alternatively relieved and strained their often troubled marriage. In locations as diverse as New York, Paris, London, and Clarksville, Tennessee, the Tates were constantly surrounded by literary company that included Agrarian brethren Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom, Gordon's mentor Ford Madox Ford, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and Katherine Ann Porter.

No wonder, then, that Gordon, seldom financially secure, and faced with an ever-changing stream of domestic duties complicated by constant uprooting and entertaining, felt hard pressed to pursue her writing. Makowsky notes the frequent stops and starts that marked the composition of her first published novel, Penhally, a ninteenth-century multigenerational family saga modeled on her own family. Only after Ford, having read the fragmentary manuscript, forced her to dictate to him 5000 words a day for the last three weeks of a Paris sojourn, did she acquire the discipline to complete it. Indeed, despite Gordon's belief in "the hopelessly incongruent aspirations of men and women," Makowsky records Gordon's nearly lifelong dependence on male mentors, the most notable being Ford, and, of course, Tate, whose displeasure with her first novel led her to destroy it and who often interceded with her publishers, sometimes drafting indignant letters to which she signed her name. Throughout their marriage, Gordon felt herself overshadowed by Tate, and Makowsky records numerous incidents—at Gertrude Stein's evenings, at the 1931 Southern Writer's Conference, for example—in which Tate was courted and Gordon snubbed. Yet although Gordon often felt unfairly treated as a woman writer, Makowsky makes it clear that she had little sympathy or patience with other women writers, often attacking successful friends like Porter.

Makowsky's largely biographical critical interpretations of the novels and stories, woven into her text, reveal the intimate connections between Gordon's life and art. In addition to the family history that finds its way into Penhally, Gordon draws her father, James Gordon, in Aleck Maury, Sportsman; her relationship with the womanizing Tate in The Women on the Porch; her problems as a woman artist in The Malefactors. Makowsky's thorough summaries of and frequent quotations from the fiction show us the modern stylist who, despite her failure to win a substantial audience, was considered by many to be one of the premier talents of her [End Page 241] generation...