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Caroline Gordon’s Ghosts: The Women on the Porch as Southern Gothic Literature

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 78-95 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0016

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Soon after its publication in 1944, Caroline Gordon’s The Women on the Porch—her sixth novel—generated two reviews in The New York Times. The first, by Orville Prescott, noted that the novel’s dust jacket depicted “the figure of a young woman fleeing from the nameless terrors of a dark forest,” and that the “encircling gloom that menaces her . . . billows and eddies through the pages of [the] cryptic and peculiar novel” (17). Prescott also conveyed that Gordon’s latest work wandered “through a series of spirals and convolutions of time and place and thought, slipping from the stream of consciousness of one character to that of another, from Tennessee to New York, from the present to the past” (17). The result was an “elusive [and] haunting,” “taut and twisted,” work that like the novels of “a number of her fellow Southern[ers]” shared “a preoccupation with death and decay and destruction . . . [While] she does not engage in the ghoulish melodramatics of Faulkner . . . her sense of doom and frustration is [just] as great” (Prescott 17). The second review, written by Lorine Pruette, similarly underscored the novel’s modernist and gothic elements, specifically its thick shadows of the past, its depiction of the struggle between the Old and the New South, and its intricate narrative form—“a modified stream-of-consciousness technique . . . [which] admirably evokes a mood” (BR6). Much of the other criticism that followed the initial publication of The Women of the Porch focused on the mythological framework of the novel, which is based on the saga of Orpheus’s and Eurydice’s descent into, and escape from, Hades; the heroic quests of the protagonists; and its innovation in structure. Agrarians Andrew Lytle and Brainard Cheney were among the first to recognize the literary merits of Gordon’s novel. Cheney was particularly laudatory, describing it as “profoundly informed by tradition and history.” The Women on the Porch, he predicted, would be a novel that would “last” because it not only gives “us a realism of [its] time but [also] characters, places, and situations which tend toward [the] symbolic representation of our experience” (Cheney 149–150).

Despite this initial excitement, over the years The Women on the Porch has been marginalized in favor of earlier Gordon works such as Penhally (1931), Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), and None Shall Look Back (1937), which have come to dominate Gordon criticism. The Women on the Porch has been categorized either, at worst, as a “succession of frozen moments, each with its own prearranged meaning . . . [with] no progression, no plot . . . [just] the elegiac pattern of decline and fall” (Gray 157) or, at best, as “transitionary” in that it signals Gordon’s movement away from grand historical novels about the Old South (Brown 367), and toward critiquing the Agrarian agenda espoused in earlier works. What has been lost in these analyses, however, is Prescott’s and Pruette’s original emphasis on the novel’s gothic elements, which not only position it among many of the greatest contributions to the Southern Renaissance but also serve as a framework to examine some of Gordon’s concerns with the Agrarian manifesto. In particular, the gothic elements in The Women on the Porch address the unresolved antagonism between the Old and the New South, the feasibility of their agenda in an increasing urban and industrial mid-twentieth-century South, and the role of women within this shifting social dynamic. This essay seeks to recuperate and expand upon these initial interpretations of The Women on the Porch by considering the novel as an example of Southern Renaissance literature which uses gothic elements to question the Agrarian cause—quite a daring project for Gordon given that she was married to one of the movement’s founders and an unofficial member herself (Tunc, “Recuperating” 182–183). Only by placing the novel in dialogue with other prominent works of the Renaissance can its literary lineage be restored and its deep criticism of southern society be revealed. As The Women on the Porch demonstrates, by the 1940s, the southern agrarian lifestyle, which emphasized small-scale farming, economic and social conservatism, and the rejection of urbanization and industrialization, was no longer possible, especially in a...



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