ABOUT 12 OF US were gathered in a friend's office eating bag lunches and talking about recent books. I mentioned my excitement over the news that Farrar, Straus was publishing a collection of all of Caroline Gordon's short fiction and that Southern Illinois University Press had just reissued her novel Aleck Maury: Sportsman ($12.95; paper, $6.95). My announcement was met with puzzled stares. Finally one young woman, apparently speaking for the rest, said: "I don't know Caroline Gordon." I raised my eyes to meet those of the only other person in the room over 40, and we shook our heads. A generation has arisen who knows not Joseph. But even for those deprived, it is not too late. Although Caroline Gordon died last week in her 86th year, in this collection of her short fiction she has, like the Biblical Joseph, provided nourishment for years to come.
In his introduction to the collection, Robert Penn Warren says that Gordon "belongs in that group of Southern women who have been enriching our literature uniquely in this century -- all so different in spirit, attitude, and method, but all with the rare gift of the teller of the tale." For many of us, however, Caroline Gordon was not only a "teller of the tale," she was also a teacher of the art of fiction. Her How to Read a Novel (Viking, 1957, but currently, alas, out of print) is preferred by many writers I know to E. M. Forster's classic Aspects of the Novel, which is less detailed and, frankly, less fun to read. Who else, for example, except Gordon, in a discussion of narrative structure, would dare lay Oedipus Rex alongside Jemima Puddleduck? The House of Fiction, which she co-edited with Allen Tate, (Scribners, 1950) is a splendid course on how to read short stories, and, again, for those who have eyes to see, how to write them as well.
It is a joy to read or reread the stories in this collection, observing the precepts of the teacher coming to life in her work. Her own literary heritage was impressive. She was private secretary to Ford Madox Ford who knew Henry James who knew Turgenev who knew Flaubert. The influence is apparent but not burdensome. Gordon's style is as clear and lively as the mountain streams she describes so lovingly. Her mentor Henry James speaks of the "solidity of specification" which brings fiction to life and upon which all its other virtues depend. Gordon is a master of those concrete details which illumine and give reality to the whole.
In "Tom Rivers," the narrator is remembering a favorite cousin as he sits in his yard observing how light falling through the boughs of a tree strikes in the same pattern at the same time of day summer after summer. "It is like that with me when I think of Tom Rivers," he says:
"I cannot understand how it was that he disappeared, leaving nowhere any trace of his going. I sit here in the late afternoon, and the long lances of shadow start from the garden fence and move slowly on, past the big sugar tree and past the beech tree, to halt for a moment at the little sugar tree that stands not fifty yards from my chair. When they have moved past, I see that the hundred, dark shadow that seemed to me a rooster standing with his back to the western light is really only a clump of dog fennel. I see it happen like that almost every afternoon, and with it comes always fresh wonder at the restless, hurried movements of human beings. The light can fall like that evening after evening on some tree or flower, and yet a man that one has known intimately can vanish, as we already say of Tom Rivers, off the face of the earth."
Many of the stories are told in the first person that Gordon seems to agree with James is the most "barbarous" of all techniques. But the authority of the storyteller never falters, even when the first-person narrator is an ignorant pioneer woman, as in "The Captive." Here an almost unbearably violent tale of massacre is told through the eyes of the woman who is taken captive by the Indians. She finally escapes in a chase scene as harrowing as any ever seen on the silver screen:
"We went through the gate. I heard the bolt shoot home and I knew I was inside the fort. I fell down on the ground and the women and children come crowding. The Indians were still yelling. I sat up and the high stockade fence was all around me.
"'Lord God,' I said, 'I was lucky to git away from them Indians!'"
Her simple voice telling the tale has somehow managed to elevate the tragedies she has endured and the courage she has unwittingly displayed. The final line is such an understatement that I found myself laughing aloud at it. In "The Ice House," as well, Gordon has consciously used humor in a way that heightens the horror of the story.
The single powerful effect of these stories is evident the first time through, but if you want to know exactly what it was that hit you, you will need to go back and read them with infinite care. Gordon builds the tragedy that occurs at the end of "One More Time" slowly and quietly from the first paragraph of the story, although at first we may be too blind to see it. The same is true for the longest and most Jamesian story of the collection, "Emmanuele! Emmanuele!" where even the title must be pondered. A great writer, who in turns out is homosexual, calls his wife "Emmanuele" -- God with us. Do we wonder that he finds himself forsaken?
Again, as Gordon the teacher points out in The House of Fiction:
"The author's legitimate authority lies not in his telling us that the scene is such, that these people did certain things, that what they did meant this or that; it lies rather in convincing us that the scene, the characters, the meaning, all move together in a dynamic pattern that we can believe in apart from the author's personality. The author's problem is so to conduct himself that, as guide, he does not stand between us and the object or person that he wishes us to see."
And Gordon as writer is that guide:
"I stood there bewildered. 'Where is the possum, Ralph?' I asked. 'Where is he? I want to see him.'
"'Ain't nothing hinderin you, is they? Walk right up. Walk right up and look at him.'
"I approached the tree and looked up. I was aware, first, of the blackness of the foliage. I seemed to be looking down instead of up, into deep layers, shade massed on shade. My eye found the limb, followed it to the glean of the white belly. Then I saw the eyes, round, golden. They regarded me steadily, or rather they regarded nothing. They glowed, and it was as if there was nothing in the world but whirling blackness and, set in it, those immense, those golden orbs."
Surely you wouldn't want to miss seeing anything as wonderful as this.