CLOSE CONNECTIONS Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance By Ann Waldron Putnam. 416 pp. $22.95

CAROLINE GORDON, a good critic and a superbly gifted novelist, was, until now, the most neglected figure of the southern literary renascence. Although she never wrote a novel of the first order -- a Light in August, an All the King's Men, a Losing Battles -- she wrote at least half a dozen good ones, of which Penhally (1931), Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), None Shall Look Back (1937), Green Centuries (1941), and The Strange Children (1951) are representative. During her long life more than once it appeared that she would get the critical and popular attention she had earned, but that never came to pass. She was always overshadowed by someone, including Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner; and often that person was close to her -- from her husband, Allen Tate, to her friends Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O'Connor.

Gordon sprang from a talented and numerous family connection, in Todd County, Kentucky. In her generation the family went to seed, but its genes were at their best in her -- a classically educated woman who, having been taught Latin and Greek, taught herself (with some help from Ford Madox Ford) how to write fiction.

This writer was possessed by two things for most of her mature life, as Ann Waldron makes plain -- fiction and Allen Tate. Tate, to whom she was married for most of the period between 1924 and 1960, was obsessed by a love of poetry as deep as her devotion to the craft of fiction; and he was infected by satyriasis, a fretful condition that resulted, among other matters, in their two divorces, the second of which did not scotch their protracted and tortured affair of the heart and the mind.

The Tates were an institution so far as their fellow artists were concerned; and few people in the history of American literature have done so much to nurture good writing. Wildly generous and equally improvident, they helped dozens of writers for 35 years: during that time they may have done more for fiction, poetry and criticism than did the Guggenheim Foundation (which supported them both) or the Yaddo colony for writers. They gave of themselves freely and recklessly, and the writers they supported form a roll call of the nation's finest authors between 1925 and now -- from Malcolm Cowley to Walker Percy. (In one of the most comical instances of their generosity, the Tates took in William Slater Brown, and Caroline Gordon tried to curb his alcoholism by getting him to write a novel, which was successful, more successful than her cure or its author.)

Their marriage suffered owing to the constant stream of artists whom they entertained and helped. One of the most demanding was Robert Lowell. Their writing also suffered. Gordon, driven by the pressure of endless company and straitened finances, seldom finished a novel to her satisfaction; and Tate poured his genius into the work of others, including her novels, while putting his talent into his poetry and prose.

Ann Waldron explores all these subjects and more in a skillfully forged narrative that never flags and that is neatly proportioned and quickly paced. Despite providing memorable portraits of many figures, especially Ford, Andrew Lytle, K.A. Porter, several members of the Tate and Gordon connections (especially their daughter, Nancy), and Sally Wood, the author maintains her story's rapid pace; and she never allows her commentaries on the work that Gordon regularly published to divert and undermine the life history. The prose is crisp and clean. Although Caroline Gordon lived a long and complicated life, this account of it is short when measured in terms of the literary biographies of comparable writers.

If there is a stronger biography of a southern author since 1920, I have missed it. Indeed I am relieved not to be working on a biography of Warren or Tate or Lytle and being confronted by this daunting example. The flaws and errors are negligible, and it would be niggling to mention them; the virtues, for instance the use of fresh and apt quotations drawn from interviews and letters, are many. Anyone interested in modern fiction, particularly the southern novel since Faulkner, should relish this immensely engaging biography.

George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, writes often about southern letters.