Joshua HrenApril 01, 2021

Caroline Gordon’s significance for the Catholic literary tradition has been so consistently underappreciated that even the sympathetic reader cannot help wondering whether her relative invisibility might be merited. When her importance is recalled at all, Gordon is reckoned as wife of (her handful of a husband) Allen Tate and as an indispensable editor of and mentor to many.

Her contributions in those latter roles were no small matter. Without her rallying praise and exacting advice, Walker Percy might never have gotten out from under his early novel The Charterhouse, and The Moviegoer might have remained an existentialist essay rather than a National Book Award recipient. When Robert Giroux wavered over Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Robert Fitzgerald asked Gordon to apply her sharpened sensibilities to the manuscript. Gordon immediately recognized that “[t]his girl is a real novelist” and wrote her a long letter filled with earnest appreciations (“There are so few Catholics who seem possessed of a literary conscience”) and painstaking criticisms that gave the novel a needed transfusion.

In spite of this arc of influence, Gordon’s own writing has remained largely unread. Many of her novels, long out of print, have been lost to prospective generations of readers. In the last few years, however, we have seen a small revival for Gordon with the publication of The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, edited by Christine Flanagan. In Good Things Out of Nazareth (whose title is taken from Gordon’s own description of the Southern Catholic literary movement), Gordon plays a major part, even if she is not the protagonist. And, finally, Cluny Media, as part of its sustained effort to bring many “Catholic novels” back into print, just republished two of Gordon’s important works: How to Read a Novel and The Malefactors. Cluny is also bringing Gordon’s The Strange Children back into print soon.

In spite of her considerable arc of influence, Caroline Gordon’s own writing has remained largely unread.

Gordon wrote two novels in the years immediately following her conversion to Catholicism in 1947 at the age of 52. The Strange Children, published the same year as Wise Blood (1952), was nominated for the National Book Award alongside works by J. D. Salinger and Truman Capote. In The Malefactors, which followed four years later, the famous poet Tom Claiborne and his wife Vera inhabit a farm at Blencker’s Bridge, headquarters of a lively collection of family and friends and literati. When they turn away from painting and poetry, these bohemians make life “a party every day.” As her misanthropic husband takes a mistress, Vera roots herself in bulls—not watching the brutal beauties of Hemingway’s matadors, but rather raising prize bovines and serving as “president of the Red Poll Breeder’s Association of the Atlantic Seaboard States.”

The odds of this “strange book” (to cite the original jacket cover) succeeding were diminished before it reached readers’ hands. Gordon had originally dedicated the work to Dorothy Day, who is refracted in the character of Catherine Pollard. Day was astonished to find herself rendered, in Paul Elie’s words, “as a holy seductress with a blasphemous past”—including participation in a Black Mass. Although Gordon considered the book “a tribute, an act of devotion,” Day wrote “forceful letters” demanding that the dedication “To Dorothy Day,” as well as her character’s dabbling in Satanism, be excised.

As Bainard Cheney notes, “The decision, just before publication, to eliminate the dedication, gave the publisher cold feet, and the novel was shelved rather than promoted: perhaps a considerable reason for its small sale.”

Merits and demerits in The Malefactors

Although The Malefactors is more than the “spiritual hangover of the Lost Generation” (as Time magazine called it), the novel cannot entirely dodge one critic’s charge that it is “tedious.” First, the past exerts a persistent influence on the action. As Gordon explained to a friend, the stories of three dead men (the poet Horne Watts, as well as the fathers of Tom and Vera) “unfold chronologically, counterclockwise to the main action.” Intentional as the intervening flashbacks may be, at times they stretch on for pages between exchanges of dialogue happening in the present.

Second, the novel introduces the reader to too many characters too quickly. By beginning with a fête at Blencker’s Bridge, Gordon provides the material occasion for the massive cast that we meet in the first 30 pages but overwhelms us with convoluted town and familial relations.

Finally, Gordon’s attempt to write saints—her efforts to transform Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day into compelling literary figures—makes for some of the weakest characterizations in the book. “She certainly had a hard time making those [Catholic Worker] people believable,” O’Connor admitted. As Paul Elie observes, O’Connor would never write a novel like The Malefactors, “in which good and thoughtful people discuss the quandaries of religious faith in an earnest and intelligent way. Good people, she believed, are especially hard to write about.”

Flannery O’Connor called The Malefactors “undoubtedly the most serious and successful fictional treatment of conversion by an American writer to date.”

When Gordon’s agent approached O’Connor requesting a kind of quid pro quo for Gordon’s praise of Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor ducked, indicating that “it would be impertinent for me to comment on the book, simply because I have too much to learn from it.”

Nonetheless, O’Connor did write a review for The Bulletin, a diocesan newspaper in Georgia. Although The Malefactors is “profoundly Catholic,” O’Connor wrote, she thought it remained “doubtful if it will receive the attention it deserves from the Catholic reader, who is liable to be shocked by the kind of life portrayed in it, or from the reader whose interests are purely secular, for he will regard its outcome as unsound and incredible.” The outcome she mentioned is the conversion of Tom Claiborne, his strained but not entirely uncanny turning toward the Catholic faith. This most difficult aspect of the novel is its most complete achievement. O’Connor went so far as to say that it was “undoubtedly the most serious and successful fictional treatment of conversion by an American writer to date.”

In the novel, Tom rises late on the day of the fête to find Vera out walking her prize bull, the “Red Poll.” At once we behold one of the novel’s controlling symbols (the Red Poll) and we grasp the couple’s de facto separation as he wearyingly resists each of her requests with the same palpable indifference. He wishes to avoid a visit to his sick aunt’s room. He wants someone else to pick up Vera’s cousin Cynthia from the train station.

When he grudgingly fulfills his wife’s latter request, things get complicated quickly, as Tom and Cynthia’s interactions are charged with indirect but evident erotic tension. Upon seeing Cynthia, Tom has to restrain himself from giving her “Southern kisses,” and he speaks awkwardly of his age (“I’m getting to be an old man”), as though to simultaneously acknowledge and diminish the force of his attraction.

Tom is a difficult man to love, a fact that elevates Vera in the reader’s heart; still, Gordon renders Tom’s own agonies with soft touches that solicit concern for his soul rather than condemnation. His mentor, Horne Watts, committed suicide by leaping from a transatlantic ship, a memory that haunts Tom throughout the novel. His imagination reels with hyperbolic visions of others close to the edge. Seeing Cynthia sitting on a bench, he wonders whether it was “the shadow of a tree trunk or the wavering walls of a chasm? It crept on across the grass and she set her cup down and leaned farther backward, her hands clasped in her lap…. Did she know that her bench stood on the lip of a chasm?”

Tom’s early successes with poetry won him laurels and editorships, but he cannot conscientiously ride on the coattails of these youthful victories. In embarrassment, he has “fallen into the habit of deceiving Vera.” Her happiness, he knows, depends on his. Although he has written only a handful of pages of middling poetry in many years, each day Tom asserts that “I’ve got some things to do,” shuts himself into his office and locks the door. The lock is a safeguard against shame; once before, a servant had entered the room to find the poet asleep on the sofa instead of communing at the altar of the Muse.

In addition to being a saving mentor, Caroline Gordon was a Catholic novelist of considerable talent.

Portraits in the attic

Cynthia appears in Tom’s office “in a white dress,” bearing a manila folder filled with poetry. Cognizant of the gulf that separates him from his wife, Tom confesses to Cynthia, “I haven’t been able to write anything for a long time.” She preys upon this declaration of poetic impotence, indicating how eager she is to have him admire her poems and then trading his confession for a volatile confidence. Although Tom has known that Vera’s father had committed suicide (for it was his wife who found him dead at his easel), Cynthia tells him more: In his last days, Vera’s father painted grotesque pictures of himself, pictures that his daughter had supposedly burned but were almost certainly instead locked up in the Claiborne attic just above them.

Tom and Cynthia ascend into the attic, and just before they open the aluminum container concealing the controversial paintings, Cynthia starts pressing closer to him, whispering his name. He raises his head to find his wife as witness to their proximate infidelities. Vera swears that there are no paintings of her father’s. They are “Mine!” she declares, averting “her eyes from his while she contrived the first lie she had ever told him.” It is obvious that Vera’s first falsehood is in part a consequence of Cynthia’s cruelty and of her husband’s own flirtations with extramarital intimacies.

The affair between Tom and Cynthia accelerates. She takes up an apartment in New York City, and he assumes an editorial position at Parade, a newly launched literary magazine. As Anne M. Boyle writes in Strange and Lurid Bloom: A Study of the Fiction of Caroline Gordon, the author “turns her attention to the salvation of the frustrated, intellectual” male who needs to recover his manhood. Tom’s adultery is a cheap assertion of virility, whereas his assumption of an editorial position is the opposite because it requires daily work. Soon thereafter it “occurred to him that he had spent half his life avoiding offices. He wondered whether it had not been a mistake.” The discipline that his duties demand reorients his restless soul; and, unexpectedly, he experiences “stirrings of his imagination” for the first time in years.

Gordon’s treatment of Tom’s spiritual ascent is marked by novelistic action on multiple levels. Awful as his treatment of Vera is, he does not suffer the downward spiral of a morality tale. His reliance on his wife’s wealth and his simultaneous retreat into and alienation from the land had increased his sloth. Wrong as he is to run off with Cynthia, Tom nonetheless gains dignity from the work he does now out of necessity.

In the words of The Malefactors' epigraph, taken from Jacques Maritain, “It is for Adam to interpret the voices that Eve hears.”

The last third of the novel is leavened with these sorts of ironies and reversals. Instead of ending up in a bohemian hovel, Tom (and perhaps implicitly Cynthia) is offered an ornate apartment by friends, a habitation so gaudy that, as Molly, a drunken guest, once admits, “You—in this apartment! Several people told me about it, but I had to see it to believe it.”

Gordon’s articulation of the paradox is perfect: The ornamentation and lavishness of his borrowed apartment, when revealed, expose Tom’s deepest impoverishment. He has gained the whole world in exchange for a starving soul. “Oh, you have a ten-dollar word for everything!” Molly chides, “But you don’t fool anybody but yourself…. I don’t think you’re really bright at all. If you had been, you wouldn’t have fallen for that little bitch.”

Tom retreats into his familiar shallow solipsism, peddling the platitude that “people our age often discover that their first marriages were a mistake,” but his protest is no match for Cynthia’s sunken countenance, which he is forced to confront once Molly and the party guests exit. “There was an expression on her face that he had never seen before,” as if “somebody you had never seen or heard of were suddenly standing at the window of a house you had supposed unoccupied.” Beyond the pleasantries of poetry and their carnal passion, he does not know Cynthia at all, does not realize that she is using him for his reputation and influence, as a temporary residence from which to launch her writing career.

Into his consciousness comes an intrusion in the form of unexpected words whose source momentarily eludes him: “while all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of her course.” The words are from the Bible (Wis 18), where this scene of night silence is succeeded by the following: “Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction.” Tom wrestles with these words until he has heart enough to profess his depravity and Vera’s goodness.

“You and Vera are very different,” he tells Cynthia. “She’s got her faults, but she is a woman….” The scene’s pitch could break glass, and at last Tom’s most obfuscating window, dirtied by impossible smudges, shatters. Although he is unable to tell Cynthia what she is if she is “not a woman,” when she asks him what he is (“And you? What are you?”), he can finally look inside and find the right words: “A son of a bitch. That’s what I am. A son of a bitch.”

The greatest writers often rely on lesser ones to reach the heights of their improvements.

Tragedy and reversal

There is something in the scene of Greek tragedy, of the “reversal” Aristotle describes in his Poetics. In How to Read a Novel, Gordon explains that such a reversal is caused “by an incident: something which, happening suddenly, crystalizes the action and hurries it toward Resolution.” Although “there is nothing illogical about it” (and there is nothing illogical in this reversal of The Malefactors), “it has in it all the elements of surprise which make a plot...work.” Molly’s disapproval is not entirely unexpected; she has recently refused to invite Cynthia and Tom to a house party. She surprises us, however, by her frothing forthrightness. Tom’s confession had seemed permanently deferred; we should not have been surprised had he withheld it. However, we have been waiting, hoping that he could name his sin.

The substantive turning point of Tom’s conversion is found when he arrives at the outskirts of “Mary Farm,” where his wife has gone to tend pigs. Here Gordon reintroduces one of the story’s controlling symbols, the bull. On the literal level, we find that Vera has given her “prize bull” to the Catholic Worker farm. But, as Cheney explains, “he also signifies the brass bull, in which St. Eustace and his family were burned to death.” The animal, affiliated with martyrdom, moves from being the source of Vera’s pride to becoming alms for the poor.

As we follow Vera and her bull to Mary Farm, we may as well be with Mary Flannery O’Connor as with Dorothy Day: The place is ridden with freaks and outcasts, displaced persons and misfits. “One of them,” like O’Connor’s good country person Joy/Hulga, “had a wooden leg.” Tom, moved by these misfits’ willingness to feed him, gives away his cigarettes. He finds Vera tending not the Red Poll but a mentally ill man and a maimed child. “I’m not going to get a divorce,” Vera tells him. As the spouses converse, the child begins to “utter his strangled cry.” Vera has decided not to get a divorce, Tom concludes, because she is going to adopt the child: “The authorities don’t like broken homes, as we laughingly call them.” She could marry again, in a few months, he mockingly tells her. She should just get a divorce.

Like Flannery O'Connor, we have much to learn from Caroline Gordon.

Vera’s silence and quiet humility harrow him. “I did not know what it would be like to have her look at me and ask nothing,” he muses, and, still hurting, continues to hurt her. His parting words are refined instruments of torture: “Spend the rest of your life working in an orphan asylum,” he says, “or an insane asylum, if that suits you better…. Have a religious conversion!” A sound, “as discordant as the cries that came from the child’s mutilated throat,” escapes her. “I think maybe I have had it!” she shouts back.

The double entendre is just right: Yes, she has had it with Tom’s antics, and yes, she has had that conversion. It is only left for him to follow. In the words of the novel’s epigraph, taken from Jacques Maritain, “It is for Adam to interpret the voices that Eve hears.”

In his review of The Malefactors in Commonweal magazine, the Rev. John W. Simmons found in Gordon “a novelist who had not only avoided with her usual consistency the clichés of her craft but had come closer” than any other Catholic writer to “encompassing the elusive miracle” of rendering conversion in an artistically arresting way without cheapening either nature or grace.

As Tom huffs off, he runs into a priest who is also a recovering alcoholic. Father suggests that Tom stay on the farm, let things cool a bit and lend the workers a hand. But Tom won’t have it; in a final, barely controlled assertion of his arrogance, he refuses to stay in the “men’s dormitory,” which, the priest tells him, is “the old chicken house.” Tom searches out Catherine Pollard and finds her in St. Eustace chapel. Pollard, it turns out, has been praying for him since “soon after George called,” as someone told Catherine that Tom had gone to see Vera. “I wish I could have seen you before you went,” she tells him.

When Tom objects that neither he nor Vera is Catholic, Catherine corrects him: “Surely you know that Vera is in the Church. She was baptized when she was a child.” No, he says, he did not know that. “I didn’t know anything.” Tom turns to kiss her cheek, a reversal of the libidinal kisses he wished to plant on Cynthia when he first picked her up at the train station, but Catherine turns her head so that his mouth “fell warm on her mouth.”

The kiss of peace sealed, he hastens to Mary Farm, where “he could sleep in the hay if there was no bed. He could be sitting there on the bench with the other bums when she came down in the morning.” The allusion to Christ’s parable of the prodigal is plain. It works on the reader both literally and allusively—efficaciously on both levels—because Gordon has established the agrarian backdrop from page one. Also here, in these final lines, is a brushstroke of Bethlehem. He could, like Christ, be born in the hay.

Discussing what is necessary for the emergence of great artists and the perfection of all artistic aims, Maritain enunciates the “absolutely indispensable maintenance of a sufficiently high level of culture in the average of artists and artisans.” It would be absurd, he says, to ask every one of these artists to be an “original genius.” The greatest writers often rely on lesser ones to reach the heights of their improvements.

Gordon may not have been a writer of genius, but in addition to being a saving mentor she was a Catholic novelist of considerable talent. She appears on the scene, just now, like a “Lost Generation” matador with an impressive muleta—that stick-hung cloth bullfighters bring out for the last third of the match. Her red cloth is rich with the threads of so many masters: Faulkner and Flaubert, James Joyce and Henry James. But, like Flannery, we have much to learn from her, not least the graceful way by which she causes the lost creature to slouch back to Bethlehem to be born.

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