Born: October 6, 1895, Todd County, Kentucky
Died: April 11, 1981, Chiapas, Mexico
Caroline Ferguson Gordon was a novelist and short story writer who explored themes of the history and evolution of Southern families. She also was a literary critic who became a mentor and friend to many of America’s best-known 20th Century writers.
Gordon was the daughter of James Morris Gordon, a teacher from Virginia who came to Todd County and married Nancy Meriwether, who was from a prominent local family. He established a school in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, where the future novelist received her early education. An idealized version of Gordon’s father is a major character in her second novel, Alec Maury, Sportsman (1934) and her award-winning story, “Old Red” (1934).
Gordon earned a bachelor’s degree from Bethany College in West Virginia (1916). After working two years as a teacher at Clarksville High School, she became a reporter for The Chattanooga News in 1920. She wrote about and became involved with the Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Robert Penn Warren, a Todd County neighbor, introduced her to the poet Allen Tate in 1924. A year later, they were married and living in New York, where she gave birth to their daughter, Nancy Meriwether Tate (Wood). The couple later lived in London, where Gordon was secretary to the British writer Ford Madox Ford, and Paris, where they became friends with many American expatriate writers.
Gordon and Tate returned to the United States in 1930 and settled in Clarksville, where she enjoyed a productive period of writing. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1932 and a second-place O. Henry Prize. Tate and Gordon were active correspondents and gracious hosts. Their house guests included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot. Gordon became a mentor to several writers, most notably Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. The legendary Max Perkins was her editor at Scribner’s, and William Faulkner was among her biggest fans.
Gordon is considered part of the Southern Renaissance literary movement that included authors ranging from Faulkner to Margaret Mitchell to Zora Neale Hurston. They sought in different ways to move beyond decades of historical romance literature and provide more a realistic and diverse look at the complicated region.
“Her territory is the South — specifically Kentucky, in that time not so long ago when families still kept track of first cousins twice removed, and when the men spent their days hunting while the women, left behind, sat languorously on the gallery,” the novelist Anne Tyler wrote in a 1981 New York Times review of The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon. “The extraordinary vigor of her Collected Stories arises from the fact that Caroline Gordon’s heart lies more with the hunters than with those women on the gallery. No scent of faded lavender drifts from these pages. Instead, there’s the smell of frost and blood and wood smoke.”
Gordon lived in Princeton, New Jersey from 1939-1942 while Tate was poet-in-residence at Princeton University, then moved to Monteagle, Tennessee. Tate and Gordon divorced in 1945, remarried in 1946 and divorced again in 1959. Gordon left Princeton in 1973 to teach in the creative writing program at the University of Dallas. Amid health problems in 1978, she moved to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chapas, Mexico, where her daughter and her husband lived. She died there after suffering a stroke.
Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934)
None Shall Look Back (1937)
The Garden of Adonis (1937)
Green Centuries (1941)
The Women on the Porch (1944)
The Forest of the South (1945)
The House of Fiction: An Anthology of the Short Story (with Allen Tate) (1950)
The Strange Children (1951)
The Malefactors (1956)
A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (1957)
How to Read a Novel (1957)
Old Red and Other Stories (1963)
The Glory of Hera (1972)
The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon (1981)