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Julia Ehrhardt, Ph.D. Candidate
American Studies
Yale University


1996-1997
 

Last summer, as a recipient of a Friends of the Princeton University Library Research grant, I spent seven weeks in the Manuscript Department of the Firestone Library, researching the personal papers of Caroline Gordon (l895-l981), the renowned Southern novelist, short story writer, and critic. Gordon was a premier figure in the Southern literary renaissance in America during the 1930s and 1940s, and continued to write novels and critical articles in the decades that followed. Although perhaps best known for her association with the Agrarian circle of writers--a nationally distinguished group that included her husband, Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Andrew Lytle, Gordon's literary significance has been greatly overshadowed by her more famous male counterparts. Recent scholarly biographies by Veronica Makowsky and Ann Waldron (who I had the good fortune to meet while in residence at Princeton) have awakened critical interest in Gordon's life and work.

In my doctoral dissertation, "'A Taper in the Imagination that Never Goes Out': Women, Regionalism, and the Profession of Authorship in America, 1890-1950," I am investigating the trajectory of Gordon's career as a regionalist writer, particularly the ways in which it was shaped by the gendered literary politics of the Southern renaissance. Several disparate aspects of Gordon's career fascinate me: the fact that she was the only woman to receive distinction as a member of the Agrarian circle, that many of her stories deal with unhappy or troubled relationships between men and women, and finally, that her late novels receive very little critical attention as "regional" literature. (Critics instead focus on the strong Catholic symbolism in these stories) When I began my research at Princeton, I hoped to find materials that would enable me to pursue and synthesize these issues, as well as to better understand the personal and professional motivations that inspired Gordon to choose to write regional fiction.

While in residence at Princeton, I researched Gordon's correspondence (particularly letters to and from her editor, Max Perkins of Scribner’s, and her letters to friend Sally Wood), rough drafts of her short stories and novels, and notes and drafts of an autobiography that she left unfinished at the time of her death. As a result of reading these materials, I realized the depth of Gordon's commitment to the profession she had chosen: her desire to be taken seriously as a writer first and foremost, with no gender attached; her indefatigable passion for Greek and Christian mythology as well as her Southern heritage; and finally, her tumultuous relationships with the male figures who shaped her literary development, particularly her husband and her editor, who emerge as the central figures in her literary life. Although Gordon traditionally yielded to Tate's criticisms of her work, she often resented the authority he assumed; when she felt that Perkins was not giving her books the publicity they deserved, she demanded that he address her concerns. The letters I read suggested that although Gordon may have seemed shy or self-deprecating about her literary abilities, she possessed a great deal of conviction and confidence about her talents and was determined to receive the critical respect she deserved.

After reading through rough drafts of Gordon's stories and novels, particularly those that she wrote after her conversion to Catholicism in the late '40s, I recognized that a disturbing image surfaced in many of them: allusions to the Medusa myth, in which a monstrous female Gorgon is beheaded by the mortal man Perseus. In particular, the novels The Women on the Porch, The Malefactors, and the story “The Petrified Woman” all feature instances in which a female character is literally or figuratively beheaded by a male counterpart. The episodes usually occur after the women has transgressed the authority of her husband. After researching materials in the Allen Tate Collection, I discovered that the references to the Medusa myth also surface in several of his canonical poems, as well as in articles authored by others in the couple's circle. Based on these findings, I have decided to investigate the prevalence of the Medusa myth in Gordon~s fiction, arguing that it serves as a literary manifestation of the gender anxiety that characterized the Southern renaissance; while also symbolizing the difficulties Gordon faced as a women writer struggling to make her voice heard. In addition to reading her late novels as allegories of Christian conversion, I argue that we should also look at their mythological content as expressing the personal and professional struggles Gordon faced as a woman writer. Such an approach to Gordon’s fiction gives us new perspectives not only on the significance of her literary career, but also on the gender dynamics of the historical period in which other Southern female writers such as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty entered the literary profession, and the era in which the South became "modern.',

The time I spent at Princeton gave me a priceless opportunity to come to know Caroline Gordon, the writer and the woman. It deepened my growing interest in literary biography, and enabled me to understand the vital ways in which manuscript material may enhance one's understanding of literary texts. At this time, many national grant agencies are cutting back support for research, and funding opportunities for graduate students who need to do research away from their home institutions are dwindling drastically. I am grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library for making my research possible, and especially for providing funds to graduate students. I wholeheartedly thank you for your generosity and your support of the tremendous resources at the Princeton University Libraries.


 


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