I must have slept through a good number of my college classes on American Literature, because whenever I tell my contemporaries I am reading a novel by Caroline Gordon [1895-1981], I get a blank stare until I add that she was married to the American poet Alan Tate [1899-1979], and then everybody goes, “Oh, Allen Tate’s wife.” Until a year or so ago, I did not know of the existence of either writer until I saw Gordon’s name cited in a variety of treatments on Catholic novelists. I decided to take a chance on her 1956 noel, The Malefactors, released again in 2019 in the Cluny Classic series. Cluny, incidentally, is an intriguing publishing venture to restore both the fiction and nonfiction of the past Catholic century from intellectual and textual oblivion.
Caroline Gordon is not as well-known as Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, or Edwin O’Connor in the tradition of influential Catholic novelists, but she was a central figure in the family of such writers. She was married to Allen Tate, the poet, and lived in his shadow. Her first novel Penhally appeared in 1931, and her last, The Malefactors, which will be reviewed here, was published in 1956. Her guidance to friends, fellow authors, and students extended well into the 1970’s from her position as faculty member at the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution. I should add here that in 2018 the letters of Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor were published and are now available, which give us a close-up on Gordon’s influence upon O’Connor as the latter developed her provocative style.
Caroline Gordon: A Biography  by Veronica A. Makowsky, gives us a picture of a woman who lived “at the center of things” while helping to bring consciousness of Southern writing to the East Coast literary establishment. Gordon grew up and studied in Clarksville, Tennessee, and came into public prominence as a significant author at the time of the Southern Agrarian Movement, a collection of writers--many associated with Vanderbilt University—who, in 1930, called attention to the growing and prolific contribution of Southern literature. The most famous of this movement is Robert Penn Warren, but the distinctiveness and vigor of this regional style extended well into the twentieth century and includes such greats as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Dorothy Day took note of the Southern Agrarian Movement and became friends with Gordon, who creates a Dorothy Day figure in The Malefactors.
Gordon never lost her taste for southern living—she and her husband Allen would buy a homestead in Clarksville called “BenFolly” which became something of a retreat for blooming authors east of the Mississippi. Among frequent guests were Robert Lowell, who camped on the lawn one summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, T. S. Eliot, Warren, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford became a mentor to Gordon and encouraged her to complete and submit her first novel, Penhally , a work which received at best a mediocre reception and poor traffic at the cash register. She would write about a half-dozen novels over the next quarter-century which demonstrated a steady proficiency in the art, though it was her short stories that won her several awards over her career. Her final novel, The Malefactors  was published amidst some controversy.
Gordon’s enduring contribution lies in her analysis of literature and imparting such wisdom to future generations. She devoted much time over the final decades of her life to addressing the philosophical questions of the novel as art—can a female author authentically represent a male hero, for example, as Gordon herself did in The Malefactors? She was an avid correspondent—her exchange of letters with Flannery O’Connor, for example, was published in 2018. In her seniority she taught and consulted at the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution.
Graham Green converted to Catholicism to win the hand of a true believer in marriage. Caroline Gordon, by contrast, converted to Catholicism in midlife  to save her failing marriage to Tate, for whom monogamy was not a virtue. The couple would later divorce, remarry, and divorce again; they remained friends till Tate’s death. Gordon did not talk to her literary friends about her religious instructions for fear of a cynical backlash, for her conversion was intimately connected to her identity as a literary artist. Her description of her conversion, and its relationship to creative writing, is fascinating. In a letter to a friend, she tells of the experience:
“I am converted, I suppose, mostly by reading the Gospels. I was reading the Gospel of St. Mark last summer, out at Robbers Rocks, and all of a sudden, the words that had been in my memory all my life were saying something I’d never heard before. I think I was converted by my own work, too. I have lived most of my life on the evidence of things not seen—what else is writing a novel but that? And my work has progressed slowly and steadily in one direction. At a certain point I found the Church squarely in the path. I couldn’t jump over it and wouldn’t go around it, so had to go into it…. I really would like to tell you what being in the Church is like but can’t. It’s like suddenly being given authority to believe all the things you’ve surmised. Artists are fundamentally religious, I suppose, or they’re no good.” [Makowsky, Caroline Gordon: A Biography (1989), pp. 184-185] Vintage Flannery O’Connor before there was Flannery O’Connor.
The Malefactors was written a quarter century after Penhally and a decade after her conversion to Catholicism. The title comes from the Latin, “to do evil,” and the theme of the book reflects the Catholic doctrine that even the worst of us are granted the grace of conversion. It will never be compared to Ulysses or Gone With the Wind, but it is an intriguing window on human nature, an imaginative telling of an old tale, a reminder that while there are Ten Commandments and seven deadly sins, there are infinite variations and consequences for going off the moral reservation. [America Magazine revisited The Malefactors with a critical review in April 2021.]
Set in the contemporary age [1950’s] the story begins with a prolonged outdoor cocktail party/livestock exhibition on a “gentleman farmer’s estate.” The “gentleman” farmer is a woman, Vera Claiborne, president of the Red Poll Breeders’ Association of the Atlantic Seaboard States. In recent years she had taken to raising Red Poll cattle, rising early each morning to slip into work clothes and head for the herd. Various family members and friends wander through the event on spacious grounds dotted with eccentric statues including saints. Aunt Virginia, an invalid, is firmly ensconced in the main house. Max, a middle-aged avuncular homosexual, lives on the property as a permanent fixture, ever available to spice conversation or pour oil on troubled waters. There is an atmosphere of “old money,” as they used to say, in this case from Vera’s side of the family.
But all is not well at the homestead. Tom Claiborne, Vera’s husband of twenty years and the centerpiece of the novel, the “malefactor,” if you will, is in the throes of midlife depression. Having had early success as a poet and editor, he has not written anything in ten years. As his wife heads for the farm each day, Tom heads for his writing den, locks the door, and sleeps on the couch until dinner. For years he has lied to his wife about “breakthroughs” or budding new insights, but by the time of this writing, Vera has come to accept her childless marriage for what it is and throws herself into her work.
The gamechanger is the visit of Vera’s distant cousin, Cynthia, who arrives for the party and stays with the couple for a time. Cynthia is fourteen years younger than Tom; she asks him to critique her writings. Whether her writing is truly noteworthy, or Tom is simply grateful to be needed by a younger admirer, is irrelevant; they begin an affair that intensifies as Cynthia returns to New York. [Several reviewers note an autobiographical tone as Gordon divorced Tate for his frequent infidelities.] The discovery of the affair by Vera is a startling moment in an otherwise tranquil narrative.
Thus begins a dark night of the soul for all involved, though consistent with the body of the work, the intensity of the experience is Tom’s. Resuming his career as an editor, he takes up residence with Cynthia in a fashionable New York apartment after the dramatic discovery of the affair by Vera, who leaves him. For a time, he sloughs off his depression to return to work as an editor in the big city. But Tom comes to discover what many men in his position also experience: his career has crested as his younger lover’s is just taking off.
Tom would like to come home. But where is home? This is the moral conundrum. Vera’s life takes a self-destructive turn, for which Tom feels considerable remorse, and she refuses to communicate with him. Adrift and drinking heavily, he receives an unexpected request to assist a religious sister in her biography of a poet, an old friend of Tom’s, who had committed suicide some years before. In keeping his appointment to meet the sister, he is surprised to discover that she is conducting her research in an inner-city service center, with a constant stream of the hungry and the needy. In this unexpected setting—based upon the author’s real-life friendship with the ministry of Dorothy Day—Tom finds the energy to pursue his wife and begin tending to his better self, though the novel ends only with hints of what Tom’s conversion may look like.
The 2021 America review explains both the external and the internal reasons why The Malefactors was poorly received and did not sell as her earlier works had. In the first instance, there was a significant kerfuffle within the publishing world about the reaction of Dorothy Day over her depiction through a fictional character in the book. As America described the circumstances:
“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.”
Reviewers then and today have other reservations. Among them was the author’s clumsy way of describing saints. “She certainly had a hard time making those [Catholic Worker] people believable,” O’Connor admitted. In truth, O’Connor had major reservations about the book. Gordon had written two glowing reviews of O’Connor’s novels, and again quoting America:
“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.”
Others found the book tedious. I did not find that the case, but on the few times I have plunged into the Southern School I do find that the clocks run slower, at least outside of Atlanta. Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome  reads like a terrorist attack viewed from a veranda.
I did find my research into this Catholic novelist a rewarding tour on several fronts—as exposure to American literary currents in the early and mid-twentieth century as well as the way in which Catholic philosophy shaped both the literary and the moral work of a conscientious artist in her time.
I was hesitant to begin a Catechist Café Stream on Catholic novelists because, sad to say, I never received a strong education in American literature. In the seminary I read J.F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, the story of a Midwesterner priest during the collapse of his religious order in the 1950’s, just prior to Vatican II. I confess, then, that this Stream of the Café is as much for me as the reader. The inspiration to enter the world of Catholic novelists came from two sources. Nick Ripratazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  caught my eye and I eventually reviewed it for Amazon last year.
The other source of inspiration was, surprisingly, a short-lived weekly podcast called “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People.” The Jamaican bestselling novelist Marlon James teamed up with Jake Morrissey, editor of Riverhead/Penguin Books to discuss literature by authors who have passed away. [Their tongue-in-cheek premise: the dead cannot complain.] This was a humorous, salty, and erudite examination [R-rated] of authors and their works, going back as far as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. What surprised me—stunned me, actually—was the interest of these two worldly academics in authors and works in a Catholic milieu. There was never a week, for example, when mention of Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison was overlooked.
It would surprise many Catholics, I think, to learn that one of our own, namely Morrison [1931-2019], is an aggressively targeted author in states which are into the book banning business, such as Texas. Morrison’s body of work is a vivid description of the African American experience, past and present. To my way of thinking, an exploration of Morrison’s novels on racial struggle would be an ideal resource for older adolescents and adult faith formation. Morrison is the first African American woman author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work. 
There are four ways I study Catholic novelists—a format I developed for myself.  What is the author’s biography, or specifically, how did he or she encounter the Catholic Faith in the first place? Edwin O’Connor [1918-1968], the author of the classic The Edge of Sadness ’ was a cradle Catholic from Rhode Island. [I reviewed this work for Amazon in 2014.] By contrast, Graham Greene [1904-1991] converted to Catholicism to marry his girlfriend, a devout Catholic. Caroline Gordon [1895-1981] converted in her adult years, influenced by fellow Catholic novelists Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. Morrison converted to Catholicism in her teen years.
The second stage is examining how a Catholic novelist lived and/or experienced the faith and how that experience impacted the writing. This is not always easy, and in some cases I have had to read biographies of the authors to get a sense of that. The Unquiet Englishman , for example, reveals that Graham Greene did not give up all his worldly habits of the flesh immediately after his adult baptism, but neither did he give up going to confession in times of crisis.
We know a great deal about some Catholic novelists, and precious little about others. I am sure that as I sit here at the keyboard, there are dozens of graduate students working on doctoral theses involving Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], whose small but powerful body of work—novels and short stories—is one of the most enigmatic of all Catholic twentieth century writers. O’Connor, in turn, received considerable guidance from a lesser-known Catholic novelist and professor, Caroline Gordon.
The third thing I look for is the religious influence in the authors’ novels. The question of the relationship of Catholicism to the author’s product is not accidental. Graham Greene’s biographer notes that the author gave considerable thought to the question, as did Flannery O’Connor in her letters, and Gordon with her students in her years as a professor at the University of Dallas.
In some novels the connection is obvious, in that the very subject is a Catholic setting. I reviewed Jame Carroll’s The Cloister  a few years ago, a novel set intermittently between the medieval couple Abelard and Heloise, the Holocaust, and a burned-out Catholic priest in the 1950's. I just completed my second read of The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor. This is the story of a middle-aged priest returning to his diocese after four years in alcohol rehabilitation. He is assigned pastor to the poorest downtown church in his diocese. What he discovers about his soul and his priesthood in this broken parish is profoundly moving. And yet, the novel is not clumsy piety, far from it. Flannery O’Connor—who, as my mother was wont to say, “had a mouth on her” -- despised what we would call in the seminary “smarmy tales” of piety, religiosity without art. As a rule, outstanding Catholic novels in my experience are true to either Aristotle’s principles of drama in The Poetics, one of the most valuable books in my seminary training, and/or the existential “slice of life” style, the unvarnished account of human experience that penetrates the soul. Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood  the first time was a punch in the gut.
The fourth focus of Catholic novels is their purpose—all the works by Catholic authors which have stood the test of time are conversion and redemption stories. It is as if the Catholic novelist can never quite run away from the essential truth of the universe, that God has reached out to save—sometimes in the most subtle of ways, and at other times in overly dramatic ones. The way that the conversion is narrated in their plotlines varies, as well as the depth of the conversion. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American  the jaded British journalist reporting on the 1954 defeat of the French in Viet Nam is changed by the traumatic experience—though we are not talking Paul on the road to Damascus here. Conversion in this work is confined to giving up a Vietnamese lover and the opium pipe, but it is something, with a promise of more to come. [As a working journalist Greene did cover the final French-Vietnamese clash in 1954, and having gotten caught in a crossfire, he desperately sought and found a Catholic priest to hear his confession.]
Which brings me to an ultimate point. What I am about to say regarding Catholic authors and their novels has been true of all the great art in history. Those creating from positions of Faith, in its broadest sense, are preaching sermons that we can never hear from our pulpits. In our churches and religious education programs we teach and learn the framework—the outline if you will—of Biblical/Christian life. In art—in this case, the novel—we see the framework lived or not lived in real time. Jesus was a master at the existential expression: his parables, notably the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, to cite a few, put flesh on the bones to the question of what I must do to be saved. I referred earlier to Aristotle’s Poetics; written several centuries before Christ. In this treatment on the rules of classical tragedy, Aristotle describes the emotional catharsis [literally, the “washing out of the emotions”] of beholding good people who make dreadful mistakes and the inevitable fates that befall them. Consider Oedipus Rex.
The Catholic novelist with any meaningful grasp of the Redemptive Act cannot but reenact the fall of Adam and the Redemption by Christ in his or her narrative. The great Catholic novelists, past and present, are celebrated not just by elegant narrative and imaginative events—though these are present—but for taking us to a deeper dimension of the Christian Mystery. They belong in our journey of Faith.
CATHOLIC NOVELISTS and the BOOKS THEY WRITE