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War Between the Allen Tates : CLOSE CONNECTIONS Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance by Ann Waldron (G.P. Putnam's Sons: $22.95; 416 pp.)

November 01, 1987|Molly Giles | Giles' collection of short stories, "Rough Translations" (University of Georgia Press), won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. and

In 1941, Caroline Gordon was listed in "The Oxford Companion to American Literature" under her husband's name: "See Tate, Allen." This was all right with her. She adored Tate, and she was never one to put herself first. She was a small, black-eyed, fierce and witty woman who was known as an outstanding cook, gardener, mycologist, painter and Civil War historian. She became one of the great literary hostesses of her time.

The Tates' crumbling brick mansion overlooking the Cumberland River in Tennessee often had Katherine Anne Porter flirting on the porch swing, Robert Lowell camped on the front lawn and Ford Madox Ford dictating at an upstairs window in his underwear. Other guests included Hart Crane, who painted himself like an Indian; John Berryman, who took the cook "out into the bushes"; Robert Penn Warren; Jean Stafford; Peter Taylor, and dozens of others. Company, Caroline insisted as she raced from the vegetable garden to the chicken coops to the kitchen, did not interfere with her work.

Her work, for most of her life, was the writing of fiction. She published nine novels (Maxwell Perkins was her editor), three short story collections, two college texts and a critical study of Ford. Her "biggest" book, a Civil War novel titled "None Shall Look Back," had the misfortune to be published the same year as "Gone With The Wind." None of her books is much read these days. Her life, however, is well worth studying.

Caroline Gordon was a "relentlessly chaste" wife, a loving--if distracted--mother, a hard-working grandmother, a loyal friend. She helped promote the young Walker Percy, read and commented on every novel and short story that Flannery O'Connor wrote (she suggested that O'Connor avoid words such as "green-peaish" and "squinched"). She championed William Faulkner and is credited for reviving an interest in his work.

She was a convert to Catholicism, a disciple of Jung. She taught on and off for almost 50 years, mainly at Princeton and Columbia, and finally retired from the University of Dallas at age 83. She did everything right and yet, in the end, nothing really turned out right for her at all.

The temptation is to blame Allen Tate. Tate, a leading member of a group of conservative Southern writers called the Agrarians, was a brilliant poet with an enormous forehead, luminous eyes and a courtly manner that women, especially, found irresistible. He was subject to fainting spells and writer's block; he was terrible with money; he hogged the typewriter when he was working and played the violin when Caroline was. He rather ungraciously agreed to marry Caroline when she was five months pregnant on the condition that they divorce as soon as their child was born.

In 1933, Allen Tate had an affair with one of Caroline's cousins--an affair that she never forgave, nor ever forgot. He subsequently slept with a series of young writers and poets. Caroline didn't know about all of them. "She never," Tate complained once, "gets the women right"--but she knew about enough of them to maintain a state of rage that lasted for the rest of her life. Her temper, although we are given little evidence of it in the book, was apparently formidable; she was a screamer and a scratcher and once tore some bed sheets apart with her bare hands. The couple divorced, remarried, divorced again. Allen kept on seeing other women--he sired twins when he was close to 70--and Caroline continued to rage.

"She said exactly what she thought," one friend recalled of her final days, "and would say to anyone's face, 'Get out.' " She died, mute, in Mexico in 1981. The words on her tombstone--"It is for Adam to interpret the voices which Eve hears"--are the words, in Waldron's phrase, of a "Southern ninny," a woman who, despite countless accomplishments, still chose to be listed under another's name.

"Close Connections" is as brisk and busy as Caroline Gordon's life, full of details, anecdotes and incident. It moves quickly, but it doesn't go deep enough to answer many of the questions it raises. Waldron is one of those impeccable biographers who "hesitates to speculate."

Much of the book seems to be based on Caroline's own letters, and that may be part of the problem, for her letters, while lively, are singularly lacking in personal insight. One of the most moving--and typical--was written to Tate during a long separation: "I think," she wrote, "that if I could learn not to get angry no matter what happened our life would be different. And if you could forgo deception at the same time I was forgoing anger we'd probably be as happy as any two people can be."

Waldron's book gives ample evidence of happy times, but the final feeling is that Caroline Gordon had a hard and very sad life. Despite her many connections, she missed one important one--with herself--and this biography, engrossing as it is, fails to supply it.

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