In one of the essays from her collection, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor cites a story by Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), a Catholic convert and friend of O’Connor’s who is sadly too often neglected when the roll call of great Catholic writers from the 20th century is sounded.
Here is the relevant passage from O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:
A good many people have the notion that nothing happens in modern fiction and that nothing is supposed to happen, that it is the style now to write a story in which nothing happens. Actually, I think more happens in modern fiction–with less furor on the surface–than has ever happened in fiction before. A good example of this is a story by Caroline Gordon called “Summer Dust.” It’s in a collection of her stories called The Forest of the South, which is a book that repays study.
“Summer Dust” is divided into four short sections, which don’t at first appear to have any relation between them and which are minus any narrative connection. Reading the story is at first rather like standing a foot away from an impressionistic painting, then gradually moving back until it comes into focus. When you reach the right distance, you suddenly see that a world has been created–and a world in action–and that a complete story has been told, by a wonderful kind of understatement. It has been told more by showing what happens around the story than by touching directly on the story itself.
“Summer Dust” is the story of a white girl named Sally growing up in the South in the early part of the 20th century.
I will not hazard to summarize, much less explicate, “Summer Dust” until I have paid it the further study it deserves (and for this I am glad I own Nancylee Novell Jonza’s The Underground Stream: The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995). But “Summer Dust,” while challenging, is a beautiful read. The sensual precision by which Gordon renders scenes makes her debt to Flaubert and Ford Maddox Ford evident.
Caroline Gordon was twice married to the poet and essayist Allen Tate and she converted to Catholicism in 1947. She wrote ten novels, two collections of short stories, and received both the Guggenheim and O. Henry awards.
Enjoy Caroline Gordon’s short story, “Summer Dust.”