The Weekend Read

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.”

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  • I was reading your father’s piece on being a Catholic writer (a reprint in Crisis magazine) and in the way of the Internet found you and your piece on Gordon.

    I haven’t read her but recently have been paying closer attention to what O’Connor says about Catholic writers. I’m a longtime writer and editor in the Catholic press but have been moving into novels and that can be tricky. (“Pope Bob” is about an alcoholic pontiff and “The World’s Funniest Atheist” features a fellow who made a living slamming the Church and now, suddenly, is given the gift of faith. Which he doesn’t want.) No preaching, no goody-goody stuff but grace, and sin, in action. And, being Irish, I can’t help them from being humorous.

    The one I’ve done  kids, “My Great-grandfather Turns 12 Today,” seems easier for some folks to take, those who aren’t sure about a drunk pope or a nasty anti-Catholic main character.

    I think e-book publishing is going to mean a lot more (good!) Catholic novels and many that are . . . well-intended but would make O’Connor cringe. And hoot.

  • Daniel McInerny

    Hi Bill,
    I’m glad you stumbled upon my piece. Have you been reading O’Connor’s essays in Mystery and Manners? One of my favorites….

    Your books sound like hoots themselves. The title of your kids’ book is especially intriguing. Are you self-publishing? How are you going about it? 

    I suppose O’Connor would cringe at the thought of digital self-publishing. But I hope only at first. In any event, any Catholic writer can still learn a lot from her.