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    Lying awake and tossing in my bed I would think sometimes that I paid a corresponding amount
    of pain for every minute's pleasure in the field.  And yet it had not occurred to me that I could
    give up hunting.
        -Aleck Maury, Sportsman

Some books, no matter how good, just seem destined to fade from the public memory.  Such is the case of Aleck Maury, Caroline Gordon's semi-biographical tale of her father's life, in particular his passion for hunting and fishing.  Though Gordon, who was married to the great American poet Allen Tate, was herself an excellent writer, and though the novel received excellent notices from such publications as The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times, the version I read is from something called The Lost American Fiction series, published in the late 70's & early 80's, and unless I missed something, it doesn't seem to have been found by many people in the intervening years.

This is unfortunate because the novel is in many ways an epic American saga in the tradition of the  the Aeneid or the Odyssey, in which the protagonist goes on a journey, faces many challenges, and grows into his hero's role before finding home.  Aleck Maury (Aleck being short for Alexander even summons the memory of Greek heroes) grows up in farming country in Virginia, where much of life centers around fishing and hunting.  He is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, who teach him the classics and a further love of the outdoors respectively.  Over the course of his life Aleck wanders to the West Coast and then back eastwards, becoming a teacher and then a professor of Latin and Greek, marrying and raising children, but always, he has an eye peeled for a good gun, a capable dog, and a likely fishing hole.

He is aware that others might consider these trivial pursuits, but he, and Caroline Gordon, demonstrate that, on many levels, they are entirely worthwhile.  Being a sportsman provides him an education, as when his uncle purchases a flock of quail, in order to stock his property, but fails to separate the cocks out before they can begin fighting amongst themselves :

    Uncle James was very much disgusted with himself for letting all those birds be slaughtered.
    'Fancy,' he said, 'my not knowing that!'  He shook his head  and going back to the house that day
    he observed that a man--a sporting man he meant, of course--might observe every day of his life
    and still have something to learn.  I think that day marked a cycle in my life.  Striding along
    beside him, listening to his half-absent words, I was fired with a sudden, fierce desire.  I looked
    around me, at the wheat fields where I knew quail were feeding, at the woods beyond that were
    full of squirrels.  The woods, the squirrels, the very insects on which the the quail were feeding,
    all withheld their secrets from me.  I wanted to know more about them, to follow that strange,
    that secret life.  To this day that desire has never left me.  I never walk through the woods or
    stand beside a body of water without experiencing something of that old excitement.

Note that Uncle James is not merely disappointed, but disgusted with himself, because he had an affirmative moral duty to understand nature well enough to know that the cocks would begin fighting.  Unlike modern environmentalists, who often cloak Nature in some kind of semi-religious frippery and insist that Man may only approach Nature reverently, like a supplicant, Gordon here is speaking of Nature as a thing to which the sportsman owes a debt for the very specific reason that he draws upon Nature's resources.

Aleck also refutes the idea that hunting and fishing are mere pastimes :

    A sportsman is a greedy animal.  No really good day is ever long enough.  People as a rule do
    not understand this.  They think that a man goes fishing to kill time.  They do not realize that
    every day of good sport is one of unremitting, exhausting effort.  I remember Mrs. Fayerlee
    being surprised once when I fished the Woodstock pond all afternoon and failed to notice that a
    tobacco barn four miles away was burning down.  'I don't see how you could have failed to see it
    sitting there all afternoon doing nothing,' she said.  It was one occasion on which I was severe
    with the good lady.  'Mrs. Fayerlee,' I told her, 'a man who is fishing doesn't have a moment to
    himself.'

Here again Ms Gordon conveys a sense of the moral seriousness that is required of a sportsman.  Sport is no mere time-filler; it is instead an earnest and altogether noble enterprise.

And perhaps the most important lesson that Aleck has to learn is that "there is a democracy of sport."  In fact, today it may be the case that hunting and fishing are the last democratic sports.  Professional sports are closed to nearly all of us by our lack of ability.  Now even attending them has begun to move beyond most of us by reason of exorbitant ticket prices.  Golf has become just popular enough that it too is becoming ridiculously expensive, while bowling has become just unpopular enough that they are shutting down the lanes.  But hunting and fishing remain open to everyone, the skills and equipment often handed down from one generation to the next. All that is required is that the novice recognize the dignity of sport, treat his prey with respect, and be eager to learn.  In the woods, these qualities will make him the equal of any man he meets.  Such are the qualities that Aleck Maury embodies, and, in so doing, he becomes something of a hero, a distinctly American, and distinctly old-fashioned, hero.

This is a terrific novel, one that's all the more affecting for the realization that Ms Gordon was likely trying to work out in her own mind and heart why her father was so happy out of doors, necessarily away from his home.   Though it likely never will be--being altogether too predatory and moralistic for modern tastes--it is a book which richly deserves to be rediscovered...again.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "caroline gordon"
    -ETEXT : Old Red by Caroline Gordon
    -ARCHIVE :  THE CAROLINE GORDON - ALLEN TATE CORRESPONDENCE   1938-1970 (The University of Tulsa , McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections)
    -BOOK SITE : Aleck Maury, Sportsman  Caroline Gordon (UGA Press)
    -BOOK SITE : A Literary Friendship : Correspondence between Caroline Gordon and Ford Madox Ford  Edited with an Introduction by Brita Lindberg-Seyersted
    -PROFILE : CAROLINE GORDON (Mona Powell , Kentucky Lit)
    -PROFILE :  The quest for Merry Mont (Bruce Nixon, May 23, 2001, Louisville.com)
    -PROFILE : Southern Author Caroline Gordon (1895-1981) (Women's Stories)
    -PROFILE : Caroline Gordon: Southerner, Catholic, New Critic (John Place)
    -ESSAY : ANGUISH IN A SECOND MARRIAGE: THE CAROLINE GORDON-ALLEN TATE LETTERS  (Eleanor H. Beiswenger, Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association)
    -ESSAY : Endings (Douglas Bauer, Pif Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES : "caroline gordon" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "caroline gordon" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Collected Stories by Caroline Gordon (Charles Wyrick, Nashville Scene)
    -REVIEW : of A Literary Friendship : Correspondence between Caroline Gordon and Ford Madox Ford  Edited with an Introduction by Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer)
    -REVIEW : Mar 2, 1989 Monroe K. Spears: The United Tates, NY Review of Books
       Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Renaissance by Ann Waldron
       The Lytle-Tate Letters: The Correspondence of Andrew Lytle and Allen Tate edited by Thomas Daniel Young and Elizabeth Sarcone
    -REVIEW : of The Norton Anthology of Southern Literature (Richard Tillinghast, New Criterion)

ALLEN TATE (1899-1979) :
    -ETEXT : Ode to the Confederate Dead by  Allen Tate
    -Allen Tate (Academy of American Poets)
    -Allen Tate (1899-1979) (Modern American Poetry)
    -ARCHIVES : "allen tate" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Essays of Four Decades by Allen Tate (Thomas M. Disch, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Allen Tate: Orphan of the South, by Thomas A. Underwood (Scott Morris, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Allen Tate : Orphan of the South by Thomas A. Underwood (Fred Hobson, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate. Collected Letters, 1933-1976 (John L. Brown, World Literature Today)

GENERAL :
    -KYLIT : a site devoted to Kentucky Writers
    -Women in Kentucky
    -TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE : Writers of Tennessee (Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects,  FIRST PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER 1939)
    -REVIEW : of The Catholic Imagination in American Literature by Ross Labrie (Irving Malin, Antioch Review)
    -REVIEW : Spring/Summer 1963 Allen Tate: FMF, NY Review of Books
       Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels by Richard A. Cassell
       Ford Madox Ford's Novels: A Critical Study by John A. Meixner
       Novelist Of Three Worlds: Ford Madox Ford by Paul L. Wiley

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