Issue 73 |
Fall 1997

About Mary Gordon: A Profile


Earlier in her literary career, Mary Gordon was fond of quoting Flannery O'Connor, who'd once said that writers learned everything they needed to know before the age of eight. What does Gordon -- the celebrated, bestselling author of four novels, three collections, and a memoir -- believe she had learned? "I think I learned the importance of story," she says. "I think I learned the pleasure-bearing aspect of language. I think I had experiences of real formal beauty in Catholic liturgy. I think I knew about secrets and lies, although I didn't know that I knew it. And I think I didn't expect that human life was about happiness."

Such knowledge might seem overly profound for a mere child, but Gordon was, to say the least, precocious. Born in Far Rockaway, Long Island, in 1948, Mary Catherine Gordon grew up in Valley Stream, New York, a few towns southeast of Queens. It was a working-class neighborhood, predominantly Irish Catholic, and intellectual ambitions were actively discouraged. Yet Gordon's father, David, taught her to read when she was three years old. He took her to the library every Saturday, and he wrote her poems and love letters in German, French, Greek, and Latin. She idolized her father. A Jew who had converted to Catholicism in 1937, he passed himself off as an erudite writer and publisher who had graduated from Harvard and bandied about Oxford and the Left Bank in his youth. To his daughter, his only child, he was charismatic, handsome, fun-loving, brilliant. Decades later, Gordon would discover that he had fabricated much of his biography, but there is no denying that her father had impelled her, even at that
nascent stage, to become the writer she is today.

It is no surprise, then, that Gordon was doubly shattered when her father died of a heart attack. She was seven years old. She and her mother, Anna Gagliano, the daughter of Italian and Irish immigrants who never went past the eighth grade, moved into her grandmother's Valley Stream home. Her aunt lived with them as well, and Gordon grew up with these pious, cloistered women, feeling utterly alone and miserable. Her mother, a legal secretary, and her aunt, a key-punch operator, had been polio victims as children and were crippled, and her grandmother was seventy-eight and ill. Gordon was the only able body in the house, one who was dreamy and artistically inclined -- traits her family tried to knock out of her. "When my father died," Gordon remembers, "it was like all lights went out. I was really isolated, and really an odd duck. I think I was quite numb until adolescence, and my only real life, I would say, was reading, and I was quite prayerful.

I didn't have many human relations." She attended parochial school and knew no non-Catholics. Owing to her Jewish heritage, she was made to feel like an outsider. Her family referred to Jews as "Hebes" or, in private code, as "the Persians," and, as Gordon writes in her memoir
The Shadow Man, occasionally "they spoke the sentence that was most horrible to me, one I would hear from time to time, the tone of which gave me the only clue I have ever needed to the timbre of real hate. 'That's the
Jew in you,' they would say whenever I did something they didn't like. Even now the memory of their emphasis on the word 'Jew' frightens me like the reports of the noise of Kristallnacht."

Throughout her childhood, Gordon was convinced she would become a nun, albeit one who wrote poetry on the side. Her rebellion evolved slowly, coincident with her interest in boys, and was manifested by small acts of anarchy. She had always been smart, but she also caught on that she could be funny, the class clown, and therefore popular. So at fourteen, she organized an uprising. A nun was phobic about bubble gum. Gordon bought and distributed enough gum so all the students in the classroom, fifty-six insurgents, could chew and smack and blow at the same time. Real revolt soon followed. Instead of going to Jesuit-run Fordham University, as her family insisted, Gordon chose to accept a scholarship to Barnard, the women's college associated with Columbia. She had been fascinated by J. D. Salinger's books, particularly
Franny and Zooey, and she wanted to go to New York City and meet Jewish intellectuals like Seymour Glass.

It was the late sixties when she entered the college, and she was elated by her newfound freedom in the permissive climate of the counterculture. She promptly lost her virginity, experimented a little with drugs, participated in sit-ins, went on marches to Washington, D.C., and joined the women's movement. "There was such a sense of possibility -- that you could change the world, and that the poor were important and were your concern, and that others were your concern, and you had a vested interest in making the world better. It was very exciting. On the other hand, it was also a very
dark period because the Vietnam War darkened everything. We couldn't believe anyone in authority. And we believed that our country was doing something absolutely heinous and lying about it. At the same time, there was a kind of faith that we could change it."

What she lost faith in, however, was Catholicism, alienated by its attitude toward women and its censures about sex. Even though she has since returned to the church, ultimately comforted by its role as "a caretaker of a kind of spirituality that matters a lot to me," certain doctrines deeply troubled her as a college student, and remain a conflict. "I think that the tragedy of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is that it has put so much energy into forbidding sexual freedom," she says. "It turned itself into a kind of very perverse sexual policeman, and it's eroded its own moral authority for that reason."

Political and religious concerns notwithstanding, Gordon's main preoccupation was always her writing. After Barnard, she pursued graduate studies in literature at Syracuse University, where she took workshops with the poet W. D. Snodgrass. Disappointed by the lack of female faculty at the school, she joined a women's writers' collective that had Julia Alvarez among its members. Gradually, Gordon found that her poems were becoming more narrative, and she switched her concentration to short stories, one of which was taken by
The Virginia Quarterly Review in 1975. Over the next three years, she published in a flurry -- at least seven stories in magazines ranging from
Redbook to
Ms. to
The Atlantic Monthly. And in the midst of working on her dissertation on Virginia Woolf, she started a novel,
Final Payments. Without question, Woolf was a major influence. Gordon used to copy passages from Woolf's books onto index cards, tucking them away to support points in her thesis, and in doing so, she gained an understanding of prose rhythms: "She was the person who gave me the courage to move from poetry to prose, because she gave me the belief that you could have that poetic and imagistic intensity in a novel, that it wouldn't be lost. And I think I was very moved by the incantatory and repetitive nature of her prose and the complexity of her sentences, which were tied to a kind of velocity that made the prose move very fast."

Gordon was living in London (her first husband was an Englishman), researching Woolf at the British Museum, when, on a whim, she wrote a letter to the novelist Margaret Drabble. "I was so lonely in England," Gordon recalls, "and I loved Margaret Drabble, and I saw her on the BBC, and I wrote her a letter, a complete stranger, nobody -- I hadn't been published -- and I described my day. She called me up and invited me to dinner." Drabble read the manuscript for
Final Payments and then introduced Gordon to her American agent, Peter Matson, who signed her immediately.

Final Payments went through several revisions, the most significant of which -- going from third- to first-person -- was suggested by Elizabeth Hardwick, Gordon's former teacher at Barnard. Random House brought out the novel in 1978, and Gordon, at twenty-nine, became an overnight sensation. The critics gushed, comparing her to Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, and Flannery O'Connor.
Final Payments sold sixty thousand hardcover copies and well over a million in paperback.

The novel opens with the funeral of Joseph Moore, a conservative Catholic who had been a literature professor in Queens. His daughter, Isabel, now thirty, had lived at home for the past eleven years, nursing him through a series of strokes: "I gave up my life for him; only if you understand my father will you understand that I make that statement not with self-pity but with extreme pride. . . . This strikes everyone in our decade as unusual, barbarous, cruel. To me, it was not only inevitable but natural. The Church exists and has endured for this, not only to preserve itself but to keep certain scenes intact: My father and me living by ourselves in a one-family house in Queens." Isabel then sets out to develop a new life for herself, and along the way, she must question the nature of devotion and sacrifice, and make choices between the pull of the flesh and the claim of the spirit.

Gordon -- who was teaching composition and living in Poughkeepsie, New York, at the time -- reacted surprisingly to the tremendous fuss over her novel. "I was completely miserable because I was getting divorced," she says. "So that whole year just seems to me like a completely dislocating blur. I went from earning $11,000 a year as an instructor at a community college to suddenly being in
People magazine. It just seemed almost to have nothing to do with me. And in that way, I didn't take it very seriously."

She dove back into her writing, and published her second novel,
The Company of Women, in 1981. But then she noticed a disturbing pattern to her work's reception. She was being pegged -- and perhaps dismissed or diminished -- as a religious writer. In an interview during that period, she tried to appear cavalier about the issue. She declared that the function of novels was pleasure, to be beautiful and true, and if they were accidentally instructive, that was all well and good. "I'm interested in the novel as a form of high gossip," she said. These days, when asked if writers have any moral imperatives, Gordon acknowledges the difficulty and complexity of the proposition: "I think writers have a moral obligation to do the thing as beautifully as it possibly can be. Let me turn the question around and say that I think the interdiction against a moral perspective is so much in the air that writers have a responsibility not automatically to
exclude the moral perspective." As to the matter of labels, she says, "I guess when they start calling John Updike 'the Protestant writer,' then they can start calling me 'the Catholic writer.' Again, in the way that it assumes that white male Protestant is the norm, and anything else is an 'other,' I don't want to be looked at as an exotic. Which is not to say that I don't think the experience of Catholicism has been extremely formative, but I think if you say 'Catholic writer,' you give people an excuse not to read you, and I don't like that kind of foreclosure."

Nonetheless, her books after
The Company of Women have focused less overtly on religion. Her 1985 novel
Men and Angels portrays an art historian who hires a psychotic religious fanatic as a mother's helper, but the book examines the more universal struggles of domesticity and human fellowship: "She wept and wept. People were so weak, and life would raise its whip and bring it down again and again on the bare tender flesh of the most vulnerable. Love was what they needed, and most often it was not there. It was abundant, love, but it could not be called. It was won by chance; it was a monstrous game of luck." Gordon's next novel in 1989 was a multi-generational immigrant saga,
The Other Side. On a single day, the entire MacNamara family gathers at the deathbed of the matriarch, who has slipped into memory and dementia: "Within the nearly visible skull, the brain, disintegrating fast, reaches back past houses, curtains, out to ships and over oceans, down to the sea's bottom, back down to the bog's soaked floor, to mud, then to the oozing beds of ancient ill will, prehistoric rage, vengeance, punishment in blood."

Gordon also came out with a collection of short stories,
Temporary Shelter, in 1987, as well as a volume of essays,
Good Boys and Dead Girls, in 1992, and a book of novellas,
The Rest of Life, in 1993, but her most personal work to date has been her 1996 memoir,
The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father. She does not know what led her to investigate her father's history, but in the early nineties, she began delving into library archives, census reports, immigration records, yearbooks, and microfilm reels, and she confirmed what she had always suspected: her father was not the man he purported to be.

He was the author of a few poems and essays that appeared in
The Nation, The New Republic, and
Harper's, and he was the publisher of
The Children's Hour and
Hot Dog, a men's humor magazine, but he lied about nearly everything else. He was not a descendent of French aristocrats. He was born in Vilna, Lithuania, and his immigrant family spoke only Yiddish. He never went to Harvard or Oxford or Paris -- he didn't even have a passport. He had dropped out of high school at sixteen and worked as a stenographer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. And, most horribly, he was a virulent anti-Semite. In print, he called Einstein a "Jew-boy" and Max Baer a "ham-hater," and he thought Hitler's worst sin was closing the Catholic schools in Bavaria. Gordon writes in the memoir: "I learned less than what I'd hoped, but enough so that I understood that his life had been made up of lies, some tragic, some pathetic, all of them leaving me with the feeling that I'd been stolen from. I had lost him as the figure in history I thought he was; I had lost my place in America."

As traumatic as unearthing these facts was, the truth was oddly cathartic. "I no longer had to be afraid of the ghost jumping out of the closet," Gordon says. "I have confronted that ghost, and he was both more terrible than I had thought and not as terrible as I had feared. And I think in giving up an idealized father, I stopped being, most importantly, a daughter."

Today, Gordon considers being a mother to her two children -- Anna, sixteen, and David, thirteen -- as her most important role. She and her children and her second husband, Arthur Cash, who teaches at SUNY at New Paltz and who is Laurence Sterne's biographer, live in Manhattan, and Gordon insists she will never leave the city: "I think I'll be buried in this apartment, yes, I'm so happy here." She has museums and galleries to satisfy her appetite for art. She can hop on the bus to Broadway: "If I'm ever sad, I go to Broadway. What I think is so wonderful about living in this city is remembering how many other ways there are to live besides your own. I find that endlessly hopeful and endlessly interesting." She has frequent opportunities to indulge in a surprising passion, dancing: "I've done tap, I've done tango. I really love dancing." And she has a little study in her apartment for her writing, where she sequesters herself early in the morning, scrawling drafts with a Waterman fountain pen on Middlesex
notebooks, which she specially orders from England.

Three days a week during the academic year, Gordon teaches at her alma mater, Barnard College, where she is Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of English. "I teach very intensely," Gordon says, though it's abundantly clear that she invests herself fully into everything she does. "What my students give me is hope, and a sense of not being alone, and not being at the end of the road. There's so much talk about the end of literacy, that what comes after us is just a wasteland, vulgar, and cheap, and it's of no value, and when I meet these wonderful students who are as in love with literature as I was at eighteen and nineteen, it gives me great hope that the parade is still going on. It's not going to end with me."