March 7, 2012
I discovered a Southern novel often described as the one that deserved the classic status held by Gone With the Wind. Caroline Gordon’s critically praised fiction about the American Civil War, None Shall Look Back, came out in 1937, but by that time the reading public had fallen in love with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. According to an article about Caroline Gordon in The New Criterion, (October 1989), None Shall Look Back “promptly drowned in the wake of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Gone With the Wind.” The writer, Laura Weiner, further refers to Gordon’s response to what happened and also to the praise:
“Scarlett O’Hara was ‘a Civil War Becky Sharp, and Lord how they’re gobbling it up,’ Gordon wrote. ‘They say it took [Mitchell] ten years to write that novel. Why couldn’t it have taken her twelve?’ Oh, well. Katherine Anne Porter raved about None Shall Look Back in the pages of The New Republic and John Crowe Ransom sent Gordon a personal letter calling her ‘a Great Artist’ for having written it.”
The literary chatter about what could’ve been or should’ve been regarding None Shall Look Back made me curious, and so I found a copy – a first edition, no dust-jacket, south of $50 – and read it. There’s a Southern Classics Series paperback available; however, I wanted to read the ‘organic’ version, without notes or prefaces providing hind-sight interpretation.
None Shall Look Back begins with a birthday party celebrating 65-year-old Fontaine Allard, patriarch of Brackets, a prosperous Kentucky tobacco plantation near Clarksville, TN. The party introduces us to the key family characters, including Fontaine’s orphaned grand-daughters Lucy and Love, his sons Ned and Jim, and his nephews George Rowan and Rives Allard, from Georgia. Ned, George and Rives are surprise visitors to the party – they left school the night before, riding their horses home to join Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. There’s a dance and some romancing on the plantation, and then the boys ride off to fight at Fort Donelson.
The strength of this story lies on the battlefields. Gordon puts us in the tents and through the binoculars of Union and Confederate commanders. She powerfully captures the troops as they wait for action and then fall into the horror of it. I don’t have deep knowledge about the Civil War battles and, in the case of Fort Donelson, read online about the 1862 surrender to General Grant. The historical background information made a huge difference in my understanding of what was happening in Gordon’s fiction. If only she had included a map of the battle, that would’ve been sufficient. Did readers in 1937 not need that?
Gordon anchors us most closely to Rives, who scouts for Lt. General Forrest and, along with Ned, follows Forrest in escaping Fort Donelson before the surrender. The two boys return to Brackets, where they hide in the woods from Union troops, who pillage and burn down the plantation house. With the Union victory and control of nearby Clarksville, Brackets’ plantation slaves have walked away and Lucy thinks, “…we are sinking, sinking; and they know it and have deserted us.”
Rives marries Lucy and takes her to his home in Georgia. Fontaine Allard collapses into ill health, and the family becomes dependent on others for their shelter and food. Rives continues to fight with Lt. General Forrest, whom Gordon portrays heroically throughout the novel, such as at Murfreesboro and Chickamauga. Meanwhile, Lucy nurses wounded soldiers with her mother-in-law in Georgia. Ned escapes from a Yankee prison and returns home a broken man.
Gordon’s characters are well-drawn but don’t call us to care about them. It makes for less dramatic reading – there’s no “I’ll think about that tomorrow” Scarlett O’Hara or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” Rhett Butler to make us cheer and weep — but the historical significance of the Allards’ fictional lives more than makes up for the lack of emotional drama. There’s an unforgettable final scene of Rives on his horse “carrying the colors” into the middle of a battle, when the original carrier lost courage. Like so many other scenes in None Shall Look Back, it left me with an indelible portrait of the Confederate soldier in battle and, long after the last page, thinking about the American Civil War, more than Mitchell’s classic ever did.
Caroline Gordon (1895-1981) wrote nine novels and three story collections, as well as non-fiction. She was born in Clarksville, TN, where she lived with her husband, poet and critic Allen Tate, on family land.