A Neglected Classic: Caroline Gordon’s Charming Novel, “Aleck Maury, Sportsman”

Caroline Gordon is the best southern writer you’ve never heard of. Her delightful novel, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), tells the riveting story of an easygoing classics teacher whose avocation is fly-fishing and hunting. In middle age, he asks a college president to schedule all his classes for the morning so he can devote afternoons to fly-fishing. Maury’s musings on the the rivers and lakes, and observations of animals are fascinating. In the foreword, James Kilgo writes that Faulkner was such a fan he told Gordon he wished he had known Maury.

Gordon’s sure-handed prose is witty and seemingly effortless. And yet her graceful work seems to be entirely forgotten. Her poet husband Allen Tate has perhaps fared slightly better with posterity, though I cannot pretend I see his name in literary journals either. Do readers prefer their southern literature to be more freakish, more like that of Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner?

Alec Maury, Huntsman is Gordon’s tribute to her father, who was a classics teacher and a keen sportsman. She got the idea for this fictional autobiography one evening on her grandfather’s porch, when her father abruptly delivered the non sequitur : “Sometimes the Black Bass strikes from natural pugnacity.” His touching preoccupation with sport clarified for Caroline Gordon his intense private communings with nature, which he rarely shared with his family.

I was amused by Gordon’s portrayal of the Southern classics-educated gentlemen who recognize each other by their classics tags and quotations. From childhood hunting and Virgil study, to teaching at various schools and marrying a student who also could translate classics at sight, Maury fits in very well with the gentlemen in southern towns and fellow teachers. His supportive wife, Molly, gives him practical advice for the workplace but she and her mother both insist that he go hunting while she is having a baby. He is getting on Molly’s nerves. Their son Harry loves sports but is the only Maury who can’t learn Latin, which amuses Aleck. Meanwhile, their daughter Sally would rather stay indoors and read. But my favorite character is the small three-legged hunting dog, Gy (short for Gyges). I got so attached to Gy!

Quite often Maury prefers the company of avid sportsmen to that of classicists. One day as he passes a friend’s house, he muses

John Ferguson was probably still abed. The lazy dog didn’t really care much for fishing. I was glad he was not with me today. An excellent fellow but his mind was never really on angling and he had an abominable habit of scaring the fish by shouting questions – usually about Greek grammar; he was unfortunately convinced that I knew more than he did about it – from one pool to another.

Alec is also an environmentalist: in old age, he discovers that many of the lakes and rivers are now depleted of a proper food supply for fish. He experiments with various methods and and manages to save some fish before he returns to fishing.

Believe me, I have never gone hunting or fishing. But the hunting scenes are as good as those in War and Peace, and I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading about fly-fishing! A lovely book from first to last.