MARY GORDON IS A BIG FAT PHONY
This is a literary essay I wrote about a distinguished Barnard scholar. Please comment nicely!
“What, what? Is not the truth, the truth?” Sir John Falstaff
Nothing is more depressing than reading the New York Times Book Review. It’s just so smug, so orthodox. And at the same time so phony. Take Mary Gordon, for example. Just the other day Mary Gordon wrote a front page review praising the new novel by Louise Erdrich, the famous Native American author. Now I’ve got nothing against Louise Erdrich, but I’ve been reading the novels and essays of Mary Gordon for over thirty years. And by the time I finished reading the review, I just wanted to throw up.
Right off the bat, Mary Gordon takes a tough-guy stance, bragging about how back in the day feminists stuck together, how they shook up the world, writing classic novels that totally changed the rules about who could and couldn’t write American literature. Never before the Eighties and Nineties were there books by and about women of color. Never before were there stories written in American celebrating the courage and resilience of blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Koreans, Croatians, Martians, whatever. And these days it’s all over, thanks to the ubiquitous (but nameless) male pigs that put down “feminism” and “identity politics.” But Louise Erdrich is still around, and she’s the greatest.
It’s all about the sisterhood, see. It’s all about sticking together. Mary Gordon talks it up beautifully, just like William Holden in The Wild Bunch. “When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like . . . some animal! You’re finished! We’re finished!”
It’s all very noble and inspiring. Who can resist (and who would dare question) Mary Gordon’s reverence for minority women, her touching loyalty to the ideals of sisterhood? Except that if you actually know who this woman is, if you’ve ever read her novels and essays and absorbed the real ugliness of her world view, the whole thing is just one big crock, a con job of monumental proportions. Watch Mary Gordon on YouTube, holding forth at some tedious Barnard function in Manhattan. In old age she’s decided to promote herself as a “Sixties Chick.” Clearly that goes over well with the aging white female alums who cough up donations to keep the ultra-exclusive private school afloat.
But in reality, Mary Gordon never really was a Sixties chick, any more than George Wallace was ever a Freedom Rider or Donald Trump was ever a Marine rifleman in Vietnam. Read her first two novels, Final Payments
and you see where Mary Gordon is really coming from.
Funnily enough, the most evil woman in Final Payments is a romance reader. Yes, I took it personally.
This is a woman who grew up Irish Catholic in Queens, at a time when Jewish kids passing through were routinely beaten and roughed up, and when any blacks of any age who tried to enter the Forbidden Zone would probably have been shot on sight by the police. The innocent, secluded, Irish Catholic world that Mary Gordon celebrates in her early novels is a world that was only made possible by systematic racial violence on a massive scale going back nearly a hundred years to the Draft Riots of 1863. But who cares! What counts is sisterhood!
Only those early novels of Mary Gordon’s don’t really celebrate sisterhood. Or brotherhood. Or the Sixties. The prim, Irish Catholic heroine pays lip service to Civil Rights -- but she never has any black friends. She opposes the Vietnam War -- but only to hammer home how superior she is to the neighborhood boys who do the real fighting and dying.
Worst of all, in a Mary Gordon novel the Prim Irish Heroine is always recoiling in disgust from noisy black kids dribbling basketballs, or loudmouthed black women arguing about sex, or coarse campus radicals bragging about wanting to be born Third World. The great symbol of shabbiness in The Company of Women is the poster of Jimi Hendrix in the squalid hippy crash pad that keeps falling down, over and over, no matter how often the long suffering heroine tapes it up again.
But this is the woman believes in sisterhood. This is the tough, old-school feminist who loves Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich. So it’s okay!
Think I’m reading too much into this? Think I’m working myself into a snit for nothing? Check out Mary Gordon’s truly astonishing biography of Joan of Arc.
Did you know that Joan of Arc never menstruated?
I don't know how Mary Gordon does her research, but she seems to think that's terribly important. She also volunteers the opinion (rendered in a delightfully dismissive way) that Joan was a truly worldwide figure of transcendent importance while Abraham Lincoln (a real lowlife who could not stop menstruating) was merely a “local god.”
Stop and think about that for a minute.
Joan of Arc matters to the whole world because she saved something truly eternal and important, like French civilization. Abraham Lincoln doesn’t really matter at all, because . . . well, presumably because the people he saved weren’t truly civilized. Maybe they weren’t truly human either. Maybe they would have been better off as slaves!
Oh, but Mary Gordon loves her colored sisters!
Mary Gordon reveres women who tell the stories of the forgotten, like Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich. But check out her new review and you see how much that’s worth. Evidently in her newest novel Louise Erdrich tells the story of a Native American priest who falls for a female parishioner, but realizes their love can never be. Mary Gordon quotes the priest as saying something like, “you want her, but you can never have her. Suck it up and deal.” Seems authentic to me, but Gordon insists this moment is “beneath the author’s talent.” Why? Presumably because if you’re an Irish Catholic who grew up around real priests in a real Catholic neighborhood, you know (or must try to believe) that the priests never overcome desire . . . because they can’t feel desire in the first place!
I won’t even ask what the cost is when loyal Catholics cover for priests who aren’t really above desire.
Instead I’ll just wrap up with the point that Mary Gordon respects Louise Erdrich a whole lot . . . until Erdrich tells a truth she doesn’t want to hear. Then big, bad Mary Gordon covers her ears with her hands and starts going “la la la la la!” Just like on the playground.
Because that’s what sisters do.