For an African American of Ernest J. Gaines’s generation, the story of Jackson Bradley could carry considerable symbolic weight. For Gaines himself, the story has even more personal associations. Born in southern Louisiana, Gaines moved at fifteen to California. He was graduated in 1957 from San Francisco State College and did advanced work at Stanford University. Like Jackson, then, Gaines had traveled far from his roots. The question of one’s connection to one’s roots might be said to inform much, if not most, of Gaines’s fiction. The question of his connection to his roots troubles the mind of Jackson Bradley. The question of connection to roots was not a simple one for educated young black men in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Although Lillian’s desire to pass for white is an extreme, Jackson’s hope of finding himself at the end of a search that will take him far from his starting point might symbolize a similar uncertainty about identity.
Jackson’s roots in southern Louisiana allow Gaines to explore the rural area that also provides the setting of his later novels The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Gaines recognized early that his genius was for subjects and themes derived from rural life. His artistry in depicting that life constitutes one basis for his claim to special attention among African American novelists.
While looking closely at his place of...
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