Ernest J. Gaines Essay - Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 3)

Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 3)

Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–

Gaines is a black novelist and short story writer whose fictive world is the rural Louisiana where he was raised. His characters are humble blacks with a strong attachment to the land, and he has a keen ear for their dialogue. Despite the apparent simplicity of his framework, he is a complex and painstaking writer. He is best-known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Ernest J. Gaines has not received anything like the attention he deserves, for he may just be the best black writer in America. He is so good, in fact, that he makes the category seem meaningless, though one of his principal subjects has been slavery—past and present.

Born on a Louisiana plantation 38 years ago, Gaines is first and last a country-boy writer. He sets down a story as if he were planting, spreading the roots deep, wide and firm. His stories grow organically, at their own rhythm. When they ripen at last, they do so inevitably, arriving at a climax with the absolute rightness of a folk tale. "Just Like a Tree," the final story in his fine 1968 collection, Bloodline, could serve as the description for all Gaines' work. Making a slow concentric dance around the life and death of a matriarch named Aunt Fe, the story also anticipated Gaines' new novel [The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman]….

[This] is not hot-and-breathless, burn-baby-burn writing. Unlike apocalyptic novelists, Gaines does not make the revolution happen by surreal rhetoric. He simply watches, a patient artist, a patient man, and it happens for him. When Jane [a former slave], disobedient at last, walks past her plantation owner to take part in a demonstration, a code goes crack, as surely, as naturally as a root pushing up through concrete.

Melvin Maddocks, "Root and Branch," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), May 10, 1971, pp. K13-K17.

[The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is bitter] beyond any doubt; the reconstruction in unbearably real terms of the life of a Negro woman from the days of slavery up to the 1960s, when she walks at the head of a protest march aged something over a hundred. Cheerfully free of self-pity or dramatics, taking for granted unspeakable persecutions and endurances, faded into matter-of-factness by the suggestion of old age remembering, the record's implicit revelation of wickedness is nevertheless so hard that one would like to turn away from such truth.

Of course the book is finely done—the detail as fresh as life, the rhythm of black Southern speech carrying the long chronicle along easily, the characters growing naturally out of detail and dialogue. But just to label it a tour de force is a dilution of the whole impact.

"Southern Cross," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 16, 1973, p. 303.

In Thomas Berger's Little Big Man the 111-year-old-narrator told the story of his highly eventful life, from his capture by Cheyenne as a boy to his engineering of Custer's death at the Little Bighorn: part fact, part boasting, part senilia, the story evoked, and elegised, the spirit of the American Indian. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Ernest Gaines does the same for the black American…. Although he too seems to capture the essence of an entire people, Mr. Gaines doesn't try for the mythic sweep of Berger's novel. Miss Jane's story is a bloody slice of life, a protracted blow-by-blow battle with the moonish ignorance of the plantation blacks and the quite unearthly greed and bestiality of the white Southerner. Mr. Gaines is not tempted to tailor the narrative for easy or obvious effects.

Martin Amis, "MacPosh," in New Statesman, September 2, 1973, pp. 205-06.