Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–
Gaines is a black American novelist and short story writer. His fiction deals with the victimization of poor, uneducated blacks, often in settings drawn from Gaines's native southern Louisiana. Character portrayal in Gaines's work is realistic and convincing and has been compared to that of Faulkner. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is his best known work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Ernest Gaines, contemporary novelist and short story writer, creates [his own world], recognizable as part of his earlier experience on a Southern, white-owned plantation and peopled by characters possessing a strength and dignity cognizant of soul—that inner revelatory understanding growing out of black experience…. [A] code of independence is central to the world of his novels. (p. 340)
[In Catherine Carmier (1964) and Of Love and Dust (1967)] the new world of expanding human relationships erodes the old world of love for the land and the acceptance of social and economic stratification. The characters caught up in this movement must make choices. Gaines concerns himself more with how they handle their decisions than with the rightness of their decisions—more often than not predetermined by social changes over which the single individual has little control. In the face of polarization, Gaines's characters demonstrate a human dignity and pride.
In Catherine Carmier, Gaines relates a triangle of lovers reflecting the historical degradation of a system based on color but, at the same time, transcending it in his emphasis on the dignity of the individual. (p. 341)
All four characters [in Catherine Carmier] are proud, dignified individuals, even in times of defeat. Each is determined to maintain his code of conduct among debasing and confusing forces. Each realizes he...
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With the appearance of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, eight years after the publication of his first story, Gaines makes the leap from promising competence to mature achievement. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest novels written since World War II in America and a distinguished contribution to our national literature. Its publication calls for a critical interpretation and assessment of all of Gaines's work….
I can think of no other contemporary American novelist whose work has produced in me anything like the sense of depth, the sense of humanity and compassion, and the sense of honesty that I find in Gaines's fiction. It contains the austere dignity and simplicity of ancient epic, a concern with man's most powerful emotions and the actions that arise from those emotions, and an artistic intuition that carefully keeps such passions and behavior under fictive control. Gaines may be one of our most naturally gifted story-tellers….
The Gaines of Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust is relatively young and inexperienced, and he succumbs to the power and the achievement of Hemingway and Faulkner. From Hemingway, he borrows the familiar clipped, journalistic sentence structure, understatement and repetition, and simple, concrete diction. (p. 106)
Because neither Gaines's talent nor his vision harmonizes with those of Hemingway, it is no wonder that he has incompletely adapted his model's techniques and attitudes to his own. Simplicity, understatement, repetition are all admirable qualities of Gaines's prose at its best—not when they descend from Hemingway, but when they emerge directly from Gaines.
Faulkner has had an even stronger and more pernicious hold on Gaines's abilities. One of the most characteristic features of Faulkner's writing is his sense of history. He is famous for the way in which he expresses this sense in his long sentences, ranging through the present, the past, the future, through parenthetical remarks and qualifying subordinate clauses, identifying ownership and family ties. The success of these sentences is achieved by his genius for combining the serious with the humorous. He counters his stately evocation of vast historical significance with mocking parody. The vision of man such sentences convey is that of a creature at once dignified and noble, and mean and ignominous.
It does not work this way for Gaines. "One summer afternoon," he writes in Catherine Carmier, "Robert Carmier rode up to the plantation store (the store was still being managed by the Grovers then) and asked Mack Grover for the house. (Antoine Richard, who was at the store, brought this version of the story into the quarters.)"… In the first place, these sentences are too short to convey the great tides of history we find in Faulkner. More important, Gaines does not have Faulkner's particular sense of historical and human ambiguity. What in Faulkner is a combination of opposites that elicits the laughter of the gods, in Gaines is youthful seriousness lacking in depth. This seriousness leads him to respond to another fatal temptation: "explaining" the significance of his story. Too often we get from the characters interpretations of the action that should have been left unspoken. (pp. 107-08)
Gaines need imitate no one. The five stories in Bloodline are proof of this. Showing very little awareness of either Hemingway or Faulkner, in this collection Gaines advances stylistically from his first two novels, making greater use of the dialect he knows so well—that of the Louisiana bayou country where he grew up—and introducing a greater sharpness and liveliness in the language of his narrators. His phraseology takes on the quality of that of the black preacher, and derives from the poetic language of black folk forging their perceptions of the world with simple, unlettered directness…. There is repetition, understatement, simplicity, and poetry [in Bloodline] but it is Gaines's, not Hemingway's. (p. 108)
[In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman] Gaines finds his true voice. I can think of no other novel by a black author in which a black Southern dialect is so successfully sustained over a long narrative. What is most impressive is the dialect's authenticity…. Gaines bridges the gap between the folk artist and the cultured artist of formal education. He is both. His is not, therefore, an "art" narrative, but an authentic narrative by an authentic ex-slave, authentic even though both are Gaines's inventions. So successful is he in becoming Miss Jane Pittman, that when we talk about her story, we do not think of Gaines as her creator, but as her recording "editor."
Miss Jane's art is that of the primitive minstrel. Her interests are events and her feelings about those events rather than motives and psychology. She is a completely honest reporter, who does not like "retrick." She throws away good lines and ignores contrived climaxes. Her narrative runs evenly, with few peaks and valleys, as if her vantage point of a century of living has brought her a peace and serenity which erases the turbulence in her recall…. Jane is … for all her powerful uniqueness, a representative character. And her story is a representative story, the collective account of the collective black since emancipation…. (pp. 108-09)
It is not surprising that Gaines failed effectively to cast these responses in forms created by Faulkner. Faulkner sees in the past an admirable...
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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is history rewritten and sifted through the mind of a talented novelist. It has been likened to Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury—though such comparison has relevance only in terms of themes. The themes of guilt and redemption, enmity and hatred, of men trapped in old patterns are as much a part of this novel as they are of that of the white Southerner. To these themes, however, Gaines has brought a black sensibility, which transforms them and makes them less important than his major character. Faulkner knew that such themes were an intricate part of the dust and blood of the South and thus attributed great importance to them. Gaines, on the other hand,...
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