Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 181)
Ernest J. Gaines 1933-
(Full name Ernest James Gaines) American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Gaines's career through 2002. See also Ernest J. Gaines Short Story Criticism, Ernest J. Gaines Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 18, 86.
Counted among the most significant Southern writers of the past half-century, Gaines has consistently based his fictional work on the African American cultural and storytelling traditions of rural southern Louisiana despite living most of his adulthood elsewhere. Best known as the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Lesson before Dying (1993), Gaines has brought a new awareness of African American contributions to the history and culture of the American South. With authentic dialects and convincing characterization, Gaines has typically written first-person narratives that chronicle the struggles and sufferings of humble black protagonists who possess a strong attachment to the land. Many critics have observed the originality of Gaines's prose, noting the distance of his aesthetic philosophies from such contemporary literary trends as the Beat and the Black Arts movements. In addition, commentators have often compared Gaines's fictional treatment of his native Louisiana parish to that of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and James Joyce's Dublin.
Born on January 15, 1933, in the bayous of Pointe Coupee Parish near Oscar, Louisiana, Gaines is the son of Manuel and Adrienne J. Gaines, who sharecropped at local plantation. As a youth, Gaines also worked the fields, digging potatoes for fifty cents a day from the time he was nine years old until he was fifteen. Augusteen Jefferson, a paraplegic aunt who served as the model for the recurrent aunt figure in Gaines's writings, effectively raised him and his twelve younger siblings while his parents worked. Jefferson continued to act as Gaines's guardian after his parents separated in 1941. Subsequently, Gaines lost touch with his father, who served in World War II before returning to New Orleans. In 1948 Gaines joined his mother and merchant marine stepfather in Vallejo, California, where the couple had moved several years earlier. There, Gaines attended high school for the first time and developed a passion for reading, especially the novels of such Russian masters as Leo Tolstoy, Nikolay Gogol, and Ivan Turgenev. Gaines later attended Vallejo Junior College before he enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1953 to serve during the Korean War. After his tour of duty ended in 1955, Gaines enrolled at San Francisco State College. In 1956 he published his first short story about the rural South in the San Francisco magazine Transfer, and one year later, earned his bachelor's degree in 1957. In 1958 he received a Wallace Stegner fellowship and entered the graduate creative writing program at Stanford University. However, Gaines withdrew the following year after winning the Joseph Henry Jackson award for his short story “Comeback” and dedicated himself to writing full-time. He published his first major novel, Catherine Carmier, in 1964, followed by a collection of five short stories, Bloodline, in 1968 and the novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted as a critically acclaimed and highly popular television movie in 1974, which starred Cicely Tyson and won nine Emmy awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Following the publication of In My Father's House (1978), which many critics have viewed as his most pessimistic work, Gaines's literary reputation continued to grow. “The Sky Is Gray,” a short story appearing in Bloodline, was adapted for television in 1980, and Gaines's novel A Gathering of Old Men (1983) was also adapted for television in 1987. Gaines joined the faculty of the English department at the University of Southwestern Louisiana as a writer-in-residence in 1983 and has since taught part of each year at the university. In 1993 Gaines published A Lesson before Dying, which earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award and the endorsement of American talk show host Oprah Winfrey's popular book club. Like many of Gaines's previous works, A Lesson before Dying was adapted as a television movie in 1999. In addition to several other honors and awards, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation grant in recognition of his literary accomplishments in 1994.
Gaines's major works offer an uncommon African American perspective on the rural Deep South, recalling and recreating the places and people who inhabit the region. Primarily set in the imaginary locale of Bayonne, Louisiana, Gaines's fiction depicts the complexities of a culturally diverse community that includes blacks, whites, Creoles, and Cajuns. Set during the onset of the American civil rights movement, Catherine Carmier chronicles the love affair between Jackson Bradley, a young African American man recently returned to Bayonne after completing his education, and the title character, a daughter of a bigoted Creole sharecropper who forbids his family members from associating with anyone with darker skin than their own. In the novel, the characters face struggles that test not only their loyalty to family and community but also their personal convictions about the status quo and morality. A story of adultery and miscegenation narrated from the perspective of a respected, middle-aged black man named Jim Kelly, Of Love and Dust (1967) centers on the taboo relationship between Marcus Payne, a hostile young African American man bonded out of prison by a sympathetic white landowner, and a white woman named Louise Bonbon. Louise is the vengeful wife of Sidney Bonbon, the arrogant Cajun manager of the plantation where Marcus now works. Sidney is having an affair with a black mistress named Pauline. As Marcus and Louise fall in love, they plot to run away together, but by the novel's violent end, Sidney kills Marcus. Subsequently, Louise goes mad, and Sidney flees the plantation with Pauline, claiming that if he spared Marcus, he would have died at the hands of other Cajuns.
The stories of Bloodline exhibit what some critics have considered Gaines's most effective use of folk material. Three of the five stories in the collection—“A Long Day in November” (1958), “Just Like a Tree” (1962), and “The Sky Is Gray” (1963)—originally appeared as individual pieces. The collection is unified on a number of levels: its sequence is partly determined by the age of each story's respective narrator or protagonist, which ranges from childhood to old age, and the action of each story occurs during a single day in and around Bayonne at the beginning of the civil rights movement. In addition, the stories share a thematic focus on intergenerational relationships, mostly concerning a father's legacy to his son, and they all are narrated in the idiom and dialect of rural Southern African Americans, the hallmark of Gaines's literary style. In “A Long Day in November,” the first and longest story in the volume, six-year-old Sonny relates a conflict between his parents about his father's obsession with the family car. After Sonny's mother runs off, his father consults a local conjure woman, who advises him to burn the car in order to resume his place as the head of the household. Following the fiery ritual, the mother returns and insists that the father beat her for disrespecting his authority. The story concludes with Sonny innocently overhearing his parents making love that same evening. In “The Sky Is Gray,” the second and most anthologized story of the collection, eight-year-old James learns a series of lessons about survival, racial etiquette, and personal integrity in the Deep South as he and his mother venture into town to run errands. Nineteen-year-old Proctor Lewis confronts his destiny as a black man in a white world in “Three Men,” which consigns him to a cycle of poverty, violence, and imprisonment. Jailed and accused of stabbing another black man, Proctor ponders the advice of fellow inmate Mumford Brazille, who explains to him the nature and meaning of the cycle and implicates African American men for its perpetuation. By the story's end, as he cares for a badly beaten boy who joins them in the cell, Proctor tenuously decides to break the cycle. In “Bloodline,” seventy-year-old Felix narrates the story of Copper Laurent, an African American veteran who returns to Bayonne to claim his birthright as the only direct heir of a deceased white plantation owner. Conflict arises from his dying white uncle, who currently inhabits the plantation and refuses to recognize Copper's demands or to violate societal values that nullify his nephew's claims. In “Just Like a Tree,” the elderly Aunt Fe seems to will her own death as her fearful family and friends gather at her home on the night she is to leave the plantation for the city following a series of recent bombings perpetrated by whites against blacks. Narrated by the evening's visitors, this story demonstrates that Aunt Fe “will not be moved,” an allusion to a verse in the Negro spiritual from which its title derives.
Widely recognized as Gaines's masterpiece, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman chronicles a folk history of African American experience in the United States from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the segregation and civil rights eras as narrated from the perspective of the one-hundred-eight-year-old title character. Her account of personal struggles, losses, and triumphs from childhood through old age voices the stories of many African Americans. This fictional autobiography is framed as an edited, tape-recorded interview between Miss Jane and a black history teacher, who introduces the circumstances that brought the story to light before Miss Jane takes over narration. Suffused with the wit and idiom of her native Bayonne, Miss Jane begins with her futile escape from Louisiana to Ohio after the Civil War, only to find herself eventually returned to her plantation home. She spends the rest of her life refusing to accept the social dictates of white society and waiting for “the One,” who will lead blacks to freedom. Throughout the course of the novel, Miss Jane meets a series of civil rights leaders until she finally realizes, as she leads a protest against Bayonne's segregated courthouse, that being free comes not from individuals but the community itself. Principally set in urban Baton Rouge, In My Father's House concerns the relationship between Philip Martin, a prominent civil rights leader at the height of his career, and Robert X, a troubled young man, who is one of Martin's three illegitimate children from an affair decades earlier. Because he has not seen nor tried to locate his first family for more than twenty years, Martin does not initially recognize Robert as his son. Although Robert originally intends to kill his father, whom he blames for his family's misfortune, their confrontation ends without bloodshed. However, their meeting forces Martin to embark on a search that teaches him the destructive consequences of abandoning his family. Styled as a detective story, A Gathering of Old Men depicts a group of seventeen elderly black men, who collectively make a defiant stand against past injustices by separately claiming responsibility for the murder of a hostile member of a violent Cajun clan. After one of the “gathered” has been decided guilty by the sheriff and the victim's vengeful family, the others step forward one by one to admit responsibility. Narrated by each suspect, the “confessions” collectively exhibit the accumulated rage and self-hatred that resulted from a lifetime of exploitation and humiliation by dominant whites. Set both in a jail and on a plantation in Bayonne during a six-month span in 1948, A Lesson before Dying focuses on the friendship between Jefferson, a scarcely literate young man sentenced to death, and Grant Wiggins, a rural school teacher disillusioned and displaced by his work. At Jefferson's trial, the defense attorney compares him to a “hog,” which riles the community, particularly Jefferson's godmother. She insists that Wiggins can restore Jefferson's sense of self-worth, and the subsequent interaction between both men eventually transforms the pair as they recognize the meaning of human dignity.
Critics have long recognized Gaines as an integral interpreter of Southern history and culture. He has been noted for voicing the stories of contemporary Southern African American men—a perspective many scholars feel has seldom been represented in the past half-century as prominently as in Gaines's fiction. While reviewers have charted a shift in his use of black folk materials and storytelling traditions that has accompanied the evolution of his literary vision, other commentators have focused on his thematic recurrence of the African American male's rite of passage to manhood, the cultural definition of black masculinity, and the relationships between fathers and sons. A number of linguists have studied the means by which some of Gaines's characters appropriate and subvert the dominant discourse of a white American South in order to realize the position of a male subject. Others have illustrated how Gaines has manipulated his characterizations in order to re-inscribe prevailing cultural notions of black masculinity, investigating the literary implications of black male agency and subjectivity with respect to conventional protest fiction and oral storytelling traditions. Although racial issues often inform the principal themes of his writing, Gaines has also attracted attention for his skill at figuring universal human ideals through particular characters that inhabit a particular place. Often mentioning Gaines's insistence on the inherent dignity of characters that range from pitiable to contemptible, many reviewers have also commended Gaines's fiction for realizing typical human motivations and emotions concerning such topics as American racial relations, human rights, and personal responsibility. In addition, most commentators have marked a technical and stylistic departure from prevailing contemporary literary trends in Gaines's work. Similarly, some critics have analyzed the thematic significance of economic and social changes of the New South that inform Gaines's fiction. Scholars have also distinguished Gaines for his consistent use of the Southern bayou as the primary setting of most of his fiction, contrasting the geographical, historical, and cultural implications of Bayonne, Louisiana, with the conventions of traditional Southern literature. Much of the critical scholarship on Gaines's works has produced examinations of the symbolic geography of Bayonne and its surrounding parish, highlighting the physical, social, and political significance of the black “quarters” in Southern culture.
Catherine Carmier (novel) 1964
Of Love and Dust (novel) 1967
Bloodline (short stories) 1968
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel) 1971
A Long Day in November [illustrations by Don Bolognese] (novella) 1971
In My Father's House (novel) 1978
A Gathering of Old Men (novel) 1983
Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft [with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton] (interviews) 1990
A Lesson before Dying (novel) 1993
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SOURCE: Shelton, Frank W. “Ambiguous Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines's Bloodline.” CLA Journal 19, no. 2 (1975): 200-09.
[In the following essay, Shelton examines the aesthetics and themes of Bloodline, focusing on the thematic recurrence of how the African American male attains manhood, what constitutes manhood, and its implications for the individual.]
With the recent highly regarded television version of the novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest J. Gaines's reputation and popularity have been enhanced substantially. His earlier works are consequently being reconsidered, but one of the curious facts of Gaines criticism is that his one volume of short stories, Bloodline, has been relatively neglected.1 Certainly “The Sky Is Gray” is an extremely popular story—Gaines himself has noted that it “has been anthologized twelve to fifteen times.”2 Considering his own opinion of his stories, about which he said, “I always knew my stories were better than anything else I had written,”3 the critical neglect of them is surprising, especially in light of the fact that the stories deal with situations and characters similar to those in the novels. With the growing popularity of his latest novel, it is useful to examine the stories more closely, not simply to notice their many aesthetic virtues, but to trace themes which are...
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SOURCE: Andrews, William L. “‘We Ain't Going Back There’: The Idea of Progress in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Black American Literature Forum 11, no. 4 (winter 1977): 146-49.
[In the following essay, Andrews explicates the dialectic representation of progress and regress that informs The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, demonstrating a pattern of psychological and spiritual evolution of the African American characters's consciousnesses that counters the forces of sociopolitical stasis and regression.]
Escape from the closed world of the Southern plantation-ghetto has been a persistent theme in Afro-American writing from the early slave narratives to the experimental fiction of Ishmael Reed. The rural South has long been pictured as the last bastion of the slavery mentality, and while a few black writers have explored means by which to reform that mentality, more have followed the lead of Richard Wright, William Attaway, William Melvin Kelley, and Ronald Fair1 in suggesting that the black man's only alternative to continuing subjection to racist Southern traditions is wholesale removal, even though opportunities elsewhere will be circumscribed too. In his first two novels, Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust,2 Ernest J. Gaines seems to subscribe to this view of the Southern scene as almost impervious to change. The post-World War...
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SOURCE: Hicks, Jack. “To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines's Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 11, no. 1 (spring 1977): 9-19.
[In the following essay, Hicks traces the evolution of Gaines's concern with black history and community from Catherine Carmier through The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, highlighting the accompanying shift in his use of materials and fictional techniques to suit his evolving vision.]
With The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Ernest Gaines has become one of our most highly regarded Afro-American writers. While Miss Jane Pittman is his signal achievement, the world of the novel is identical to that of his three earlier books—Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967), and Bloodline (1968).1 All of Gaines's work is seeded in a basic land derived from his native Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana: extending chronologically from 1865 to the mid-1950s; geographically, from the winding bayous and tablelands to the decaying plantations and slave quarters northwest of Baton Rouge, along his fictive St. Charles River. Upriver, beyond the corn and cotton and cane fields, lies the small town he calls Bayonne. His characters are ordinary people, black, white, and “in-between.” This last group of mixed bloods and cultures is important, for Ernest Gaines's special...
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SOURCE: Shelton, Frank W. “In My Father's House: Ernest Gaines after Jane Pittman.” Southern Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1981): 340-45.
[In the following essay, Shelton explores the change in emphasis concerning the issue of African American progress in In My Father's House, contrasting the novel's setting, characters, and themes with those of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.]
Ernest J. Gaines's most recent novel, In My Father's House, published in 1978, was not widely reviewed. The notices that did appear were respectful but a bit gingerly and unenthusiastic in tone, as if the reviewers did not quite know how to respond to the book. The relative neglect of the work, in comparison to the more compelling Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is understandable. But it is unfortunate in view of the fact that In My Father's House is an important work, showing significant development in Gaines's art and thought, especially in light of his depiction of and reaction to the 1970s.
One reason for the lukewarm response to In My Father's House is the voice Gaines uses. In fact, according to his own testimony, he had trouble completing the novel because it employs an omniscient narrator, while he wrote most of his earlier works in the first person. His use of omniscient narration led to a phenomenon much noted by reviewers—a severe detachment, a...
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SOURCE: Roberts, John W. “The Individual and the Community in Two Short Stories by Ernest J. Gaines.” Black American Literature Forum 18, no. 3 (fall 1984): 110-13.
[In the following essay, Roberts analyzes the conflict between Southern black communal values and the developing social consciousnesses of the young African American protagonists of the short stories “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray” from Bloodline, emphasizing the preceding generation's role in resolving the conflict.]
The interaction between the community and the individual, along with its role in the shaping of human personality, is a primary concern of Ernest J. Gaines in much of his fiction. It is in probing the underlying community attitudes, values, and beliefs to discover the way in which they determine what an individual will or has become that Gaines gives poignancy to the pieces in his short-story collection Bloodline (1968; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1970). Because his fiction focuses on the peculiar plight of black Americans in the South, Gaines must consider an additional level of significance—the strong communal bonds characteristic of Southern black folk culture. In these stories, black folk culture, with its emphasis on community-defined values and behaviors, shows signs of deterioration, while Western individualism and the development of more personally-defined values appear as...
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SOURCE: Rowell, Charles H. “The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.” Southern Review 21, no. 3 (summer 1985): 733-50.
[In the following essay, Rowell explores the symbolic geography of Gaines's fiction, highlighting the physical, social, and political significance of the “quarters” where African Americans in Louisiana traditionally lived.]
Beyond the trees was the road that led you down into the quarters. At the mouth of the road was the main highway, heading toward Bayonne, and just on the other side of the highway was the St. Charles River. A light breeze had just risen up from the river, and I caught a faint odor from the sweet-olive bush which stood in the far right corner of the garden.
—A Gathering of Old Men
If you drive west out of Baton Rouge on U.S. 190, you eventually cross the Mississippi River, Mechesebe, “Father of Waters.” If you by-pass Port Allen and take the Alexandria exit about three miles up the road, you soon come to Pointe Coupée Parish. As you enter the parish, you immediately recognize its four geographical distinctions: the same oppressive heat you encountered in Baton Rouge—if you are traveling between late spring and early fall; live oaks, standing like prehistoric giants with hair of Spanish moss; flat, fertile soil which once, with abundance, supported the...
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SOURCE: Harper, Mary T. “From Sons to Fathers: Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men.” CLA Journal 31, no. 3 (March 1988): 299-308.
[In the following essay, Harper examines the significance of the father-son theme in A Gathering of Old Men, focusing on the novel's development of figures of speech.]
In A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines again returns to the Louisiana plantation, where he focuses on the black elders of a community who collectively are challenged to rise above their individual turmoil to confront an oppressive society—a group of men who develop from benign “men-children” to respected “fathers” and role models of the community.
As the novel opens, Beau Boutan, a Cajun farmer and boss of leased Marshall Plantation land, has been killed in the Quarters in front of Mathu's cabin. Determined to protect Mathu, the eighty-plus-year-old black man who helped rear her, Candy Marshall, the plantation's young white owner, persistently declares that she has shot Beau and summons Mathu's peers so that together they can form a united front against both Sheriff Mapes and the expected retaliation from Fix Boutan, the Cajun family patriarch.
Beau's death and Candy's summons set the stage for Gaines to present complex aspects of rural Louisiana life using a multiple first-person point of view. That is, the voices of eleven blacks and...
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SOURCE: Griffin, Joseph. “Ernest J. Gaines's Good News: Sacrifice and Redemption in Of Love and Dust.” Modern Language Studies 18, no. 3 (summer 1988): 75-85.
[In the following essay, Griffin delineates the unwritten but universally understood Southern racial code that informs the relationships in Of Love and Dust, observing parallels between messianic traditions and Gaines's characterization of Marcus Payne.]
In his 1967 novel, Of Love and Dust, Ernest J. Gaines depicts a world in which the lives of his, mainly, black characters are sharply limited by their race. On the Louisiana plantation where he comes to work in the summer of 1946 after being bonded out of jail where he has been awaiting trial for killing another young black man in a roadhouse fight, Marcus Payne is thrust into a milieu which accentuates, even more than his native Baton Rouge did, the liabilities of being black in the post-World War II South. But it does not appear to be Gaines's primary intention to contribute merely another portrayal of the subjugation of blacks. Rather, he is undertaking a broader task than that, signalled by the presence in the novel of two major white characters, Cajuns, who, by virtue of the fact that each has contracted a sexual liaison with a black person, are marked in as real a sense as are the novel's black characters. It is Gaines's point that the same system that victimizes the...
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SOURCE: Doyle, Mary Ellen. “Ernest Gaines' Materials: Place, People, Author.” MELUS 15, no. 3 (fall 1988): 75-93.
[In the following essay, Doyle contrasts the geographical, historical, and cultural implications of Gaines's fictional settings and characters with the conventions of modern Southern literature.]
Southern Louisiana—Cajun Country—Pointe Coupée—New Roads—Oscar—River Lake Plantation—False River—pecan trees and live oaks—fields of sugar cane and cotton—bayous and “parishes”—“galleries” on plantation homes—cabins in “the quarters”: these make the “Place” of Ernest Gaines' fiction. Speakers of French, Cajun patois, or black English—black workers who cut cane and drive the mules that haul it—Cajun overseers who drive the cutters—black children who play in lanes, work like adults, and hide their toothache and hunger—old men who fish and hide their fears and resentful memories—young militants and the old folk who raised them, who both admire and fear them, who tell the oral history that has nourished their dreams and demands—“Creoles of color” who struggle between the whites who despise and displace them and the blacks they despise and will not join—landowners who “possess” all these people yet slowly lose possession in a world of cultural and economic change: these are the “People” who populate Gaines' fictional yet intensely...
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SOURCE: Meyer, Jr., William E. H. “Ernest J. Gaines and the Black Child's Sensory Dilemma.” CLA Journal 34, no. 4 (June 1991): 414-25.
[In the following essay, Meyer discusses the characterization of the protagonists of “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray,” noting the internal conflicts between different sensory orientations that define their respective identities as African American youth.]
America, what have you done to yourself, To me, one of your citizens? You've distorted the human landscape, And painted the senses white!
—Matthew Kellum-Rose, “America”
Each of the first two stories in Ernest J. Gaines' Bloodline—“A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray”—describes a black boy or youth attempting to come to terms not just with the world in which he lives, his parents' problems, and the racism which circumscribes him but, more importantly, with the sensory orientation of his own body, the struggle between what William Faulkner called “black blood and white blood.”1 It is this private or internal struggle more than any public or external debate that creates the real identity crisis for the young black and for the artist or writer who would contend with an America which has “painted the senses white!” Both Sonny in “A Long Day in...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “Ernest J. Gaines and the New South.” Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 1 (fall 1991): 32-46.
[In the following essay, Folks details the thematic significance of the economic and social changes of the New South that inform Gaines's fiction with respect to both the literary traditions of the South and the folklore of African Americans.]
Although the imaginative setting of Ernest Gaines's stories is little more than a hundred miles removed from the Feliciana Parish of Walker Percy's fiction, and though Gaines and Percy published first novels within three years of one another, the disparities in treatment of the New South by these two writers are remarkable. Unlike the fiction of Walker Percy, which in many essential respects returns to Agrarian modes of thinking about the machine, the works of Ernest Gaines couple a highly realistic depiction of technological change with an insistence on the value of connection with the past and the responsibility of the individual to communal needs.
Ernest Gaines began his career as a novelist in the late fifties, a period of turbulent social protest and unprecedented economic progress in the South. The issues of social and economic change are clearly in the forefront of Gaines's fiction, a fact which a number of commentators have stressed. However, the diversity of critical opinion concerning the treatment of change in...
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SOURCE: Griffin, Joseph. “Calling, Naming, and Coming of Age in Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men.” Names 40, no. 2 (June 1992): 89-97.
[In the following essay, Griffin addresses the significance of the names assigned to the characters of A Gathering of Old Men in relation to their social status and evolving maturity.]
The gathering depicted in Ernest Gaines's most recently published novel, A Gathering of Old Men (1983), is one of several old black men summoned by a young white woman, Candy Marshall, to prevent the lynching or imprisonment of Mathu, another old black man, who has helped to raise her after the death of her parents in a car accident. The novel is set on an October Friday afternoon and evening during the late 1970s in the fictional St. Raphael's parish in Louisiana, and earlier in the day the Cajun Beau Boutan has been murdered, Candy assumes, by Mathu, who now sits on the gallery of his shack, gun in hand, not far from the murdered man's corpse. Knowing that Boutan's murder will be attributed to Mathu—indeed, things seem to point in that direction—Candy has devised a way of protecting her foster father: she will shoulder the blame for the crime herself, and she will gather together as many old men as can be found who have an axe to grind against Boutan and have them stand with twelve-gauge shotguns containing empty number five shells, each man ready to...
(The entire section is 3994 words.)
SOURCE: Papa, Lee. “‘His Feet on Your Neck’: The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines.” African American Review 27, no. 2 (summer 1993): 187-93.
[In the following essay, Papa describes the oppressive symbolism of Christian subtext that informs Gaines's writings, showing the relation between Christianity and Gaines's own perspective on religion.]
Central to the work of Ernest J. Gaines is the question of the place of religion in the lives of black people attempting to attain freedom. Although he rarely addresses religion explicitly, religion becomes a means through which Gaines's characters are defined or define themselves. While the religious motifs he uses tend to have their origins in Christianity, only in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a direct tie to Christianity dominant.
Previous studies of religiosity in Gaines's work have failed to plumb the depths of the topic. Audrey L. Vinson, for example, has observed of Jimmy's murder in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that “he is slain for his obedience to a duty which was conferred on him through spirit and intellect. Yet having made the sacrifice, he conferred subsequent social gains on the community” (37). The young men whose lives are sacrificed in Gaines's fiction are not simply Christ symbols; for Gaines to adopt this posture would be to acquiesce to the religion forced on the...
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SOURCE: Vancil, David E. “Redemption according to Ernest Gaines.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 489-91.
[In the following review, Vancil assesses the effect of the ironic point of view on the themes of A Lesson before Dying.]
A Lesson before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines's fifth adult novel, is the Louisiana writer's most compelling work to date. Gaines worked on this book for almost ten years, doing most of the writing in San Francisco during the summer months between stints as a professor on the English faculty at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and engagements elsewhere. Because of the demands on his time and perhaps because of the demands created by the multiple levels of irony in the book, Gaines despaired of ever finishing this, the best novel of his career.
Readers of Gaines's previous novels, including A Gathering of Old Men and the deservedly famous Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, are in for a surprise. Gaines continues to use theme and voice to provide impetus to the story, and as in earlier books, he experiments with point of view, this time returning to a first-person narrator. Yet this narrator is neither naïve nor dispassionate, but complex and not altogether admirable. Because the narrator Grant Wiggins is aware and judgmental, his self-deprecatory and scornful voice is often ironic. By the same token, the structure of the...
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SOURCE: Auger, Philip. “A Lesson about Manhood: Appropriating ‘The Word’ in Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying.” Southern Literary Journal 27, no. 2 (spring 1995): 74-85.
[In the following essay, Auger examines how Jefferson of A Lesson before Dying both appropriates and subverts the dominant discourse of the white American South in order to assume the position of a male subject.]
The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes “one's own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to the moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language … but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word and make it one's own. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”)1
If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot … If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain. …
(Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”)
From Ernest Gaines's earliest published works of the late 1950s and '60s to his most recent novel, A Lesson before Dying, Gaines consistently writes about black men who face...
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SOURCE: Lockhart, Leslie. Review of A Lesson before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines. Black Scholar 25, no. 2 (spring 1995): 65-6.
[In the following review, Lockhart summarizes A Lesson before Dying, highlighting the narrator's struggles to reconcile himself with his community and his fate.]
A Lesson before Dying explores lost dignity and the often disconcerting links between the individual and the surrounding community. Gaines creates an austere story of Grant Wiggins, a frustrated rural school teacher and Jefferson, a young man, who is sentenced to death. The novel explores each man's effort to reconcile himself with his community and his fate. With a keen eye for the plagues and longings of the human spirit, Gaines raises questions whose answers are elusive.
The novel is set in the 1940s, in Bayonne, Louisiana, which is the backdrop for all of Gaines' fictional work. Young Jefferson shares a ride to a liquor store with two friends, Brother and Bear. The two young men become angry with the white store owner, Alcee Grope, when he refuses to sell them liquor on partial credit. In a matter of seconds Grope fires gunshots, Brother and Bear return fire, and all three fall dead. Jefferson is the only one left standing at the scene.
Despite his innocence, Jefferson is eventually charged with robbery and the murder of Grope. The young man's court trial...
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SOURCE: Wardi, Anissa Janine. Review of A Lesson before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines. MELUS 21, no. 2 (summer 1996): 192-94.
[In the following review, Wardi focuses on the relationship between Wiggins and Jefferson in A Lesson before Dying, assessing the characters's personal transformations and the significance of literacy in accomplishing that task.]
Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson before Dying is his eighth work of fiction and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award. The novel, set in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana in the late 1940s, tells the story of a young African American man, Jefferson, who is falsely accused of conspiring to rob a liquor store and murder the white store owner. The narrative reveals that Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, having taken a ride from the actual killers just prior to the murder. Because these men were themselves shot and killed by the store owner before he died, and because a flustered Jefferson was caught leaving the store with the cash register money, Jefferson is pegged as an accomplice.
Jefferson's defense attorney, in an attempt to gain an acquittal for his client, argues Jefferson's innocence to an all-white jury. He reasons that Jefferson, as an African American, may be predisposed to random acts of violence, but is genetically incapable of planning a criminal act. This racist defense is...
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SOURCE: Gaines, Ernest J., and Wolfgang Lepschy. “A MELUS Interview: Ernest J. Gaines.” MELUS 24, no. 1 (spring 1999): 197-208.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on October 22, 1996, Gaines discusses the European reaction to his works, his literary influences, the evolution of his art, the social progress of the African American community, and his personal heroes.]
The following conversation with the writer was conducted on October 22, 1996. The conversation took place at the University of Bonn (Germany) prior to Ernest Gaines's public reading from A Lesson before Dying.
[Lepschy]: You've been in Europe now since February. What are your impressions about Europe, especially France? How do people react to your works?
[Gaines]: I have been to France before. I was there in '92, and I spent some time in Angers as well as in Paris. I came back in '94 when A Lesson before Dying was published in France, and I had this tremendous reception. And, of course, I taught creative writing at the university of Rennes this past spring. It was the first time that a creative writing class had been taught for a complete semester in France. My work has been received very well in France. The sale of the books has been good, and I suppose I've been interviewed more in France during the last year than I have been in the States in the last...
(The entire section is 5338 words.)
SOURCE: Clark, Keith. “Re-(W)righting Black Male Subjectivity: The Communal Poetics of Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men.” Callaloo 22, no. 1 (winter 1999): 195-207.
[In the following essay, Clark illustrates how A Gathering of Old Men re-inscribes notions of African American masculinity in order to create a revised representation of black literary subjectivity.]
When I think of Gaines, I think of voice and story. … I think of a person talking to me. I think of men and women talking to me. I think of voices that carry through time. I think of history and personal life memory.
—Gayl Jones, Interview with Michael Harper
It's not between the character and the writer. It's the voice, not the person himself, but the voice. … When I come to the omniscient point of view and I create a character, a narrator who's much like myself, I do too much thinking. I don't have the freedom. That's one of the things I criticize Invisible Man about. There's too much thinking going on all the time. There's thinking in every goddamned sentence. You don't think. Let the thing flow. Let it go.
The collective writings of Ernest Gaines have challenged and critiqued literary and cultural constructions of the black male subject. As the...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “Communal Responsibility in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson before Dying.” Mississippi Quarterly 52, no. 2 (spring 1999): 259-71.
[In the following essay, Folks examines the Southern rural folk traditions represented in A Lesson before Dying, analyzing their significance in terms of both the conventions of classic realism and the cultural fragmentation of the African American Diaspora.]
Ernest J. Gaines's entire career has been marked by a search for a useful African-American cultural tradition. Implicit in his narrative is the recognition that, while cultures change and evolve, the basis for any civilization is an inherited culture with roots in folk and popular tradition. In novels such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, In My Father's House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying, we see Gaines's efforts to lay bare a cultural tradition and to write narratives in which the past constitutes the basis for a progressive vision of the future. As an African-American writer who focuses on the problem of representing a coherent cultural tradition, Gaines has faced the central problem of the African-American Diaspora, in which a coherent African folk culture was fractured by removal to America and in which the possibility of an alternate New World culture has been undermined further by more recent migration out of the...
(The entire section is 5210 words.)
SOURCE: Upson, Nicola. “Crime Waves.” New Statesman 129, no. 4488 (29 May 2000): 57.
[In the following review, Upson compares the themes of violence in A Gathering of Old Men with Walter Mosley's Walkin' the Dog.]
While crime writers lament the difficulties of maintaining a series character, Walter Mosley has created another expertly drawn hero, better even than his first. With Easy Rawlins, the African-American war veteran and unofficial investigator, Mosley turned the private-eye novel on its head; with Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict forced to define his own morality in a lawless world, he has written an altogether different and more ambitious book.
Walkin' the Dog, Fortlow's second appearance, is not a crime novel, but a series of scenes in which Socrates faces the responsibilities that freedom entails. Comparatively few dramas happen here—in fact, there's no real plot to speak of. But with this story of how a man learns to live with himself and those around him, Mosley creates a unique character and surely one of the wisest novels of the year.
Nearly a decade after his release from prison, still trapped in his own mistakes, Socrates is approaching 60 and living in a makeshift corridor between two disused furniture stores. But he now has new ties and more to lose: a steady job; a two-legged dog called Killer; and a boy he treats as a son, whom...
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SOURCE: Gaines, Ernest J., and Dale Brown. “A Lesson for Living.” Sojourners 31, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 30-3.
[In the following interview, originally conducted during the spring of 2002, Gaines discusses his religious background and its influence on his characters, themes, and critical reception.]
Before Alex Haley's Roots became a mini-series phenomenon. Ernest J. Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman paved the way. In the 1974 TV movie, Cicely Tyson starred as Miss Jane, the 110-year-old African-American woman in Louisiana who recalls her life as a slave, her role in the Civil War, and her views on the civil rights movement. It is safe to say that no other fictional character had as much influence on the American freedom struggle as Miss Jane Pittman. Her story has been read in American literature classes around the world. And Chicago's Derrick Carter, the master mixer of cutting edge house music, leads his newest CD About Now with a spoken word track taken from this Gaines classic.
Since 1956, Ernest Gaines has written eight books of fiction, including In My Father's House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying. Four of his works have been made into films. His contemporaries count him as one of the great Southern writers. Currently, Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette....
(The entire section is 1471 words.)
Anthony, Booker T. Review of A Lesson before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines. CLA Journal 37, no. 2 (December 1993): 235-42.
Anthony evaluates the characterization, narrative techniques, and themes of A Lesson before Dying.
Bryant, Jerry H. “Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.” Southern Review 10, no. 4 (1974): 851-64.
Bryant situates Gaines's early fiction in the tradition of classic American literature, discussing the archetypal dimensions of Gaines's primary themes and characters.
Fitzsimmons, Lorna. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: Film, Intertext, and Ideology.” Studies in the Humanities (June-December 2001): 94-111.
Fitzsimmons analyzes the intertextual relationship between the novel and the film versions of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in order to show the film's ideological implications.
Gaudet, Marcia. “Miss Jane and Personal Experience Narrative: Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Western Folklore 51, no. 1 (January 1992): 23-32.
Gaudet focuses on Gaines's use of first-person narrative strategies in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to demonstrate the role that oral folk traditions play in illiterate communities.
(The entire section is 336 words.)