Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Why do you think Ernest J. Gaines’s fiction appeals to high school and college students?
Find examples of strong black women characters who hold the moral center in much of his fiction.
How does the author’s portrayal of racism in the United States function as a lesson to readers unfamiliar with this history?
Using examples from his fiction, discuss the author’s skill in portraying the essential humanity of characters whose actions are intrinsically evil.
Does the author take a political position on the issue of capital punishment in A Lesson Before Dying?
Some have criticized Gaines’s work for not expressing a strong enough protest against racism. Do you agree?
Films of Gaines’s fiction are available in schools and libraries. Compare one of these films with the original text and discuss whether it fits your own interpretation.
(The entire section is 141 words.)
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Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Aside from his short fiction, Ernest J. Gaines published several novels, including Of Love and Dust (1967), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Ernest J. Gaines won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award of the San Francisco Foundation in 1959 for the short story “Comeback.” He received a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1970), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1971), and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1993). The Commonwealth Club of California honored him with the fiction gold medal in 1972, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and in 1984, for A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Gaines also won the American Academy of Arts and Letters literary award in 1987 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993, for A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. A few of Gaines’s novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying, were turned into made-for-television movies, and “The Sky Is Gray,” a short story, was dramatized for the Public Broadcasting Service short-story series.
(The entire section is 149 words.)
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Throughout his career, Ernest J. Gaines has been a serious and committed writer of fiction. He has always worked slowly, frustratingly slowly to his admirers, but that is because of his great devotion to and respect for the craft of fiction. His six novels are all set in rural Louisiana, north of Baton Rouge: Gaines, like William Faulkner, has created a single world in which his works are centered. Even though Gaines has written during a time of great racial turmoil and unrest, he has resisted becoming involved in political movements, feeling that he can best serve the cause of art and humanity by devoting himself to perfecting his craft. This does not mean that he has remained detached from political realities. Taken together, his novels cover the period of 1865 to 1980, reflecting the social movements that have affected black Americans during that time. Gaines has said again and again, however, that he is primarily interested in people; certainly it is in his depiction of people that his greatest strength lies. His focus is on the universals of life: love, pride, pity, hatred. He aspires thus not to have an immediate political impact with his writing but to move people emotionally. His supreme achievement in this regard is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. With its publication—and with the highly acclaimed made-for-television film based on the novel—Gaines achieved the recognition he had long deserved.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Auger, Philip. Native Sons in No Man’s Land: Rewriting Afro-American Manhood in the Novels of Baldwin, Walker, Wideman, and Gaines. New York: Garland, 2000. Looks at Gaines’s use of religious allegory in commenting upon and providing role models for manhood in his novels.
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A solid introduction to the author and his works. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. This thoughtful analysis of the literary kinship of Gaines and McPherson with their precursor Ralph Ellison focuses on all three writers’ characters’ sense of community, storytelling, and self-recovery. While beginning with a look at their southernness, Beavers examines all three as American writers and discusses all Gaines’s work through A Lesson Before Dying.
Burke, William. “Bloodline: A Man’s Black South.” College Language Association Journal 19 (1976): 545-558. This study centers on the design of the five stories in Bloodline and argues that they are a coherent record of changing race relations prompted by the African American male’s recovery of his masculinity.
(The entire section is 767 words.)