A Gathering of Old Men (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
A Gathering of Old Men marks the culmination of Ernest Gaines’s longstanding literary debate with William Faulkner. Although he has set each of his five previous books in the Yoknapatawpha-like Bayonne (Louisiana) County, never before has Gaines so directly confronted his problematic white predecessor’s vision of the Southern heritage. Insisting on a thorough repudiation of the paternalistic tradition of the Old South, including the ostensibly benevolent aspects of that tradition, Gaines presents a brilliant critique of the limitations of Faulkner’s understanding of Afro-American humanity. When Gaines departs from the emphasis on literary revision of the Southern past and attempts to portray the realistic complexities of the New South, however, A Gathering of Old Men flounders badly. Curiously, the failure derives primarily from Gaines’s somewhat naïve and distinctly un-Faulknerian belief that the poor white community can be convinced to enter the New South without a direct confrontation with and physical expression of its violent past.
Thematically and structurally, A Gathering of Old Men draws on several Faulkner novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942). Its primary point of reference, however, is...
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Lynching in the South
The long list of injustices suffered by the old blacks in the novel, including the threat and the reality of lynching, is rooted in the real experience of black people in the South. According to Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, in A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, there were 2,805 documented lynchings between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Approximately 90 percent of the victims were African Americans. This means that on average, one black person was lynched by a white mob every single week from between 1882 until 1930, although in reality the lynchings reached a peak in the 1890s and declined afterwards. Victims were often tortured and mutilated before their deaths, and parts of their bodies were sold as souvenirs.
The four states with the worst records were Mississippi (463 lynchings, 1882-1930), Georgia (423), Louisiana (283), and Alabama (262). In Louisiana six lynchings occurred in Pointe Coupee Parish, where Gaines was born and raised, between 1881 and 1908. Some of these were "private" lynchings, carried out by relatives and friends of the victim; others were by a posse (groups of men appointed by the sheriff to track down suspects) or by a mass group. The last lynching in Louisiana, of a black man accused of intent to rape, occurred in 1946. The year 1951 was the first year since records began in 1882 when there were no lynchings anywhere in the south. The last...
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The events in A Gathering of Old Men take place in October in the late 1970s in Louisiana, and although the novel primarily occurs in a day with funerals, as well as a trial, held several days later, because of the memories of the old men the novel's sense of the past goes back sixty to seventy years. Beau Boutan, a Cajun who has leased the Marshall plantation and instituted mechanized farming, is discovered killed in an eighty-year-old black man's front yard. Since this black man, Mathu, has never bent to the will of white or Cajun, he is thought to have killed Beau to protect a friend of his, Charlie, from a beating. No one suspects Charlie of killing Beau, because he never seemed to have the nerve to stand up to Cajuns or hostile whites.
Candy Marshall, a thirty-year-old white woman whose parents were killed in an automobile accident, was raised by Mathu and a white landowner, Miss Merle, since her aunt and uncle failed to take responsibility for her. Candy loves Mathu and Miss Merle, especially Mathu, because he was a father to her. Candy, in an effort to protect Mathu, not only claims that she has killed Beau Boutan but she gets nearly twenty old black men, who admire Mathu for his courage, to bring to Mathu's house shotguns like the one used to kill Beau with the same shell casing.
When Mapes, the sheriff, arrives with his deputy, he sees Candy, Mathu, and these old black men with shotguns all waiting for him on Mathu's porch. All...
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Structure and Point of View
The novel is divided into twenty short chapters or segments, each of which is narrated in the first person. There are fifteen different narrators, ten black and five white (this is fewer than the number of chapters because Lou Dimes narrates four chapters, and Snookum and Sully two each). Dimes is given four chapters probably because Gaines thought him well suited, as a journalist, to report on events. Dimes supplies much objective information, since he adopts a fairly neutral stance, favoring neither the old men nor Mapes. The segments are also arranged with pacing and emotional tension in mind. Gaines stated in an interview that he tried to arrange the narratives of the different black men for variety. He wanted to avoid having two highly emotional segments following in succession.
Gaines's original idea was to have the novel narrated entirely by Lou Dimes, but he decided that this method was unsatisfactory because it could not capture the language that he wanted. The multiple narrative that he finally decided upon captures a variety of voices. Each narrator supplies not only his or her own point of view on the action but also an individual voice. The voice of Janey, for example, as she constantly appeals to Jesus for divine aid, is very different from that of the boy Snookum, who rushes off on his errand "spanking my butt the way you spank your horse when you want him to run fast." The language that Mat and...
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Since his fiction often follows patterns typical of books intended for young adult readers, and since Gaines's works are frequently read in junior high school and high school, particularly The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, one might think that Gaines consciously writes for adolescents, much as Judy Blume does, but this is not the case. Gaines is, however, a consciously realistic writer who is interested in the probable actions of characters faced with dilemmas of development similar to those adolescents face. The basic dilemma of the old black men in A Gathering of Old Men is whether to conform to the status quo: If the old men conform, their lives are worthless; if they assert themselves, they might lose their lives. Is this not similar to the choices adolescents must make about drugs, joining gangs, and having sex? All are dilemmas with consequences, choices with costs, and Gaines, even though he is dealing with old men in this novel, is curiously at the heart of adolescent experience.
A Gathering of Old Men ought to be a confusing novel because of its many characters and narrators, but it is not. Narrators cluster around significant events like the spokes of a wheel in a manner similar to Faulkner's handling of multiple narrators in As I Lay Dying. The use of first-person narratives provides inside views of the old men, but it also limits what readers know, creating suspense. Characters such as Candy, Mathu, Fix, Luke...
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In Gaines's most popular work since The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men documents one day in the life of a southern community through the voices of multiple narrators. Although set in the 1970s, the novel shows that racism and the social abuse of blacks are still very much present. The catalytic event is the murder of an abusive Cajun in self-defense. Candy Marshall, the niece of the white owner of the plantation where the killing occurs is especially concerned that Mathu, the old black man who has raised her, may be jailed for the killing. She decides to confess to the crime herself and gathers as many old black men as she can to confess to it also, thereby depriving Mapes, the Sheriff, of a suspect. Gaines is careful to twist the plot in a new direction toward the end, so that the men themselves supplant Candy as the policymakers in the stand against injustice. The victim, Beau Boutan, has few friends outside his own family. His brother Gil, however, is a football star at Louisiana State University, and plays along side a black man, Calvin "Pepper" Harrison, forming a duo known as "Salt and Pepper." The integrated football team is important not just because it shows the change in race relations but because it links the small rural community of the Marshall Plantation and Bayonne to the mass media, known as the "Yankee Press" in those parts. Sheriff Mapes, although himself abusive to blacks — he strikes several old men in an...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: The southern United States is a largely segregated society. Blacks face institutionalized discrimination in all aspects of their work and social life. They are excluded from positions of power and treated as second class citizens. Many are denied the right to vote.
1960s: As the Civil Rights movement gathers momentum and affirmative action programs are introduced by private and public employers, a new era in race relations begins. However, there is a long way to go before the legacy of hundreds of years of injustice can be completely removed.
Today: In terms of racial justice, southern states are almost unrecognizable from what they were fifty years ago. Alabama and Mississippi, for example, are now the two states with the highest number of African Americans elected to government offices. However, racism has not been eradicated, and problems in race relations remain.
1930s: Capital punishment reaches a peak in the United States, with an average of 167 executions per year.
1970s: In 1972, the Supreme Court declares the death penalty unconstitutional, but it is reinstated in 1976.
Today: Many experts regard the death penalty as unfair because it affects black people disproportionately, reflecting conscious or unconscious racism in the judicial system. They point to the following statistics: Of the 752 (as of January 16, 2002) people executed in the United States...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Mathu take the blame for the murder of Beau Boutan when he did not kill him?
2. Why do the old black men respond to Candy's call? What does Mathu mean to these men?
3. Mapes as sheriff first tries to beat the truth out of the old black men. Why does he stop, and what does he do to find Beau's murderer afterwards? How does Mapes's sense of justice change in the novel?
4. Fix is portrayed as a violent bigot. Why does he not lynch Mathu as he would have, he says, twenty years before?
5. Clatoo is an organizer of the old black men. What changes does he bring about, and how does he persuade various people to go along with his wishes?
6. The trial at novel's end is one of the funniest parts of the book. The judge is shrewd—what penalties does he exact on the men, and how are they effective?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. While Cajun food and music have become increasingly popular recently, most people know little of the background of Cajun people. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What status did they have when Louisiana became a state? What seems to be the social position of Cajuns in the world of A Gathering of Old Men?
2. Read the book or see the motion picture A Soldier's Story and compare the intraracial hatred there with that expressed by Mathu in A Gathering of Old Men. Contrast and compare the two presentations of this social problem.
3. The old black men, as if in response to the dead in the plantation graveyard, each wind up confessing their betrayals of those they loved, because of fear. Discuss the value of confession with a minister, psychologist, rabbi, or priest and try to discover its role in psychological health. Then write a paper on the confessions in A Gathering of Old Men to determine its use in these characters' lives.
4. Read John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom, the standard history of black Americans, and try to determine how faithfully Ernest Gaines has presented the plight of the plantation black people in the period between 1950 to 1970.
5. Read about narration in an elementary college literature text and write a paper on first-person narration in A Gathering of Old Men. How effective is it?
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Topics for Further Study
Have race relations improved in the United States since the 1970's? What are some of the problems associated with race relations and how can they be addressed in a constructive manner?
Gaines is sometimes accused of creating negative stereotypes in his portrayal of white people. Is there any truth in this in A Gathering of Old Men? How are the whites such as Mapes, Fix Boutan, Gil Boutan, and Luke Will presented?
What role do the black women play in the novel? Do they share in the empowering of the black men? What kind of relationship do black men such as Chimley and Mat have with their wives?
Choose a character from the novel and write a narration of the trial scene from that person's point of view.
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
The use of multiple narrators to tell a story that takes place in one day was made famous by James Joyce, whom Gaines himself has credited as an influence. Gaines is working toward his own unique purpose here, however, for the effect of his use of so many different narrators is ultimately to bring them together into a single significant action: the stand against racism and injustice, showing that despite obstacles and differences of opinion, people can unite effectively for a common purpose. Gaines also mentions Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" as an important literary precedent. Ernest Hemingway, Gaines acknowledges, gave him the notion of the importance of "grace under pressure," with the qualification that black people are under pressure every day. There are also numerous precedents in classical comic literature for the banding together of people for a common cause, not only in Lysistrata and Shakespearean comedy, but also in modern feminist literature and other literature of social protest. Bonding between men of color, despite their differences in outlook, against the white oppressor (a slightly different theme than in Gaines, who includes whites in the effort) is used with great fictional success in Ralph Ellison's "Flying Home." As in his other works, Gaines's sense of place, his broad understanding of race relations, his ear for the cadences of various dialects of English, and above all, his redeeming sense of humor, are present. As always, there is an...
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In a 1993 panel on literature and film in Chattanooga, Ernest Gaines said he thought film's only use was to give money to writers; he despised both of the films that CBS made for television of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men. While both adaptations seem to be good-faith attempts to render the novels on which they are based dramatically, Gaines would have none of the conversion of his works to film and did not, as Horton Foote did, help to adapt his wor's. A Gathering of Old Men has not been released by CBS for sale or rental; this is too bad, because although many of the white roles are dropped or shortened and the intraracial elements of the novel are suppressed, the core of the novel is skillfully presented.
Gaines's fictional world, however, is all of a piece, and those who liked A Gathering of Old Men might enjoy any of his novels or short stories. Catherine Carmier explores intraracial bias in the black community; Of Love and Dust deals with interracial love in the late 1940s; In My Father's House probes the conflict of generations, particularly among those who have risen in social class, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, probably still the most widely read of Gaines's novels, is really a history of black people in Louisiana from slavery to the civil rights era using Miss Jane as a focal point. Gaines's novels and short stories are easy to read;...
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What Do I Read Next?
Gaines' s best-selling, critically acclaimed novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), is in the form of the tape-recorded recollections of the fictional Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old woman who was born a slave but lived to see the coming of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Uncle Tom's Children (1938), by Richard Wright, is a collection of four novellas. Set in the American Deep South, it shows how post-slavery blacks resisted white oppression. In "Big Boy Leaves Home," two blacks accidentally kill a white man, and the black community desperately tries to arrange their escape. Unfortunately, one of the men is lynched by a white mob.
At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (2002), by Philip Dray, presents the history of lynching in the south as a systematic attempt by whites to maintain their power over blacks through a reign of terror. The book covers the period from Reconstruction and the 1875 Civil Rights Act to the mid-twentieth century.
In Alex Haley's famous best-seller, Roots (1980), the author traces his ancestry back six generations to 1767, when a West African man boarded a slave ship bound for America. Haley's genealogical detective work makes for a riveting and moving story.
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For Further Reference
Bain, Rebecca. "An Interview with Ernest Gaines." Touchstone: The Magazine of the Tennessee Humanities Council 25 (1994): 8-9. This interview occurred shortly after the publication of A Lesson Before Dying, but what is interesting is the closing image that Gaines provides about the plantation cemetery: "The cemetery . . . I can talk to the old people and feel I'm among them . . . I feel very comfortable there."
Barrow, Craig W. "Ernest J. Gaines." Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Edited by Laura Berger. Chicago: St. James Press, 1993. This is a brief overview of all of Gaines's writing up through A Lesson Before Dying.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Byerman sees Gaines as a writer politically similar to Ralph Ellison. He does a fine job exploring the dilemma of black people asserting themselves in a racist culture as seen in Gaines's work from Catherine Carmier to A Gathering of Old Men.
Hicks, Jack. In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981. A Gathering of Old Men is not covered here, and the company Gaines is keeping here does not make much sense, but this is an interesting treatment of Gaines's early work.
Hudson, Theodore R. "Ernest Gaines." In...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Callahan, John F., "A Gathering of Old Men," in the New Republic, Vol. 189, December 26, 1983, pp. 38-39.
Forkner, Ben, "A Gathering of Old Men," in America, June 2, 1984, p. 425.
Price, Reynolds, "A Louisiana Pageant of Calamity," in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1983, p. 15.
Review, in People Weekly, Vol. 20, November 14, 1983, pp. 24-25.
Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Washington, Mary Helen, "The House Slavery Built," in the Nation, January 14, 1984, pp. 22-24.
Babb, Valerie Melissa, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991.
This text is an analysis of Gaines's work in chronological order, with a chapter devoted to each novel. The emphasis is on Gaines's re-creation in writing of the oral storytelling intrinsic to rural Louisiana.
Estes, David C., Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, University of Georgia Press, 1994.
This collection contains fourteen essays on all aspects of Gaines's work. On A Gathering of Old Men, Sandra G. Shannon writes about Gaines's "defense of the elderly black male," and Milton Rickels and Patricia Rickels discuss folk humor in the novel.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton, Porch...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An entry in the Twayne’s United States Author’s Series, this work begins with a helpful chronology and a brief biography, looks at Gaines’s works in chronological order, and concludes with a selected bibliography. Includes a chapter entitled “Action and Self-Realization in A Gathering of Old Men” that contrasts the murder in the novel with that committed by Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Some useful interpretation.
Byerman, Keith E. “Negotiations: The Quest for a Middle Way in the Fiction of James Alan McPherson and Ernest Gaines.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Byerman notes that in depicting the emergence of a black male identity, A Gathering of Old Men ends in renewal, even though the future may be no easier than the past.
Callahan, John F. “One Day in Louisiana.” The New Republic 190 (December 26, 1983): 38-39. Observes that, like the rest of Gaines’s fiction, A Gathering of Old Men explores how and why the old ways with the land and the old customs between blacks and whites have changed, and are still changing. Gaines knows and loves his world so well that he cannot reduce even the most loathsome redneck to...
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