Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

For an African American of Ernest J. Gaines’s generation, the story of Jackson Bradley could carry considerable symbolic weight. For Gaines himself, the story has even more personal associations. Born in southern Louisiana, Gaines moved at fifteen to California. He was graduated in 1957 from San Francisco State College and...

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For an African American of Ernest J. Gaines’s generation, the story of Jackson Bradley could carry considerable symbolic weight. For Gaines himself, the story has even more personal associations. Born in southern Louisiana, Gaines moved at fifteen to California. He was graduated in 1957 from San Francisco State College and did advanced work at Stanford University. Like Jackson, then, Gaines had traveled far from his roots. The question of one’s connection to one’s roots might be said to inform much, if not most, of Gaines’s fiction. The question of his connection to his roots troubles the mind of Jackson Bradley. The question of connection to roots was not a simple one for educated young black men in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Although Lillian’s desire to pass for white is an extreme, Jackson’s hope of finding himself at the end of a search that will take him far from his starting point might symbolize a similar uncertainty about identity.

Jackson’s roots in southern Louisiana allow Gaines to explore the rural area that also provides the setting of his later novels The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Gaines recognized early that his genius was for subjects and themes derived from rural life. His artistry in depicting that life constitutes one basis for his claim to special attention among African American novelists.

While looking closely at his place of origin, Gaines has also listened carefully. One of his more impressive achievements, critics agree, has been to capture, with special vividness and commendable attention to variety, the quality of black speech as it can be heard in southern Louisiana. Gaines has maintained the vital link between formal art and the oral folk tradition in African American literature. In Catherine Carmier, the composite—and by no means uniform—voice of the community engages in a richly expressive counterpoint with the more cultivated and genteel accents of Jackson and Catherine, and of the narrative voice.

Finally, Gaines’s novels manifest a fascination with the psychologically complex individual, black or white, rather than with the sociologically or ideologically representative type. Although dealing with the theme of color prejudice within the African American community, Catherine Carmier is more concerned to explore the psychology of the characters than to use them to make didactic points. The refusal to reduce people to tokens, to reduce literature to propaganda, is a value for which Gaines stands most emphatically within the African American tradition.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)