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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.)
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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 must ride out the storm of consequences attending his decision to change with the times. All emphasize the same proud dignity inherent in … the earlier short story, "You a man." (p. 347)
In a more contemporary setting, the novel, Of Love and Dust, continues Gaines's search for human dignity, and when that is lacking, acknowledges the salvation of pride.
The characters themselves grow into a deeper awareness than those of his first novel. More sharply drawn … they, also, are more decisive in their actions. Whereas Catherine Carmier leaves the ending hopefully open, i.e., to be completed in the reader's mind, Of Love and Dust ends Gaines's search with no alternatives after the violence—the system of degradation and debasement of the human being continues. Still, what the reader remembers is not the system but the pride and dignity of the people struggling in it. (pp. 347-48)
Caught in the movement of the changing times, they must make choices, the results often unpredictable, the consequences sometimes tragic. Some heroically choose to maintain their proven ways of working from the past; others courageously try to change themselves, to understand the new directions among confusing forces. Given an historical perspective, Gaines, himself, sees the necessity for change, but foremost is his concern for and deep belief in the dignity of the individual. The world his characters live in values the independence of the human spirit to survive and to change. (pp. 357-58)
Winifred L. Stoelting, "Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1971 by the College Language Association), Vol. XIV, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 348-58.
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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 simplicity and strength, whose resting place is the ancient wilderness. That past is not without its evil, but by far the greater evil for Faulkner is the intrusion of the new into the old, to the destruction of the former…. Gaines's vision entails a deep conflict of values. In the past, he sees much to love and to cherish, especially in the figures of his old "aunts," whose lives are manifestations of that past. (p. 110)
In the present Gaines sees much to reject, especially as it appears in the figures of some of his rebels against the old order. Jackson Bradley and Marcus Payne, for example, from Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust respectively, make overt attempts to bring down the old structures….
Gaines is torn between his love for the persons of his "aunts" but a rejection of their submission to the past, and a rejection of the persons of his "rebels" but approval of their defiance of the Southern code. Consequently, in Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust, his main theme is the conflict between changing the inheritance from the past and resistance to that change. He cannot follow Faulkner in an affirmation of the old, nor can he turn away from Faulkner in an affirmation of the new. He is left with a deep split…. For Gaines … the past with its implications of slavery cannot be thought of as worth preserving. Nor can the present with its implications of thoughtless, self-centered revolution be thought of as repugnant enough to reject.
In Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust, Gaines has worked out neither an ethical nor an esthetic resolution to these contradictions, that satisfactorily reflects his own intuition. Instead, he invests the two novels with a classical inevitability similar to Faulkner's, except that for Gaines the victor is the past, the world of slavery. (p. 111)
These novels suggest that the past is too strong to fight against it. From this, we can infer their significance. They are inventions of images of failure, seeing and experiencing which the reader may better know the true nature of his condition. This is pessimistic determinism … and it does not quite embody Gaines's own convictions. These novels tell us what they do because of the disharmony between Gaines's intuitive vision and the vision he hammered out to fit his literary models. His intuitive vision is that, though much of men's lives may be determined, in the instance of slavery the slave past must not be either valued or preserved, and need not be. This vision says that there is no god-like force preventing us from bringing about change. (pp. 111-12)
The increasing maturity of Gaines's style is an index to the increasing clarity with which he perceives his theme. Thus, in Bloodline, not only does he have his style under better control than in his first two novels; he also works out an effective metaphor, whose form expresses his conception of history, the possibility that the present may work to make the future better than the past. Very generally, the metaphor is organic life, for which growth and change are the signs of life's greatest strength and highest good. In Bloodline, each of the stories represents a stage of growth, in this case the growth of the black man in a black community toward a courage strong enough to fight a repugnant past in order to bring about a better future. (p. 112)
Bloodline shows Gaines struggling to reconcile his love for his "aunts" and the past they belong to with his rejection of that past and the affirmation of the "rebel." He achieves that reconciliation by examining the process through which the black male acquires the strength and the courage to attempt to modify the past. What is lacking in the process expressed in Bloodline is the female element, which until now Gaines has seen merely as the determination to survive and associated it with submission to the past. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, he introduces into the metaphor of Bloodline the female element that was lacking, and brings that metaphor to its completion. His sight clearer and his confidence stronger, he abandons the melodramatic superstructure of classical doom in his first novels and turns to the simple, authentic earnestness and understatement of Jane. She is a transformed version of Aunt Charlotte, Aunt Margaret, and Aunt Fe. In her new manifestation, she is both a repository of womanly endurance and a vehicle for the change sought by her men. What has been an unresolved clash between the male and the female, and the new and the old, becomes in Miss Jane Pittman a dialectic of re-enforcing opposites which work for life.
The form of Jane's narrative fits Gaines's theme perfectly. Like the separate stories in Bloodline, each episode in Jane's story marks a stage in the growth of Jane's life and that of the collective black which she mirrors. (pp. 113-14)
In other novels dealing with blacks in an oppressive white society, Jane's resigned decision to stay in Louisiana would be the signal for either the pessimistic ending of the story, or the beginning of a detailed account of further outrages committed against the black by the white, an account cast in the voice of social protest. The absence of this familiar note in Jane's narrative is one of the things that makes The Autobiography such a milestone in American fiction. Gaines does not avoid having Jane report white atrocities, but he does not allow her to use the propagandistic and sociological stridency that characterizes so many earlier novels. (pp. 114-15)
Whether it is intuitive or learned, Gaines's perception of the world resembles that of a biologist, who sees each living organism passing through time, occupying stages, crossing boundary lines into new and unfamiliar territory. Organic life is postulated on the oscillation between life and death, and these are the realities which Gaines fastens onto. The two states transmit to each other a vitality, which, when fused in the unity of the organism, presuppose growth, the sine qua non of life. Out of death grows life, which spreads through time to the edge of its identifiable being. If that being cannot tolerate the leaping of its own boundaries, or lacks the strength to make those leaps, it must die without hope of new life. If it dares to make that crossing, it snatches—from the death implied in the crossing—new life. Similarly, the female impulse toward survival and the male impulse toward brief but vivid intensity have, as Gaines suggests in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, promoted growth in the collective black, the metaphor of whose unity is the living organism. This conviction Gaines drives home in the last sentence of Jane's chronicle. Standing face to face with Robert Samson, the embodiment of a hundred years of white resistance to change, Jane, the embodiment of a hundred years of black growth, pauses in her move toward Bayonne and the demonstration. "Me and Robert," she says, "looked at each other a long time, then I went by him."
This sentence may become one of the most trenchant expressions of our period's spirit. Soon after speaking this sentence into the tape recording of Gaines's "editor," Jane dies. But like the death of Aunt Fe in "Just Like a Tree," Jane's death marks a beginning rather than an end. With this last sentence, she expresses the end of the first great cycle of American life since emancipation. If the Robert Samsons are all but dead; if they do not dare to move into the unknown beyond their old limits; Alex and Jane are alive and they do dare to make that crucial move. And if whites learned nothing from the blacks for that hundred years, perhaps now, with the advent of a new life cycle, the black can teach the white to enter that cycle with a new vitality. (pp. 119-20)
[Anyone] who wants to live [life] completely must be prepared to die out of the old and be born into the new. The development of that preparedness in the spirits of the black American is the main subject of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the growth from death to life is its main lesson. (p. 120)
Jerry H. Bryant, "From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1972, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), pp. 106-20.
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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, sees such themes as only part of the historical record; he deems people more important in the over-all historical picture. To endure in Faulkner's universe is to accept predominance of guilt and redemption and, thus, to accept, too, the inevitability of fate. To endure in Gaines's universe is to minimize such themes, concentrate upon people, and, thus, to struggle endlessly against fate.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is about struggle, fate, and people. To travel with Miss Pittman from adolescence to old age is to embark upon a historic journey, one staked out in the format of the novel. Divided into four books—"The War Years," "Reconstruction," "The Plantation," and "The Quarters"—Miss Pittman's life is scrutinized and explored, her struggle to maintain dignity and self-esteem recorded, and her eventual victory over fate, declared. She emerges at the end of the novel, much as she appears at the beginning—a symbol of strength and endurance. (pp. 294-95)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, centered not around a solitary hero but around a people whose collective deeds border upon the heroic, is a novel of epic proportions. Though Jane is the dominant personality of the narrative—observer and commentator upon history, as well as participant—in her odyssey is symbolized the odyssey of a race of people; through her eyes is revealed the grandeur of a people's journey through history. The central metaphor of the novel concerns this journey: Jane and her people, as they come together in the historic march toward dignity and freedom in Sampson, symbolize a people's march through history, breaking old patterns, though sometimes slowly, as they do so. The novel, therefore, is the autobiography of a people: it recounts the life and death struggles of slaves and freedmen alike, and, always, such dramatic incidents as emancipation, the exodus, and civil rights demonstrations are clarified and illuminated by the keen mind of Jane Pittman. (p. 299)
The greatest difference between the historian and the novelist is this: The historian simply demands a recognition of history; seldom does he encourage men to alter it; the novelist demands recognition of history only as a prelude toward changing it. The Jane Pittmans, Ned Douglasses, and Jimmy Arrons are able to assault the patterns of the past, only when they understand the matrix of the society in which they live; only through such understanding can they move to alter reality. Gaines demands such understanding from his people as evidenced in his novels from Catherine Carmier to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the formula for his historical novels is easy to discern: Realization precedes action; recognition of the truth of history is a prelude for rebellion and revolution.
This is the final theme, arrived at by the author, after three novels. (p. 300)
Addison Gayle, Jr., "The Way of the New World, Part II," in his The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (copyright © 1975 by Addison Gayle, Jr.; reprinted by Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1975, pp. 287-310.∗