Ernest J. Gaines Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 181) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 61 words.)

Frank W. Shelton (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3945 words.)

William L. Andrews (essay date winter 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3819 words.)

Jack Hicks (essay date spring 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10387 words.)

Frank W. Shelton (essay date spring 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2512 words.)

John W. Roberts (essay date fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3567 words.)

Charles H. Rowell (essay date summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7166 words.)

Mary T. Harper (essay date March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3218 words.)

Joseph Griffin (essay date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6064 words.)

Mary Ellen Doyle (essay date fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8787 words.)

William E. H. Meyer, Jr. (essay date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3910 words.)

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6566 words.)

Joseph Griffin (essay date June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3994 words.)

Lee Papa (essay date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3883 words.)

David E. Vancil (review date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

Philip Auger (essay date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5112 words.)

Leslie Lockhart (review date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Anissa Janine Wardi (review date summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines and Wolfgang Lepschy (interview date 22 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5338 words.)

Keith Clark (essay date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6610 words.)

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5210 words.)

Nicola Upson (review date 29 May 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Ernest J. Gaines and Dale Brown (interview date spring 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1471 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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,...

(The entire section is 336 words.)