Ernest J. Gaines

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Frank W. Shelton (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3945

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 one volume of short stories, Bloodline, has been relatively neglected.1 Certainly “The Sky Is Gray” is an extremely popular story—Gaines himself has noted that it “has been anthologized twelve to fifteen times.”2 Considering his own opinion of his stories, about which he said, “I always knew my stories were better than anything else I had written,”3 the critical neglect of them is surprising, especially in light of the fact that the stories deal with situations and characters similar to those in the novels. With the growing popularity of his latest novel, it is useful to examine the stories more closely, not simply to notice their many aesthetic virtues, but to trace themes which are important both in his own writing and in much recent black American literature.

The one concern which seems predominant in at least the first four stories of the volume is the black man's (or boy's) search for manhood. Surely one of the aims of the contemporary black artist is to define and portray black manhood. Familiar forces in American culture have combined to deprive the black man of his manhood, and Gaines is one of many writers who have attempted to counteract these forces. He has said in an interview,

You must understand that in this country the black man has been pushed into the position where he is not supposed to be a man. This is one of the things that the white man has tried to deny the black ever since he brought him here in chains. … My heroes just try to be men; but because the white man has tried everything from the time of slavery to deny the black this chance, his attempts to be a man will lead toward danger.4

Further, when asked if he has any code he lives by, Gaines has answered, “I want to be a man toward my family, toward my woman, toward my friends.”5 His stories present subtle variations on the theme of how the black male can achieve manhood, what that manhood consists of, and finally its implications for the individual. It is no coincidence in this regard that the first four stories, all employing a limited narrative point of view, are told by males; the first two are children, another is nearing the prime of manhood, and one is seventy years old. While each story presents an instance of a black male who in some sense gains dignity and manhood, and while the stories are arranged so that in their progression, a growth in awareness and experience as well as age is evident, Gaines's portrayal of black manhood is frequently ambiguous, and he implies the danger of something important being lost through a single-minded concern with achieving it. Though Jerry H. Bryant may be in general correct that “Pessimism does indeed seem to be foreign to Gaines's interpretation of his world,”6 Gaines acknowledges, more than has been recognized, the human costs of the black man's obsessive concern...

(This entire section contains 3945 words.)

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with manhood.

One of the distinctions of the first story in the volume, “A Long Day in November,” is that it is the only story in which the young male character actually has a father present to whom he can relate. Certainly the family, as insecure as it may seem to an outside observer, is very important to Sonny, the young narrator; on occasion he even pities pigs or birds for their lack of a parent. Employing the comic mode, the story concerns the attempt of Amy, Sonny's mother, to demonstrate to Eddie, his father, the basis of true manhood. Though in many ways weak and foolish, Eddie shows a great need for the support of his family. His education begins when Amy leaves him, thus withdrawing that support from him, because he has neglected his responsibilities in favor of his motor car.

Particularly in American culture, the automobile has traditionally been a symbol of freedom and, to the male, masculinity. Spending long hours of hard labor to support his family, Eddie regards his evening activities in his car as the only glamorous, exciting aspect of his life. The case of Eddie and his car is also symptomatic of a wider social condition. Through the comments of the fortune teller, Madame Toussaint, Gaines suggests that something is wrong with the relationship of black men and women as a whole. Many men have come to see her recently, all seeking some way to placate their dissatisfied wives. She explains that, men having messed up the outside world, a woman's house is the only place which is her own. By taking his wife for granted, however, the black man even destroys the comfort she derives there. Ultimately the black man has neglected his woman, perhaps because he feels that life's meaning and his own manhood are to be found outside of and independent of the home. Certainly Eddie has sought his manhood through his car and not within the familial context. His whining and crying, and his inability to handle Amy's desertion, indicate that indeed he possesses very little personal strength to rely on.

Through her direct action Amy is able to affect her family's situation. In essence she forces Eddie to choose between his car and her. The basic nature of that choice becomes clear when Gran'mon, who has heretofore had absolutely nothing good to say about Eddie, acknowledges the consequences of his burning the car: “‘He's a man after all.’”7 Yet Gaines works one further ironic variation upon his theme. After being led to this act and after the family is once again safe in its warm home, Eddie is then forced to beat his wife—and it is Amy who requires the beating so that no one will be able to laugh at him. She thus remains committed to a simplistic idea of manhood—that the man must dominate the woman, and in a physical, even brutal way. To his credit Eddie does not enjoy, or even understand why he must give, the beating. His manhood does not depend on such things, nor on the attitude of the community. Finally though, Amy has accomplished her goal, to reunite the family on a different and more stable basis, and Sonny's feeling of warmth and security at this reunion is surely the dominant impression the story conveys.

Unlike Sonny, the eight year old narrator of “The Sky Is Gray” has no father present to look up to. His father has been taken into the Army, and no one knows when he will be allowed to return home. Consequently his mother is forced to assume the male role of provider for the family. Though the family is unhappy, the pride, dignity, and courage the mother shows in coping with her painfully difficult situation is admirable. One of her aims is to make her son a man who can, if anything happens to her, care for the family.

Yet Gaines asks if, because of her determination to teach her son to be a man, the boy loses anything vital. He feels an almost overpowering love for his mother but is afraid to show it because to her any direct expression of love is weakness and “crybaby stuff” (p. 84). Further she is one of the most taciturn characters in modern fiction, wasting not a single word. A child needs to show and be shown love, to talk and be talked to, but this boy is denied these things. When she forced him to kill his pet birds so that the family would have something to eat, surely a hard thing to ask a child to do, but necessary given their dire economic circumstances, she never attempted to explain why she required this act of him; she simply beat him until he acquiesced. At the time of the action in the story, he understands why he had to do it, but only because Auntie and Monsieur Bayonne explained it to him, not because his mother ever tried to make him understand. In fact, throughout the story, he feels a strong element of fear of his mother along with love. She treats him as she does for his own good—certainly she is very proud of him, and her love for him is strongly implied throughout the story—but her identifying the direct expression of human feeling and affection with weakness suggests a denial of one aspect of herself and of her son.

The confrontation in the dentist's office between the “preacher” and the “teacher” perhaps helps to clarify her motivation. These two characters are “head” and “heart” characters in a sense reminiscent of some of Hawthorne's characters. Complacently accepting all the white man tells him, the preacher appeals to the heart.

“Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God,” the boy says.

“My heart tells me,” the preacher says.

“‘My heart tells me,’” the boy says. “‘My heart tells me.’ Sure, ‘My heart tells me.’ And as long as you listen to what your heart tells you, you will have only what the white man gives you and nothing more. Me, I don't listen to my heart. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body, and nothing else.”

(p. 96)

The teacher is “‘questioning the world. I'm questioning it with cold logic, sir. What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored mean? I want to know’” (p. 97). He sees hope for progress in those who are logical and not emotional but must also acknowledge the personal consequences of his total allegiance to the head. Without belief in God, he has nothing with which to replace it. His agnosticism, a result of complete reliance on logic, is finally as empty as the preacher's heartfelt faith.

Not that the mother subscribes to what the young man says. Both he and the preacher seem to address inadequately the concrete realities of her situation. Certainly she is filled with emotion, predominately a rage she struggles to keep under control but which at times erupts from her seemingly calm surface. In fact, the narrator, who listens fascinatedly to the young man, may be a representative of those who will come after and will have something to believe in. The crucial point, however, is that his mother, in denying him an outlet for his feelings, is perhaps encouraging them to wither away. In the world of the story, feelings can be manipulated by the white man, and to live by them leaves the black man vulnerable. Concerned for her son's manhood, the mother wants to teach him the strength to endure and function constructively in such a situation. What a reader, who hopefully combines in some kind of balance the faculties of both head and heart, must consider is the consequences for this boy of being forced, by his mother and in response to the necessities of his life, to be a man at age eight. While he very likely will have a strong sense of pride and dignity, as his mother intends, he may also lose a quality he still retains, his sensitivity to the affairs of the heart. Certainly in any situation which encourages full humanity, manhood should not require a rejection of the heart. The position of a black in a white-dominated society seems to call for extreme measures, measures which ultimately risk denying the complete humanity of every individual.

In the next story, “Three Men,” Gaines presents very directly the way a white-dominated society pressures all men, both black and white, to play roles. The white deputy, Paul, feels instinctive sympathy for Proctor, the young black, but as long as he is near the sheriff, he must hide that feeling and show his manhood by acting the tough, nigger-hating white man. Proctor, when he surrenders himself to the law, knows that he must cringe and grovel in the expected manner. At the beginning of the story, however, he feels that his drinking, brawling, and woman-chasing are enough to affirm to himself that he is still a man.

The movement of the story is toward a transformation of his view of what manhood is. The primary instrument of his education is Munford, a filthy old man who, like the old Lazarus in Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, manifests in his own corruption the ultimate effects of the kind of life Proctor himself is living. Though incapable of changing his own life, Munford is conscious of how his personal degradation has been accomplished so that whites can assert their manhood. He tells Proctor that they need to have blacks in jail so that they can see what they themselves are not. By forcing the black man to play a predetermined subservient role and by then being able to look down upon him, the white man can affirm his own manhood. Munford knows, though, that all, degraded and those who degrade alike, lack true manhood. In depriving the black man of dignity, the white man forfeits his own humanity. Thus Gaines suggests that a manhood based on the denial of that quality in others is indeed false and illusory.

Proctor has felt that his violent hell-raising has been an assertion of his own manhood, but gradually he realizes that if he continues his present way of life, he will be constantly in and out of jail, like Munford, and subject to every whim of the white man. Further, what he has prized as manhood he discovers to be nothing but animality and finally a denial of love and human fellow feeling. He admits that he has loved nobody since his mother died and that a man's humanity, his manhood, is expressed not at all by violence or self-assertion but by human feeling and love. Proctor's decision to go to the penitentiary rather than continue his present way of life is signalled, very importantly, by his breaking down and crying uncontrollably which purges and purifies him. When he first came into the jail, he felt that such an expression of emotion was a sign of weakness and vulnerability, but he realizes that crying is not necessarily a sign of weakness, as it was with the father in “A Long Day in November” or as the mother in “The Sky Is Gray” felt it to be. In this case it is a prelude to Proctor's assumption of his humanity and a truer kind of manhood.

His change is further indicated by his attitude to the boy who is thrown into the cell with him. At first ignoring him, Proctor eventually treats him gently and solicitously, even coming to feel love for him and trying to prevent the boy from following in his footsteps. Thus his awakened feelings for others and his determination to assert his manhood by enduring whatever punishment the white man can inflict are closely related.

Even at the end of the story, his newly assumed manhood shows a curious blind spot with regard to the third occupant of the cell, the homosexual called Hattie Brown. Neither Proctor nor Munford feels anything but contempt for Hattie, whom they call a “freak” or a “sad woman.” Perhaps Hattie represents to them, as the homosexual does for Eldridge Cleaver, the ultimate sign of lost black manhood. In effect, however, Proctor comes to adopt Hattie's sympathetic attitude without being aware of it. Since Gaines so highly values this kind of humanity, it would be erroneous to identify his feelings with those of Proctor or Munford. Though the title of the story may seem ambiguous,8 Hattie in his own way possesses manhood; he simply manifests the softer rather than the hard virile qualities. Proctor feels only disgust for him, suggesting that, like the whites, he must still gauge his manhood by contrasting himself with someone whom he feels lacks that quality. Not yet able to accept every man on his own terms, he is still trapped in a myopic view of what manhood truly is.

This shortsighted view of black manhood is most evident in the title story of the collection, “Bloodline.” The characterization of Cooper Laurent, one of the most overt political and social revolutionaries in the entire volume, ironically emphasizes that, in his concern for gaining what rightfully belongs to him and his fellow blacks, he mirrors the attitudes and actions of his white ancestors. His bloodline in effect forces him to become a carbon copy of those he hates. Viewing himself in military terms as a general at the head of a vast army, Cooper has an admirable sense of his own dignity and will not enter the plantation house through the back door. Though he asserts that he feels great sympathy for his black brothers, for whom all his objectives are designed, his actions do not support his words. Felix, the elderly black narrator, constantly points out his physical resemblance to his white father, a resemblance which extends even to his treating Felix as simply another slave, not as a human being.

Cooper rides the crest of the wave of the future, demanding for himself and other blacks what is only rightfully theirs. His victory is assured by the weakness of Frank Laurent, the last representative of the old social order. His incapacity is in part physical—he has heart trouble—but Felix sees that he ultimately lacks power because he does not inspire fear in people the way his brother did. Cooper, like his white father, seems eminently qualified to inspire that fear again. Frank's malady, however, is more complex than it first seems. It is symbolically appropriate that he suffers from heart trouble. In part, his weakness comes from a total adherence to the letter of the social rules handed down to him, but it is also a result of having too much heart, and thus not enough hardness. He accepts the rules but hopes with all his heart that they will soon be changed; and he continues to feel a responsibility to the blacks who live on his land. He wants to make up to them, admittedly in a paternalistic way, for the way his brother treated them, and to protect them from the forces of change and progress which would leave them homeless and defenseless.

Of course, misguided in his determination to resist all change, he must ultimately fail. And rightly so, yet will conditions be better when Cooper assumes power? The confrontation of the two is a confrontation of mirror images, with the important difference which is suggested by an unconscious movement they each make. Cooper frequently touches his head, while Frank touches his chest. Basically a head character, like the teacher in “The Sky Is Gray,” Cooper's shortcomings are of the heart. In addition, he feels the same resistance to crying as other Gaines characters, equating an indulgence of feeling with weakness and lack of manhood.

Perhaps the characters in the story who best represent a normative set of values are Felix and 'Malia, the two elderly blacks caught between the Laurents and in a sense victims of the process of social change. For they, and especially 'Malia, manifest the values of the heart and are consequently most hurt by the denial of humanity involved in denial of the heart. Felix, treated like a slave by Cooper and really little better by Frank, at least affirms that human relationships must be based not on fear but on respect, which he does feel for Frank. He especially faults Cooper for the emotional anguish he causes 'Malia. Though Cooper says that he will no longer use chains and sticks but will appeal to blacks with words, in reality he is himself falling into the Laurent pattern of treating others as things, not people. In attempting to assert his own manhood, he is conforming to the mode of action of his white forebears. Denying the efficacy of feelings, he denies not only an aspect of his own humanity but the humanity of all with whom he comes into contact.

Though the last story, “Just Like a Tree,” is only tangentially concerned with the subject of this essay, Gaines does present Emmanuel, a revolutionary who can be instructively compared with Cooper. His deep concern for the old people, especially Aunt Fe who is being forced to move, caught up in the process of social change suggests that being an agent of that change does not necessitate a denial of sympathy for others, as it does for Cooper. In addition the appearance of Anne-Marie Duvall, the only white character in the story, is revealing. Very conscious of the awe the blacks feel at her having journeyed through rain and mud to visit Aunt Fe, she says, “They must think we white people don't have their kind of feelings” (p. 243). The ironic fact is that many whites, simply through the way they treat blacks, imply that indeed they possess no feelings. The black, in order to attain his dignity, thus must meet the white on his own terms. Sympathy between individuals, which involves an ability to put oneself in another's place and see the world from his point of view, becomes a sign of weakness and leaves one open to exploitation.

In no way is this essay intended to deny the importance Gaines attributes to the black man's attempt to gain dignity. He makes clear, however, that his black characters, even when they rebel against their environment, remain to some extent caught within it. Because the white man has denied him humanity, the black feels it necessary to become hard and avoid any expression of feeling or emotion. One of the qualities of Gaines's writing which every reader is sure to note is his deep humanity, his sympathy for people from all walks of life and of all colors. His works make clear that a sense of dignity and manhood does not necessitate a denial of the heart. While he understands and presents with great sensitivity the environmental pressures which seem to equate the black man's attainment of manhood with the assumption of a hardened view of all whites, he also shows how a rejection of the value of personal feeling simply keeps the black man imprisoned in a kind of partial existence. Until all whites and blacks can learn to see one another as complete human beings, they are denying in themselves and others their fullest potentialities.


  1. Winifred L. Stoelting deals with Gaines's first two novels in “Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines,” CLA Journal, XIV (March, 1971), 340-358. Jerry H. Bryant does treat the stories in two articles, but only briefly. See “From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines,” Iowa Review, III, 1 (Winter, 1972), 106-120, and “Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History,” Southern Review, X (October, 1974), 851-864.

  2. Ruth Laney, “A Conversation with Ernest Gaines,” Southern Review, X (January, 1974), 7.

  3. Ibid., 6.

  4. John O'Brien, ed., Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973), p. 85.

  5. Laney, 9.

  6. Bryant, Southern Review, 855.

  7. Ernest J. Gaines, Bloodline (New York: Dial Press, 1968), p. 71. Future references are to this edition.

  8. Which of the four male characters is not a man? One could argue that in some ways they all lack manhood.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2326

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.

William L. Andrews (essay date winter 1977)

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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 slave narratives to the experimental fiction of Ishmael Reed. The rural South has long been pictured as the last bastion of the slavery mentality, and while a few black writers have explored means by which to reform that mentality, more have followed the lead of Richard Wright, William Attaway, William Melvin Kelley, and Ronald Fair1 in suggesting that the black man's only alternative to continuing subjection to racist Southern traditions is wholesale removal, even though opportunities elsewhere will be circumscribed too. In his first two novels, Catherine Carmier and Of Love and Dust,2 Ernest J. Gaines seems to subscribe to this view of the Southern scene as almost impervious to change. The post-World War II rural Louisiana setting into which the protagonists of both of these novels are thrust languishes in a kind of temporal vacuum which threatens to stifle Jackson Bradley and Marcus Payne unless they can get out. Both heroes challenge features of the old order, Payne by putting his foot in the door of slavery for the sake of Louise Bonbon, Bradley by attempting to lure Catherine Carmier out of the self-imposed cloister of her father's house. But in their failure to free their captive ladies from the ties of tradition, Gaines expresses considerable skepticism, it seems to me, about a faith in individual fulfillment and social progress which is founded on the idea of escape from the South. In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,3 Gaines reiterates this skepticism, but he goes farther to talk about the bases on which truly efficacious, non-escapist progress can take place—indeed, has taken place—in the most historically backward regions of the South.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman does not diverge markedly from Gaines's earlier books or from the protest tradition of Afro-American fiction as a whole in its depiction of repeated injustices and stymied progress for Southern blacks. One reads in the novel of massacres, murders, and intimidation of many exponents of progress and liberation for black people. Nevertheless, less apparent than the forces of socio-political stasis and regression in the novel is a pattern of psychological and spiritual evolution in the consciousness of many blacks in Jane's life. Within the novel's dialectic between progress and regress, Jane and other sojourners in the South like herself must learn to choose wisely between various backward and forward directions of thought and action in order to prepare the way for manifest changes in black people's social situation.

Like her predecessor protagonists in Gaines's fiction, Jane Pittman as a newly emancipated slave starts out her quest for freedom from the oppressive past by joining a movement to escape the South. Sharing the restless urge of other young blacks to “‘get moving,’” Jane naïvely assumes that freedom can be obtained in a place called Ohio, which is reachable simply by walking there. Freedom and its fulfillment are thus identified spatially, rather than psychologically and spiritually, in Jane's childlike mind. Significantly, an almost destitute plantation mistress warns her of her error early in the novel by telling her, “‘There ain't no Ohio.’” But this woman's offered alternative to Jane is, “‘Y'all come back with me. … I'll treat you right’” (p. 29). In other words, with the doors of escape to a half-illusory Northern ideal closing, Jane may choose to retreat into the plantation past, to a time and place of security, if not independence. This siren song, which will become at times a threatening command to “go back” to the past, to preserve the status quo, recurs throughout Jane's autobiography. One sure mark of heroism among the characters in her story is a refusal to “go back” either willingly or by force. All of the admirable characters in the novel subscribe to Jane's intuitive progressivism—“‘I knowed I had to keep going,’” she says as a child. But the manner and goal of the “going” determine whether true progress, individually and in terms of the larger mass, can be made to come about.

If she were not so young, Jane might realize the futility of her pursuit of a far-off freedom and fulfillment after hearing the story of the young black hunter whom she meets early in her travels. In search of his father for reasons which are his own, the young man admits that he has been “‘going and going,’” and yet “‘… I ain't nowhere yet, myself. Just searching and searching’” (p. 45). This sobering testimonial to the ease with which the quest can become dispiriting and unending is lost on Jane. But continuing skepticism from later advisors together with the need for food and the other necessities for herself and her informally adopted “son” Ned cause Jane to cease her quest. She is further disillusioned when her employer, a Southern scalawag named Bone, is expelled from the region as an indirect result of the Compromise of 1877. Faced with the recrudescence of slavery once again, Jane shows the maturity of her added ten years in deciding not to be among those who “‘get moving’” once again. Though the Democratic takeover bodes ill for black people, Jane decides things can be no better for those “‘heading North’” than for those “‘staying South.’” Displaying the self-possessed conservatism and practicality which are among her most noteworthy traits, Jane resolves on a new course in life. “I would stay right here and do what I could for me and Ned” (p. 70). She will move again only for a realistic prospect of better chances for herself and Ned. She will not be moved, literally or figuratively, by vain ideals of Northern freedom on the one hand or by despair of Southern change on the other.

It is important to recognize, however, that this decision, while appropriate for Jane, is not established as a rigid standard for Ned to follow as he approaches his own restless years. Faced with mounting white resistance to his work as a guide for blacks making the exodus west, Ned argues that he must leave the South. Jane's agreement shows that she understands the essential psychological nature of his quest; she sees that he needs to break the ties of home, to become his own man, to leave the South rather than “go back” to a slave status or voluntarily stop black progress westward. But she also understands that such movement would not be progressive for her. “‘People don't keep moving, Ned,’” she says (p. 75). At some point, she implies, one must stop moving not out of fear, but out of immovable determination to abide.

When Ned returns to Louisiana after his travels from riot-torn Kansas to war-torn Cuba, he carries with him the message of immovable determination which Jane first enunciates in the Autobiography. Having completed his own restless years, Ned returns south to preach the social gospel of his namesake Frederick Douglass. Immediately hostile whites hire a professional killer, who warns Jane that he has been hired to “‘stop that nigger.’” “‘They want him to go back,’” Albert Cluveau tells Jane, using the familiar language of resistance to progress which all defenders of stasis in the novel repeat. But Ned has come south expressly to warn his people about those false race prophets and patrons who would send them “back.” In his crucial sermon by the river Ned admits, “‘I left here when I was a young man, but most people thought that was the best thing to do then. But I say to you now, don't run and do fight.’” Alluding to the enemies of black progress, Ned reminds his hearers, “‘You got black people here saying go back to Africa, some saying go to Canada, some saying go to France’” (p. 109). But in light of Ned's mature conservatism, the idea of “going back” to Africa seems a throw-back to a past phase of Afro-American consciousness, now best left behind.

Having repudiated the invalid equation of freedom with a place outside the South, Ned goes on to redefine progress toward freedom in intellectual and spiritual terms. Those who advise black people “‘to stay in a corner want to keep your mind in a corner too,’” Ned proclaims. His mission as a black leader consequently is to build a school “‘so you'll have a chance to get from out of that [mental] corner’” (p. 110). When black folk consciousness emerges from the restrictions of its own mental purview, Ned implies, true progress within the South will ensue.

When Albert Cluveau stops Ned Douglass with a bullet, the fact of repression on the socio-political level of events is reasserted in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. However the people's reaction to this apparent setback differs markedly from their reactions to previous reversals. When Bone, the fair-minded scalawag, was expelled from the South, many blacks had “moved on” in search of a far-off territory ahead where progress toward freedom might continue. But after Ned Douglass's instructions in black history and nation-building, Miss Jane and her compatriots build a monument to Ned's memory and finish the school he started. Thus they show that they have learned the necessity of conserving a useable past on which to build a viable future. To memorialize Ned's example is to begin the fundamentally progressive process of creating a black American heroic tradition. Instead of rejecting their past as something shameful from which to flee, the black folk preserve their martyred ideals and ground the roots of their growing folk consciousness in them, the better to hold fast to hope.

After Ned's death, Jane's understanding of progress becomes more personal and spiritual than ever before. In her mid-fifties she has a conversion experience which she recounts in travel imagery borrowed from the Bible. But the rhetoric of progress which appears throughout her account of her “coming through” testifies to Jane's absorption of some of Ned's socio-political ideals and her translation of them into fundamental spiritual values on which her individual development towards folk leadership depends.

After “finding religion,” Jane is obliged to give her church a kind of figurative reconstruction of her life built around the idea of her “travels” toward salvation. Like Mr. Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, she begins her spiritual journey with a burden on her back which she can cast off only by crossing a treacherous river which separates her from the Savior. As she moves forward through the briar- and snake-infested river, Jane is tempted by Satan who takes the form of Ned Douglass first and then Joe Pittman, her deceased husband. Each of these men offers, indeed demands, to relieve Jane of her burden, but in each case Jane refuses to be swerved from her path. “… I knowed I had to keep going,” she asserts. Even when Albert Cluveau threatens her with death and Joe and Ned beckon her in unison “to come back to them,” Jane's resolution never falters. “… I would not turn back. I would go on, because the load I was carrying on my back was heavier than the weight of death” (p. 135). In the end, Jane's determination prevails and she turns her burden over to Jesus. Thus concludes what Jane calls her “born again” experience.

In her story of her travels, Jane consciously celebrates her attainment of salvation in the face of the temptations of a guileful Satan. But unconsciously Jane's travel narrative celebrates those psychological and spiritual qualities which are prerequisites to progress, to black people's “coming through” their social as well as religious trials. In her own homely language Jane reiterates the difference Ned Douglass drew between “‘a nigger and a black American.’” “‘A black American cares, and will always struggle’” (p. 110), Ned says by way of definition, and Jane's view of her spiritual travels shows that she qualifies for the “black American” appellation. She does not give up or go back as “the nigger” would. She does not seek escape from her burden but determines to carry it, independently, to the end of her course. This fortitude, this self-reliance and acceptance of life as a spiritual struggle from which there can be no escape, no vicarious victory, shows that Ned Douglass's socio-psychological message has taken hold in the hearts and minds of the black folk, as symbolized by Jane. The development of the struggle ethic in place of the escape predilection in the individual black consciousness prepares the way for meaningful group socio-political progress, which Gaines describes in the last section of Jane's Autobiography.

The interpolated story of Tee Bob Samson and Mary LeFabre follows the ecstatic moment of Jane's spiritual rebirth with a sobering reminder of the deadly presence of Southern racist traditions. The scion of a family of slaveholders, Tee Bob finds “the rules” of his caste absolutely forbid his overwhelming love of Mary LeFabre, the Creole schoolteacher on his father's plantation. He chooses flight as his recourse, believing that escape with Mary to a far-off city will give them the freedom to marry which is denied them locally. But, as the events of Jane's life attest, freedom from the burden of the racist Southern past cannot be achieved by running away from it. Mary seems to know this and initially refuses to accompany him. She is one of the many black characters in the novel who refuse to “go back,” either when her father begs her to give up teaching and return to the anachronistic Creole sub-culture—“But she wasn't going back,’” Jane says—or when Tee Bob begs her to run away with him. To pass for white in order to marry Tee Bob would only repeat the cycle of clandestine miscegenation which created the Creole caste which Mary has forsaken.

Thus, Mary rejects Tee Bob's proposal and, in a move foreshadowing the final climactic action of Jane Pittman, starts to walk past him toward the door. However, her action, symbolizing her determination to put Tee Bob's futile escapism behind her, causes Tee Bob to assert impulsively his white prerogative. If one believes Jules Raynard's unconfirmed explanation of what happens next, Tee Bob does not rape Mary, but he is shocked to see in her eyes an invitation to do so. Raynard hypothesizes the failure of Mary's effort to escape her inherited sexual role as white man's mistress. “‘That stiff proudness left. Making up for the past left. She was the past now,’” Raynard maintains to Jane (p. 192). Faced with this moment of profound disillusionment, Tee Bob characteristically runs, only to discover the walls of the past closing in on him in the sanctuary of his family's library. Surrounded by books on slavery, he chooses his final route of escape and dies by his own hand, a pathetic victim of the intransigent and seemingly inescapable “rules” of his own caste traditions.

The tragedy of Mary and Tee Bob, both young idealists who try to avoid “going back” but who are eventually claimed by the past anyway, re-evokes the spirit of skepticism about racial progress which recurs throughout the Autobiography. The death of Jimmy Aaron in the last part of Jane's story repeats the tragedy of martyred black leadership first exhibited in the fate of Ned Douglass some fifty years before. However, despite this trend, clear evidence of progress emerges at the end of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the evidence borne out by the political self-assertion of the black folk group for the first time.

Jimmy Aaron is the catalyst for this final black reaction to the steady state of the white Southern socio-political order. Tabbed from birth as “the One,” an unofficial religious leader and community ideal, Jimmy is reared in the bosom of the church under the adoring eyes of surrogate mothers like Jane. Their purpose is to steep Jimmy in piety and Christian purpose, but in the process of his folk education, Jimmy also learns the history of his people at Jane's knee. Against the background of the events of Jane's life he sees the continuing migration of young blacks from the homes of their childhood to places of supposedly greater promise, a migration whose futility Jane's past experience underscores. Jimmy becomes a part of this pattern of restless searching after being educated in New Orleans. When he returns home, political conviction replaces his quondam religious convictions. On “'Termination Sunday,” when, according to Jane, “‘… you tell the church you still carrying the cross and you want to meet them ‘cross the River Jordan when you die’” (p. 221), Jimmy rises to urge his church to take up the civil rights struggle. The Aaron to Martin Luther King's Moses, Jimmy understands as his mentor did the necessity of basing a black political movement on the enduring psychological and spiritual resources of the folk. Thus he chooses the day set aside for celebrating determination in one's spiritual quest to redefine the context of the black man's cross-bearing.

“‘We have to fight,’” Jimmy implores the all-too-passive people of Robert Samson's plantation. He admits that he has lost faith in God and left the church, but he has not left his people. Though his political consciousness has advanced beyond theirs, he acknowledges his need for their help because, as he says to his disbelieving congregation, “‘… you are strong.’” This combined strength of the black folk will, which has been toned and tempered through the adversity recounted in Jane's entire story, will force in Bayonne what has transpired in Georgia and Alabama. It will force time to move forward on the Southern socio-political front for the first time since Reconstruction.

Ranged against Jimmy's effort to awaken the sleeping giant of the black folk is a false conservatism born of fear and misconceptions about the nature of progress and opportunity. One black family on Samson's plantation has already been evicted and alienated from their folk roots for demonstrating. Elder Banks refuses to urge the people to go forward with Jimmy because, in the older man's words, “‘You don't have a place for them …’” once they have quit the plantation. Banks's criticism of Jimmy's program reveals the persistence of the idea among less progressive blacks that freedom and opportunity must reside in a place “out there” or else it is unobtainable. But Jimmy knows, as Ned Douglass articulated it and Jane realized it, that freedom and opportunity must be conceived in the folk mind and actualized there before it can be effected in the immediate social situation. Thus Banks is wrong when he says that Jimmy doesn't have a place for the progressive, struggling blacks to go. “‘The place where you live, that's what I want,’” says Jimmy (p. 222), for only in reaching the folk where they live can Jimmy promote the evolution of their consciousness necessary to make them resist the white man's effort to dispossess them.

Jimmy's failure to move the more conservative elements of the folk frustrates him. As leader of the young, he asserts, “‘… we must go on. …’” But as “the One” he cannot desert the rest of his people without depriving the fledgling socio-political struggle of the milk of the folk's accumulated spiritual tradition. As Jane's story has shown, the folk has assumed over the years an identity based on progressive struggle, not socio-political struggle, but the struggle to recognize and conserve its spiritual resources and heroic folk traditions. This consciousness, exemplified in the character of Jane Pittman, can foster the fight which Jimmy wishes to prosecute, but only if the concept of the fight coheres with its understanding of progress as a conserving process. Thus Jimmy couches his final message to the congregation in conservative spiritual terms. He will go on to Bayonne, but, like a folk messiah he prophesies, “‘… I'm coming back.’” He chooses “'Termination Sunday” perhaps to foreshadow the termination of his own life, but more importantly to incorporate into his political message the tradition of telling the church “‘you want to meet them 'cross the River Jordan when you die.’” Sensing his own impending death Jimmy promises a “second coming” within the feeble political consciousness of the folk after he crosses his own River Jordan in Bayonne. By casting his socio-political mission in the accoutrements of the folk spiritual and heroic traditions, Jimmy raises and expands the consciousness of his people and prepares them for their final triumph in the novel.

In the last scene of the Autobiography, Jane Pittman leads an unlikely army out of Robert Samson's plantation and on to Bayonne where the spirit of the martyred Jimmy Aaron awaits them. Like Albert Cluveau, Samson stands in her path and demands, “‘Go back home’” (p. 243). But Jane's socio-political progress can no more be held back by this embodiment of white repression than her spiritual progress could be blocked by the likes of Cluveau in her travels account. Thus she literally walks past this hollow Samson and leaves him behind powerless to stop her. Samson, after all, carries only the news of Jimmy's death, while to the folk the significant fact is that Jimmy lives on, to be memorialized not only in their consciousness, like Ned, but also for the first time through their action. Ned had planted and tilled the grounds of progressive consciousness. Jimmy reaps the active harvest of this consciousness by inspiring the march of Jane and her people on Bayonne. The black folk do not pursue Jimmy as yet another distant ideal, for spiritually he never leaves them. Even in death he “comes back” so that they might not go back. He is reborn in their spiritual consciousness in “the place where they live,” and he awaits the arrival of their political consciousness in Bayonne, the symbolic seat of the white Southern political order. The climactic synthesis of Gaines's dialectic of progress in the Autobiography emerges through Miss Jane's assumption of leadership in the march on Bayonne. Her psychological development through the book has prepared her for this ultimate act of self-assertion, the unprecedented yoking of the faraway and evanescent ideal of socio-political progress with the accrued folk traditions of spiritual progress. Having anchored future aspirations in a sustaining, not restraining past, there will be no more going back for Jane Pittman again.


  1. See Wright's Black Boy (New York: Harper, 1945), Attaway's Blood on the Forge (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1941, Kelley's A Different Drummer (New York: Doubleday, 1962), and Fair's Many Thousand Gone (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1965).

  2. Catherine Carmier (New York: Atheneum, 1964) and Of Love and Dust (New York: Dial, 1967).

  3. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (New York: Dial, 1971). The quotations in this essay are all from this edition of the Autobiography.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

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

Jack Hicks (essay date spring 1977)

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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 of the novel is identical to that of his three earlier books—Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967), and Bloodline (1968).1 All of Gaines's work is seeded in a basic land derived from his native Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana: extending chronologically from 1865 to the mid-1950s; geographically, from the winding bayous and tablelands to the decaying plantations and slave quarters northwest of Baton Rouge, along his fictive St. Charles River. Upriver, beyond the corn and cotton and cane fields, lies the small town he calls Bayonne. His characters are ordinary people, black, white, and “in-between.” This last group of mixed bloods and cultures is important, for Ernest Gaines's special interest is indeed in those who are “in-between”: races or ethnic groups (poor Blacks, Cajuns, Creoles, “'Mericans”); traditions and institutions (slavery, religion, share-cropping, the great web of folkways and unwritten laws that bind and separate all Southerners).

While his lands and subjects are consistent, there is an evolution of Ernest Gaines's vision through his four works, as he becomes increasingly concerned with black history and black community. The movement from Catherine Carmier to Miss Jane Pittman is from personal and racial history rendered as a kind of bondage, a solitary existential nightmare of dead ends and blasted families, toward history sensed as a natural cycle, wheeling slowly through the rebirth of a people, toward their inevitable collective liberation. As his vision matures, there is an accompanying shift in Gaines's use of materials and fictional techniques. He moves away from a personal version of the white “existential” novel, later assimilating and adapting folk forms—popular sermons, slave narratives, folk tales, oral histories—re-making the long fictional forms to his own unique ends.


So the struggle went on. The little incidents, the little indirect incidents, like slivers from a stick. But they continued to mount until they had formed a wall. Not a wall of slivers that could be blown down with the least wind. But a wall of bricks, of stones. A wall that had gotten so high by now that he had to stand on tiptoe to look over it.

(CC [Catherine Carmier], p. 94)

Jackson Bradley's plight in Catherine Carmier is familiar to readers of Afro-American fiction, reminiscent of that of John in W. E. B. DuBois's story “The Coming of John” in The Souls of Black Folk.2 At age twenty-two, gone ten years and having recently finished college in San Francisco, Jackson returns to the Grover plantation and his Aunt Charlotte. Rootless and disillusioned, he finds no place in this old world, and returns to make final goodbyes. For his Aunt Charlotte and the few remaining Blacks, he is a last hope, a way of reviving the dead era they sense being played out in themselves. They are mostly old people, “enduring” like Faulkner's Dilsey, and while they sense their own communal demise, they resist it stubbornly, existing “like trees, like rocks, like the ocean” (p. 171). Aunt Charlotte, the first of a gallery of old “aunts” peopling Gaines's fictions, implores Jackson to stay on: “‘You all us can count on. If you fail, that's all for us’” (p. 98).

The world of Grover is a Southern wasteland: the plantation lacks even the full status of sharecropped land, as many of the remaining older Blacks live in the “quarters” paying a token rental. The bulk of the land has fallen from white to black to Cajun hands, and this latter group swarms in the novel like locusts, preying on the land, farming it mechanically and voraciously. Man lives in no organic relationship to his soil in Catherine Carmier, and the only Black to till the soil, Raoul Carmier, is an unhealthy influence, an anachronism. A light-skinned mulatto, Raoul is unable to work with Whites and unwilling to live in a black world. He is bloodlocked, a blind end, and the backlands and bottoms to which he returns are more a tomb than womb for him, a source to which he cannot return. While Jackson Bradley is unable to enter any future, Raoul cannot escape the past. There is no harmony and no order in his world, and the past is a recurring evil dream, from which there is no awakening. This can be seen in his family; his wife Della is also a mulatto, taken as an early convenience and now scorned. She is less able to shut the world out, and bears an illegitimate son by a black lover. Carmier fathers two daughters, Catherine and Lillian, the youngest taken away early to be raised by his relatives in New Orleans. Lillian and Jackson arrive separately on the same bus at the novel's opening, each returning to a ruined land. But it is her older sister, Catherine, jealously protected by Raoul, whom Jackson seeks.

Like many young Southern Blacks in the 1930s and 1940s, Jackson Bradley goes north for a better life. He finds no home there, and manages only to kill off any viable past for himself: “… the faults there did not strike you as directly and as quickly, so by the time you discovered them, you were so much against the other place that it was impossible ever to return to it” (p. 91). He does return to Grover, but only to make a clean break of it. His rejection is protracted, complicated by his love for Aunt Charlotte, for whom he remains a twelve-year-old black boy. Severing his past has serious human consequences, but only in a series of conversations with his former teacher Madame Bayonne does he realize that there is no easy way out. Madame Bayonne is one of Gaines's “wise aunts”: she “knows people,” and while rumored to be a witch, she is simply, profoundly, wise. Aware of Jackson's need to leave this past, she advises him of the human consequences, of the effect on his aunt: “‘… it will be the worst moment of her life’” (p. 71).

Liberation, then, is to cast this past aside, to be freed of the world laid out for him by his many “aunts” and “uncles.” The prime difficulty for Jackson is that it is already dead for him, sterile. His being is projected in the landscape. Like the soil that drifts across his sight, he is dust, desiccated. He sees himself in images of organic sterility, confessing to Madame Bayonne, “‘I'm like a leaf … that's broken away from the tree. Drifting’” (p. 79). Unable to join his aunt in the prayer she pleads for, unable to locate emotions to which he can respond, he is like her garden, “half-green, half-yellow … dry, dead” (p. 102). Even his childhood memories, idyllic and romanticized distortions of the past, hold little power for him.

After he systematically cuts old roots—family obligations, community ties, religion, past friendships—Bradley finds himself alone, purely alone, and it remains for him to find some means of existence, some way of breathing life back into himself. His desired movement is from sterility toward life, from the dying remnants of a community shaped by slavery toward a freer, more solitary, more existential present. Jackson's relationship with Catherine Carmier is the apparent means of achieving this ideal.

Catherine Carmier has been watched over by Raoul just as Jackson has been watched over by Charlotte. She is the sole creature for whom Raoul shows love, serving as an emotional mother-wife to him, and he shelters her jealously. Dark-skinned, Jackson has been taught by all to stay away from the Carmier house, but he courts her. In their loving, he is again forced to face his past, to respond to it emotionally. While he fears being “walled-in by fate,” Catherine feels herself obligated first to Raoul, who has nothing else. As Jackson tells her, “‘You're light. You're life’” (p. 149), but a relationship with her does not guarantee a free and meaningful life. Through her, he hopes to rescue them both from their pasts and make for them a liveable present.

Jackson's struggle to achieve this is most apparent in structural terms, in recurrent scenes near the end of each of the novel's three parts. Each part closes on an image of Jackson in some relation to the Church. At the close of Chapter 22, for example, he rejects his aunt's Christianity as a “‘bourgeois farce’” (p. 100), refusing prayer, sensing in the dried-up world outside the window a projection of his own spiritual deadness. At the end of Part Two he returns to his childhood church-school building, rummaging memory for some living presence. He is momentarily poised between two modes of being, fruitful past and barren present: “How small was the yard. … What had happened? Had he grown so big or had the place actually shrunk in those ten years?” (p. 192). But this scene also dies, surrenders its life, as he dwells on the barrenness of the old elms and pecans surrounding the yard. Near the end of Catherine Carmier, Jackson and Catherine go to a dance in a church. They make love in the churchyard, briefly revivifying the institution in a more personal, secular form. But the cycles of their experience are dominated by her sense of obligation to Raoul. Even after Jackson and Raoul fight, in a ritual scene of blood-letting, their relationship is ambiguous. Della Carmier urges that Raoul's beating will free them all, but the novel closes cryptically, on an image of Jackson alone, behind more walls, as Catherine takes her father inside: “He watched her go into the house. He stood there, hoping that Catherine would come back outside. But she never did” (p. 248).

Catherine Carmier is informed by a view of personal and racial history as a prison, a tomb, from which Jackson Bradley can never quite escape. There is little possibility anywhere in his world: South and North are equally unacceptable, and he is thrown back on his own scant internal devices, faced with the need to make of his isolation a liveable existential present. But the single factor making this possible—at least for Jackson Bradley—is a bloodline, some possibility of human love, or even contact, and this is at best elusive. His inability to connect is partly a function of his own historical myopia. For him the past is ossified, to be escaped, but the sort of existential freedom he seeks can come only in making psychic peace with his own racial, historical past. Bradley would be free, but finds himself a “freedman,” a term born idealistically in early Reconstruction, quickly galled with a bitter, ironic overtone.

The once-nourishing confines of the houses of Carmier and Bradley, Gaines suggests, are reduced to rubble, walls of slivers that entrap no less than brick or stone. And if racial and personal history are prisons, any hope of community is also dead. Indeed, the whole of Grover is, like the “whole house of Israel” in Ezekiel. Their bones are dried up, their hope is lost, they are “clean cut off.”


No, it wasn't The Old Man. I had put my own self in this predicament. I had come to this plantation myself, when my woman left me for another man in New Orleans and when I was too shame-face to go back home. I had heard that Hebert needed a man who could handle tractors and I had come here for the job. … No, it wasn't The Old Man. The Old Man didn't have a thing in the world to do with it. It was me—it was my face.

(OLD [Of Love and Dust], pp. 147-48)

While most of Jackson Bradley's trials in Catherine Carmier are conducted off-stage, the social disintegrations one can read in his state are far too dim and summary to fully engage us. Gaines's second novel, Of Love and Dust, shares the same time and locale, but the conflicts and divisions are concretely dramatized for us, rendered as functions of the lives of fully developed characters. The world of Hebert Plantation bears an air of active spirits here, slowly being eaten up by sharecropping Cajuns, with an “old side” worked by Blacks and overseen by Cajun Sidney Bonbon, the entirety owned by a Creole, Marshall Hebert. The ways of a black past are also more densely realized, in the individual lives of poor Blacks living there. Gaines's interest in humans is more properly placed in Of Love and Dust, for in the natural play between his characters—their races, eras, generations, values—the personal and historical dimensions vivify each other. Filtered through narrator Jim Kelly's mind and colored by his need for his people and their diversity, the world of Hebert is less skeletal, much more compelling than Grover.

The historical vision underlying this second novel is also more developed. Of Love and Dust grants that the historical legacy of racism, or fate, or a kind of social inertia may well dominate, but it offers a partial reconciliation between a black man and his historical past (so binding in Catherine Carmier), and his psychic need for dignity and greater freedom. Jim Kelly is trusted by Black and White alike, but reads in “crazy nigger” Marcus's carryings-on a refusal to yield however great the price. He comes to believe that he can act individually on principles, with dignity, without rejecting his entire racial history.

Hebert Plantation before Marcus is a cosmos in the minds of those living there, a little world propelled and ordered by its own gravities, inertias, retrogressions. The rich front lands have fallen to Cajun sharecroppers. Hated by Black and White, they have only recently worked up to the land from the bayous, and they hold on tenaciously. In the minds of land-holding Whites, Cajuns are racially inferior, though of greater status than Blacks. Here, as in Bloodline, in the figures of men like Sidney Bonbon, they have a vested psychic and financial interest in white supremacy. The “old ways” becomes doubly important in their eyes, and every time a Black enters the formerly “unsoiled” Hebert family library, or goes in the wrong door, he threatens an entire world, an existence, and must be dealt with quickly.

The world of the Blacks living at Hebert is at once utterly defined and precarious. “The Old Man,” “The Master,” we are told repeatedly, watches from his heavens, indifferent or exhausted. Marcus's stubborn violations are threatening, cosmically unnatural to Aunt Margaret and Ca'line Bishop, as if God (Himself) is powerless, asleep or unconcerned. Gaines's old people are more numerous here, and while they do indeed live and think in “old ways,” they are treated sympathetically in Jim Kelly's account. They have learned a simple lesson from the past—that all are punished for the transgressions of a few, and that submission is necessary for basic survival.

Bonded out of jail by Marshall Hebert, Marcus can accept few of the laws governing the plantation. An unwilling killer, he is expected to work for five years in a sort of indentured servitude. Beyond forced labor, his “breaking” by Bonbon and Hebert will signal a warning to Blacks, and representing as he does an urban, more contemporary existence, his submission will be a sign that the past of white supremacy is alive, dominant. Marcus is unaware of his own significance, but his first experiences bring the message home. Jim recalls Marcus's arrival:

He got in the middle and I got in beside him. It was blazing hot there with all three of us crammed together. Bonbon went down the quarter to turn around at the railroad tracks, then he shot back up the quarter just as fast as he had come down there. I knew what to expect when he came up to his house, so I braced myself. The boy didn't know what was coming, and when Bonbon slammed on the brakes, the boy struck his forehead against the dashboard.

“Goddamn,” he said.

“All right, Geam,” Bonbon said to me. He acted like he hadn't even heard the curse words.

(Pp. 4-5)

But Marcus does not break. He is tried by machines in the corn field, his fellow Blacks—most of whom pray for his failure—in the fields, “house fairs,” and stores of the plantation. Undaunted, he is the first of Gaines's rebellious black characters to resist the past, assert his will. He is not romanticized, and his stubborn refusal to yield is not a function of any pattern of social or political considerations. Vain and foolish, he runs on earthy appetites and intuitions, and whether his path is crossed by Black or White, man or beast, he takes. Marcus's sexual exploits scandalize the gallery of Blacks who watch him, and to their horror, his first target is Pauline Guerin, Sidney Bonbon's black mistress.

Pauline rejects Marcus, and only then does he turn to Louise Bonbon, Sidney's wispy, ghost-like wife—a lifeless, pathetic figure—who has been on her gallery watching, watching since he arrived. Grown out of a mutual desire to hurt Bonbon, their affair develops quickly into a kind of crippled love—impossible and grotesque—and the scenes depicting their rompings have a frenzied, surreal character not unlike those of Joanna Burden and Joe Christmas in Faulkner's Light in August. These scenes are among Gaines's best. He has developed his characters and their world, and this alliance is as unreal and removed of this earth as that of two children in a treehouse:

“Let me kiss you,” he said. “Oooooo, you sweet. Good Lord—Lord, have mercy. He know you this sweet? Let me kiss this little pear here … now this one. Two of the sweetest little pears I ever tasted. 'Specially this one here … Go on touch it. That's right, touch it. Won't hurt you. See? See?”

(P. 160)

If his courting of Pauline upsets the quarters, his affair with Louise warns disaster for everyone. Jim Kelly's first response is violent and profane, but he gradually takes on the stoicism and resignation expressed by Aunt Margaret: “‘Y'all ain't going nowhere. … Y'all go'n die right here. 'Specially him there. … There ain't nothing but death—a tree for him …’” (p. 207). Marcus and Louise conspire to escape “to the North,” taking Bonbon's daughter Tite with them. The scene is a grisly satirical twist of slave narratives of escape, as Louise and Tite lampblack their skin, intending travel only by night. Marcus goes to Hebert for help, offers to kill Bonbon in return, and the owner sets them up. The inevitable disaster occurs before they can leave the house, as Bonbon intercepts them. Gaines enriches the dimensions of Kelly's narrative by having him paraphrase others' firsthand accounts, and here, Sun Brown is the unwilling witness:

The car stopped and Bonbon got out. … Sun could tell that Bonbon didn't know what was going on, either. … Sun could tell by the slow, careful, thinking way he went before the house. Then as he came in the small yard, Marcus threw the package to the side and jumped on the ground to fight him. … Bonbon moved toward the house quickly now. When he came to the end of the gallery, he stooped over and picked up something by the steps. Sun could tell it was a scythe-blade, and not a hoe or a shovel, from the way Bonbon swung it at Marcus. Marcus ran to the fence and jerked loose a picket. … Marcus was blocking the scythe-blade more than he was trying to hit with the picket. Sun could hear the noise that steel made against wood and that wood made against wood. …

Then, for a second, everything was too quiet. Then he heard a scream, and he jerked his head to the left. He saw that Marcus had lost the picket and he saw Bonbon raising the blade. He had time to shut his eyes, and even though he couldn't see, he heard when the blade hit. When he was able to look again, he saw Bonbon standing there with the blade in his hand. Bonbon swung the blade far across the yard and went up on the gallery to get his little girl. He sat down on the steps with the little girl in his arms.

(Pp. 275-76)

In the days following, Louise is taken to the insane asylum at Jackson, Bonbon is acquitted of murder, and Hebert orders Jim Kelly to leave the plantation, ostensibly because “‘Them Cajuns might start some mess’” (p. 280).

But the import of the tale is its effect on Jim Kelly, on his development to a point at which he believes once more in his ability to act and shape his own dignity and life, and in the need for black people to shape their histories rather than be enslaved by them. The real reason for Kelly's leaving, as he and Hebert know, is that he knows “the truth about what had happened. He was afraid I might start blackmailing now and he would have to get somebody to kill me” (p. 278). Kelly's danger is that he is able to comprehend the past and act upon it, to see through the imperatives of history the needed possibility for a black man's action.

When Of Love and Dust opens, it is clear that Jim Kelly is trusted by White, Cajun and Black. As Hebert's trusted machine-operator and as overseer Bonbon's “man,” he serves as both a liaison with Blacks in the quarters, and—on occasion—Bonbon's sole confidant. Kelly is an honest and decent man with a sense of racial and generational boundaries, trusted by Gaines's flinty “aunts” and the younger black men and women on Hebert. But Marcus's earliest response to him is based on Kelly's role at Hebert, and he calls him “whitemouth.” Thereafter the relationship between Marcus and Jim is at the heart of the novel.

Like the older Blacks, Jim is initially put off by Marcus, fearful that his antics will trip the tenuous balance of Hebert life. Unlike Marcus, he has been dominated by his own recent past. At several points early in the novel he daydreams about women, especially his former New Orleans lover, Billie Jean. Two poignant passages stand out, and Gaines gives us a view of Jim as a man whose most engaged, living moments are the two years in the past with Billie Jean. Content to ride behind Red Hannah as she traces and re-traces furrows in the corn field, he treads also in more human furrows: “… I went around the other side and had myself a couple of beers. You could buy soft drinks in the store or if you were a white man you could drink a beer in there, but if you were colored you had to go to the little side room—‘the nigger room.’ I kept telling myself, ‘One of these days I'm going to stop this, I'm going to stop this; I'm a man like any other man and one of these days I'm going to stop this.’ But I never did” (pp. 42-43). He is in essential agreement with the old folks who accept and submit, mark their fates off as determined by the will of “The Old Man.” But gradually, Marcus's actions stir him up, force him back on himself, and he re-discovers in his sentimentalized past a basic truth, that “… man has to do it for himself now. No, he's not going to win, he can't ever win; but if he struggle hard and long enough he can ease his pains a little” (p. 52). In response to Marcus's stubborn refusal to give in, Jim grows more self-reliant, realizing finally—as the headnote quotation expands—that “… it wasn't The Old Man. … It was me—it was my face” (p. 148). And while he cannot absolve Marcus of the killing that brought him to Hebert, he grows to respect him, to see in his seemingly futile affair with Louise the roots of human liberation. Shortly before Marcus's death, he admits:

I admired Marcus. I admired his great courage. And that's why I wanted to hurry up and get to the front. That's why my heart had jumped in my throat when the tractor went dead on me—I was afraid I wouldn't be able to tell him how much I admired what he was doing. I wanted to tell him how brave I thought he was. … I wanted to tell them that they were starting something—yes, that's what I would tell them; they were starting something that others would hear about, and understand, and would follow.

(P. 270)

Jim's movement toward an awareness of the need for a black man to chart his own way is not purely existential, individual. He does grow to recognize social realities in large terms—for instance, that “they” manipulate “the little people.” And he agrees with Bonbon that “‘We is nothing but little people,’” adding that “‘Marcus was just the tool. Like Hotwater was the tool—put there for Marcus to kill. Like Bonbon was the tool—put there to work Marcus. Like Pauline was a tool, like Louise was a tool …’” (pp. 269, 270). But in Marcus, Jim Kelly sees a willingness to walk out of the furrows, glimpses a black past and the basis for a black future. Marcus was a solitary bloodline, one who sensed in every breath the course demanded by his own eulogy: “‘Man is here for a little while, then gone.’”

Marcus's recent history revives Jim's own more distant past, and the past comes to show the possibility of individual existential choice and action. Cycles and ritual patterns are again significant in this second novel. There is a three-part structure again, and while there is a carefully constructed repetition of key scenes (Jim talks with his “aunts” near the opening of each part), the emphasis is on character evolution. The opening scenes of Parts I, II and III depict Marcus's growing freedom (I: Marcus riding in Bonbon's car; II: Marcus riding with Jim on Red Hannah; III: Marcus walking willingly into the Bonbon and Hebert houses). And each part closes on Marcus involved in a fight or struggle. As Part I closes, he is lying down unconscious, defeated in a fight, and in III, he is lying down, dead, seemingly as near victory as a black man can be in the world of Hebert. The tale runs full cycle, opening on Marcus's bonding-out for murder, closing on his own liberation in death. But the emphasis is on the effect of all this on Kelly. Through Marcus, Kelly can see his own face more clearly, that of a black individual whose features have been forgotten for a time, but can be re-imagined in shaping a life with human dignity.

And in Marcus's actions, and in his own, lie the inchoate beginnings of a true black community. They are “starting something that others would hear about, and understand, and would follow.”


She's not the only one that's go'n die from this boy's work. Many mo' of 'em go'n die 'fore it's over with. The whole place—everything. A big wind is rising, and when a big wind rise, the sea stirs, and the drop o' water you seeing laying on top the sea this day won't be there tomorrow. 'Cause that's what the wind do, and that's what life is. She ain't nothing but one little drop o' water laying on top the sea, and what this boy's doing is called the wind. … Go out and blame the wind. No, don't blame him, 'cause tomorrow, what he's doing today, somebody go'n say he ain't done a thing. 'Cause tomorrow will be his time to be turned over just like it's hers today. And after that, be somebody else time to turn over. And it keep going like that till it ain't nothing left to turn—and nobody left to turn it.

(“Just Like a Tree,” Bl [Bloodline], p. 245)

With Bloodline, Ernest Gaines sounds a very different emphasis on black history and community. The vision of history as fate, as a cycle from which one cannot escape, is expanded. As the title Bloodline suggests, the book is concerned with the living, the organic, and Gaines is writing with a vision of the natural history of a people. The dominant concern through these five stories is with natural patterns of growth and decay, the evolution from childhood to maturity to old age as seen in the lives of people, races, generations, eras. In the shapes of these stories, and in the recurrent images and metaphors, the past, present and future are all of a piece; history is part of a natural process, and humans who live within it find their lives infused with significance.

The focus in these stories is on individual growth, and only rarely do we encounter intruders like Jackson Bradley and Marcus, men who can never really “fit” in Gaines's worlds. Rather, as suggested in the organic metaphors, the characters are alive, seem to evolve naturally, go through cycles and evolve almost unconsciously, like Aunt Fe's beloved giant oaks in “Just Like a Tree.” The five stories are ordered from childhood experiences to those of old age. The first two, “The Sky Is Gray” and “A Long Day in November,” are filtered through the consciousness of young black children. The fourth and title story, “Bloodline,” is the weakest in the collection; thus I consider two very different stories here, “Three Men” and “Just Like a Tree.”

Of Gaines's four books, Bloodline is the most persistent in examining the obligations of black manhood, particularly as it is thwarted and destroyed in the South. This is a universal torture, though, reserved by all oppressors for the oppressed, not limited to these people, this time, that place. “Three Men” is an examination of the growth of a black bloodline, an imagined instance of development from personal self-esteem toward more public, more political forms of resistance to oppression. Gaines uses the same premise here as in Of Love and Dust, that the bonding-out of an arrested Black is a means of breaking him, splitting his will between false choices: prison and plantation. But there we see Marcus only after he has been bonded out; here, narrator Procter Lewis gives himself up after killing another Black in a nightclub fight over a woman. He is led through a kind of catechism of self-abnegation by two white deputies—a scene in which the tissue of black and white racist folkways is masterfully evoked—and placed in a cell with two other men. Hattie is a homosexual, jailed on a morals charge. (“‘Caught him playing with this man dick,’” the third man advises Lewis, “‘At this old flea-bitten show back of town there. Up front—front row—there he is playing with this man dick. Bitch’” [p. 127].) Hattie is tender, concerned, but his sympathies are misplaced and harmful. He is like John and Freddie, the black “punks” who pull corn furiously, trying to humiliate Marcus in Of Love and Dust. More feminine, he is still finally unnatural, and represents another means by which white oppressors can defeat black men.

Gaines depicts the third man, Munford Bazille, with a distanced irony reserved for his black rebels. Like Marcus, and like Copper in “Bloodline,” Bazille is in no way romanticized. He is more than a little crazy, but for all his posturings and excesses, he conveys a truth. Bazille is a habitual offender, bonded out repeatedly by plantation owner Roger Medlow. In the nineteen-year-old Lewis, he sees himself some years earlier, and shows a peculiar blend of disgust and affection, urging him to refuse bond for prison. “He felt sorry for me,” Lewis observes, “and at the same time he wanted to hit me with his fist” (p. 141). A local phenomenon, Munford Bazille is, like Hattie, still another misshapen version of black manhood encouraged by whites. But while he has little control over his will to violence against other Blacks, he is aware of what he is doing, and why it is encouraged. In one of his lucid moments, he speaks thoughts very much like Bigger Thomas in Native Son:

Been going in and out of these jails here, I don't know how long … forty, fifty years. Started out just like you—kilt a boy just like you did last night. Kilt him and got off—got off scot-free. My pappy worked for a white man who got me off. At first I didn't know why he had done it—I didn't think; all I knowed was I was free, and free is how I wanted to be. Then I got in trouble again, and again they got me off. … Didn't wake up till I got to be nearly as old as I'm is now. Then I realized they kept getting me off because they needed a Munford Bazille. They need me to prove they human—just like they need that thing over there. They need us. Because without us, they don't know what they is. With us around, they can see us and they know what they ain't.

… But I got news for them—cut them open; go 'head and cut one open—you see if you don't find Munford Bazille or Hattie Brown. Not a man one of them. 'Cause face don't make a man—black or white. Face don't make him and fucking don't make him and fighting don't make him—neither killing. None of this prove you a man. 'Cause animals can fuck, can kill, can fight—you know that?

(Pp. 137-38)

Munford is bonded out again, but his advice is not wasted. A third prisoner, a boy of fourteen or fifteen arrested for stealing cakes, joins Lewis and Hattie. By this point late in the story, Gaines has had Lewis recollect the fight and killing, gradually reading his own future in Munford Bazille's grizzled face. He accepts the man as truthful, decides to refuse bonding-out, and then assumes Bazille's role in dealing harshly with the new boy. Again, Gaines invests the end of Procter Lewis's night with a strong sense of ritual, as his actions bear much more than individual significance. Lewis seems to become a better Munford Bazille. “Deep in me I felt some kind of love for this little boy,” he admits, and awakens the crying boy rudely to some semblance of self-respect. The boy is frightened, as Lewis is at first violent, bullying him into accepting responsibility for his crimes. And then, puzzled, as Lewis orders him to pray: “‘I don't believe in God. … But I want you to believe. I want you to believe He can hear you. That's the only way I'll be able to take those beatings—with you praying’” (p. 153). Like Bazille, he is a bloodline, a living graph of past and future, and his disgust gives way to affection, dramatized in the small, intimate ritual ceremony of tending the boy's wounds: “I wet my handkerchief and dabbed at the bruises. Every time I touched his back, he flinched. But I didn't let that stop me. I washed his back good and clean. When I got through, I told him to go back to his bunk and lay down. Then I rinched out his shirt and spread it out on the foot of my bunk. I took off my own shirt and rinched it out because it was filthy” (pp. 154-55).

What we are given in this hard-boiled and understated tale is a solid truth. True community, in its most supportive and nourishing aspects, is fragile and organic. What we see implicitly in “Three Men” is that it is possible and can be birthed in the most unlikely places, that it is natural and tropistic, and that it evolves from a collective sense of dignity and personal and social past, just as surely as a plant turns to catch the sun and water evaporates to the upper airs.

“Just Like a Tree” is a fitting endpiece for Bloodline. Gaines's first published work, it is one of his most assured and moving stories, and it makes fullest use of Afro-American oral and rhetorical folk materials. The title is taken from an old black spiritual, a hymn of determination and endurance. It closes:

I made my home in glory;
I shall not be moved
Made my home in glory;
I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that's
planted 'side the water.
Oh, I shall not be moved.

(P. 221)

The story is made of ten overlapping first-person accounts—by Black and White, young and old, sympathetic and cynical—spanning the events of a family farewell supper for the stateliest of Gaines's matriarchs, Aunt Fe. While she does not speak directly, her being is refracted powerfully through the accounts, and she serves as a fictional center. The story line is easily reconstructed: a civil rights movement flourishes in a rural Louisiana county, and “redneck” Whites bomb a house as a warning. Fearful that she will be injured, the family decides that Aunt Fe must indeed be moved, north, to live with her daughter. They gather on this stormy evening for one last family celebration.

As in other Bloodline stories, there are clear conflicts in “Just Like a Tree.” Most blatantly, a racial struggle exists between Blacks led in civil disobedience by Emmanuel, and poor Whites are outraged at the Blacks' wish for liberation. But a conflict between black generations is more pervasive, as Emmanuel finds himself bitterly chastised during the evening, blamed for causing the trouble that forces Fe north. Emmanuel's defense is delivered through Etienne's commentary, and it is clear that his leadership is motivated by love, and by a strong sense of historical obligation:

I love you Aunt Fe, much as I do my own parents. … I'm going to miss you, … but I'm not going to stop what I've started. You told me a story once, Aunt Fe, about my great-grandpa. Remember? Remember how he died? … Remember how they lynched him—chopped him into pieces? … Just the two of us were sitting here beside the fire when you told me that. I was so angry I felt like killing. But it was you who told me to get killing out of my mind … told me I would only bring harm to myself and sadness to the others if I killed. Do you remember that, Aunt Fe? … You were right. We cannot raise our arms. Because it would mean death for ourselves, as well as for the others. But we'll do something else—and that's what we will do.

(Pp. 246-47)

This first of Ernest Gaines's writings is, significantly, a paean to one of his enduring “Aunts,” and her importance is greater here than in any other work. Fe is described in organic terms; and like the tree in the spiritual, she will indeed be physically moved when her time arrives. It seems cruel to the family that she must migrate, and while she is stoic during the evening, she gives way to her fears later. She is making the same trip slaves made a hundred years earlier, but now it seems wrong, appears a violation of natural order. Aunt Clo, one of her nearest friends, summarizes the nature of this violation. Her section is masterfully written, and the tang of her figures and language evokes a black oral past, suggesting other times when truths have been told at a drafty cabin fireside:

Be just like wrapping a chain round a tree and jecking and jecking. … Jeck, jeck, jeck. Then you hear the roots crying, and then you keep on jecking, and then it give, and you jeck some mo', and then it falls. And not till then do you see what you done done. Not till then you see the big hole in the ground and piece of the taproot still way down in it—and piece you won't never get out no matter if you dig till doomsday. … You never get the taproot. But, sir, I tell you what you do get. You get a big hole in the ground, sir; and you get another big hole in the air where the lovely branches been all these years. Yes sir, that's what you get. The holes, sir, the holes. Two holes, sir, you can't never fill no matter how hard you try.

(Pp. 235-36)

Aunt Clo's monologue later stresses the brutality of Fe's being uprooted, a distinctly unnatural development, for she cannot relate the North to any sort of organic existence. Dragged there, Fe will perish. But the extended image she draws of this old woman—as a living creature, a taproot, whose presence can never be undone—is striking and appropriate. And the “two holes,” in the ground and in the air, are not merely absences, emptinesses. They are active, and seem to suggest that Fe's being does not perish, but rather is retained as a powerful memory, an immediate and felt history, a bloodline to nourish later Emmanuels.

The emphasis in “Just Like a Tree” is not on conflict, but rather on reconciliation. Gaines's final comment on Aunt Fe's importance is an expression of his most sweeping historical vision. The language and rhythms of Etienne's testimony grow from the Bible and the folk sermon; this is a cosmic vision, simply and dramatically built, and it resolves all of the apparent conflicts and contradictions between people and races and eras.

And it takes us further, suggests that like the vast natural turnings (as in the wind on the water), there is a pattern in the growth of peoples and communities, that a single human tragedy can nourish a greater communal birth. “Three Men” signals the future way for young black manhood; “Just Like a Tree” is an homage to the being of an old black woman. They are part of a larger process, as Etienne tells us, “'Cause … that's what life is. … 'Cause tomorrow will he [sic] his time to be turned over just like it's hers today. And after that, be somebody else time to turn over. And it keep going like that till it ain't nothing left to turn—and nobody left to turn it” (p. 245).


“This earth is yours and don't let that man out there take it from you,” he said. “It's yours because your people's bones lays in it; it's yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth. The white man will use every trick in the trade to take it from you. He will use every way he know how to get you wool-gathered. He'll turn you 'gainst each other. But remember this,” he said. “Your people's bones and their dust make this place yours more than anything else.”

“… Your people plowed this earth, your people chopped down the trees, your people built the roads and built the levees. These same people is now buried in this earth, and their bones's fertilizing this earth.”

(AMJP [The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman], pp. 107-08)

The dust that drifts through Catherine Carmier is what remains of a dead past, stifling Jackson Bradley. But for Miss Jane Pittman, the dust is alive, a viable reminder of the price paid by her black ancestors for her own meager freedom—and of the price paid by those younger than her, such as her adopted son Ned Douglass, shot down by a hired white murderer. The headnote for this section is taken from Ned's last sermon on the St. Charles River, and lest we overlook his message, Jane drives it home at his graveside: “I remember my old mistress, when she saw the young Secesh soldiers, saying: ‘The precious blood of the South, the precious blood of the South.’ Well, there on that river bank is the precious dust of this South. And he is there for all to see” (p. 113).

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is fiction masquerading as autobiography, but mostly, it is a powerful folk history of Afro-American life from the Civil War to the mid-1960s. If such comparisons are helpful, it is a novel and a racial repository as well, sui generis like W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk and Jean Toomer's Cane. Jane Pittman's life is a framing metaphor, complex and vibrant, like Toomer's sugar cane. Her life and his field are poetically imagined, specific and concrete; people go in and out of them, they can be sweet and raw, can harbor love and lust, spawn tragedy and hatred. And like DuBoïs and Toomer, Ernest Gaines taps the languages and forms and powers of black folk-rooted art forms. The bones of his book are communal, oral and rhetorical: spirituals, black folk sermons, slave narratives, biblical parables, folk tales, and primitive myths. These are spoken, declaimed forms, issuing from a collective human voice. As the putative “editor” tells us in his “Introduction,” the novel is built on a series of interviews with Miss Jane Pittman, a one hundred-ten-year-old former slave, and many of her friends. The “friends” is important, for her being is truly a repository of Southern black life since the Civil War. As our editor notes of those “wonderful people” and their relation to Miss Jane, “Miss Jane's story is all of their stories, and their stories are Miss Jane's” (p. x).

There are four sections to Miss Jane Pittman: “The War Years,” covering the years 1865-1866 and the child Ticey's (Jane's slave name) wanderings as a newly-freed slave; “Reconstruction,” extending from 1876-circa 1912, in which Reconstruction fails, Jane is married, and loses her husband—one of the early black cowboys—and her adopted son; “The Plantation,” moving from 1912-the 1930s, during which she comes to Samson Plantation and experiences the very different declines of poor Blacks and ruling Whites; and “The Quarters,” an unbroken memoir running from the 1930s to the book's present, drawing events of those years about the life of Jimmy Aaron, “The One.” Summary serves few fictions well, and here it is particularly inappropriate. The power of the book lies precisely in the way Gaines dramatizes concretely a vision of human history and black community, and so thoroughly absorbs his materials and their modes of expression, that what results is a truly unique creation. But there are deep structures and patterns of experience that we might examine with minimal reduction.

The informing vision behind the events of Jane's life is a cosmic resolution of a different sort than that expressed by Etienne in “Just Like a Tree”; mainly, it offers greater hope for man in the here-and-now, and reconciles black generations through a common course for human dignity through social action. It is summarized best in Ned Douglass's riverbank sermon. Rescued by Jane at age four, he watches enraged “patrollers” beat and dismember a band of wandering ex-slaves, including his mother. Ned goes on, and along with Jimmy Aaron in a later section, serves as “The One” for his own time and people. He is born to lead, and true to his surname, is a black renaissance man of sorts: teacher, preacher, architect, martyr. On this cool Sunday morning, he preaches at the St. Charles River near Bayonne, and his killers sit quietly in a rowboat offshore, straining for proof to effect his murder. As the headnote to this section suggests, Douglass's text is on redeeming a black birthright. He urges Blacks not to migrate—to Canada, or Africa, or South America—and asserts that this country has been built of their bodies and souls. “‘I'm as much American as any man; I'm more American than most’” (p. 109), he argues, but he insists that one's birthright must be claimed in dignity. There are shades of darkness and degrees of manhood, but the latter has little to do with race:

Be Americans. … But first be men. Look inside yourself. Say ‘What am I? What else beside this black skin that the white man call nigger?’ Do you know what a nigger is? … First, a nigger feels below anybody else on earth. He's been beaten so much by the white man, he don't care for himself, for nobody else, and for nothing else. … But there's a big difference between a nigger and a black American. A black American cares, and will always struggle. Every day that he get up he hopes that this day will be better. The nigger knows it won't. … I want my children to fight. Fight for all—not just for a corner. The black man or white man who tell you to stay in a corner want to keep your mind in a corner too.

(P. 110)

Ned's counsel at the river is a key to understanding the ways of three heroic black men that stand out in Miss Jane Pittman. The first is Ned Douglass himself. “People's always looking for somebody to come lead them. … Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One” (p. 197). Jane's remarks open “The Quarters,” but apply to Ned some thirty-five years earlier. An unlikely One he sensed his duty as a black man at a young age. As we read through each incident, he is fully conscious, performing what seem to be fated obligations. In retrospect, he may be seen as a basic element in Gaines's vision of Afro-American history. Jane pleads with him to stay home. But he senses that a slave can have no true homeland, and moves actively, toward an unknown future. Working first with Whites, resettling former slaves, and later with his own Southern black people, he is pursued constantly, and realizes that he cannot live very long.

Like DuBois, Ned envisions a pluralistic America. But he is properly suspicious of the white man, warning that he “‘will use every trick in the trade to take it from you’” (p. 107). Ned's suspicions of Whites are quite appropriate. In what is one of the most remarkable sections of the novel, “Reconstruction,” we read of Ned's achievements and his killing. Through his murderer, Albert Cluveau—a sort of inhuman savant obsessed with the many killings he performs—Gaines invests much of his auctorial sense of ambivalence and retribution. As Jane recalls him: “Sometimes I got him off talking about killing. I would make him talk about fishing and raising crop. He could talk about anything. … But in the end killing always came back in Albert Cluveau's mind. He wasn't bragging about it, and he wasn't sorry either. It was just conversation. Like if you worked in the sawmill you talked about lumber more than you talked about cane. … Albert Cluveau had killed so many people he couldn't talk about nothing else but that” (p. 103). Cluveau is an unsettling creation. When he tells Jane he must kill Ned if he is ordered, he cannot understand her anger or shock. As his name suggests, he is literally an instrument, and in him we see a prevalent emphasis on “Them”—those with power and wealth, most often white, who kill to preserve their status. “They” are responsible not only for Ned's death, but Jimmy Aaron's, too, and Huey Long's. Of Long's death, Jane notes tersely: “Look like every man that pick up the cross for the poor must end that way” (p. 150). Cluveau, like many other Whites in this book, is a cleaver, mechanical. It is their function to blight and cut the natural, seen here in the growth of black manhood. In Jane's mind, Indians and Blacks have natural totems, sacred phenomena with which they can commune. For the earliest Americans, it was the river; for the Blacks following them, the oak tree. But for the white man—first seen as the French—it is his fate to be the levee, various human versions of the concrete spillways that possess the rivers and cut man off from the natural sources of life.

Later in the novel, Jimmy Aaron is another strong young black leader. It is his function to lead toward an unknown future, and his leadership is not what the conservative church elders wish from “The One.” He is political, organizes a demonstration in Bayonne and is shot to death for his efforts. But in the actions of Aaron and Douglass, Gaines suggests that black political activity, however individually threatening, is natural and necessary, a move historically and humanly consequent from the past. At the opening of the novel, Unc Isom urges all newly-freed slaves to stay at the plantation, not to separate the tribe. Led by Ticey and Ned, the young people walk ignorantly into a mysterious and dangerous world. Near the end, the church elders again counsel staying at home, rebuff Aaron and his plea for support. But Jane, like Unc Isom, urges that young and old not part. But she does so in following Jimmy Aaron's spirit into Bayonne to lead a freedom march, and so doing, knits up past and present again, so they can blend into a future.

Jane's husband, Joe Pittman, is the third strong black figure in her life. After they settle in Texas, Jane fears for his life, and goes to a hoo-doo, Madame Eloise Gautier. Madame Gautier is a seer, and she confirms Jane's fear that Joe will die. More, she explains the obligations of black manhood in another sense. Not only historical and political, they are existential and supremely individual as well: “‘That's man's way. To prove something. Day in, day out he must prove he is a man. … If not the horse, then the lion, if not the lion, then the woman, if not the woman, then the war, then the politic, then the whisky. Man must always search somewhere to prove himself. He don't know everything is already inside him’” (pp. 93-94).

Madame Gautier also defines the feminine principle in this world. If man must go forward, risking himself and living for a shorter, brighter time, the woman must endure and sustain her people. Man dies in opening the future; and while woman seems to sense intuitively that he will be destroyed, she is powerless to stop him. It falls her lot to watch and remember, at all costs to remember—as Jane does so well—and to walk through the doors opened for her. My implication here is neither chauvinistic nor racist, not to say this is a subservient role, as the dramatically understated conclusion of the novel reveals: “Me and Robert [her white landlord] looked at each other there a long time, then I went by him” (p. 244).

As I suggest earlier, the power of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman does not lie in the patterns and motifs of recurring characters, actions, themes. There are familiar patterns, to be sure: black leaders are consistently thrust up, only to be slain and dash the hopes they inspired; and again and again, Jane and her people take to the road on still another exodus, in search of still another homeland. But there is less of a concern with shoring-up the structure of the novel, and a much greater willingness on Gaines's part to allow his material its own natural course—indeed the richness of the fiction lies in the momentary eddies and pools into which the narrative stream is deflected. When Gaines speaks of Richard Wright's decline, he attributes it to an inability to continue writing from a black “American soil, not out of a European library.”3 In his own writing, he demonstrates his strong suspicion that the traditional techniques of the novel are too analytical, schematic, do not properly define his materials or express his vision of the natural history of black people. Gaines seems to agree with his contemporary William Melvin Kelley's assessment that “to carry the weight of our ideas, the novel has got to be changed. We are trying to tap some new things in a form which is not our form.”4

That power lies in Gaines's careful assimilation of Afro-American folk materials, particularly those of the South, in which his historical vision is absorbed and vivified. His debt is to the rich fund of customs and folkways of black American pasts, to the unique forms grown out of them—to the spirituals, determination songs, church music like Jane's “Done Got Over,” urging a rock-like perseverance even as “they tell,” heard by W. E. B. DuBois, “of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”5 From the church he also draws on folk sermons and church talks, adapting them to his own more secular uses; to these, a debt for the compelling rhetorical power running through Ned Douglass and Jimmy Aaron, and a broad, historical apology for pain and suffering. And to slave narratives—like that of Frederick Douglass—testifying to the moral diseases incipient in human bondage, and to the psychic devastations resulting in both Black (Black Harriet) and White (Cluveau and Tee Bob). A more regional Louisiana folk heritage is spun out in the presence of hoo-doo Madame Eloise Gautier and the many webs of prophecies bound in dreams, visions, superstitions. Their presences suggest a world more alive and mysterious beyond our own, and are borne earlier in the folk tale, as in the remarkable account of Albert Cluveau's suffering and death, “The Chariot of Hell.” Many of Gaines's figures are familiar to black myth: Singalee Black Harriet and her return to the shelter of her homeland via insanity; the hunter in search of his mother, pausing in the swamps to trap food for Ticey and Ned. To this rich stream, played through Gaines's own shaping contemporary imagination, we owe the spectrum of Afro-American life and language set loose in Miss Jane Pittman.

His direct concern with history and those who record it is apparent from the start. The putative “editor” is a teacher of history, and explains to Jane and her friends that her life will help students to better learn their lessons. “‘What's wrong with them books you already got?’” her friend asks. “‘Miss Jane is not in them,’” is his reply (p. viii). Teachers are important throughout Jane's story, and good ones such as Ned Douglass and Mary LeFabre are treasures; the lessers, like Miss Lilly and Joe Hardy, are quietly indicted—and damned simply—as being among “the worst human beings I've ever met” (p. 154).

But it is not easy to teach: we are often reminded of the difficulty of knowing a truth, of daring a vision of history. Jane is first made aware of this painful fact by a riddling old man in whom a world of mystery was refracted. Discouraging her trek to Ohio in search of a kind “Yankee soldier name Brown,” he images a detailed and exhausting account of her fruitless travels, concluding: “‘And the only white Brown people can remember that ever went to Luzana to fight in the war died of whiskey ten years ago. They don't think he was the same person you was looking for because this Brown wasn't kind to nobody. He was coarse and vulgar; he cussed man, God, and nature every day of his life’” (p. 54). And as long as man can speak it and shape it, history can deceive, can be a weapon against one's foes. Remembering Herbert Aptheker's adage that “History is mighty,” especially for the oppressor, we listen to Jules Raynard's account of Robert Samson's suicide. His reading of the past is historically myopic, consciously blurring the pattern of cause and effect. In his account of slavery, for example, the lion and the lamb lie down together, and each is equally guilty and helpless before the fated retribution for the sins of a common past. Raynard drives Jane home from the plantation to the old slave quarters, and she listens quietly from a back seat, suspicious of his version of “the gospel truth.” For all his decency, Raynard is till another white man whose dream of the past makes those in the present impotent; history is a wall for him, before which master and serf can do little but surrender.

For Ernest J. Gaines, like his creation Jimmy Aaron, there is immense power in language, and its use is a sacred trust. And like Aaron, he assumes his obligations cautiously and naturally. Aaron's simple skills to read and write family letters and papers, and his rhetorical talents that serve him later; Gaines's powers to create fiction: each is a way a people are preserved, a heritage passed on. Ned Douglass's last text is a popular folk sermon, adapted from the “Vision of Dry Bones,” in Ezekiel, in which it is taught that words can bring a past to life, put flesh on bones and a seed in the soil. “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say. Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). Ernest Gaines writes from this lament, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, his finest work, is his mighty attempt to open the graves, make these bones live, and re-unite a people.


  1. I refer to the standard editions of Gaines's novels: Catherine Carmier (New York: Atheneum, 1964); Of Love and Dust (New York: Dial Press, 1967); Bloodline (New York: Dial Press, 1968); The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (New York: Dial Press, 1972). All references are to these editions and are parenthetically noted in the text.

  2. W. E. B. DuBois, “The Coming of John,” in The Souls of Black Folk (New York: New American Library, 1969), pp. 245-63.

  3. Ernest J. Gaines, quoted by Hoyt W. Fuller, “Black Writer's Views on Literary Lions and Values,” Negro Digest, 17 (January 1968), 27.

  4. William Melvin Kelley, quoted by Jervis Anderson, “Black Writing: The Other Side,” Dissent, 15 (May-June 1968), 237.

  5. W. E. B. DuBois, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” in The Souls of Black Folk, p. 267.

Further Reading

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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, and Ideology.” Studies in the Humanities (June-December 2001): 94-111.

Fitzsimmons analyzes the intertextual relationship between the novel and the film versions of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in order to show the film's ideological implications.

Gaudet, Marcia. “Miss Jane and Personal Experience Narrative: Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.Western Folklore 51, no. 1 (January 1992): 23-32.

Gaudet focuses on Gaines's use of first-person narrative strategies in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to demonstrate the role that oral folk traditions play in illiterate communities.

Additional coverage of Gaines's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 18; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 6; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 62; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 24, 42, 75; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 11, 18, 86; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 33, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 5, 7, 16; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 86; and Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers.

Frank W. Shelton (essay date spring 1981)

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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 relative neglect of the work, in comparison to the more compelling Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is understandable. But it is unfortunate in view of the fact that In My Father's House is an important work, showing significant development in Gaines's art and thought, especially in light of his depiction of and reaction to the 1970s.

One reason for the lukewarm response to In My Father's House is the voice Gaines uses. In fact, according to his own testimony, he had trouble completing the novel because it employs an omniscient narrator, while he wrote most of his earlier works in the first person. His use of omniscient narration led to a phenomenon much noted by reviewers—a severe detachment, a distance between story and narrator. The reader does not get as personally involved with Philip Martin as he does with Miss Jane or Jim Kelly or the narrators of the stories in Bloodline. Yet are not detachment and the consequent irony precisely what Gaines aimed to create in In My Father's House? He does not intend for the reader to become intimately involved either with the characters or with the story.

Gaines's distancing of his readers—and himself—from this novel may not indicate a change in his philosophy, but it does, I think, reflect a change in his attitude toward his characters' potential development. Considered in sequence, Gaines's first three novels show a gradual development in his characters' ability to grow, change, and prevail. All the characters in Catherine Carmier, his first novel, are victims of social or environmental forces, while in Of Love and Dust Jim Kelly and Marcus Payne achieve growth through fighting the inertia of southern black life and, within limits at least, gain the capacity to shape their lives. Gaines's sense of this power on the part of his characters culminates in the depiction of Jane Pittman, who prevails over seriously adverse circumstances. The Autobiography reconciles the dichotomies of the earlier novels: past and present, young and old, man and woman. In In My Father's House the reconciliation falls apart. Discussing the novel while he was still writing it, Gaines contended that it does not reflect a change in his views: “I cannot write only about Miss Jane and man surviving. And I cannot write only about man failing. I write about both.” Certainly his works do portray both survival and failure, but I think In My Father's House questions the emphasis on black progress reflected in the Autobiography, and, in the perspective of developments in America during the late 1960s and the 1970s, suggests that Gaines feels that a modification of the positive conclusion of the Autobiography is in order.

Another reason for the relative neglect of In My Father's House is, I think, the absence of elements we tend to associate with Gaines, an absence which reinforces his purposes. When we think of Gaines's earlier novels, we think of lovingly depicted rural settings and common people, but In My Father's House is set in a town, and many of the characters are teachers, ministers, or businessmen. Emphasizing leaders in conflict over who speaks for the people and stressing the inherent danger of leaders' forgetting just whom they are leading, the novel rarely presents the people who are affected by the actions of the leaders and thus lacks the sense of a community rooted in the soil which was so powerful in Gaines's other novels.

This change in emphasis is in part a result of the setting of the novel. It takes place in early 1970, when the black community, having seemed on the verge of success in its fight with the white power structure, was beginning to experience disillusionment as national support for the civil rights movement waned. The Autobiography ended very hopefully, with the unity of the black community appearing to be assured, but Gaines suggests that such unity was, if not illusory, at least only temporary. His latest novel shows both personal and political confusion and disunion. Especially clear is the picture of the relationship between the generations. In the earlier novels, the younger characters lead in the fight for change, while their elders are conservative and traditional, save for Miss Jane, who unites young and old. In In My Father's House the older characters lead, while the young hang back. If, as Gaines suggests in the Autobiography, the hope of a people is in the union of young and old, that union has disappeared. The young seem either disillusioned, having retreated into drink, cynicism, and indifference, or committed to violent, suicidal revolution. Thus Gaines questions the possibility of the political success of the movement which so hopefully ended the Autobiography.

Surely every appreciative reader of Gaines's works recognizes that he is not primarily a political writer, that his themes are really the timeless ones which transcend particular time and place. This is illustrated by the depiction of his main character, Philip Martin. A leader in the community, he is both a personal and political success, a man who has carried on the work of Ned and Jimmy in the Autobiography. But the story of In My Father's House reveals that the hero has feet of clay. This becomes evident as his past, in the person of his son, catches up with him. Martin has believed that he has made up for his past neglect of his illegitimate children and their mother by his devotion to religion and to the social advancement of his people. Like numerous American literary characters, he has wanted to wipe out the past and start over again. But his success in doing so is illusory.

In In My Father's House Gaines again focuses on two themes implicit in all his earlier works: the nature of black manhood and the relationship of fathers and sons. He includes his familiar deterministic explanation of why black men cannot assume their responsibilities and be men. Martin tells his illegitimate son, “‘It took a man to do these things, and I wasn't a man. I was just some other brutish animal who could cheat, steal, rob, kill—but not stand. Not be responsible. Not protect you or your mother. They had branded that in us from the time of slavery. [To have acted any differently would have been] to break the rules, rules we had lived by for so long, and I wasn't strong enough to break them then.’” Like some other Gaines male characters, Martin moves toward manhood and indeed does assume responsibility for family, church, and community. But when encountering the virtually wordless accusations of his son, he is forced to wonder if he has truly escaped his past.

We must give Martin due credit. Challenged by his son, he does not turn away from him; instead he searches his memory and, in a trip to Baton Rouge, actually revisits the past. He is not without courage and honesty. Yet we must also notice other character traits he displays. Gaines has said, “I like pride in people,” and certainly his most memorable characters—the mother in “The Sky Is Gray,” Marcus in Of Love and Dust, Jane and Joe Pittman, Ned and Jimmy in the Autobiography—all possess it in abundance. Gaines has long acknowledged his interest in Greek tragedy and its influence on his works. Of all his novels, In My Father's House perhaps best fits the pattern of classical tragedy in its concern for determinism and free will and for excess pride and its consequences. For what becomes clear in the course of the novel is that beneath the veneer of piety, there is a hard core of egotism in Philip Martin's character, a determination to follow his own desires, a certainty that he knows what is best for everyone, and a disregard for other people.

In particular we see his arrogance in relation to two groups of people. First, he in effect betrays his political followers by agreeing to cancel the march on Chenal's factory in exchange for the release of his son from jail. Chenal is the last bastion of white supremacy in the town, and Martin is unfaithful, for purely personal motives, to what he and his people have been aspiring to. He sees the personal and political realms as separate. In his preceding novels Gaines has shown how closely interrelated they are. Even Marcus in Of Love and Dust, who acts for single-mindedly personal and selfish reasons, sets an example of pride and dignity which, as Jim Kelly implies, will be transferred to the political arena by others after his death. Martin denies the interconnection of personal and political; for him his individual problems take precedence over community goals. In fact, seeing the leaders of the community in conflict over who is to lead, we sense that they have forgotten whom they are leading, that in effect they have lost touch with their community. They seek ego gratification more than change for the good of the people. Because of the self-absorption of the leaders, a barrier has grown between them and the people, and no Miss Jane exists to unite the two groups.

Certainly as serious, at least in the context of the total Gaines canon, is Martin's betrayal of women. In his past life he sexually used and abused women in order to convince himself he was a man, but even in his more enlightened present it is suggested that he has little use for women except as they admire him and support his ego. We only see him visiting his godmother once in the novel, and he is not open and honest with her then. In the earlier novels, old women, while often resistant to change, at least embodied a nurturing force; Martin's weakened relationship with his godmother suggests how cut off he is from his roots, from that which could sustain him and give his actions direction. Even more revealing here is his attitude toward his wife and women in general. At one point in the novel she tells him: “‘[You come to me] for this bed. Cook your food. Follow you to that church. That's all you married me for. You never come to me for any kind of problem.’” In effect he takes her just as much for granted as he did Joanna. If women are a preserving, conserving element in Gaines's world, as Jane Pittman so magnificently is, we see that Martin, separated from that force, is trapped in his own ego. In this novel Gaines dramatizes an issue discussed at length in Michele Wallace's recent Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Noting how few women had positions of authority in the Black Power movement, she observes that to black men women were “of little use to the revolution except as the performer of drudgery.” Wallace further suggests that oppression of black women was the result of the black man's obsessive need to prove his manhood. Something very similar occurs in Gaines's novel. In his concern with his manhood, Martin cannot see his wife as a person in her own right. In the characters of Shepherd and Beverly, two young schoolteachers, Gaines implies the problem between the sexes extends into the next generation. Shepherd resists marrying Beverly, even though they have been together for seven years. The problem is one of commitment, willingness to give of self to another and assume responsibility for another. Black males, even the supposedly enlightened ones, seem unable to achieve full maturity.

Certainly by the end of the novel Martin is brought low. He wants to acknowledge his son, but his son's suicide precludes the possibility of his forging any constructive link between present and past, which Miss Jane was able to do and in fact came herself to embody. To the very end Martin resists facing his responsibility for his son's fate. Continuing to evoke the paralysis inherited by the black man from slavery, which he tried to explain to his son as the cause of his failure, he even blames God for taking away his son. He feels that because of God he has been searching for his son and that God therefore owes him his son. He says, “‘Once He made me a human being He owed me my son.’” Thus he does not arrive even at the perception of Jim Kelly in Of Love and Dust, who thinks about the causes of his being in his general situation: “No, it wasn't the Old Man [God]. The Old Man didn't have a thing in the world to do with it. It was me—it was my face.” After learning of his son's death, Martin wants to turn his back on his present life and return to drinking, fighting, and whoring, but he is talked out of it—and significantly the appeal is from Beverly, a woman. By the conclusion he is reunited with his wife, but their reunion is tenuous, and it is uncertain what the future holds. To his “‘I'm lost,’” she replies, “‘Shhh. We just go'n have to start again.’” Philip has already started again once in his life, and Gaines suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible. However if Martin begins approaching women on a different, more humble footing, perhaps he will then be open to the sustenance which they often provide in Gaines's fiction.

Gaines's first three novels culminated in Jane Pittman, a character who embodies the positive values in his world. Perhaps he was then faced with the problem of how to create a story which would represent a significant development from such a powerful, heroic figure. In In My Father's House Gaines implies that Miss Jane's triumph, both personal and social, may be atypical, that Martin's fall is the more usual human fate. Burdened by a past he cannot escape, by overweening pride and self-esteem, Martin is defeated. Whether he can rise again, as is characteristic of traditional tragic heroes, is problematical. The ending of this novel suggests the ending of his first novel, Catherine Carmier, in that the characters are in stasis, immobile, unable to move and break out of the pattern in which they are trapped. The novel ends we just go'n have to start again. It will be interesting and illuminating to see where Gaines goes from here, whether his future vision will emphasize triumph or tragedy, whether in the context of the 1970s and the 1980s he can find the possibility of hope and reconciliation for humanity.

John W. Roberts (essay date fall 1984)

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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 much of his fiction. It is in probing the underlying community attitudes, values, and beliefs to discover the way in which they determine what an individual will or has become that Gaines gives poignancy to the pieces in his short-story collection Bloodline (1968; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1970). Because his fiction focuses on the peculiar plight of black Americans in the South, Gaines must consider an additional level of significance—the strong communal bonds characteristic of Southern black folk culture. In these stories, black folk culture, with its emphasis on community-defined values and behaviors, shows signs of deterioration, while Western individualism and the development of more personally-defined values appear as catalysts in the demise of the black folk world view. In such a cultural climate, the spiritual and emotional well-being of both the community and the individual is threatened. Faced with the necessity to act and finding traditional solutions no longer viable, the characters in Gaines' stories struggle desperately to restore some semblance of normalcy to their worlds. The dramatic conflict endemic to the stories in Bloodline arises out of the efforts of various characters to reconcile their individual needs with community prerequisites. Two of the stories in Bloodline, “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray,” are particularly illustrative of the conflict between community perspective and individual needs. The conflict in these two stories further illustrates the importance of the changes taking place within Southern black culture to the development of the social consciousness of children. While the action of the stories revolves around two young boys, the resolution of the conflict resides with their parents.

In “A Long Day in November,” the friction in the story arises over a conflict between Amy's and Eddie's definition of manhood and male responsibility. At the outset of the story, Amy decides to abandon her marriage to Eddie and, with her young son, Sonny, returns home to her mother. Her dissatisfaction stems from her conviction that Eddie spends far too much time with his car and not enough time with his family. Eddie, however, is unable to understand Amy's objections. Although he is not very attentive to his family and household, he works to support them, a traditionally acceptable means to fulfilling his male responsibility. In this conflict of values, it becomes clear that Eddie's concept of the male's responsibility to his family is based on more traditional considerations than Amy's. While Eddie is comfortable with the traditional definition of the black male's familial role, he fails to realize that the circumstances which gave rise to it do not necessarily continue to exist for him. The inability of the black male to provide for and protect his family has traditionally forced him to find alternative means of demonstrating his manhood. Through his car, a traditional symbol of masculinity and male independence in American culture, Eddie attempts to define his manhood outside of his family. Amy, however, refuses to accept either Eddie's attachment to his car as a demonstration of his masculinity or his staying out until the early morning hours as a definition of his familial responsibility. By leaving him she forces him to seek a new way of conceptualizing his role as father and husband.

The action of the story is filtered through the consciousness of the couple's young son, Sonny. The use of Sonny as narrator suggests that this story is more than a simple narrative of male/female conflict. The centrality of the disagreement between Amy and Eddie to the development of Sonny's emerging social consciousness is implied from the very beginning of the story. From his being awakened in the early morning hours to face the “cold” realities of a new day until his return to those covers in the evening, Sonny is an initiate/observer in a long day's manhood ritual. Eddie, who, up to this point, has defined his manhood in terms of what he has perceived as community standards, suddenly discovers after Amy's departure that the old communal consensus on male behavior no longer exists. Consequently, the lessons learned from the day's events become as important, if not more so, for Sonny's father as they do for the boy. Through conversations with other male community members, both Eddie and Sonny discover that the traditional definitions of manhood and male responsibility have also proved inadequate for others. For Eddie, the changing perspectives on manhood mean a reevaluation of his conscious knowledge of the world, and for Sonny, they precipitate the development of a consciousness based on different preconceptions than those of his father's time.

Eddie's attempts to effect a reconciliation with Amy are, on the one hand, complicated by Amy's mother Rachael, whose traditional values threaten to sever the marriage permanently, and, on the other hand, by his own enslavement to a traditional world view. Rachael's traditionalism is exemplified in the story by the coloring of her speech and logic with folk platitudes. For example, her objection to Eddie as a son-in-law is based on her superstitious belief that “‘a yellow nigger with a gap 'tween his front teeth ain't no good’” (p. 14). And Amy's present problem with Eddie simply confirms Rachael's general assessment of his character, an assessment which she delights in delivering proverbially: “‘Put a fool in a car and he becomes a bigger fool’” (p. 14). Her philosophy of “‘live and learn’” (p. 16) eventually leads her to bring up Freddie Jackson, her own choice of a husband for Amy. Rachael considers Freddie a perfect mate in a traditional sense—he is hardworking and a landowner. Because she cannot envision a change in Eddie's behavior that would cause Amy to resume a marital relationship with him, Rachael does not feel any remorse concerning her attitude or actions toward Eddie. She feels perfectly justified in keeping Eddie away from Amy, even at the end of a gun.

In some ways, Eddie's traditionalism is as much a hindrance to his discovering an answer to his marital problems as is Rachael's interference. His traditionalism is best exemplified in his approaches to finding a solution to his marital difficulties. He turns first to the minister and then to the conjure woman, two traditional sources of counsel and advice in the black community. However, through Eddie's interaction with the minister and the conjure woman, the transformations occurring within the culture are further highlighted. Of the two, the minister, as a representative of one of society's most conservative institutions, the church, envisions his role to be that of a translator of community values, not a proponent of change. His profession demands that he adhere to a common set of values for the entire community. Consequently, Eddie finds Reverend Simmons' advice of patience and prayer unacceptable because it does not speak specifically to his problem.

On the other hand, Eddie discovers that the conjure woman, Madame Toussaint, remains abreast of the individual needs of members of her community. Unlike the ministry, her profession lacks social respectability and official institutional affiliation; therefore, her economic survival depends on her staying in touch with the changing needs of her constituency and her ability to communicate effective solutions to individual situations. Her foreknowledge of Eddie's predicament is indicative of the way in which she has made the community's affairs her business. Even her methods of dealing with clients show signs of change: She does not offer the proverbial multifunctional trick which one traditionally associates with a conjurer. Madame Toussaint, instead, deals in advice designed to alleviate the underlying cause of situations faced by individuals who seek her out. Consequently, Eddie receives an effective and expedient solution to his marital difficulties from her. She goes to the source of the problem when she tells Eddie to burn his car. Although he considers her advice somewhat drastic at first, he eventually realizes that his situation demands a dramatic symbolic gesture of change.

The symbolic act of burning his car is performed in view of the entire community, illustrating the strong communal bonds still in existence. Because of Rachael's involvement in the dispute between Amy and Eddie and Eddie's own ineptness in handling his problem, the disagreement between the couple has become a community concern. Consequently, the ritual of burning his car to placate Amy no longer harbingers simply individual significance for Eddie but also acts to restore community equilibrium. Eddie must not only demonstrate his recognition of a need for change in his relationship with his family to Amy but also offer the community a symbol sufficient to atone for the chaos that he has brought to it. Even Rachael, who has maintained throughout the story that Eddie is incapable of change, is sufficiently moved by Eddie's action to exclaim: “‘I must be dreaming. He's a man after all’” (p. 57). And it has been Amy's goal all along to force Eddie to accept his manhood.

With the exception of Sonny, who is too young to have become fully indoctrinated with a reactionary communal world view, none of the characters in “A Long Day in November” is able to escape the tugs of traditionalism. Amy, who eventually forces Eddie to seek redefinition of his concept of manhood, appears to be the most individualistic. Her behavior, however, throughout the story indicates that she is as much a captive of traditional values as the others. Her refusal to accept Rachael's advice to leave Eddie and immediately move in with Freddie Jackson is expressed in terms of communal disapproval rather than personal conviction: “‘What would people say, out one house and in another one the same day’” (p. 25). Her concern for community perspective, however, is most poignantly demonstrated in her response to Eddie's having finally burned his car. She insists, despite his protests, that Eddie beat her to save himself from community scorn and ridicule.

Throughout “A Long Day in November,” the sense of a unified folk community with a vested interest in its members looms in the background. Values and behaviors more indicative of an individualistic world view, however, also exist. They are evident in the conflict between Eddie and Amy over appropriate male behavior toward the family, and they are evident in the disagreement between Rachael and Amy on a generational level. Amy's refusal to condemn Eddie on the same grounds that her mother does, as well as her willingness to accept change in Eddie's character as a possibility, represents a move toward the acceptance of more personally-defined values. The recognition of individual needs is also salient in Eddie's search for a solution to his marital crisis. His failure to find Madame Toussaint's advice to the other men in the community applicable to himself is illustrative of the changes taking place. Ultimately, Sonny becomes a passive recipient of this cultural change. The story suggests that he, too, will be faced with the task of sorting out his own individual needs within a communal framework. He, however, will not only have the example of his parents but also the support of a concerned community.

The feeling of community which permeates “A Long Day in November”—that sense that whatever happens to Amy and Eddie is everybody's concern—is conspicuously absent from the second story in Bloodline, “The Sky Is Gray.” James, the eight-year-old narrator of this story, struggles to understand his mother and her conceptions of manhood and dignity without aid from the community. With the exception of Auntie and Mr. Bayonne, who attempt to explain his mother's cold, dispassionate treatment of him on one occasion, James is alienated in his effort to come to grips with both the social and personal forces governing his life. The source of James' isolation is his mother Octavia, who moves through the world of the story with a calm and control which always seem on the verge of eruption. She has cut herself completely off from the community which conceivably could have provided her with support while her husband does his tour of duty in the army. Although her relationship with this absent husband is only briefly mentioned, one senses in her attitude and behavior that his departure left her vulnerable. As a result, she has made protecting James from becoming vulnerable her primary goal in life. The problem in the story arises not so much from her efforts to make James a “man” as from her approach to and definition of manhood.

In her efforts to make James a “man,” Octavia apparently believes that she has only her own behavior and attitude toward life to offer as a model. To project an image of invulnerability for James, she alienates herself from the community and deals with her world on an individualistic level. The community, presumably, offers no such model. Taking what she has—her pride and her poverty—she moves toward her goal of inculcating in James a sense of independence and dignity in self undeterred by offers of kindness and generosity. However, because she never explains her motives to him, she presents James with a world filled with extremes which endangers his realization of the manhood she attempts to force prematurely on him. The “gray” of the sky which hangs threateningly over the action of the story symbolizes the dangers inherent in the extremes which James must reconcile. While “gray” literally represents the harmonious blending of black and white, its use in the story to describe the sky before a brewing storm symbolizes a potentially destructive force. The force implicit in the story is Octavia's individualism, which threatens to deprive James of membership in the human community.

The dangers that her approach poses to James are dramatically illustrated in the argument between a minister and a student in the dentist's office, the scene of much of the action. The argument between the men focuses on the existence of God. The minister accepts God unquestioningly, while the student rejects God because belief in Him alleviates the need to question:

“Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God,” the boy says.

“My heart tells me,” the preacher says.

“‘My heart tells me,’” the boy says. “‘My heart tells me.’ Sure, ‘My heart tells me.’ And as long as you listen to what your heart tells you, you will have only what the white man gives you and nothing more. Me, I don't listen to my heart. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body, and nothing else.”

(pp. 77-78)

Whereas the minister clings to the traditional religious value of faith, the student espouses the development of more individualistic values based on reasoning and logic.

During the exchange between the men, the minister exposes the weakness of his position when he becomes frustrated and strikes the student. Through his action, he admits that the emotional or “heart” position leads to a cul de sac; it cannot be defended rationally. On the other hand, the student maintains a defensible position, but his egotistical stance exposes his feelings of alienation from his community. His father, we're told, is dead, and his mother is in a charity ward with a serious illness. Furthermore, he is forced to “wash dishes at night” to finance his education. Consequently, his feelings of isolation cause him to alienate himself from the emotional support and comfort of the members of his community, whom he, in turn, deprives of the benefits of his education. His feelings of isolation are clearly illustrated in his conversation with a woman who attempts to take his side in the disagreement. Rather than explaining his position to her in such a way that she will be able to understand it, he raises his argument to a metaphysical level and alienates her:

“You really don't believe in God?” the lady says.

“No,” he says.

“But why?” the lady says.

“Because the wind is pink,” he says.

“What?” the lady says.

The boy don't answer her no more. He just reads in his book.

(p. 80)

Although he claims to have a solution for the black community, he refuses to consider its level of comprehension. Consequently, in attempting to communicate with the community, he feels frustration, which reinforces his belief in his own isolation.

Octavia's skepticism and self-imposed isolation place her in a similarly antagonistic stance toward the community. Although her primary goal is to project a model of strength for James through her own actions, her inability to make her sense of the world comprehensible to him leaves James vulnerable to the very forces from which she would shield him. By forcing James to sublimate his emotions and accept them as signs of human weakness, she fails to provide him with a means of dealing with the emotional responses of others in a way consistent with her philosophy. James' vulnerability to this aspect of human nature is illustrated in the episode with an old couple who offer them food during their visit to town. James does not betray the kind and heartfelt offer of the couple although his mother would want him to. He responds to the emotional intent of the act. It is through these kinds of moderating forces in James' environment that Gaines sees his salvation.

Although Octavia does not operate from the same level of awareness that the student does, it is strongly implied that her attitude stems from perceptions and conscious choices made as a result of her husband's army duty. She uses her new awareness to structure her world into clear-cut oppositional units. Her final statement to James in the story is probably the most illustrative of her world view: “‘You not a bum,’ she says. ‘You a man’” (p. 94). While this is the nature of Octavia's world, it does not completely define the contours of the world with which James must come to terms. Human existence does not lend itself to such neat categorizing. Contrary to what Octavia would have him believe, the choices that James must eventually make about the quality of his existence should not be between “bum” and “man,” or between adhering to the dictates of the “head” or “heart” as advocated by the student and the minister respectively. His choices should involve a conscious effort to integrate the extremes. However, for the moment, James is literally and figuratively caught in the middle of a storm in which both social and personal forces threaten his well-being.

The symbolic significance of the “gray sky” is the key to an understanding of the complexity of the issue raised in the story. To see “gray” merely as the integration of black and white on a literal level, and as a metaphor for racial integration on a symbolic level is, I think, to misunderstand Gaines' real intent in the story. As the argument between the student and minister in the dentist's office clearly illustrates, there is a racial dimension present in the story. But the conflict goes much deeper than that. It also involves the problem of integrating the individual and the community in a mutually rewarding relationship in the face of dehumanizing individualistic forces. In this case, consciousness raising of blacks should not lead to an alienation from the community as it has for the student and Octavia; it should provide the basis for bettering the community.

In both “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray,” Gaines involves the reader in the dilemma faced by individuals who find traditional folk values inadequate to meet their needs. In both cases, the situation is presented as a puzzle to the young who must attempt to resolve the conflicts that come about as a result of this realization. For Eddie in “A Long Day in November,” the ability to solve the enigma created by Amy's decision to leave him is compounded by his already established communal world view. However, his indirect discovery that the community is no longer capable of defining his individual responsibility to his family is potentially important both for him and for Sonny. Furthermore, the story implies that the community can continue to provide the individual with emotional support in his efforts to fulfill his individual needs. On the other hand, James in “The Sky Is Gray” will never know the values of communal bonds if Octavia has her way. Although the point is never explicitly stated, it is apparent that Octavia finds the values of her community inadequate to make James the kind of man that she feels he must become. Her personal situation can be seen as a metaphor for the plight of blacks. Dependency on the philanthropy and good will of others leads to vulnerability when that support is no longer forthcoming. Her alternative, however, creates an atmosphere which, for James, is potentially equal in the dangers it poses. The fact that neither story offers a resolution to the underlying conflict apparent in the situations is indicative of the contemporary nature of the issue which Gaines raises.

Charles H. Rowell (essay date summer 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7166

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 sweet-olive bush which stood in the far right corner of the garden.

A Gathering of Old Men

If you drive west out of Baton Rouge on U.S. 190, you eventually cross the Mississippi River, Mechesebe, “Father of Waters.” If you by-pass Port Allen and take the Alexandria exit about three miles up the road, you soon come to Pointe Coupée Parish. As you enter the parish, you immediately recognize its four geographical distinctions: the same oppressive heat you encountered in Baton Rouge—if you are traveling between late spring and early fall; live oaks, standing like prehistoric giants with hair of Spanish moss; flat, fertile soil which once, with abundance, supported the agricultural empire of the South; and False River, a lake whose shape forms the illusion of a river.

You are driving along False River; you are coming into New Roads, the seat of the parish, its major town, whose power belongs to a few whites of a decided gentility—families who have held sway over the people and land of the parish since the Louisiana Purchase. The many outlying hamlets, such as Morganza, Oscar, Lavonia and Lakeland, are no more than sprawling plantations owned by white families. Inquiries in the right places will tell you that these families once, through the exploitation of blacks and Cajuns, transformed this land into high-yielding crops of sugar cane and cotton.

As you move around in the parish, you discover that its architecture reflects the history, past and present, of the social classes and racial groups of the parish: mansions or “big houses,” some with two-tiered verandas, evoking memories of the Spanish and French settlers; modest homes of a simple but severe design, known in Louisiana as Cajun architecture; and then cabins or shanties, sometimes grouped in what is known as “quarters,” where blacks live. Although you drove west and slightly north at the beginning of your trip, you realize that the Mississippi River, twisting southward, declares itself at the eastern boundary of the parish. And to the north and west the Red River and the Atchafalaya River make their presences known.


Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. St. Raphael Parish, as Ernest Gaines renames it in his fiction, in honor of his stepfather, Raphael Norbert Colar. Here Gaines was born and spent the first fifteen years of his life; and here he frequently returns from California (where he moved in 1948) to be with the people and “the land in different seasons, to travel the land, to go into the fields, to go into the small towns, to go into the bars, to eat the food, to listen to the language … to absorb things” (Callaloo #3). This is the parish Gaines chose for his fiction—a collective fable exploring the conditions of modern humanity in the throes of traditions and values that forever threaten to stifle its will to live.

The action in Gaines's fiction takes place in the quarters, homes, jails, saloons, stores, yards and fields; in the city of New Roads (named Bayonne and St. Adrienne for Gaines's mother, Adrienne Gaines Colar) and on False River (St. Charles River, for his brother Charles); at gates and public gatherings; and on the roads and in other places. In its infinite details, the world of the fiction of Ernest Gaines encompasses the countryside, the villages, and the town of New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Explaining his motive for using rural Louisiana in his fiction. Gaines tells us that he

wanted to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river. I wanted to see on paper those Louisiana black children walking to school on cold days while yellow Louisiana buses passed them by. I wanted to see on paper those black parents going to work before the sun came up and coming back home to look after their children after the sun went down. I wanted to see on paper the true reason why those black fathers left home—not because they were trifling or shiftless—but because they were tired of putting up with certain conditions. I wanted to see on paper the small country churches (schools during the week), and I wanted to hear those simple religious songs, those simple prayers—that true devotion. … And I wanted to hear that Louisiana dialect—that combination of English, Creole, Cajun and Black. For me there's no more beautiful sound anywhere—unless, of course, you take exceptional pride in “proper” French or “proper” English. I wanted to read about the true relationship between whites and blacks—about the people … I had known.

Gaines concentrates on Pointe Coupée/St. Raphael Parish as a center of meaning in order to “record” the lives of the people he knew as he saw them, and to use their experiences to construct a myth that articulates the struggles of a static world fiercely resistant to change. St. Raphael Parish is like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha and James Joyce's Dublin: it equals the modern world. To understand the Gaines canon, we must explore its symbolic geography. We can begin with the quarters, the focal place and central metaphor of his parish. To examine the quarters community as a phenomenon in Southern history, and as a physical, social, and political entity in Gaines's work is to tell much about the symbolic, temporal reality of his fictional world.


He sat in the car looking into the yard at the house. The yard was clean and bare, except for a mulberry tree on the left side of the walk and a rose bush on either side of the steps. The house itself was exactly like every other one in the quarters. They all had the same rusted corrugated tin roofs with a brick chimney sitting in the center. They all had the same long, warped porches, with three or four steps leading up to the porch. Every house had two doors facing the road. All had been whitewashed at the same time, twenty-five or thirty years ago—none had been painted since—and the weather had turned all of them the same ashy gray color.

In My Father's House

The quarters, as a southern phenomenon, has a long history which goes back to the days of slavery in the American South. Originally, the quarters referred to the housing or living area—the physical community—of the slaves, which essentially “consisted of rows of cabins near the Big House or the overseer's residence” (The Reshaping of Plantation Society). In B. A. Botkin's Lay My Burden Down, Charley Williams, who grew up as a slave on a plantation in Louisiana, recalls that the slave cabins ran “along both sides of the road that go to the fields. All one-room log cabins. …” The group arrangement and architecture of the slave cabins obviously varied from plantation to plantation, from state to state. The first significant matter for us here, then, is that the slave master crowded the slaves into confined space in order to observe, break, and control them. The slaves, however, did not allow the confinement of the quarters to destroy their humanity. Instead they transcended the designs of those who wished to control their minds and bodies, bonding together as a community through friendship and mutual protection.

According to Thomas L. Webber, the world of the quarters was the slaves' primary source of education; here the slaves acquired and developed “the knowledge, attitudes, values, and skills with which they learned to view the world and make sense of their relationship to it” (Deep Like the Rivers). Although they were continuously in view of the master and his overseer in their quarters community, the slaves made a world there. That is to say, they created and developed a culture, society, and world view that persisted, however modified, into the twentieth century. It is important for us to remember that a large measure of what we refer to as Black South folk culture originated in the quarters or from experiences with restrictions and forms of oppression not unlike those of the quarters.

The quarters community, as a physical, social, and political entity, continued into the 1970s. After Emancipation and Reconstruction a majority of the freed-men/women in the South returned to labor and economic conditions that were similar to those during slavery. Many became sharecroppers and tenant farmers who owned their own persons but were bound to the land on which they worked. Like the slaves, they, too, were clustered into quarters communities. In testimony before the federal Industrial Commission on Agriculture and Agricultural Labor in 1901, William Carter Stubbs reported that the houses in quarters on Louisiana plantations were “arranged in rows, probably 30 to 40 cabins together … on both sides of the street [i.e., the road].” During the first half of the twentieth century, a large number of people occupied the quarters, but the different waves of the Great Migration gradually diminished the community's population. Opportunities unheard of in the rural South attracted millions of black southerners to cities beyond the region. By the 1890s, with farming as a corporate enterprise, the quarters as a community has virtually disappeared.

In its representation of the quarters, the Gaines canon covers a period of just over one hundred years. Its chronological time in plot dating begins with the Civil War in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and ends with the late 1970s in A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Miss Jane Pittman alone covers a hundred years, up until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which reaches its height in Bayonne with Reverend Phillip Martin's activism in In My Father's House (1978). Catherine Carmier (1964) and some of the stories in Bloodline (1968), notably “Just Like a Tree” and “Bloodline,” are also set in the 1960s, but most of the action in Of Love and Dust (1967) takes place during the 1940s. The quarters in the Gaines canon is a slowly changing entity whose social and political activities recall the evolving Black South.


We was already in the quarters. Far as you could see was nothing but this long road of white dust. It hurt your eyes to look at so much dust, so much whiteness, so much heat rising up from it. It was the hottest part of the day—between one thirty and two—and there wasn't another person anywhere in sight. The tall blood weeds on both sides of the road made the place look hotter. We was coming up to 'Malia's house. I could see two chairs on the gallery. They wasn't there when I came down the quarters the first time.


Felix's description of the quarters as a physical entity in “Bloodline” should not escape the reader's attention. When he goes there in the morning, Felix tells the reader that “‘Malia's house was the first one in the quarters, a little gray house that hadn't been painted in ages.” His descriptions of Amalia's trees and the importance of the shade they provide from the intense heat in the buildings are all that he tells us about the Laurent Quarters. When he later recounts the events of his afternoon trip with Frank Laurent to Amalia's home for a meeting with Copper (Christian Laurent), Felix offers a similar description. He concentrates on the natural elements of the quarters: the dust, the heat, the weeds and the weathered houses. These images recur throughout Gaines's fiction. Whenever they appear, we know they represent the quarters and the human activities which take place there. In St. Raphael Parish, the reader's attention is frequently directed, for example, toward the giant trees in Raoul Carmier's front yard, the intense heat of the sun beating down on Marcus in the field, the encompassing white dust which follows Marshall Hebert's speeding car, the weeds growing all over the quarters on Candy Marshall's plantation. And the reader soon realizes that these elements of nature are not simply descriptions of setting.

One element of the natural scene Gaines never allows his reader to forget is the weather, which functions variously in different scenes of the novels. Except for the cold, rainy weather of In My Father's House and the different seasons that pass during the many years The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman covers, the main seasonal setting of Gaines's novels is the summer that oppresses the inhabitants of the quarters working in the fields, moving up and down the dusty roads, standing by or passing through gates, or sitting on their front porches. The people of the quarters never cease complaining about the heat. “This is the hottest place in the world,” the returning Lillian Carmier tells her sister Catherine, who uses the heat as an excuse to meet secretly with Jackson from time to time. “It was hot” out in the fields, says the narrator in Of Love and Dust, “it was burning up. You could see little monkeys dancing out there in front of you.” The weather, along with dust, is the recollective image that Miss Jane Pittman uses to open her narrative: “It was a day something like right now, dry, hot, and dusty dusty. It might ‘a’ been July, I'm not too sure, but it was July or August. Burning up, I won't ever forget.” Her hot and dusty day, full of the sounds of marching Union and Confederate soldiers, immediately places the scene of her narrative—even for the least traveled and least read of her audience—in the smoldering rural South.

The intense heat James Kelly describes in Of Love and Dust is, like Sidney Bonbon, Marcus' nemesis. The sun, “that white hot bitch way there in the sky,” works against him when Sidney is riding his horse no more than six inches behind Marcus; as the black stallion's breath pours down “on the back of [Marcus'] neck” “that old sun … white, small, and still strong—[shines] down … like nothing is happening.” The work under that hot Louisiana sun, along with the brutal psychological circumstances Sidney creates, is the first test Marcus must undergo in Sidney's scheme to break him. Of course, in the final analysis Marcus, a newcomer to the quarters, triumphs over the heat, which functions as a character, and over Sidney, whose scheme fails. In his triumph, he proves himself superior to Sidney and the plantation system because Marcus' “act of rebellion,” says John Wideman, “is a beacon exposing the evil of one form of life and heralding the possibility of another” (Callaloo #3).

Like the intense heat in Of Love and Dust, the hot white dust enshrouds the quarters and the people in it. The dust is, in fact, one of the recurring images in the novel. When Marcus first appears with Sidney, they bring with them to the quarters a cloud of dust. In the quarters, the “dust in the road [is] nearly as white as” Aunt Margaret's dress on the evening she goes to tell James Kelly about Marcus' first intimate encounter with Louise, Sidney's wife. Everywhere he goes in his 1941 Ford, Marshall Hebert brings dust. Gaines himself has commented that the dust signifies “the absence of love, the absence of life.” The dust following Marshall Hebert symbolizes the death he brings in the end—the death which separates the lovers (Marcus and Louise, Pauline and Sidney) who “cannot love as they would want.” “These people,” Gaines continues, “wanted to love, but because of the way the system is set up, it was impossible to love. Dust.”

Like the slave quarters of the Old South, the Laurent Quarters in “Bloodline,” the Hebert Quarters in Of Love and Dust, the Sampson Quarters in Miss Jane Pittman, the Marshall Quarters in A Gathering of Old Men are enclosed communities whose limited space forces each inhabitant into the private lives of others. The unpainted homes or cabins, each with two front doors opening onto a front porch or gallery, are situated close to one another, as each of the cabins faces the dusty road which divides them into rows and which leads directly to the fields. As Thadious Davis puts it, every “house is within sight of every other; every resident known to one another” (Callaloo #21). So are some of the intimate details of their private lives. That involuntary intimacy in Of Love and Dust proves invaluable for the narrator and reader; James Kelly gives the reader information a first person narrator-participant could not acquire firsthand. His neighbors, who voluntarily and involuntarily see other neighbors' doings, pass on information about them to James Kelly and other neighbors. How could James Kelly know the details of Marcus' movements in the quarters on his last afternoon on Marshall Hebert's plantation if one of the neighbors did not tell him? James Kelly is working in the field at that time, but Charlie Jordon, who reports the details to him, is at home across the road from James Kelly's cabin:

He [Charlie Jordon] saw Marcus come out on the gallery and stand with his hands on his hips. After looking up and down the quarter, he went back in again. Charlie could see him pacing the floor just inside the room. Then a few minutes later he was on the gallery again, this time with a bottle of beer. He was still in his shorts. Charlie said he would stand in one place awhile, then he would start pacing the gallery. Then he would go in my room or his room. Everytime he went in my room he came back with a bottle of beer, Charlie said.

Charlie Jordon is not James Kelly's only informant; there are other inhabitants who, from observing others, tell him what they see and hear in the quarters. How else would he know the intimate details of Sidney Bonbon's or Marcus' visits to Pauline's home if Aunt Ca'line and Pa Bully had not listened to the privacies of their neighbors or sat on the gallery those hot summer nights? The quarters as a physical territory is a limited space where intimacies cease to be private as soon as they come into existence. Gaines exploits the reality of this limited space, providing his narrator with “reliable” informants and his readers with a detailed sketch of a geography of the imagination.


From my gallery I could see that dust coming down the quarter, coming fast, and I thought to myself, “Who in the world would be driving like that?” I got up to go inside until the dust had settled. But I had just stepped inside the room when I heard the truck stopping before the gate. I didn't turn around then because I knew the dust was flying all over the place. A minute or so later, when I figured it had settled, I went back. The dust was still flying across the yard, but it wasn't nearly as thick as now. I looked toward the road and I saw somebody coming in the gate.

Of Love and Dust

A careful examination of some of the images of place in Catherine Carmier will tell us much about Gaines's conception of the quarters as a social entity. The quarters we see in Catherine Carmier is also under siege; one ever feels the presence of the materialistic Cajuns, who gradually seize the land from the declining white gentry and root out the black population from the quarters. But the central focus of the novel is neither the decline of the white gentry nor the Cajun takeover—however much the latter figures into the complication and resolution of the plot. Catherine Carmier deals with a few days in the social life of the people of the quarters: their relationships to one another, the return and reception of kin, and their attitudes towards intraracial color codes and traditional institutions, such as the church, school and marriage. The main focus of the novel, however, is the nature and the effects of the “secret” love affair between Jackson Bradley and Catherine Carmier. In addition to the Jackson-Catherine love story, the novel also examines familial relationships in Miss Charlotte's household, to which Jackson returns, and Raoul Carmier's household, to which Lillian returns. In Catherine Carmier, Gaines, as in “A Long Day in November,” presents his quarters as a social entity, with its inhabitants in private and public relationships and conflicts.

The conflict in Charlotte's household comes from Jackson's inability to become one again with the place and the people of the quarters. His estrangement is as inevitable as change. Gaines first suggests Jackson's alienation from his ancestral home as soon as he arrives at his Aunt Charlotte's home: “Jackson looked toward the house. … Everything—his aunt, the house, the trees, the fence—seemed strange, and yet very familiar.” In addition to feeling estranged from his aunt and her home, Jackson feels distanced from Brother who was his best friend: “before he [Jackson] left here—they had been inseparable.” But now Jackson “could not make himself feel about Brother as he did before.” Through a series of images of place, Gaines demonstrates to us why his character, who has just returned from a long stay in California, can never fit again in the quarters near Bayonne. One of the most directly pointed moments signaling his alienation occurs when he looks from his bedroom window into Charlotte's garden:

The half dozen rows of beans that ran beside the house were nearly dry. Everything else in the garden had that half-green, half-yellow color.

I should have told her, he was thinking. I should have told her then that I'm going back. How can anyone stay here? Just look at this place. Everything is drying up; everything is half dead.

Jackson's thoughts on what he sees are not only his reflections on place; he thinks the same of the people with whom he cannot communicate. His failure to understand his Aunt Charlotte and his inability to continue to cherish the institutions, codes, and rituals she and the community hold dear set him apart from the quarters.

His conversations with Madame Bayonne and Catherine Carmier, the only people with whom he has significant relationships, tell us that his life is empty, that he has lost his sense of place and, hence, self. At one point, he tells Madame Bayonne that he is “like a leaf … that's broken away from a tree. Drifting.” He will not find himself in Bayonne, in California, or in any other place until he affirms archetypal modes through which self-assertion can be made. To assert himself, Jackson has to affirm, for example, the traditions, manners and institutions of a specific community. Because he does not abide the cultural imperatives through which Charlotte and her neighbors define themselves, neither Bayonne nor its quarters can give Jackson refuge. After all, everything there is dying, “drying up.”

Jackson's garden is also a reflection of the Carmiers' household, which is often represented by images related to death: we usually see the house in darkness or semidarkness, surrounded by “big oak and pecan trees” which look “like sentinels.” When Lillian Carmier first returns home, the decaying “house, big, old, paintless,” depresses her; and when Jackson looks at it, usually from afar, the Carmier house, like the Carmiers themselves, suggests an existence apart from—yet ultimately a part of—the quarters:

Jackson looked across the road and farther down the quarters at the big, old unpainted house where the Carmiers lived. He could hardly see the house for the trees in the yard, but the house looked no different from the way he left it ten years ago. Regardless of how bright the sun was shining, the big trees in the yard always kept the yard and the house in semidarkness.

Raoul Carmier's house, a symbol of the dying code by which he lives, is, in its tomb-like image, forbidden territory to members of the quarters and the rest of the world. As Madame Bayonne tells Jackson, Della has been forbidden to talk with people outside the household; members of the Carmier family “‘have put her in this position—behind those trees and nothing, hear me clearly, Jackson, nothing outside those trees is allowed in that yard.’” Later Madame Bayonne warns Jackson directly: “‘A word to the wise—’ she started, then stopped. ‘Don't go behind those trees, Jackson. It won't come to any good.’” In other words, to go past the trees is to face trouble. When he does, Jackson ultimately confronts Raoul, who obsessively guards his family, especially Catherine who, until his fight with Jackson, is his only “prop.”

The images Gaines uses to describe the Carmier house also reflect the nature of the family's relationship to the quarters community, and the family members' relationships to one another. Although they too are descendants of Africans, the Carmiers, who are Creoles, have alienated themselves from the quarters; and as well, their home, which was once the overseer's house for the Grover Plantation, is separated from the rest of the quarters by a fence and a row of tall trees. The origin of the Carmiers' separation dates back to the creation of Creole societies in Louisiana which were built upon intraracial color codes seldom violated in social relationships. Neither black nor white, the Creoles only socialized with and married other Creoles—not blacks or whites. Raoul imposes the same isolation upon his family. He forbids his dark-skinned wife to talk with the people in the quarters, and he kills Mark, Della's son, not because he is born outside their marriage but because, says Alvin Aubert, he is dark in color. Catherine, who becomes Raoul's source of strength after the birth of Mark, is likewise forbidden to socialize with people in the quarters. She must, then, maintain a secret relationship with Jackson, who is not only black but is a threat to Raoul because he plans to take Catherine away.

Once Jackson passes through the gate and goes beyond the trees, he engages, as all the quarters knows, in a doomed relationship. Madame Bayonne's warning is not the only one given him; he knows from his early childhood relationship with Catherine, and from his Aunt Charlotte's words, that an affair with Catherine is forbidden. His ignoring the tradition of Creole-black separation is another violation that alienates him from the quarters. Unlike Jackson, the people in the quarters accept that unspoken intraracial arrangement. But Jackson defies it, tragically entrapping himself in a relationship that only leads to his fight with Raoul Carmier and his loss of Catherine. He learns that the world of the quarters in Catherine Carmier has its own social structure which the individual is expected to respect, that the consequence of not doing so is the psychological distancing which places the individual and the community at odds with each other. The result is the position in which Jackson Bradley and Lillian Carmier find themselves: alienated from their families, the community, and its social heritage.

The long-term residents of Gaines's quarters communities do not suffer Jackson's estrangement. In fact, most members of the quarters bond together for their common good. Eddie in “A Long Day in November” never would have solved his domestic problems if, in the quarters, private lives were not communal concerns. The attempted move of Aunt Fe in “Just Like a Tree” becomes the problem of the entire community which, in spite of inclement weather, pays its final respects. The quarters community has evolved traditions and values which its different institutions maintain as sources of support for its members in crises. It is an extended family to which each member owes allegiance, and it is an exacting social entity whose structure evolved from the experiences its residents have undergone since slavery.


This time it was not one or two, it was many. They was not marching, they was not hurrying; it didn't look like they was even talking to each other. They was walking like every last one of them was by himself and any little noise could turn him around. But the longer I stood there looking, the more I saw coming toward me. Men, women, children. … No, not everybody in the quarters was headed that way. … But the number of people I saw coming toward me was something I never would ‘a’ dreamed of.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Within the chronology of plot dating in the Gaines canon, the quarters community first appears as a political entity in Miss Jane Pittman, when Uncle Isom asks his ex-slave master to allow him and the other freed-men/women to return to the quarters to decide whether they will remain on his plantation or leave it now that they have been “set free” by the Emancipation Proclamation. The gathering reveals a confused and divided community which, with the weight of a past that did not prepare them for such a sudden “emancipation,” fails to speak as one collective voice. When we see the quarters later on the Bone, Dye, and Sampson plantations, we meet a restored community which, in physical and psychological terms, is the same as the one the bondsmen/women knew before the Civil War. “It was slavery again, all right,” says Miss Jane. “No such thing as colored troops, colored politicians, or a colored teacher anywhere on the place. The only teacher to come there was white; the only time he came was winter when the weather was so bad the children couldn't go into the fields.” It was slavery again, because the White South was resistant—in fact, hostile—to change that would grant political, social, and economic equality to the entire population of the region.

The inhabitants of Gaines's quarters remain as the “new slaves” for the agricultural South into the mid-twentieth century, when the Marshall Heberts, the Robert Sampsons, and the Frank Laurents begin to lose control over the quarters and the rest of their plantations to the Cajuns. When they acquire their new power, their land, and their tractors, the Cajuns gradually force most of the black population from the land; the Cajuns become the new oppressors of the members of the quarters. The struggle in Gaines's quarters, then, is a continuous fight against the oppressive elements of the past in the present; the public and collective energy of the quarters is directed toward devising political strategies that will free the inhabitants of the oppressive designs of the White South.

In the opening of Book IV (“The Quarters”) of Miss Jane Pittman, Miss Jane discusses one of the political strategies common to all humankind: the selection of a leader. “People always looking for somebody to lead them,” she says:

Go to the Old Testament; go to the New. They did it in slavery; after the war they did it; they did it in the hard times that people want to call Reconstruction. They did it in the Depression—another hard times; and they doing it now. They have always done it—and the Lord has always obliged in some way or another.

These statements sum up the quarters' political quests in Books I-III, in which Uncle Isom, Big Laura, Ned, and Miss Jane herself have all served as leaders in one way or another. These statements also preface what Miss Jane's narrative in Book IV demonstrates: that the quarters on the Sampson plantation, like those on plantations from slavery to the present, needed a leader; that Jimmy Aaron was sent to Sampson to be their new leader; that Jimmy, with his preparation and his vision, assumes and acts out the role of leader for the quarters; and that, as a result of Jimmy's leadership, the people in Sampson Quarters set into motion the action which will bring about their second emancipation.

Before he can assume the role of leader, however, Jimmy, as Miss Jane shows, must go through certain steps. He must be educated by the community. He must be tested. And, as a result of going away, he must again be “educated”—this time, by Miss Jane, on how to move the people to follow him. Jimmy's first stage of education consists of hearing over and over, from the lips of adults, information about the history of the quarters (“Jimmy sitting right there listening to all we had to say”); seeing changes in the quarters and elsewhere on the plantation (“Jimmy saw this place changing, and he saw all the people moving away”); and performing, even at an early age, good deeds for members of the community—e.g., he wrote letters and read the Bible and the newspaper for people in the quarters. In other words, as a youngster, he had to become knowledgeable and supportive of the quarters he would lead in the future. Because the quarters “made him the One,” the deliverer of the oppressed of Sampson, the people there also wanted to make sure he was one of them:

We watched him every move he made. We made sure he made just the right ones. If he tried to go afoul—and he did at times—we told him what we had heard and what we had seen.

As Jimmy grows older and is formally educated in the schools, and as he travels to other places beyond Sampson, he—visionary, thinker and leader—“outgrows” the quarters. Upon his return, he is tested when the people reject his new ways, especially his public speech-making, and his new ideas. But, still committed to leading the quarters out of its neoslave condition, he heeds Miss Jane's word, his re-education from the community itself:

“The people here ain't ready for nothing yet, Jimmy,” I said. “Something got to get in the air first. Something got to seep all through their bones. But it's not out there yet. Nothing out there now but white hate and nigger fear. And fear they feel is the only way to keep going. One day they must realize fear is worse than any death. When that time come they will be ready to move with you.”

When the people again accept Jimmy as their leader, they kill the fear that is within themselves and prepare to march with him into Bayonne to challenge that white hate from which they have long suffered. They are the “multitude” Miss Jane sees. They are prepared as individuals and as a group to fight for their emancipation. And when they hear of the death of their leader (an echo of Ned's death in Book III), and Miss Jane takes her heroic step past plantation owner Robert Sampson, the quarters' new stride toward self-emancipation from the negative elements of the past in the present is intensified.

The second major political turn of events in Gaines's quarters occurs in A Gathering of Old Men, where the defense of one's civil and human rights becomes the first and final stand taken by a group of old men in a dying community during the late 1970s. In the past, these old men might have appeared as “faithful retainers” who were prepared to “endure” as William Faulkner would have his “good Negroes” do. Gaines takes his eighteen old black males and makes them self-affirming men with a dignity and self-respect, however belated, that baffle Sheriff Mapes and other whites. These old men, along with their quarters families past and present, have known hurt and violence that was not of their making: through the voice of Joseph Seaberry (a.k.a. Rufe) we get a listing of some of the wrongs committed against black families in Marshall Quarters. These old men's recollections are a choral litany for the quarters; their voices merge as a kind of contemporary chorus recounting physical and psychological violence done them and their immediate families, as the list of wrongs they cite reverberates down the centuries. What they say of the present is essentially an echo of the past; its effects are a continuance of the institution of slavery—against which they finally take a stand.

Their stand, like the political struggle of the quarters since the nineteenth century in Miss Jane Pittman, is against the “creations” which Copper, in “Bloodline,” says are Frank Laurent's and those of white men before him:

… the chains and sticks. You created them four hundred years ago, and you're still using them up to this day. You created them. But they were only a fraction of your barbarity—Uncle. You used the rope and the tree to hang him. You used the knife to castrate him while he struggled with the rope to catch his breath. You used fire to make him squirm even more, because the hanging and the castration still wasn't enough amusement for you. Then you used something else—another creation of yours—that thing you called law. It was written by you for you and your kind, and any man who was not of your kind had to break it sooner or later. …

The old men's stand in A Gathering of Old Men is against the whites' violation of the land, which the blacks need for emotional and ancestral attachment as well as a source of survival. The field and the graveyard, for Grant Bello, evoke memories as private history and kinship. The field reminds him of his people who worked the land long before Beau Boutan and his clan began leasing it. The collective stand the black men take in A Gathering of Old Men is the response of a community under perpetual siege; it is the culmination of four hundred years of political struggle, part of whose beginnings Gaines captures in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Gaines's quarters community is a political entity which spends a great portion of its energy developing strategies its inhabitants hope will free them of oppression. Its members slowly acquire a leverage to force political change, and the concept of the quarters as a confined place to control black laborers gradually dies, but not without elderly black men—Mathu, Rufe, Cherry, Big Charlie and others—reclaiming their dignity. And as the Cajuns take more and more land, the quarters, in the words of Robert Hemenway, becomes

more decrepit than ever: weed choked, weather beaten, mostly abandoned; the flowers once near the garry—four o'clocks and palms of christians—are now only a memory. Here Gaines's old men gather together in strange reunion, drawn to the quarters of their youth by the first killing of white by black in the history of St. Raphael Parish.

By the 1970s, Gaines's quarters community is—physically, socially, and politically—an entity almost dead.


Marshall Quarters was a narrow little country road, all white with dust, and weeds on both sides. The one or two old clapboard houses seem deserted, causing the place to look like a Western ghost town. All you needed was a couple of tumbleweeds to come bouncing down the road.

A Gathering of Old Men

As the central focus of Gaines's symbolic geography, the quarters proves to be “a plausible abode,” to use Eudora Welty's words, for his rural black characters and, hence, the stage on which he has built a set to act out in fiction the “Louisiana thing that drives” him. Not only is the quarters a phenomenon in southern history; the quarters, as an actual community, constitutes a ready-made world for the fiction writer. At the beginning of his writing career, Gaines recognized the quarters as such, and he exploited its aesthetic possibilities by building a great portion of his fictional world upon it. He made the quarters the nucleus of his sense of place; for he realized that, as a center of meaning, the quarters has its own inhabitants and, therefore, its own history, its own cultural and political imperatives, its own social structure, its own world view. He knew too, that its very presence in his fiction would evoke in his readers certain emotional responses that would validate his characters as well as their world.

Historically, the world of the quarters and those similar to it are the crucible from which evolved the bases of Afro-American culture and life. The quarters, then, evokes, among other things, country blues of the kind Marcus in Of Love and Dust might have sung in order to stay the rage that is part of the struggle in which the community, from the period of slavery to the twentieth century, has been engaged. In fact, some blues lyrics of Lightnin' Hopkins and actual cases of black men on plantations murdering other blacks occasioned the writing of the novel Of Love and Dust (Callaloo #3). The quarters also evokes the tradition of storytelling (factual and fictional) that sustains the words of all Gaines's narrators, especially those of Miss Jane Pittman. These narrators record the political struggle of their communities: the individual and collective efforts to fight against the very oppressive forces that created and perpetuate the quarters. In all of Gaines's work, the quarters embody the historical circumstances through which the two Souths, Black and White, are wedded, and out of which Afro-American expressive culture has developed.

As a symbolic space, the quarters, in the hands of Ernest Gaines, takes on epic dimension; like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, it is a microcosm in which humankind, undaunted in its Sisyphus-like struggle, wills to prevail. Through the quarters as a center of meaning, Gaines, on the one hand, explores facets of a particular southern experience which, on the other hand, becomes symbolic of modern human experience in its questions about the individual, the family, the community, and the past. Gaines's quarters and the rest of his St. Raphael Parish are also unlike Faulkner's north Mississippi county; Gaines's quarters, as I have pointed out, is not fixed geography with characters who appear in more than one narrative. Instead, Gaines's quarters, like the rest of his St. Raphael Parish, is a fluid concept which he shapes and reshapes as he creates each narrative. Together the narratives do not recount the doings of a single community; rather they record the spiritual, social, economic, political strivings of a people in the act of becoming. Although it is a dying physical entity in historical reality, the quarters in Gaines's fiction is a ritual ground of communion and community to which Gaines, the man and the artist, returns again and again for perception and sustenance.

Mary T. Harper (essay date March 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3218

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 community.

As the novel opens, Beau Boutan, a Cajun farmer and boss of leased Marshall Plantation land, has been killed in the Quarters in front of Mathu's cabin. Determined to protect Mathu, the eighty-plus-year-old black man who helped rear her, Candy Marshall, the plantation's young white owner, persistently declares that she has shot Beau and summons Mathu's peers so that together they can form a united front against both Sheriff Mapes and the expected retaliation from Fix Boutan, the Cajun family patriarch.

Beau's death and Candy's summons set the stage for Gaines to present complex aspects of rural Louisiana life using a multiple first-person point of view. That is, the voices of eleven blacks and four whites reveal the ever-present social stratification and attitudes, especially the difficult acceptance of change. Certainly, these voices capture the richness—the humor and pathos—of folk life, centered on the introspection and actions of fifteen or more old men who answer Candy's summons, each bearing a twelve-gauge shotgun containing an empty number-five shell.

Candy Marshall's directive regarding the shotguns has several implications. First and most obviously, since Mathu has allegedly used such a weapon to kill Beau, pinpointing the actual killer will be difficult if everyone is similarly armed and admits guilt. Second but most important, an empty shotgun is a useless weapon just as the men possessing such weapons are harmless; hence, Candy becomes the protector. Regardless of her assertion that all black families have at sometime suffered Fix Boutan's wrath and that they now have an opportunity to confront both Fix and Mapes, this situation can be viewed as an example of the child-protector syndrome, with the thirty-year-old plantation mistress paternalistically and benevolently caring for her seventy-plus-year-old menchildren. Adamantly, Candy tells Myrtle Bouchard (Miss Merle), the white neighbor and family friend who also helped rear her: “I will not let Mapes nor Fix harm my people. … I will protect my people. My daddy and all them before him did. …”1 Third, an empty gun is analogous to the lives these men have lived. Unlike the elderly Howard Mills of Gaines' In My Father's House who rejects his assigned social “place,” or Ned Douglass, Jimmy Aaron, and Joe Pittman of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman who face life fearlessly, realizing that they must risk death in order to live fully, these men—with the exception of Mathu—have faced life fearfully, refusing to take risks. Instead, they have become empty shells of men, regarded by whites such as Miss Merle as bedbugs—hidden, infesting insects—hidden in the tall weeds which presently mar the landscape of the Quarters.

Further, having seen how past fears have immobilized their elders, even the young blacks do not expect them to be other than elusive bedbugs. Gaines presents this negative image through the remarks of Fue, a somewhat effeminate but perceptive youth. After delivering Candy's message to seventy-two-year-old Robert L. Stevenson Banks (Chimley) and seventy-one-year-old Matthew Lincoln Brown (Mat), Fue sardonically reminds them of their alternatives: to act or “go home, lock y'all doors and crawl under the bed like y'all used to” (p. 28).

These words, demeaning in their implication of men crawling and hiding, serve as a catalyst, moving Mat and Chimley from idle reflection on their past to an assessment of their present and future. In spite of their visible but unspoken fears—for they know this is the first time a black man has actually killed a white man in their parish—they renew their dormant spiritual strength and rise to Fue's challenge. Gaines shows the beginning of this transformation in the men's conversation:

He works in mysterious ways, don't He?(2)
That's what they say.

(p. 29)

Bout that bed. … I'm too old to go crawling under that bed. I just don't have the strength for it no more. It's too low, Chimley.
Mine ain't no higher.

(p. 31)

I have to go, Chimley. … This can be my last chance.
I'm going, too.

(p. 32)

Determined, Mat returns home to prepare both himself and his wife Ella for this new action, an exchange Gaines again succinctly captures:

You old fool. Y'all gone crazy?
That's right. … Anytime we say we go'n stand up for something, they say we crazy. You right, we all gone crazy.

(p. 36)

He describes feeling as if he'd “been running up a … steep hill, and now … had reached the top” (p. 36). With this description Gaines' images change from negative to positive—from crawling to running to ascending.

Reminding his wife of his years of unrewarding toil, of having cursed God and the world, of turning in frustration against her, of their son's death for lack of medical care because of his color, Mat restates his realization: “He works in mysterious ways. … Give a old nigger like me one more chance to do something with his life” (p. 38). Similarly, such introspection and reassessment seemingly characterize all the elders to whom Candy's summons has been directed, for Fue's comment to Mat and Chimley has symbolically echoed throughout the parish challenging the men to act, as Mathu had bid them do in years past.

One of these men, Cyril Robillard (Clatoo) becomes a leader, tending men's spirits rather than crops. Instead of peddling his produce, the gardener Clatoo now uses his truck to transport this aged, scared, but proud group. In effect, he nurtures a rebirth of spirit as he picks up elders throughout the parish. Perceiving their need for unity, their need for sustenance, he directs them to assemble in the black graveyard so that together they may walk to Mathu's cabin.

Clatoo intuitively understands the significance of this gathering spot, for here past, present, and future merge. Each man searches among the unmarked graves for his family plot as if to draw strength from the ancestors, to recall how many of them had lived and suffered. This unkept burial ground, covered with weeds and grass like the landscape of the Quarters, also parallels the fear which stifles their lives. But among the weed-covered graves is life, for just as the abundant fruit from the nearby pecan tree covers the ground about them, providing actual physical nourishment, so too are their spirits nourished, even as they realize that their actions may result in their deaths. They are then ready to heed Clatoo's command as he tells them; “Heads up and backs straight. We going in like soldiers, not like tramps” (p. 49).

This transition from tramps to soldiers is a new experience, for much of their lives they have been trampled. Throughout the novel Gaines most poignantly allows the various voices to reiterate the many ills they have endured. He shows how their displacement, ill-treatment, and non-recognition have resulted in a loss of pride, moving them towards invisibility, with little regard for their past efforts and creativity. Corrine, for example, one of the elderly women gathered to lend support to the men, bemoans their losses as she speaks of the St. Charles River which they have been prohibited from using freely:

That river. … Where the people went all these years. Where they fished, where they washed they clothes, where they was baptized. St. Charles River. Done gived us food, done cleaned us clothes, done cleaned us souls. St. Charles River—no more though. No more. They took it.

(p. 107)

Their restricted use of the river with its nurturing, renewing, life-sustaining powers then becomes symbolic of all they have lost—physically, spiritually, and psychologically.

Gaines' voices make it clear that until the elders accept the challenge to unite at Mathu's cabin, they have mainly been old people recalling past years, looking down the empty Quarters deserted by the young for greener fields, looking at the weeds wondering what has happened to the roses, the four-o'clocks—the flowers of nature and the flowers of humanity that once kept the community vibrant. Gaines depicts this resurging vibrancy as Clatoo's “army” joins Mathu, Candy, and other men, women, and children already gathered. And though they at first have empty shotguns, like the soldiers Clatoo has commanded them to become, they indeed ready themselves for battle as they one by one load their guns with shells hidden behind Mathu's cabin.

Sheriff Mapes, however, remains unsuspecting. While he initially regards these elders as mere extensions of the Quarters' overgrown weeds, he does respect Mathu. He comments, “… I admire the nigger. He's a better man than most I've met, black or white” (p. 74). Mathu, still tall and straight, described by Gaines as “built like … [an] old post in the ground,” the only black ever to stand up to Fix Boutan, does not deny killing Beau. Looking Mapes directly in the eye, he tells him: “A man got to do what he thinks is right, Sheriff. … That's what part him from a boy” (p. 85).

The actions of the men reflect Mathu's words, for in spite of the tactics Mapes and his deputy employ, the men remain united, each steadily admitting guilt, with the exception of Rev. Jamison. Like the preacher in the dentist's office in “The Sky Is Gray,” he prefers passive acceptance to direct action. Philosophically outside the group, he is willing to surrender Mathu, afraid of their taking a stand primarily because he fears his personal loss, his own further displacement. He and Lou Dimes, Candy's fiancé, refer to the “wall of old black men with shotguns” (p. 59) as fools. But unlike the others, Rev. Jamison cannot withstand the physical abuse and falls to the ground. Just as Rev. Phillip Martin of In My Father's House falls to the floor when confronted by his illegitimate son, so too is Jamison felled, not only by physical pain but also by fear and spiritual weakness.

Mapes' respect for the men grows, however, and as he converses with them, we see his awareness of changes wrought by time. The Lifesavers he continually sucks come to represent what he stands for—a saver of lives—for he, too, realizes that the vigilante tactics of Fix and his friends are outmoded. Accordingly, he disperses a deputy to dissuade the Boutan family from retaliating.

As the who-killed-Beau mystery unfolds, we learn that Charlie, the godson of Mathu, is the actual killer. Constantly humiliated by Beau's curses and threats to beat him no matter how diligently he works, he finally can take no more, and he and Beau fight in the canefield. Thinking he has killed Beau, he runs to his Parrain or godfather, Mathu, who gives him a gun as Beau approaches on a tractor. Then fearing for his own life, he shoots Beau; and as Candy approaches, he asks Mathu to take the blame while he runs.

His running, however, takes a new turn. Just as the cemetery renews the elders' spirits, so does Charlie experience a spiritual conversion as he hides among the cane and in the swamps. It is as if the spirits of those before him stop his running away from life. Returning just before Mathu surrenders to the sheriff, he recounts his experience: “… I heard a voice calling my name. I laid there listening, listening, listening, but I didn't hear it no more. But I knowed that voice was calling me back here” (pp. 192-93).3 No longer does he see himself as “Big Charlie, nigger boy” (p. 189); after fifty years of running he becomes Mr. Biggs and demands that Mapes address him accordingly. In effect, Charlie's process of unnaming and renaming signifies his self-liberation, his re-creation and reformation.4

Gaines also shows the effect of change on others in this Louisiana setting. Just as skin color and personal motivation have separated the black community in the past, so do the social codes separate the whites. For example, Gil Boutan, Beau's brother, tells Candy of her attitude toward Cajuns:

You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we're a breed below you. But we're not, Candy. We're all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Your father had a break, mine didn't, that's all.

(p. 122)

Ironically, these words also mirror black feelings.

Then there is Candy's Uncle Jack, aloof and nihilistic, uninterested in the present, one who closes his eyes to the controversy about him. Gaines allows Jacques Thibeaux, the white owner of the combination grocery and liquor store, to describe Jack Marshall:

… he live on the land 'cause they left it there, but he don't give a damn for it. … Get up and drink. Take a little nap, wake up and drink some more. … Don't give a damn for nothing. Women or nothing. … Politics or nothing. Nigger or nothing. … Things just too complicated. I reckon for people like him they have always been complicated—protecting name and land. … Feeling guilty about this, guilty about that. It wasn't his doing. He came here and found it, and they died and left it on him.

(p. 154)

Marshall finds his refuge in drink, and though he curses the system that forces him to uphold its traditions, ironically, he still does not fully perceive of blacks as people; to him they are still possessions. To Luke Will's statement that Beau had been killed by “one of your niggers …” (p. 159), Jack replies: “I have no niggers. … Never will have any niggers. They belong to her [Candy]” (p. 159).

Unlike her uncle, who abhors such possessions, Candy sees these black as extensions of the plantation's property and has difficulty understanding that she no longer owns them. Although Merle and Mathu have cooperatively reared her—“one to raise her as a lady, the other to make her understand the people who live on her place” (p. 179)—she fails to understand the changes that are continually occurring. For example, she becomes irate when the men exclude her from their conference inside Mathu's house, not understanding that their excluding her, their refusal of her paternalistic protection, is another meaningful step towards their manhood.

Gaines also uses Candy to illustrate the theme of racial interdependence when she tells Mathu that having known all of the Marshalls, he is the essence of the plantation's life. Recalling her forefathers' words, she tells him: “They said if you went, it went, because we could not—it could not—not without you, Mathu” (p. 177). But Lou, her fiancé, does understand both the changes that have occurred and the transformation the men are presently undergoing. He tells Candy that Mathu doesn't need her protection, that he must live his life “his own way” (p. 184).

The author again illustrates the same interdependence theme with Gil “Salt” Boutan, the Cajun LSU fullback, and Cal “Pepper” Harrison, the black LSU halfback. Together, they are a formidable team, a pair on whom both blacks and whites are depending if LSU is to defeat “Ole Miss” in the football game scheduled for the next day.

Although distraught over his brother's death, Gil tells his father that he refuses to participate in the vigilante acts for which his family is known and further tries to explain how such acts will invalidate his chances to become an all-American and how he and Cal work together on the football field. Hurt and unable to understand Gil's point about black-white cooperation nor his refusal to protect family honor, Fix concedes—but not Luke Will, a fellow Cajun determined to avenge Beau's death and to control blacks. Fix, however, now as old as the blacks awaiting his arrival, refuses to support Luke, asserting: “I have no other cause to fight for. I'm too old for causes. Let Luke Will fight for causes. This is family” (p. 147). With such scenes, Gaines develops another dimension of Cajun life—their differing values and rationales for their actions, the conflicts they, too, experience as a result of change.

Thus, the confrontation between Cajun father and son culminates with Gil planning to play in the forthcoming game—a symbolic gesture to beat Luke Will and also symbolic of a changing South and hope for the future. Deputy Russell tells Gil: “Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow. … You can help this country tomorrow. You can help yourself” (p. 151).

However, when Mapes informs the elders that Fix is not coming, they believe him to be lying. But he is happy that violence has been avoided, and drawing an analogy using Gil and Cal, he reminds them of the effects of change:

No, y'all wanted them to play together. … Y'all the one—you cut your own throats. You told God you wanted Salt and Pepper to get together and God did it for you. At the same time, you wanted God to keep Fix the way Fix was thirty years ago so one day you would get a chance to shoot him. Well, God couldn't do both.

(p. 171)

Mapes' joy is short-lived, for Luke Will and his friends, strengthened by liquor, arrive to avenge Beau's death.

Once children but now men, the elders bravely confront the enemy, led by Charlie and Antoine Christophe (Dirty Red)—all having been reborn in the plantation's swamps, canefields, and graveyard; having been infused with the spirit of their ancestors, a spirit that lives on just as the pecan tree continually bears fruit. Just before he stands and moves toward Luke, Charlie tells his friend Antoine that “life's so sweet when you know you ain't no more coward” (p. 208).

Once again, Gaines effectively depicts the trauma of change. Both Luke and Charlie kill each other—one dying trying to prevent change, the other having been changed. Charlie's act then culminates the transformation of “men-children” to fathers, symbolizes a recognition by all that thwarted dreams can become present realities, that resignation can be replaced by renewed involvement and commitment, and that one's mortality need not preclude one's becoming a “new soldier” in the quest for manhood and dignity.


  1. Ernest Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 19. Subsequent references are from this text.

  2. The preacher in “The Sky Is Gray” makes this same comment, but the intent is different. For Mat, it is a signal to act; for the preacher in the dentist's office, it symbolizes acceptance of the conditions under which they live.

  3. Communing with ancestral and spiritual voices frequently recurs in black literature, e.g., Pilate's experiences in Morrison's Song of Solomon and Barlo's conversion in Toomer's Cane. Also see Barbara E. Bowen, “Untroubled Voice: Call and Response in Cane,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1984), pp. 187-203.

  4. See Kimberly W. Benston's essay, “I Yam What I Am: The Topos of Un(naming) in Afro-American Literature,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, pp. 151-72.

Joseph Griffin (essay date summer 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6064

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 being bonded out of jail where he has been awaiting trial for killing another young black man in a roadhouse fight, Marcus Payne is thrust into a milieu which accentuates, even more than his native Baton Rouge did, the liabilities of being black in the post-World War II South. But it does not appear to be Gaines's primary intention to contribute merely another portrayal of the subjugation of blacks. Rather, he is undertaking a broader task than that, signalled by the presence in the novel of two major white characters, Cajuns, who, by virtue of the fact that each has contracted a sexual liaison with a black person, are marked in as real a sense as are the novel's black characters. It is Gaines's point that the same system that victimizes the oppressed victimizes the oppressor, that all are caught up in the web that racial prejudice weaves—not only the bayou Cajuns, but the “Big People” as well, for example, Marshall Hebert, the owner of the plantation where the action is played out.

Life on Hebert's plantation operates according to the unwritten but universally known code that governs white-black relations there. Gaines has seized upon the most delicate and incendiary portions of that code, those that have to do with sexual relationships between black men and white women and between white men and black women, and fashioned a story in which Marcus's relationship with Louise Bonbon, the wife of the plantation's Cajun overseer, runs parallel in important ways to the overseer Bonbon's relationship with his black mistress, Pauline Guerin. Each relationship in its own way violates the code, and each progresses from its initial grounding in lust or vengeance or violence to become a mutually loving union. However, the parallel only goes so far. Marcus emerges as a superior human being in his ability to withstand the pressures that transgression of the code imposes. Bonbon is unable to bear up against these pressures: in killing Marcus, he lays aside his sense of the young man's stature and submits to the obligations of the code. Marcus is true to the end: when he might have fled and saved himself, he stays behind and, effectively, lays down his life for his friend, Louise.

Both his final act of self-sacrifice and his resistance to the racial status quo establish the exceptional nature of Marcus's courage, and Gaines has laden his portrayal of the young man with details that suggest a messianic figure. Indeed, in the manner of Melville's portrayal of his protagonist in “Billy Budd” and Faulkner's depiction of Joe Christmas in Light in August, Gaines has amplified his image of Marcus as messiah by establishing a number of specific parallels between him and Christ. In this latter context the recapitulation of events by the black narrator, Jim Kelly, amounts to an evangelistic celebration of Marcus. Jim's story contrasts to the untrue court account, the “official” account, of the death of Marcus (here the parallel to “Billy Budd” is notable); it is the inverse of the “bad news.”1 Bishop, the novel's Uncle Tom figure, is fearful of hearing from Jim, the news that Marcus is about to pursue his radical plan that flagrantly defies the code of racial behaviour.

The key to Jim's credibility as a narrator is his confidant status. Like Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby, he is able to salvage “greatness” for a character of nefarious reputation by virtue of being a good listener and a sensitive and intelligent man who has enough in common with his subject to be able to understand and identify with him. Jim is privy to the life stories of both Marcus and Bonbon (as well as to the apprehensions of many of the novel's minor characters) because they “looked to [him],” as Bonbon does, “as somebody [they] could talk to” (p. 147); and the sensitivity that gives him a willing ear in the first place allows him to sympathize deeply with the two male protagonists when he becomes familiar with their respective backgrounds. However, Jim identifies with Marcus and Bonbon not only because of his own oppressed background as a black but also because he comes to recognize that the involvement of each in an intense love relationship with a woman has helped to transform his life in the way that his own life had been transformed by his relationship with his ex-lover, Billy Jean, whose memory he evokes frequently in the meditative portions of his narration. Jim's final vindication of Marcus and assertion of the latter's moral superiority proceeds from Jim's knowledge of the similar backgrounds of his two subjects and of the remarkably like circumstances that characterize their lives on Hebert's plantation. By establishing these similarities Jim is able to point more effectively to the moral superiority of the young black man over his Cajun counterpart.2

Jim's “approval” of both Marcus and Bonbon and his awareness that the similarities between the two outweigh the differences fly in the face of the public image the two have on the plantation. Marcus's murder of another young man has given him the status of convict and he is frequently so referred to on the quarter. His sullenness, his refusal to dress as a field worker, his reputation as a trouble-maker make him as undesirable in the community. Most of all his blatant usurpation of the place of Bonbon in the latter's own home threatens the security of all. Bonbon is the dreaded white overseer who moves about armed, drives the field workers mercilessly, has raped black women in the fields, and has now for some time kept Pauline as his mistress and supported the twins born of their union. Yet for all its hatred and dread of Marcus and Bonbon, the plantation community views the two as polar opposites, embodying elements of the traditional white-black relationship: overseer-slave, oppressor-oppressed, sadist-victim.

But Jim does not subscribe to the public view. His sympathetic opinion of Bonbon, whom he has known for over three years, derives from his awareness of both the Cajun's background and the present paradoxical circumstances of his life. If he was “brutal” as Aunt Ca'line characterized him, it was “because he had been brought up in a brute-taught world and in brute-taught times” (p. 67). Bonbon tells Jim “about how poor he was as a child” and how “he had never gotten any more than a third-grade education” (p. 148). His marriage to Louise has been forced and he lives in constant fear of her family, who at one point have returned her to him after she has run away. Bonbon's present predicament is most acutely made evident to Jim on the day the overseer asks him to drive Pauline and himself to Baton Rouge. Jim recognizes that he has been asked to play the role of surrogate consort: Bonbon cannot travel openly with Pauline “dressed like [she] was now or to have that powder smelling on her breast like Pauline did now” (p. 140). Jim sees that Bonbon “needed [his gun] everywhere he went. He needed it around his own Cajuns, he needed it around the Negroes in the field, and even needed it around these mulattoes who didn't know him at all” (p. 144). Most of all, Jim realizes that the very attitude of racial supremacy Bonbon characteristically assumes becomes a liability, given his present needs: “He wanted to be with [Pauline]—yes, you could tell from watching them at the table how much he loved her and wanted to be with her; but he had to go to a black man, in a respectful way, and ask that black man for a room. He didn't know how to do that. He didn't know how to talk to a black man unless he was giving orders” (p. 145).

Jim has known Marcus for a shorter time than he has known Bonbon, but this disadvantage is compensated for by the racial heritage he has in common with Marcus as well as by the fact that since Marcus's arrival on the quarter, Jim has spent most of his time in the young man's company. Initially he is repelled by Marcus's sullenness and insolence, attitudes that show up in Marcus's general comportment and especially in his complete lack of compunction about his act of murder. Notwithstanding this, Jim is faithful to his promise to Miss Julie Rand, Marcus's grandmother, to look after him: he offers him conversation, food and drink, and the right kind of clothing for field work. However, he cannot help but be impressed by Marcus's sheer physical endurance and his silent refusal not to give in in the face of Bonbon's sadistic supervision of his field work. A temporary rupture in Jim's burgeoning appreciation of Marcus occurs when the latter disregards his warnings to avoid an entanglement with Louise and then his supplications not to persist in his relationship with her. But here again Jim's antagonism towards Marcus evaporates in the face of the latter's fearlessness and his daring of the racial status quo. Although it is not until late in their acquaintance that Jim learns more of the details of Marcus's life in Baton Rouge, specifically his humiliating experiences working at the parking lot and during his subsequent incarceration for attacking his oppressor with a soft drink bottle, this information merely confirms by particulars what he already understands to be the nature of his friend's earlier experiences.

Jim's tendency is to see beyond the obvious differences between Marcus and Bonbon and to perceive the two as of a kind, and the tendency emerges in conscious and unconscious comment and observation. Early during the period of Marcus's ordeal in the cornfields, he complains to Jim: “I ain't go'n put up with this, Jim. I wasn't cut out for it.” Jim's rejoinder, which astonishes Marcus and causes him to suspect his guardian of being a “whitemouth,” is “Nobody was. He [i.e. Bonbon] wasn't either” (p. 46). Jim's descriptions of the physical appearance of the two also betrays, although less obviously, his penchant for seeing the two as one. Of Marcus he says: “[He] was a pretty handsome fellow and he knew it. He was about six feet tall, slim but well-built; he had medium brown skin and a pile of curly black hair. He had light brown eyes, a kind of straight nose, thin lips, and a well-shaped mustache” (p. 57). His description of Bonbon is as follows: “[He] was about six-four or-five, and I must say he was an impressive-looking man. He was handsome—I think very handsome—but nothing pretty or cute. Marcus, I think, was pretty. Young gals would say that Marcus was ‘dreamy.’ Nobody would say Bonbon was dreamy, like nobody would say he was ugly. He was handsome in a rough way. He had a good build—maybe two hundred, two hundred and ten pounds. He had light gray eyes, a long, good-shaped nose, and a dry-shuck-color mustache. His mustache was lighter than his tan face and much lighter than his red neck” (p. 79). To be noted here is the intrusion of the image of Marcus into Jim's description of Bonbon as well as the remarkably similar way in which portrayals proceed: from a consideration of overall appearance, to a comment on body build, to a detailing of facial characteristics.

If the persons of Marcus and Bonbon tend to be identified in Jim's consciousness, Gaines conspires in other ways as well to have the reader draw unmistakable parallels between the young convict and the Cajun overseer. In other words, the two are not associated merely in Jim's mind: the novel's structure is such that one is forced to see them in this light. Not only do Marcus and Bonbon develop inter-racial relationships, but these relationships are yoked together by the circumstances of their occurrence also. The most striking evidence of this is the coincidence of the beginning of the Marcus-Louise idyll at Bonbon's house with Bonbon's magical two hours with Pauline in the rented upstairs room in Baton Rouge. Jim makes it possible for the Bonbon-Pauline liaison to occur, and for all his expressed guilt about being accessory to it, is moved by the evidence it offers of genuine love between the two. When he is told about the Marcus-Louise meeting by Aunt Margaret upon his return from Baton Rouge, he is immediately reminded of the Bonbon-Pauline encounter. What is more, the reader is drawn to see the analogy between the two relationships by Aunt Margaret's rhetorical question to Jim, “Look like you went to that saloon much as I went to that door?” (p. 171) Aunt Margaret's question draws attention to yet another similarity between the two love relationships in question. Margaret had gone to Louise's door to try to prevent the consummation of an affair that was bound to have disastrous repercussions; in Baton Rouge, Jim is made aware of the dangers inherent in the Bonbon-Louise relationship. Aunt Margaret is expressing her own, and Jim's, frustration at being unable to prevent danger as well as their sense of the relationships' inevitable progress towards some tragic end.

Jim comes to realize long after he has known it of Bonbon's and Pauline's relationship, that the bond between Marcus and Louise, though forged in a destructive fire, has united them in a loving union. Bonbon's attentions to Pauline had begun in the fields where she was one of any number of the victims of his lust. “But something had happened to Bonbon” as Jim describes it, “But after being with so many, now he settled for one” and has been a regular visitor to her house for the past “seven or eight years” (p. 62). The difficulty he has expressing his love to Pauline and the twins, Billie and Willie, is a result of his emotionally deprived background and of the racial constrictions imposed by the relationship. Bonbon's love for Pauline and their twin sons is clearly demonstrated by his fidelity to his mistress and by his secret gifts to the boys. It has taken Pauline longer to fall in love with Bonbon: her distrust of his intentions has kept her on her guard. But “after so many years … she couldn't help but fall in love with him. She knew he loved her more than he did his wife up the quarter or his people who lived on the river” (p. 66). Jim notes especially her patient attention to Bonbon in the face of his reticence and her blissful remembrance of their moments together in the bedroom in Baton Rouge.

The Marcus-Louise relationship is conceived if not in an act of violence, certainly in the spirit of vengeance that has motivated both the principals. Marcus's attention to Louise is prompted initially by his desire for retaliation against Bonbon not as much for the latter's inhuman treatment of him as for his long-time appropriation of the black woman who has lately refused his own advances. Bonbon's affront to Marcus's pride of race enrages the young man to the point that the fear of being lynched is subordinated to his desire of avenging his rival by the ultimate rending of the code: the taking of the white man's wife sexually. Louise is similarly motivated in her inviting smiles to Marcus: Bonbon must be made to pay “for the suffering she had gone through while he slept in Pauline's bed … for the suffering she had gone through on that bayou with her brothers and papa” (p. 164). For Louise too the dread of physical hurt is transcended by the insistent need for revenge. Her seduction of Marcus will provide her with the proof, “the mark on her flesh” (p. 165), that will trigger the escalation of events which is her only hope of freedom: Marcus will inflict “the mark”; Bonbon will have to avenge the affront and kill Marcus; Marshall Hebert, now free of his debt to Bonbon, will dispose of him; Louise will be free at last. But neither Louise's nor Marcus's manipulative intent persists and their relationship rapidly develops into a mutually satisfying and transforming one. The change in the nature of the Marcus-Louise relationship is signalled for Aunt Margaret by its evolution from “the loud, booming noise” (p. 159) of the first encounter to the calm of the ensuing ones. To be noted is the similarity of this circumstance to the evidence for Aunt Ca'line and Pa Bully—who have been close by as the Bonbon-Pauline relationship develops—of a significant change in that relationship. “So now the shuck mattress was quiet,” Jim recapitulates (using details reminiscent of Faulkner—one of several Faulkner echoes in the novel). “There wasn't any need for all the noise, because now Bonbon and Pauline's love was much softer—more tender. Aunt Ca'line and Pa Bully could hardly hear the mattress at all from their room” (p. 66).

If the Marcus-Louise and Bonbon-Pauline relationships function in remarkably similar ways and highlight the real likenesses between the two male protagonists, the events leading immediately to Marcus's violent death establish the moral superiority of the young man in Jim's eyes. Bonbon's farewell visit to Jim, in which the overseer provides his version of Marcus's tragic end, corroborates Jim's final positive assessment of Marcus and leaves him feeling that “all the human understanding [Bonbon and I] had had between us was over with now” (p. 278). Jim's disillusionment with Bonbon arises, of course, from the fact that the Cajun has killed his friend and hero and thwarted a young family's escape into a better world. As well, Jim is aware that Bonbon's action, by the latter's own acknowledgement, belies his capacity to assert his personal integrity by continuing to live outside the accepted code. Jim's recapitulation of Bonbon's account of his murder of Marcus expresses this awareness: “He told me he didn't want to fight Marcus, he was hoping Marcus would run from him. If Marcus had made any attempt to run, he would have let him go, and there wouldn't have been a thing said about it. But when Marcus didn't run, he had to fight him. Not just fight him, but he had to kill him. If he hadn't killed Marcus he would have been killed himself. The Cajuns on the river would have done that” (p. 277).

It is their contrasting responses to the demands of the code that draw the essential line of demarcation between Marcus and Bonbon. The same action that produces Jim's split with Bonbon confirms his affirmation of Marcus. In the version of events according to the record “Marcus had stolen Marshall Hebert's car and was trying to run away with Louise when Bonbon accidentally caught them. Marcus started a fight and Bonbon killed him trying to protect himself” (p. 277). But in contrast to this “false news,” Jim advances the versions told by Bonbon and by the terrified observer, Sun Brown, which corroborate each other. Sun Brown's story is clear about Marcus's defensive attitude during the confrontation. “… [He] jumped on the ground to fight. Bonbon moved toward the house quickly now. When he came to the end of the gallery he stooped over and picked up something by the steps. Sun could tell that it was a scythe-blade, and not a hoe or a shovel, from the way Bonbon swung it at Marcus. Marcus ran to the fence and jerked loose a picket that was used there for a prop. He and Bonbon started fighting. Marcus was blocking the scythe-blade more than he was trying to hit with the picket” (pp. 275-276). Understandably, Bonbon's account repeats only implicitly Marcus's defensive posture. Both accounts are unequivocal and explicit, though, on Marcus's refusal to run from the scene when he had the opportunity to do so. Sun Brown's silent supplication to Marcus—“He was screaming inside—‘Run, boy; run, run, run,’” (p. 275) draws special attention to the significance of Marcus's standing fast: his gesture effectively says “This boy will not be kept running.” Marcus's refusal to take on the aggressor's role against Bonbon—as he has in the past against his road-house victim—and especially his refusal to abandon Louise suggests the radical nature of his transformation: the young man who has told Jim shortly after arriving on the plantation “any man's a fool to die over a woman” (p. 78) lays down his life for his friend. Bonbon was transformed by love as well, but Marcus's capacity to defy the code to the very end makes him clearly distinct from the Cajun overseer.

Marcus's tri-partite role of victim, saviour and bearer of a new dispensation come together in his violent death. In giving up his life he asserts the essential value of his relationship to the white woman. At the same time his death is the culmination of a life of opposition to the acceptance of white dominance and hence an implicit assertion of black equality. As well, the conclusion of the novel leaves open the possibility of the reunion not only of Bonbon and Pauline, but also of Bonbon's white daughter, Tite, and the mulatto twins, Billie and Willie, in a family that will comprise two generations of black and white. Ironically, it is Marcus's death at the hands of Bonbon that makes this inter-racial family possible, his last “[sticking] his foot in that door, …” into “the house that slavery built” (p. 216) to use Bishop's words.

In his essential innocence, his victimization, his attempts to establish a new order, and his immolation in the process of defending and maintaining that new order, Marcus is a figure of Christ, and Gaines had done much, for the most part unobtrusively, to exploit his protagonist's Christ-like quality. Of Love and Dust can be read as Jim Kelly's good news about Marcus Payne.

The evangelistic element in Of Love and Dust is introduced early, at the time of Jim's first meeting with Miss Julie Rand. Miss Julie is one of a host of black matriarchs who people the fiction of the American south: one thinks of Faulkner's Dilsey, of Phoenix Jackson in Eudora Welty's short story “The Worn Path,” of Gaines's own Miss Jane Pittman. All possess qualities of natural wisdom, long-suffering and love. In Of Love and Dust these qualities Miss Julie shares with her southern sisters underlie her function as prophet. Jim is immediately struck by her combination of antiquity and sagacity and by the way in which she is literally surrounded by pictures of Christ. At the time of her visit to the plantation he repeats similar details, reiterating his impression of her ancient wisdom and theocentricity: “Miss Julie waved the fan before her face a couple times. It was one of those old pasteboard fans that undertakers donate to churches every four or five years. It had a picture of Jesus Christ on one side. … In the daylight she looked even older. Her skin had the color of a ripe prune. It was just as wrinkled as a ripe prune. But her eyes were still quick, sharp, piercing and knowing” (pp. 111-112). In the context of such descriptions, Miss Julie's simple, repeated declarations that Marcus is a “good boy” take on the tone of incantations and predict the young man's commitment to a loving relationship and the supreme act of love that ends his life. Furthermore, Miss Julie's wish that human intercourse not be obstructed by racial barriers, stated plaintively in her question to Jim at their first meeting, “You think there will ever be a time … [when] him and Pauline will be able to live together like they want?” (p. 14) is given promise of fulfillment in the projected reunion of Bonbon and his extended family.

Miss Julie's role as a prophet sets the stage for Marcus as a Christ figure: Marcus becomes the promised one who rejects the status quo and replaces it with a new code of love. Once Marcus has been able to transcend the racism and harshness of his own past and becomes transformed himself by his love for Louise, he exerts a transforming effect on others, and this facet of his life is rendered by Gaines in ways that suggest both general and specific parallels to Christ. Marcus transforms most visibly that person who is most directly touched by his love, Louise. Jim notes that “Aunt Margaret had never seen [Louise] so happy before,” (p. 206) and quotes Aunt Margaret as saying that Louise “worshipped him” (p. 205). When Louise becomes fearful that his trial will not take place, Marcus reassures her:

“Just give him time, honey,” Marcus would say to her. “He trying to make me sweat. Now, you got faith in me, don't you?”

“Yes.” she would say.

“And that's all that count,” Marcus would say.

(p. 233)

Marcus's power to transform extends beyond Louise as well. Although not touched in the intense personal way Louise is by Marcus's love, Jim has the insight to see and the courage to accept what Marcus is about and his early feelings of dislike and apprehension dissolve:

No, I didn't blame Marcus any more. I admired Marcus. I admired his great courage. … I wanted to tell him how brave I thought he was. He was the bravest man I knew, the bravest man I had ever met. Yes, yes, I wanted to tell him that. And I wanted to tell Louise how I admired her bravery. I wanted to tell them that they were starting something—yes, that's what I would tell them; they were starting something that others would hear about, and understand, and would follow. “You are both very brave and I worship you,” I was going to say.

(p. 270)

Given the prophetic dimension in the portrayal of Miss Julie and the attitude of veneration that Marcus evokes in Louise and Jim during the last few days of his life, the sacrificial nature of Marcus's death tends to sustain him in his Christ-like aura. As well, Jim's last words to Aunt Margaret as he leaves the plantation close off the novel with a pointed reminder of Marcus's Christ-like affinity: “I was thinking about what that preacher said at Marcus's funeral. ‘Man is here for a little while, then gone’” (p. 281). While taken at a literal level the preacher's words can be seen to refer merely to man's fragile mortality, their turn of phrase is suggestive of Christ's words in John 13:23, “Yet a little while I am with you,” spoken to the apostles at the last supper, the preamble to the new commandment “That you love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24).

It is important to note, though, that Gaines's exploitation of Marcus's affinities to Christ pre-dates the time of his involvement with Louise and entry into a life marked by active love. From the time of his first contacts with Jim, Marcus speaks in words that are simultaneously credible in a realistic context and revealing of his special status. At times his statements have marked similarity to those of Christ as recorded in the New Testament; at other times, they are general pronouncements suggestive of the supernatural qualities of Christ. In an early conversation with Jim concerning the length of his confinement on the plantation, Marcus answers the question “When you figuring on running?” with “You won't know the day or the hour,” (p. 30) a reasonable facsimile of the bridegroom's counsel to the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:12-13. In the same conversation he responds to Jim's comment “You got a lot to learn in this world” with “I done forgot more than plenty people'll ever know” (p. 31). In a later exchange, when Jim praises Marcus for toughing a week's hard labor with the words “I didn't think you could do it,” he answers, “I can do anything” (p. 78).

Such statements maintain the Christ-like status of Marcus established in Miss Julie's prophecy and prepare the way for his later sacrificial and redemptive roles. They suggest also that Marcus's life on the plantation, even before he falls in love with Louise, is marked by a Christ-like presence. From the outset Marcus steadfastly refuses to conform to the role expected of him as a black convict-worker on a white man's plantation. His rejection of this role as manifested in his dismissals of Jim's invitations to wear the brogans and khakis of the field worker. Rather, he insists on wearing his own colorful pants and shirts and dress shoes, despite their total impracticality for the job. Early in his stay, his flashy clothing is the only method he has of rejecting his convict status and asserting his individuality. He wears his own clothing with pride, and Jim notices the care he bestows on it and the order in which he keeps it: “And, oh, he had everything hanging so pretty-like. He had his suits, his shirts, his ties all on a little line. Then he had six or seven pairs of dress shoes up against the wall in a nice little row” (p. 23). Marcus's clothes symbolize his commitment to a new order; indeed, his refusal to don the garb of the oppressed is at one point stated in terms that suggest his princely calling. “I'll never put that convict shit on my back,” he tells Jim. “I'm used to silk” (p. 31).

The conception of Marcus Payne as a Christ figure however is not merely a strategem to draw attention to the young man's special status and function. It occurs as part of a larger context in which Jim Kelly especially, and the black residents of the plantation generally, are seen as living out lives in which religious belief and practice have in one way or another become devoid of relevance.

Jim raises his problem of belief early in his narration and reverts to it frequently for some time; then it disappears entirely as an explicit concern. Apparently a lapsed Catholic—he makes the Sign of the Cross “every night to stay in practice” (p. 19)—Jim has lost the sense of a providential God. He bemoans the “Old Man's” seeming indifference in the face of the scorching sun that preys on the field workers: “And how about You, do You care? I don't think so—because if You did, it looks to me like You would send us a little breeze, wouldn't You?” (p. 38) He has given up on God and imagines Him as a naturalistic presence, as one who had “quit listening to man a million years ago. Now all He does is play chess by Himself or sit around playing solitary with old cards” (p. 51).

The ineptitude of the church to provide anything more than a solace for pain, that accepts as an unchangeable given the racial status quo, is best expressed by Marcus, who has been raised a church-goer. His account to Jim of the roots of his own religious skepticism provides the novel's most succinct comment on the church's ineffectuality. Marcus has been telling Jim about his efforts to put a stop to his victimization by Big Red, his black boss at the Baton Rouge parking lot.

I prayed so much. I even mentioned Big Red's name in church. But instead of me saying “Jesus, go with Big Red,” I said, “Jesus, please make Big Red stop taking my money.” When I said that, the church cracked up. Everybody started laughing. Even the preacher on the pulpit. Everybody laughing and coughing and wiping they eyes. Because, you see, Jesus didn't do things like that. Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, but He didn't stop people from taking your money. That wasn't a miracle—not even a little miracle.

(p. 251)

On the quarter, church is well attended Sundays and evenings, but any notion of the institution's redressing or even addressing the manifold injustices of life on Marshall Hebert's plantation is as alien to it as the idea of the Baton Rouge congregation's facing up to what Big Red has done to Marcus.

It is interesting to note the presence of certain recurring patterns of juxtaposition and of simultaneous incident in Of Love and Dust that in the context draw attention to the displacement of both sectarian and non-sectarian religion by human love. The initial stages of the Bonbon-Pauline love relationship are described against a background of allusion to the plantation church services, which are going on simultaneously. As Bonbon begins to visit Pauline in her house the sound “of the people … singing in the church” (p. 64) can be heard. And the following conversation between Aunt Margaret and Jim as they watch Marcus in Bonbon's yard on the day of his first rendezvous with Louise suggests, especially on the part of Jim, an emphasis on human intimacy and a scepticism about Divine providence:

She looked at Marcus. “Black trash,” she said quietly.

She looked at me.

“Sometimes I think the Master must be 'sleep.”

“I think He's tired.”

“He must be something.”

“What's [Louise] doing in there?”

“Laying 'cross that bed resting.”

“For this evening, huh?”

“Not if I can help it,” Aunt Margaret said. She looked at Marcus raking leaves against the fence. “Not if I can help it, you dirty thing.”

(p. 139)

As well, Jim's reflections about his sense of being abandoned by God are often placed side by side with, or are not far removed from, his reveries of the old days with Billie Jean. For Jim, love heals, not God: the oppressive working-day heat that the Old Man chooses not to relieve with a breeze is assuaged by the memory of Billie Jean. “But I had something going for me … so every now and then, to forget the sun and the dust I thought back to the good times with Billie Jean” (p. 34).

Jim's “finding” of Marcus fills the void left by the departure of both God and Billie Jean; once Marcus becomes a significant entity in Jim's life thoughts of an indifferent God and of Billie Jean disappear from Jim's narration. Effectively, Marcus is the answer to Jim's reiterated insistence on the necessity of human self-reliance. Most of Jim's speculations on God and the human predicament include the notion that man must take his fate into his own hands. Jim's last extended meditation on the subject, as he sits in a bar in Baton Rouge bewailing his role as a lonely overseer of two relationships God Himself has abandoned, is the most revealing in this regard. Here, after the usual references to God's indifference, he continues: “No, it wasn't the Old Man. I had put my own self in this predicament. I had come to this plantation myself, when my woman left me for another man in New Orleans and when I was too shame-face to go back home. I had heard that Hebert needed a man who could handle tractors and I had come here for the job. No it wasn't the Old Man, it was me” (p. 147).

Jim Kelly's prolonged escape into the relatively secure world of the Hebert plantation is brought to a forceful end by the example of Marcus Payne, the epitome of self-reliance. His voluntary departure from the plantation and his refusal to accept Marshall Hebert's letter of recommendation, acts of self-assertion and willingness to cope for himself, are inspired by Marcus's grand acts in kind. Jim's recounting of the novel's events memorializes not only his young hero's sacrifice, but celebrates its redemptive impact as well.


  1. Ernest J. Gaines, Of Love and Dust (New York, 1979), p. 232. Subsequent references to the novel are to this edition and will appear in parentheses after citations.

  2. While it is not my primary intention in this essay to discuss Of Love and Dust within the context of the history of black Americans, it is clear that Marcus Payne is representative of that tradition in black life and expression that upholds the special status of the black person as assuming a messianic role in American life (See, for example, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.)

Mary Ellen Doyle (essay date fall 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8787

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 patois, or black English—black workers who cut cane and drive the mules that haul it—Cajun overseers who drive the cutters—black children who play in lanes, work like adults, and hide their toothache and hunger—old men who fish and hide their fears and resentful memories—young militants and the old folk who raised them, who both admire and fear them, who tell the oral history that has nourished their dreams and demands—“Creoles of color” who struggle between the whites who despise and displace them and the blacks they despise and will not join—landowners who “possess” all these people yet slowly lose possession in a world of cultural and economic change: these are the “People” who populate Gaines' fictional yet intensely realistic world. To read his books is to enter and learn this world; yet to read with understanding, one must, in some measure, already know it, know this territory, its varied folk, its cultural demands and taboos, know the author and “this Louisiana thing that drives [him]” (Rowell, “This Louisiana Thing” 40). Despite all comparison by critics, Gaines' parish is not the same, in terrain, history or culture, as other parts of the South of modern literature, especially not Faulkner's imagined county; nor is his fictional re-creation of it comparable in content or tone.


A geography lesson on the area Gaines has made his own would begin with a map of south-central Louisiana. On East-West Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and the Atchafalaya River, one would raise an irregular triangle, with New Roads as northern apex. Curving along Route 1 on the western side of the triangle, from New Roads down to the hamlet of Oscar, is the new-moon False River, actually a lake left by the Mississippi when sedimentation and erosion changed its ancient course. Close by Oscar is River Lake Plantation, the heart of the Gaines world, where he himself was born and reared, and which he has re-created, book after book, in all its phases of life.

This triangle, essentially, is Pointe Coupée Parish, renamed St. Raphael in Gaines' fiction to honor his stepfather, Raphael Colar. Baton Rouge retains its name, but many a frustrated reader has searched a Louisiana map for Bayonne or St. Adrienne (the latter named for his mother), which are actually New Roads, the seat of the Parish. The False River, renamed for his brother, has become the St. Charles River of his old men and boy fishers; and River Lake Plantation is surely Marshall's, Hebert's, Sampson's, and every other plantation where his people live out their poverty-stricken yet emotionally rich lives (Rowell, “That Little Territory” 2-3, and numerous Gaines interviews).

What is the character of this land? Who lived on it, and how did they live? One best begins to find an answer by driving out of Baton Rouge, west and north up Route 1 to New Roads. Guidebooks, local manuscripts, and Gaines' stories take reality as one sees the largely flat, dark, fertile soil, the immense pecan and live oak trees hung with Spanish moss, and, if the ride is in summer, feels the intensity of heat which so shapes the moods and even the decisions of many of Gaines' characters.

On the left as one travels appear the extensive fields of cane and cotton; these were the large land grants of the early French settlers, who built the parish's economy first from tobacco and indigo, then cotton and sugar cane, and from related industries at the cotton gins, sugar mills, and saw mills. One sugar mill, on the Alma Plantation, still operates near Oscar. On the driver's right is the False River, wide and lovely, indented by numerous modern piers, inviting the Gaines reader to imagine the Cajuns out in boats, or the disastrous floods recorded as late as 1927, against which the levees were only a partial solution until the modern spillway poured excess water into the Atchafalaya (Lionel Gaines interview; David, ts. 4-5). The shore of the False River is dotted with small stores but mostly is a grassy plot, again inviting imagination of baptisms, Miss Jane fishing, and the gathering for Ned Pittman's sermon. Across the river, one sees the “island,” the land within the moon-curve of the River, settled chiefly by the later French, who received much smaller land grants, and by the Acadians, the tragic French deportees from British Nova Scotia and ancestors of the modern Cajuns (David 2-5). Here is one source of the social stratification which so clearly marks this Louisiana parish, in reality and in fiction, in former and in present times, which is so much a motivating force in Gaines' stories. It is visible in the distinctive types of houses that face the False River or are hidden away at a distance from it.

The most notable of these houses are the large, white, French style plantation homes, with front steps rising to a second floor main entrance and a gallery projecting over the lower rooms where family or servants sought cool and shade to eat or work. These are the “big houses,” the inheritances of Candy Marshall and Frank Laurent and other characters troubled by the heritage they symbolize. River Lake Plantation itself tells the story: in 1803 a U.S. Patent showed its ownership by Antoine Descuirs; by 1823 his purchases had brought it to a length of more than a mile and depth of nearly three miles. About 1845, his daughter Antoinette married Arthur Denis, grandson of French aristocracy, and the house was altered to a larger and more stylish form. A 19th century court record lists these buildings at River Lake: a two-story house, two sheds, a cotton gin and press, blacksmith shop, corn mill, kitchen, hospital, two pigeon houses, four corn houses, thirty “negroe huts,” and some other armory buildings (Tallant 1-3).

More numerous along Route 1 are smaller frame houses, perhaps with an outdoor stairway on the side; these the explorer learns to identify as Cajun architecture and the stairway as leading to the garçonnière, rooms for the boys or the yet unmarried but increasingly independent young men of the family (Rowell, “Territory” 1-2). These have only garden-sized land attached, and are the homes of those who work elsewhere in farming, fishing or small business.

Then if one turns left off the main route and drives down a long lane near a “big house,” one will see the “quarters,” the area where formerly as many as thirty or forty cabins gathered black slaves or tenants into a culturally united community, where now perhaps a dozen old people live out their lives in a few remaining, weatherbeaten shacks, even raising a patch of cotton or cane for memory's sake, along with the flowers and grass plots they try to hold against the weeds encroaching from the empty spaces.

Thadious Davis, quoting Gaines, asserts that his initial writing came less from a concern for character or incident than from his strong sense of this place. It is true that characterization and the moral quality of actions become more prominent in the later works; nevertheless, these too retain the force of that initial desire: “I wanted to smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river” (Davis 1; Gaines 1971 address at Southern U).


It is evident that the labor and culture sustained on this land were shaped not only by its soil, its waterways, and its sky, blazing in July and chill in November, but even more by the kinds of people who settled it, from the first French coureurs des bois to the current oil merchants, from the first owners of plantations to the remaining black dwellers in the quarters. Gaines has somehow known them all, depicted most of them; and the traveller in Point Coupée today will meet, in some real way, their ghosts or their living selves.

Gaines' earliest fictional persons appear in story time about 1863, but Pointe Coupée history from its beginnings about 1700 is in his characters' bloodstream. French Canadians were hunting and fishing there in 1708, and the post of Pointe Coupée was established in 1717 northeast of New Roads, in an area now engulfed by the Mississippi (David 1; Curet 4). Since slavery was introduced as early as 1719, the land grantees must have begun almost at once to establish the plantations. By 1860, a census lists 63 “large owners” of 50 or more slaves. These possessors of land and human labor were French, some of them aristocrats or their children. They were Catholic; by 1728 they had a missionary, and by 1738, a church (David 5-6, 8). They infused into southern Louisiana culture elements of language, faith, and lifestyle which have outlasted all competition from later Spanish colonists and, after 1803, American settlers who poured in, bringing several nationalities, the English language, the Episcopal and various Protestant faiths. In Pointe Coupée, the French landowners prevailed. Names such as Poydras, Marioneau, Jarreau, Buonchaud, Patin, and Lebeau far outnumber in the records the Stewarts and Deans (David).

Again, River Lake's line of owners tells the story. In 1893, the aristocratic Denis family sold the entire estate to Purvis Major. He eventually divided it among his three sons, John, George, and Joseph. John and George had the portion with the “big house” on the right of the lane to the quarters; this eventually was divided among their nieces and nephews. Joseph owned the land on the left side of the road and built a home on it; today it is the possession of his granddaughter, Mrs. Madeline Caillet. In her childhood, social stratification was still very obvious. None were very well off, not even these landowners, but the levels were distinct and the codes were definite; the child Madeline could play with the blacks on the plantation but not with the local “poor whites,” i.e. the Cajuns (Caillet and L. Gaines, interviews).

The French plantation owners probably would have fixed the French influence in Louisiana even without the influx of the Acadian population in the 1760's; today, however, the “Cajuns” are the most distinctive cultural group in the Pointe Coupée area, the most apt to be sought by the tourist or the cultural historian. Descendants of refugees, the Cajuns were French but not “quality.” In the 19th century, they were fishers and independent farmers, paysans. Their primary and absolute values were and are religion, family, land, and hard work; education comes after these (Turner, interview). In the twentieth century, when the large plantations were necessarily broken up for lack of heirs or money, the Cajuns became the principal tenants on the large acreage and used their racial connections with the owners to get the best lands “near the front,” i.e. nearer to the False River and farther from the swamp lands “at the back.” With that advantage in the soil, they could produce more, get more profit, then buy modern equipment, and so continue a circle of wanting yet more land, leading to more production and profit (Davis 5; Gaines, most interviews).

Obviously, the losers as the Cajuns advanced were the blacks and the “Creoles of color,” those who had been slaves, then sharecroppers and tenants on small lots. Lionel Gaines shared his memory of the system at Cheri (River Lake):

In Mr. George's time, the black tenants might have a piece of land even near the front, but when he died, Mr. John was not one to see to the land; it was run by an overseer, Mr. Jarreau. He would request a piece of front land from Mr. John and just get it. … They went where they wanted to work; you went where they didn't want to work, toward the back, almost in the woods.

(L. Gaines interview)

Without doubt the relations of blacks and Cajuns are the most distinctive feature of Gaines' fiction, the one that has most often raised either puzzled questions or charges of bias. He has defended his posture toward Cajuns with some effectiveness. He knows well that they are also the victims of caste and an unequal economic structure, trying by hard work and acquisition to shake off the restrictions and deprivations of their own past. Since they cannot fight the owners, the Heberts and Sampsons, they can progress only at the expense of the Creoles and blacks. They are not villains but competitors. Like the blacks, they must see their young people shaking off the old ways and values, leaving the land to go to college and to industry. And if the Cajuns are subjects of anger, symbols of terror, loss, and lynching, yet in the black oral tradition, they are also objects of jokes, of the comic relief that defuses anger (Laney, “Last One” 6-7; Estes, ts. 2; Fitzgerald 333).

Alvin Aubert has said bluntly that the French legacy that so distinguishes Gaines' fiction from that of other Southern black writers is derived from the French settlers' uninhibited sexual alliances with blacks (Contemporary Novelists 483). The resultant society has whites (landowners and Cajuns), blacks, and “Creoles of color”; it also has problems of fair and dark skin unique to Louisiana and more severe than anywhere else in the South (Gaudet and Wooten, “Talking” 235). Gaines, according to Aubert, uses the Creole, not as the old tragic stereotype, but as an archetype, a metaphor of the disunity created in the black community by “sexploitation” (“Mulatto” 69). Michel Fabre also notes that Gaines's Creoles are more comparable to a dying dynasty in Faulkner than to the classic “tragic mulatto.” The latter suffers from being unable to identify in either race; the proud Creoles refuse to do so and maintain an “aristocracy,” a proud sub-culture more refined than that of the Cajuns, who nevertheless systematically displace them (117-118).

Creole “superiority” to blacks is founded on the old Code Noir of 1724, which gave citizenship to “free persons of color”—almost inevitably Creoles, whose various shades of couleur were classified in colonial and antebellum records. These “persons” had the rights of all citizens of French Louisiana except marriage to and legacies from whites; they were privileged as neither they nor any other part-blacks were in any other state. In French, Spanish, and American Louisiana, the Creoles continued to see themselves as a third caste, with customs predicated on separation from both blacks and whites. Certain families and their home places became well known; the Metoyers of Isle Brevelle on the Cane River are probably the source for Gaines' Creole Place and the family of Mary Agnes LeFabre. But the tragedy of Gaines' Creoles, such as the LeFabres or Carmiers, is that any status of their privileged ancestors is long gone; they are simply rural, uneducated sharecroppers and tenants, clinging to empty past forms, refusing to ally themselves socially or politically with blacks. Their daughters are as much barred by their own code from marrying a black (Catherine Carmier and Jackson Bradley) as they are prevented by the white code from marrying a white (Mary Agnes LeFabre and Robert Sampson). They will not recognize change or join the blacks bleeding to win it. “Creole” may, in fact, be used as a badge of security and thus add to the existing resentment and disunity. And so the Creoles are isolated in a community that grows smaller and more strangulating as the South inexorably divides into simple black and white (Davis 7-8; G & W, “Talking” 236).

The Creoles are African and French in origin and Catholic in religion; the blacks who inhabit the quarters and constitute the main body of Gaines' characters are African and Protestant, usually Baptist. They are the descendants of the slaves who built the “big houses”; they are “the people,” who in Gaines' childhood, still planted the cotton and cut the cane, told the stories in the language he absorbed and transmitted, and transformed the quarters from a place to confine and control subservient laborers into a source of political unity, common striving, mutual protection, friendship, folk education and culture, a place to generate leadership and change. These black folk are influenced by the French and Creole legacy around them; they may have French names, use French words amid their own black folk English, and argue about the relative efficacy of Baptist or Catholic prayers. But they are distinctly their own “people,” struggling with their own tensions as they lose land, lose their young, and grapple with the changes forced on them by owners and Cajuns or by their own children whom they have raised to be restless and aware. If the quarters are marked by heat, dust, dying plants, and encroaching weeds, they are also the “ritual ground of communion” (Rowell, “Quarters” 750). In Gaines' fiction, the tragedy is less the confinement of life and aspiration to the quarters than the very disappearance of the quarters and the community which it formed.

The reader who wishes to see both Gaines' places and people with deeper understanding and empathy can do so best by visits to two places: Burden Research Plantation at the Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, and, if possible, River Lake Plantation, site of Gaines' boyhood in the quarters. At the museum plantation may be seen a typical commissary, rural church, Cajun house, and several cabins of the typical “double pen, saddle-bag” (i.e., duplex) construction, with fireplace and chimney in the center and a door between the two rooms, so that two families might live there, each with its own “fire-half.” Also visible for the visitor are an overseer's house with its bousillage walls of cypress insulated with mud and Spanish moss, its cowhide chairs and pewter ware—all indicative of just that social and economic distinction that cut the essential gap between a Sidney Bonbon and a James Kelley, a Cajun overseer and a black leading workman, no matter how much they might associate in labor, in conversation, in mutual understanding. The cane grinding operation (many of Gaines' events occur in “grinding time”) is made real as well: the mule-drawn, two-wheel carts which pulled the cane to the mill, the mule-pulled crusher pole which ground the stalks so that juice went into the huge vats and was emptied into open kettles in the sugar house (“LSU Museum” 15-16). Any pulling and hauling not done by the mule was, of course, done by “the people” and was still done by them in Gaines' boyhood at River Lake. There only a few cabins and the one-room church-school remain, along with a few old people who willingly share memories of the old times and of Ernest Gaines himself, the boy who now returns each year to draw again from the living memory they embody.

From “the people's” experiences, in their memory and honor, Gaines constructs what Rowell has called his “myth,” his “symbolic geography” and “center of meaning” (“Quarters” 735). He articulated his own concept of a “black aesthetic” as a need to write about “people, people … not just problems” (Negro Digest 27). And to an interviewer he stated: “I'm very very proud of my Louisiana background, the people I come from—my uncle and the people we drink with, the people I talk with, and the people I grew up around, and their friends” (Ingram and Steinberg 340). About these common, non-historical but heroic people he wants to write with all the imagination, creativity and passion in him.


Who were the specific people who thus shaped Ernest Gaines' own life and attitudes? What early experiences inform his fiction and, if known, can make it more vitally understood? What was it like to live, work, go to school, and be part of “the people” on River Lake Plantation from 1933 to 1948? Why did he leave, and what is it like to return, educated beyond any opportunity available in the home place? Why does that place still so move his heart and creative imagination? What has made him a writer about Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, who chooses to live and work chiefly in San Francisco, California? Numerous interviewers have presented these questions to Gaines and found him both a man of intense privacy that compels respect and a cooperative partner in the effort to make his background and his books accessible.1

Ernest Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, at River Lake Plantation, then known as Cheri, on the portion belonging to Mr. John Major. His maternal grandparents were the yardman and cook at the “big house”; his parents, Manual and Adrienne Jefferson Gaines, worked in the fields. As the oldest child, Ernest assumed such duties as getting the well water and chopping wood for the stove. By the age of nine, he was in the field himself, picking cotton, digging potatoes and onions, and pulling corn, for fifty cents a day (Lane, “Last One” 7; Carter 52; Grant, DLB 170). The younger children, in their turn, joined in this work until they, too, moved to California. (Gaines has eight brothers and three sisters; the younger ones were born in California.)

An older boy or girl might “advance” to the cutting of cane. Lionel Gaines recalls that in his boyhood there were no machines for either picking cotton or cutting cane; the work was simply “rough” in a climate either “too hot or too cold.” Ernest's novels deal more often with the heat as symbol of the workers' oppressed condition, but Lionel spoke vividly of cutting cane from November to January when workers often had to pick ice off the cane before loading it.

Some of this work was done to assist their mother's uncle, Horace McVay, now an elderly resident of New Roads, then a tenant of forty acres (McVay, interview). During a ride through an area originally of large solely-owned plantations, then divided into leased acreage, Lionel Gaines explained how the tenant system worked at that time: those on “Mr. John's” land “worked on a quarter”; those on “Miss Lillian's” (daughter and heir of Mr. Joseph) “worked on a half,” i.e., a quarter or a half of the crop they “made.” As for the method of payment:

“You see, a tenant used that land, but everything he made, all his checks, had to go to the big man, the man who owned the place, until ‘settle up time.’ Just before Christmas, you'd go up to the big office, and the man'd tell you how much you made, and how much you used of his stuff, how much grain he had to buy for you. Then if you have something left, he'd give it to you; if you don't, then he'd loan you something for the next year.

[Interviewer] “You just took what he said?”

“Oh yeah! You had no other choice but take that or don't take anything.”

(L. Gaines interview)

At Cheri, tenants received two checks at the gin after the cotton and seed were separated; they could keep and spend the smaller check for seed; the other was given to Mr. John, and at Christmas the usual settlement was made. A similar arrangement worked with the cane cutting: a train picked up the cane and brought it to the sugar mill. In this case:

You didn't see no check. Mr. Wilkerson mailed your check back to Mr. John. Whatever they say it was, that what it was. What they gave you at the end of the year, that what you had. They say “You broke even” or “you still owe me $200,” that's the way it was. “You want to borrow?”

A final slip of the bolt lock on these workers was payment in the form of plantation money, old samples of which can be seen at River Lake today. Coins marked with the plantation name were minted in values of ten cents to a dollar. Workers had to spend these coins at the plantation commissary, which of course could charge whatever the owners wanted.

Both Lionel Gaines and the older people still at River Lake give assurance that a child's life there was not all heavy labor. During their “plenty of play time,” the boys would shoot marbles or play with a ball made from a marble wrapped in rags, cord, and a cloth cover sewed for them by the old people. “Anywhere we could get it wide enough and big enough, we played ball” (Aaron interview). According to Lionel, however, when he was shooting marbles, Ernest would usually be “somewhere doing something” else, chiefly reading for his own pleasure, reading or writing letters for the old people, or going to the store for them “whether they gave him a nickel or not.” Rose Ruffin, at River Lake before Gaines' birth, says he went “down the quarters” often for her: “a nice boy, raised up nice” (Ruffin interview).

According to Willie Aaron, who has lived all his life on River Lake and is another of its elderly storehouses of memory, the children of his generation went to school only at night; “they used to give school down here in the house; I went to that.” By the time “J” was in school, classes were held in a little church in the quarters. About thirty children, those who could get away from the fields, attended. Ernest and Lionel were among them any day they were not sick. Teachers—“Mr. Paul and Miss Ada … Miss Green”—commuted from New Roads or came from Baton Rouge and lived with someone in the quarters. One teacher lived about five years with the Gaineses' grandmother, Mr. John's cook. The school had benches and a blackboard on the wall; the children used “slate on the wall, but they had paper, too” (Aaron interview). Books were supplied by the state; the students or the teacher went to New Roads to get them.

The school at the quarters ended with Grade 7; then children had the choice to go to New Roads or quit. A school bus ran to New Roads; it would come into the quarters when the road was good enough; when bad, the children made the long walk to the front to meet it. Lionel recalls a little bus that went from Port Allen to New Roads. A Trailways bus from the quarters to New Roads cost fifty cents, this little one only twenty. Children could take the school bus home as far as Bigman Lane, then walk the long remainder of the way. Under the circumstances, the temptation to quit was not small, out Ernest and Lionel were among the five or so children from the quarters who went to St. Augustine's Catholic school in New Roads.

Ernest's response to education in this system is attested by all who remember him: his uncle, his brother, the old folks still in the quarters. He was “pretty smart,” “a scholar,” “pretty high up in every respect”; “look like he always wanted to be somebody, learn something”; he “loved school—yes indeed!” Their accounts, indeed, begin to take on the dimensions of myth. According to Lionel, Ernest would “cry all day” if he had to miss school; he would not go to bed until a lesson was mastered and might often be up till 2:00 studying by kerosene lamp. Sometimes Lionel would go to bed, wake up at 6:00, and find Ernest still at the lamp. If his studies required the whole night, he would take it—and then go to school. Both his uncle and his brother tell the “thorn story,” apparently now a family legend: “E. J.,” who ran often, got a thorn deep in his heel. Lionel pulled it out, put fat meat on it, and tied it up; and Ernest went hopping to school rather than miss. He was about twelve at the time.

On Sundays, of course, the school house in the quarters served its first purpose, Baptist church services. Ernest and all the other children were expected to attend, to learn their Bible, and in due time, to experience conversion and baptism in the False River. He has acknowledged that he and others underwent this public experience more to satisfy their elders than from any real inner impulse of God's Spirit or their own.

From this amalgamation of Baptist upbringing and education in the quarters and the Catholic education at St. Augustine's, Ernest derived the attitude to religion that pervades his work: respect for any sincere belief that issues in worthy action, and an equally sincere belief of his own that no particular denomination or form of church attendance is necessary and that formal religion has not succeeded in bringing about the moral changes so desperately needed in society, especially changes in American racism and its devastating impact on the black family and community.

Of all that devastation, nothing more deeply affected Gaines or appears more movingly in his fiction than the impact of racism on black men, especially as husbands and fathers. The source of this concern he noted tersely in an interview: “My mother and father split up early—and it is a theme that enters everything—and I don't know where the fathers are” (Beauford 18). Manuel Gaines left his family when his oldest son was about eight or nine; his wife and their children then moved to nearby Parlange Lane (now LA 78), where she owned some land, and where she met Norbert Colar. After a few more years back at Cheri, she married him. They found work in New Orleans; Colar joined the Merchant Marine and was transferred to California, where first Ernest and then all the older children except Lionel eventually joined them (L. Gaines interview). To Norbert Colar's memory, Gaines dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; from this and from everything he has said in interviews, it is clear that he received from Colar a father's affection and guidance and that he gave in return an equal affection and profound respect.

The temporary disruption of the family, however, had one result which Gaines clearly considers the most positive influence of his life: he and the older children came under the care of his mother's aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson. About this woman, Gaines will speak with a love and reverence and fullness that suggest she has taken almost mythic stature in his memory and imagination (all interviews). Nor is her reality diminished when one interviews the old folk at River Lake who well remember “Aunt Teen” and the way “she raised them children.” The outstanding physical fact about her is that she was crippled from birth or very early childhood; Gaines says he never knew anyone who remembered her walking. Yet she “could do anything she wanted to” by virtue of crawling about the cabin or outside and down the steps to her garden. She raised flowers and vegetables, chickens and hogs; she sat on a bench to hoe or to cook or wash clothes in the water hauled by Ernest or the other boys, and occasionally to apply the switches they were required to cut and bring her. She encouraged, taught and disciplined them by her presence and personality, perhaps most by the fact that she was never heard to complain. To the oldest of her nephews, the indelible lesson was, “Just do the job, do it as well as you could, but don't complain” (“Auntie” [“Auntie and the Black Experience in Louisiana”] 21). Leaving her when he went to California was the most wrenching separation Ernest had known; she has remained the strongest moral influence in his life. In the dedication of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, he summarized that influence: she “did not walk a day in her life but [she] taught me the importance of standing.” Miss Augusteen died in the quarters at River Lake and was buried in its cemetery on Carnival Day, 1954.

Augusteen Jefferson was the moral model of Jane Pittman; like Jane, she also embodied that element of life in the quarters which chiefly caused “J” Gaines to become Ernest Gaines the writer—oral tradition. Because Miss Augusteen could not walk, the folk came to her for visits and long conversations which made their principal recreations. “J” had to serve them tea or lemonade; he also sat and listened to them tell the stories of old times. He talked with them when he ran their errands and wrote their letters and when he accompanied another aunt on her rounds to sell Avon products. Listening and listening, he absorbed the stories, the speech patterns in which they were told, and the values and feelings they expressed. And these older folk—Walter Zeno, Reese Spooner, Rosie Ruffin, Willie Aaron, Carrie Hebert—became, under various names, the characters who populate his novels. To them he insists he must return, not merely as an observer, but “to absorb things,” to be with the land and people, to go to the fields and towns and bars, eat the food and listen to the language (Rowell, “This Louisiana Thing” 39).

Even though Ernest's love of study and his success with books made him special in the quarters of River Lake, his “writing” there was limited to early efforts at dramas which he directed and produced in the church. He recalls a mock wedding which he performed as the minister, with his script on the Bible and his back to the audience since he himself did not know his own part (Ingram and Steinberg 344). For the full impetus that made him a successful fiction writer, he required the transplantation to California which occurred in 1948 when he was fifteen years old.

In Vallejo, where Norbert Colar was stationed, Ernest became part of the heterogeneous population of a California military base. His awareness and outlook necessarily expanded as he heard the languages and life experiences of Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Latinos, American whites and blacks. But though Vallejo was not Watts or Harlem, its variety did include local teen age gangs, and Colar forestalled trouble by counselling Ernest forcefully to “get the hell off the streets.” The lad found his way first to the YMCA. He had no experience with basketball but assumed a “country kid” could box. After one severe punch in the mouth from a well practiced youth, he decided to try the library (“Auntie” 22 and other interviews). What followed there, like the story of his early schooling, has that quality of which legends are made.

Obviously, Ernest Gaines, a black youth in Louisiana before 1948, had never seen the inside of a public library. In Vallejo's, he was astounded to discover that a simple card entitled him to temporary possession of more books than he had ever seen, all he had time enough in life to read. At first, he says, he tried all subjects and borrowed armloads at random according to the attraction of the covers. Eventually, he settled into the fiction section and, to alleviate the homesickness that haunted him, sought stories about the kind of people he knew and intensely missed. There were none. At the time, Richard Wright was the only black author with a national reputation, and Gaines had yet to learn the names of white authors who at least attempted to portray the rural black South. None of these were much in public demand in Vallejo, California, in 1948. He did, however, find stories of rural people and peasants—the works of Steinbeck, Cather, Chekhov, and Turgenev. He read and he read; he saw that they understood rural people. Still, “none of them had Auntie” (“Auntie” 22). And so, at about the age of sixteen, he began to write. If no one else had told the stories of his people, he would do so himself.

The tale of that first attempt at a novel has a decided comic flair as Gaines tells it himself. He wrote in longhand until his mother, “to keep me quiet,” agreed to rent a typewriter on which he pecked out “what I thought was a book.” Startled by Ernest's self-imposed task and his persistence at it, his stepfather, home on leave, voiced in his hearing the opinion that “that boy going crazy there, yeah.” His friends tried to lure him out to sports. Most laughed at the idea of his writing a book; others advised him to write about California—or at least New Orleans, but not “that plantation stuff everybody's trying to forget.” But Ernest had already tried in his early Vallejo days to pass himself off as an urbanite from New Orleans; when sufficiently ridiculed for his inability to name any street but Canal, he had abandoned the pretense. His experience was the quarters at River Lake and the Friday night cowboy movies in New Roads; he would write what he knew—and loved. So his first “novel,” entitled “A Little Stream,” was sent off the New York in 1949, and the young author waited for the fortune he would send back to Auntie. What he received, of course, was the rejected manuscript, which he promptly took to the yard and burned. But he still wanted to write. (“Auntie” 22-23; Davis 1; G & W, “Talking” 231; other interviews).

A long road remained before Gaines the young author could return to his “Little Stream” and give its ideas both form and flow as Catherine Carmier. After graduation from Vallejo High School in 1951 and an A.A. degree from Vallejo Junior College, he spent 1953-55 in the Army. After basic training at Fort Ord, California, in 1953, and six months at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, in 1954, he went to Guam for a year. There he won two prizes and a total of $25.00 for a short story, also new determination to write (“Bloodline in Ink” 8). At the end of his tour of duty, friends urged him to stay in for the security: sure income, food, and three beds—one each in the barracks, hospital, and stockade. He was bright and got along well; he could go to officer's school (“Auntie” 23-24). What more could he want? He still wanted to write.

With that goal and his right to a GI Bill education, he mustered out and went to San Francisco State to take English Literature and Creative Writing. But, junior college notwithstanding, he was behind in General Education requirements and found himself in Expository Writing 110, the only black in a class of about twenty-five. His experience there, analogous to Faulkner's with Freshman English, might well make faculties question the value of the course to potential artists of the pen. Gaines' first three essays received a D, each followed by a conference with the teacher, Stanley Paul Anderson. This man, second only to Augusteen Jefferson and The People, merits credit for Ernest Gaines' becoming a fiction writer. He gave him permission to try explaining himself in that form rather than in essays. The result was a short story, “The Turtles,” which Anderson liked enough to pass around to other faculty. In 1956 it was published in Transfer, the college's literary magazine, which also published, in 1957, a second story, “Boy in the Double Breasted Suit.” Two more results followed: Dorothea Oppenheimer, a former editor about to open her own literary agency in San Francisco, noted Gaines' work; and he won a Creative Writing Fellowship to Stanford University (“Auntie” 24, other interviews). With his BA, (1957), and his new access to some of the best teachers in his field, he was on his way to becoming a writer.

Gaines is often asked about the influences on his formation as a writer—what teachers, what books or other art forms, what other writers, especially black writers? Who or what influenced his persistent choice of Louisiana as subject? From earliest to latest interview, his answers are utterly consistent.

His principal teachers were Stanley Anderson and Mark Harris at San Francisco State and Wallace Stegner, Richard Scowcroft, and Malcolm Cowley at Stanford. All “great critics,” they never fired his creative imagination or produced work he wanted to publish. Louisiana and its multi-ethnic people filled his head and heart; they would be his subject, and he always knew it. What else he needed to know, what his classes and critics taught him, was how to write it, and what authors would give him the best examples of technique. The Little Stream flowed again; Stanford Short Stories for 1960 published “Mary Louise,” whose characters and themes would reappear in Catherine Carmier. Ernest was also advised that to make his living as a writer, he would need to tackle a novel again; simply as a short story writer, he would starve. So he set himself to become a novelist (G & W, “Talking” 229-30; personal interviews).

After Stanford, Gaines gave himself “ten years to make it.” He lived on $175 a month in a one-room apartment with no phone and used a dining table in the hallway as a desk. He wrote in the morning, worked at the post office in the afternoon; he made notes on scraps of paper as ideas occurred to him at work; next morning he wrote again—and again—on his Louisiana subject (Carter 71-72; “Bloodline in Ink” 9-10). And all the time he followed his teachers' advice; he read and read and read the authors who could teach him techniques: the Greek tragedians, the Russians, de Maupassant, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Welty, and Faulkner. Each showed him “one route you could take”; he absorbed all they could give him, then moved beyond them to his own style (Tooker 97; Ingram and Steinberg 341; Werner 35; many interviews).

Early publication was, at best, up-lift and down-drop. Between 1963 and 1966, four more stories were published in noteworthy literary journals. In 1964, Catherine Carmier at last took final form and won the Henry Jackson Literary Prize, but it did not sell. A modest book contract in 1966 gave him some independence and better work time; in 1967 he was able to publish Of Love and Dust and in 1968, three of his magazine stories and two new ones made the collection Bloodline. These books earned few and mixed reviews; most critics who noted his work at all saw its strength and potential, especially in the short stories. But publication brought no royalties, no fame, and no clear hope of ever making his living at his craft. Gaines has admitted that “those first ten years of writing were hell” (Carter 71-72; personal interview).

That he persevered and found his peak skills is partly due to the influences of others living and dead. In those first ten years, if ever, the courage he learned from Miss Augusteen and the encouragement from his teachers stood him in stead. As advisors, Anderson, Harris, and Stegner were replaced by his editors, E. L. Doctorow and Bill Decker at Dial Press, and especially by his agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer, who gave, until her death in 1987, what he counts as his most valuable literary relationship. She offered not only many helpful critiques of his writing, but a related cultural education. With her, he attended symphonies or listened to classical music on radio, and learned the use of motifs, repetition, and understatement; he viewed paintings in galleries, prints in bookstores, and great foreign films, and saw that a few significant details could create a scene. She kept him going with extra food and encouragement; she told him honestly when his work was not yet ready for “the big city”—and when it was. “She was there when no one else was” (G & W, “Interview” 68-69; “Bloodline in Ink” 13-15; letter to author, February 1990).

But his chief supports were his own awareness of his talent, the discipline and repetition of effort he had learned in college track and in the quarters of River Lake, and above all, his independence of character, the haunting memories of his own place and people, and his determination to be loyal to them as his subject.

He has always insisted that no black writer influenced him. By the time he went to San Francisco State, Wright and Baldwin were available, and Invisible Man had just been published. But neither these nor any other earlier black writers were taught in the classroom or recommended to his reading. That may or may not be regrettable: the reading of black writers just might have fogged his clear vision of his own materials and goals, but from the white authors he always knew he was learning skills of narration and not a way of seeing his own world. He acknowledges some impact from reading Zora Neale Hurston, but that is all. Jean Toomer's Cane, he says, would have influenced him had he known it, by its subject (the rural black South) and its structure (short pieces combined into a novel). But he did not know Cane, and any resemblance now is coincidental or due to the authors' similar experiences (Carter 71; Fitzgerald 35; “Talking” 229-30).

Gaines's education in the fifties may have left him uninfluenced by black writers, but beginning publication in the militant sixties subjected him to the demand on black authors to write for social and political goals. Resistance was not easy. California especially was seething with hippies and protest; other young writers thought him out of touch at best, and at worst, an Uncle Tom. Gaines has recognized that had he been in Louisiana, not California, during the Civil Rights era, he might, like his fictional Jimmy, have died on the streets of his home town. But militant words and acts were not what he had experienced “at home”—not even demonstrations. And he believed that the way to force reluctant white recognition of black humanity was to “do something positive. … to use the anger in a positive way, to create a lasting punch, one that will have a longer effect that just screaming” or calling obscene names (Carter 71). And so, as the violence escalated, he kept writing. On a day of bad news, he would sit till he had written a perfect page. He would prove to the Wallaces, Connors, and Faubuses of the South that he could take the letters given by their ancestors and use them better, could do more with them to help his race than they could do to destroy it (“Auntie” 26). And he would do it his way, by telling his people's story. He would “write black” indeed, out his black, that of his people; and he would write not only about his black people in the quarters but his multi-ethnic people, the Creoles, Cajuns, and landowner whites—all their interaction as he knew it, as it had been seared into his memory and carved onto his heart, during the first fifteen years of his life. For his choice of subject, the heart had its reasons which no reasons of any political or aesthetic movement could shake. In this territory, he needed no one to free him.

Eventually, of course, Gaines did begin to include the fifties, sixties, and seventies in his fiction; this fact is due simply to his regular visits to Louisiana, enabling him to know the experiences of young and old in a society changing from sugar cane to oil, from rigid segregation to limited integration, from oppression and fear to activism and assertion. Gaines has said he never expects to change his basic subject because it holds more than he can exhaust in a lifetime. And certainly he has never yielded his position that the artist is a free person, free to write “what he wants, when he wants, to whomever he wants. If he is true, he will use that material which is closest to him” (Grant, DLB 171).

For whom then does he write? Gaines has also insisted without deviation that he writes for no particular audience but to satisfy his own impulse and standards. But he has half-joked that if he were demanded at gun point to name an audience, he would say first, the black youth of the South, and second, the white youth of the South. To the former he hopes to convey a sense of proud and free identity, to the latter a sense of the essential unity of all human beings (Doyle 61 and other interviews). If, in fact, his intuition of his audience and goal is correct, it may explain why children and young people are so much a part of his fiction, why his earliest works choose them as protagonists and even as narrators, and why his stories are so eminently teachable, so appealing and successful as classroom texts.

Success, of course, came—came, in fact, on the appointed ten-year schedule. With The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, with the dozens of laudatory reviews and especially the televising in 1974, Ernest Gaines became a famous writer. Two more novels, another television production, numerous interviews and public lectures, various awards, a faculty position at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and a home there in Lafayette—all these have followed his fame. But the essential and compelling elements remain the same: in the fiction, the Place and the People; in the author, a sense of vocation to be the last witness to their way of life before it passes, a sustained modesty in achievement, and the commitment of the person who came from the quarters and returns yearly to replenish his spirit, his imagination, his language, and his love.


  1. To the writer, he gave not only several interviews and written responses to questions but also access and introduction to his brother Lionel and his great-uncle, Horace McVay, and to Mrs. Madeline Caillet, present owner of River Lake, who, in her turn, introduced the people still living in the quarters and still very willing to share their memories. The information in this essay not cited from published sources was received from one or another of these generous people.

Works Cited

Aubert, Alvin. “Ernest J. Gaines's Truly Tragic Mulatto.” Callaloo 1 (1978): 68-75.

———. “Gaines, Ernest J.” Contemporary Novelists. Ed. James Vinson. New York: St. Martin's P, 1976. 482-84.

Beauford, Fred. “Conversation with Ernest Gaines.” Black Creation 4 (1972): 16-18. “Black Writer's Views on Literary Lions and Values.” Negro Digest (January 1968): 10-48.

Carter, Tom. “Ernest Gaines.” Essence 6 (1975): 52-53, 71-72.

Curet, Bernard. Our Pride: Pointe Coupée. Baton Rouge: Moran Publishing Corporation, 1981.

David, Idolie Olinde. “Historical Sketch of Early Pointe Coupée.” Written … as Part of the Cultural Arts Program and Bicentennial Observance of the Island Homemakers Club. ts. New Roads, Louisiana Public Library.

Davis, Thadious M. “Headlands and Quarters: Louisiana in Catherine Carmier.Callaloo 7 (1984): 1-13.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. “A MELUS Interview: Ernest J. Gaines; ‘Other Things to Write About.’” MELUS 11.2 (1984): 59-81.

Estes, David C. “Ethnic Conflict in Southern Louisiana: Ernest J. Gaines's Comic Vision.” MLA Convention. Chicago, 30 Dec. 1985.

Fabre, Michel. “Bayonne or the Yoknapatawpha of Ernest Gaines.” Trans. Melvin Dixon and Didier Malaquin. Callaloo 1 (1978): 110-24. Originally published in French in Recherches Anglaises et Americaines 9 (1976).

Fitzgerald, Gregory and Peter Marchant. “An Interview: Ernest J. Gaines.” New Orleans Review 1 (1969): 331-35.

Gaines, Ernest. “Auntie and the Black Experience in Louisiana.” Louisiana Tapestry: The Ethnic Weave of St. Landry Parish. Eds. Vaughn B. Baker and Jean T. Kreamer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, U of Southwestern Louisiana, 1982.

———. “Bloodline in Ink.” CEA Critic 51 (1989): 2-12

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” New Orleans Review 14 (1987): 62-70.

———. “Talking with Ernest J. Gaines.” Callaloo 11 (1988): 229-43.

Grant, William E. “Ernest J. Gaines.” Dictionary of Literary Biography 2: American Novelists since World War II. Ed. Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978: 170-75.

Ingram, Forrest and Barbara Steinberg. “On the Verge: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” New Orleans Review 3 (1973): 339-44.

Laney, Ruth. “The Last One Left.” Sunday Advocate Magazine (Baton Rouge, La.) 30 October 1983: 6-7.

“The LSU Rural Life Museum.” Guidebook for Tourists. 21 pp.

Rowell, Charles H. “That Little Territory in and around Bayonne: Ernest Gaines and Place.” MLA Convention. Los Angeles, 1982. ts.

———. “‘This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me’: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” Callaloo 1 (1978): 39-51.

———. “The Quarters: Ernest J. Gaines and the Sense of Place.” The Southern Review 21 (1985): 733-50.

Tallant, Drury. “French Influences on River Lake Plantation.” ts., 3 pp. Private collection, Mrs. Madeline Caillet.

Tooker, Dan, and Roger Hofheins. Interviews with Northern California Novelists. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Werner, Craig Hansen. Paradoxical Resolutions: American Fiction since Joyce. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1982.

Personal Interviews

Aaron, Willie, Carrie Hebert, and Rosie Ruffin. Residents of River Lake Plantation Quarters. 22 July 1986.

Caillet, Madeline. Owner of River Lake Plantation. 22 July 1986.

Gaines, Ernest J. October 1982 and July 1983.

Gaines, Lionel. 23 July 1986.

McVay, Horace. 23 July 1986.

Turner, Bruce. Archivist, Dupre Library, U of Southwestern Louisiana. 21 July 1986.

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

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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, “America”

Each of the first two stories in Ernest J. Gaines' Bloodline—“A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray”—describes a black boy or youth attempting to come to terms not just with the world in which he lives, his parents' problems, and the racism which circumscribes him but, more importantly, with the sensory orientation of his own body, the struggle between what William Faulkner called “black blood and white blood.”1 It is this private or internal struggle more than any public or external debate that creates the real identity crisis for the young black and for the artist or writer who would contend with an America which has “painted the senses white!” Both Sonny in “A Long Day in November” and James in “The Sky Is Gray” have to resolve the conflict between their African/aural roots and their American/visual reorientation—between James Baldwin's declaration that “it is only in his music … that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story”2 and Ralph Waldo Emerson's assumption that “the eye is final; what it tells us is the last stroke of nature; beyond color we cannot go.”3 This hyperverbal/hypervisual trauma or rite de passage forms the real theme or subject of both black children's accounts in “A Long Day in November” and “The Sky Is Gray.”

It may seem, first of all, that what the young Sonny in “A Long Day in November” is most concerned about is tactile or visceral comfort—keeping warm: “It's warm under the cover here, but it's cold up there and I don't want to get up now.”4 Or it may seem as if the story reaches its climax in the potentially striking visual episode, in the destruction of the car: “He turns his lights on Daddy's car so everybody can see the burning” (p. 71). But, as I hope to demonstrate later on, the real center or “soul” of this story concerns the manner in which Sonny finds his world aurally reconstituted—of hearing everything in its proper and most satisfying state. T. S. Eliot may, for example, in The Waste Land, find that his ultimate moment of self-awareness comes while “looking into the heart of light, the silence”; (I.41; italics mine); but Sonny discovers that his greatest pleasure or pain comes from his ears, not his eyes: “I hear them. I hear them. I hear them. I hear them” (p. 11). In fact, as we shall find emphasized again at the story's conclusion, Sonny's consummate reintegration of his fractured self and home occurs in experiencing the perfect aural adjustment—the “end” or teleology wherein the black child overhears the epitome of security and love: “I hear the spring on Mama and Daddy's bed. I hear it plenty now (p. 79, italics mine). Indeed, such blissful aurality links the black in America ever so much more closely to the European and his geist than it does to the “New England Mind.” A Wordsworth may burst forth in his own youthful “Intimations of Immortality” that “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!”; and a Yeats may confess for all the hyperverbal “courtly muses of Europe” that “I hear it in the deep heart's core”5 (14, italics mine); but an Emerson quietly rebuffs all this lyricism and audition with the note in his journal, “That which others hear, I see” (VII, 152). It is this conflict between ultimate sensory or aesthetic satisfaction from ear or from eye that forms the real “racial” dilemma for both the black child and the black artist seeking integration or at least recognition within white America and its jealous ideal, the “genius in America, with tyrannous eye.”6 John Oliver Killens, in Black Man's Burden, puts it thus: “We refuse to look at ourselves through the eyes of white America” (p 31). The black in the New World “looks” through his ears.

Now, as we reread and probe into more of the sensory details of “A Long Day in November,” we must keep before our microscopes and microphones both the “white blood”—Emerson's assertion that as a “transparent eyeball” he is estranged from the usual definition of himself and finds that “all other men and my own body” are considered the “NOT ME”7—and the “black blood”—W. E. B. Du Bois' realization that only in the so-called “Sorrow Songs” could he feel his deepest “roots” (II: 1762). Here, warmth is merely a precondition for engaging the hyperverbal/hypervisual bias. The black child lives initially in a world of the ear: “Sonny? I hear. … Wake up, honey, I hear” (p. 3). Gradually the child emerges from the “heart of darkness” and begins to engage his surroundings: “The room is dark. The lamp's on the mantel-piece, but it's kind of low. I see Mama's shadow on the wall” (p. 4). Through hearing the reassuring parental word, the child finds the courage to begin his “long day”: “Mama go'n wrap his little coat round her baby” (p. 4). Here, the world and its order and laws are asserted through the nuances of the word: “Any time you sound like that you done forgot your pot” (p. 5). Emerson may crave the hypervisual solitude of the heavens: “If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars” (“Nature,” p. 23), but young Sonny discovers little more in the heavenly lights than the fact that his is up too early: “I bet you nobody else in the quarter's up now” (p. 5).

Again, Sonny's home is constituted by the early voices of his parents—the estranged voice of the father attempting to cajole or mollify the mother and then attempting to coax the boy into letting him into the room: “Come and open the door like a good boy” (p. 8). Much like the black exclamation of the 1980s—“I heard that!”—Sonny's mother issues the ultimate authoritarian command as “You heard me, boy?” (p. 9, italics mine). Even the father offers the quintessential black paradigm when he reveals his dependency on audition over vision—as he begs Sonny's mother, “Say you don't mean it. I can't shut these eyes till you say you don't mean it” (p. 9; italics mine). By contrast, Hemingway's young initiate, Nick Adams, must see in order to truly learn—whether this be observing the cut throat of the Indian in “Indian Camp” or the homosexual behavior of the tramps in “The Battler” or the prone irresolution of Ole Anderson in “The Killers” or even the cowardice of his red-faced father in “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife.” For Sonny, however, the morning is constituted by hearing his parents “saying nothing” or his Daddy “crying” or “snoring.” Even in his dreams, after becoming “drowsy” and dozing off, this black child's world is built upon that sensory perception which he emphasizes above all other:

I'm outside shooting marbles, but I hear them. I don't know what they talking about, but I hear them. I hear them. I hear them. I hear them.

(p. 11; italics mine)

At no place in “A Long Day in November” will the “central critical intelligence” ever feel tempted to burst forth concerning his eyes—I see—five times in rapid succession. A Walt Whitman may carry on thus—saw the glistening yellow … / saw the slow-wheeling circles … / saw the reflection … / saw the white sails of schooners and saw the ships at anchor”;8 but a Wordsworth and a Gaines must avow this “intimation of immortality”: “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!” For the Englishman and for the Afro-American, the poet or writer thus becomes “a man speaking to men”;9 but for the white American, “He is a seer. … the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not” (Whitman, “1855,” p. 715, italics mine). Thus, Sonny, whether asleep or awake, finds that his heritage is circumscribed by the aural—“Mama and Daddy talking too much” (p. 11)—while Emerson notes that he had “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe” (“American,” p. 79), and Thoreau complains that he has “yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors”10 as the “white blood” of the New World must see, not hear, for itself. Here, we could go on with a myriad of other sensory details of how Sonny must confront a predominantly aural early morning world, how his father attempts to engage him in much-needed conversation (“‘I need somebody to talk to, Sonny’”), or of how the black boy simply “lives”:

I can hear Mama back in the kitchen. I hear her putting some wood in the stove, and then I hear her lighting the fire. I hear her pouring water in the tea kettle, and I hear when she sets the kettle on the stove.

(p. 13, italics mine)

The real sensory trial or rite de passage begins for Sonny when he must leave his home of “sound and fury” for the early morning “light in November”: “I can see frost all over the grass. … I look up and I see the tree in Gran'mon's yard. We go little farther and I see the house” (p. 16-17). From here on, throughout the “long day,” Sonny must contend with the battle between his African ears and his American eyes. He must contend with his deep resentment against his grandmother for her loud hatred of his father—“Lord knows I get tired of Gran'mon fussing all the time” (p. 19)—and he must contend with his public appearance and behavior as he wets his pants before the others in school: “I don't open my eyes … I don't want see them” (p. 25). He must learn to find some dignity and value for his own life despite the aural/visual “bind” he comes to recognize as the hard reality surrounding him: “I don't open my eyes; nobody's saying anything, but I know they all watching me” (p. 25, italics mine). Sonny must learn to trust the compassionate voice of his teacher; and he must learn to find some means of negating the hard stares of the others: “I open my book and look at my lesson so I don't have to look at none of them” (p. 28). Salvation/freedom comes, finally, at the ringing of the unringable American “Liberty Bell”: “Soon's Miss Hebert touches the bell all the children run go get their hats and coats … and leave” (p. 29).

Back at Gran'mon's house, the black child is again caught up in the swirl of angry audition—of “You ain't no good” or “Can you hear me, honey?” (p. 33). While Gran'mon may object to her son-in-law's looks—“yellow,” with “a gap 'tween your teeth”—her ultimate sensory confirmation comes, just as Sonny's does, through her ears: “She can hear you good's I can hear you, and nigger, I can hear you too good for comfort” (p. 33, italics mine). Again, Walt Whitman may proclaim that his American “child” is made by “the first object he look'd upon”—from the “white and red morning-glories” to “the village on the highland seen from afar at sunset” (“Child,” 364-65)—but Gaines' black boy is created amidst the shouting or weeping or cajoling voices of his relatives and friends. Here, Faulkner was correct to catch Dilsey in this quintessential lyrical/aural posture: “As she ground the sifter steadily above the bread board, she sang, to herself at first, something without particular tune or words, repetitive, mournful and plaintive, austere”;11 and Gaines makes sure that his own fussing Dilsey obeys this same primal response:

Gran'mon goes over to the stove and sticks a piece of wood in the fire. She starts singing again:

Oh, I'll be there,
I'll be there,
When the roll is called in Heaven, I'll be there.

(p. 38)

Not for nothing did W. E. B. Du Bois declare, “Ever since I was a child these Sorrow Songs have stirred me strangely. … [A]t once I knew them as of me and mine”;12 and not for nothing has the recent black poetess Maya Angelou confessed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Emily Dickinson may have discovered in her New England “very Lunacy of Light” that she inhabits a realm of “Keyless Rhyme” that is “Better—than Music!”13 But James Baldwin and Ernest J. Gaines know that music or aurality is the sine qua non of the Afro-American mind.

Finally, the heard word and the obeyed word become the means by which Sonny's home is reconstituted. His father goes to the “hoo-doo woman,” Madame Toussaint, and receives the verbal command: “Give it up” (p. 51). In a sense, the car that must now be destroyed represents, with its glass windows and ability to roam over the landscape, the “transparent eyeball” incarnate or mechanized; and this very “white man's toy” must be forsaken in order to reachieve the happiness and aural foundation of the black family. Indeed, although the black in America today prizes his automobile as both a symbol of his equality or status and a necessary means of transportation, he also often shows how important it is for his sanity and identity to have pulsating from this same sightseeing car the stereophonic rhythms and drums and wails of his African aural roots, his contemporary “soul music” or “Sorrow Songs.” Indeed, too, we should not neglect to point out here that Gaines significantly does not make much visual use of the car-burning episode in “A Long Day in November”—does not dwell on the hypervisuality latent in the colors and details of such a scene. Sonny merely reports: “I see little bit fire, then I see plenty” (p. 71). And back at home even the beating which Sonny's father administers to his wife is not played for spectacle but for aurality/verbality—in order to produce cries and reprimands and words of forgiveness. The story concludes with oral lessons and prayers and parental cooing: “I'm going to bed. You coming now? Uh-hunnnnn” (p. 78). Sonny now knows his “lesson” and will not make a public spectacle of himself again; in fact, his “long day” has taught him, in a way almost incomprehensible to white Americans, the aural methodology necessary for the black child to advance in his milieu—the sensory fulfillment: “I hear the spring on Mama and Daddy's bed. I hear it plenty now. … I feel good 'way under here” (79; italics mine).

James, in “The Sky Is Gray,” is a somewhat older black youth who rightly faces a more complex dilemma concerning his ear and eye. The absence of the father—“in the army”—has somewhat prematurely forced James into the role of “the man of the house”; and we first find this young black initiate “looking down the road,”14 of American hypervisuality. Here, James must learn to balance the words of his black heritage with the visions of white America—must learn to observe his mother's sadness and poverty while at the same time controlling his words after the fashion of the stoic adult black male: “I want put my arm round her and tell her. But I'm not supposed to do that. She say that's weakness and crybaby stuff” (p. 84). Time and time again, the black youth must simply “take it”—must see the advantages of the whites or the sufferings of himself and other blacks—while saying nothing and offering no complaints. Indeed, the “tooth” with the aching root here is James' own Afro-American tongue and ear—the dilemma of finding that his deepest “roots” are at odds with hypervisual America. The text of “The Sky Is Gray” subtly brings out this painful aurality:

I'd just lay there and listen to them, and listen to that wind out there, and listen to that fire in the fireplace. Sometimes it'd stop long enough to let me get little rest. Sometimes it just hurt, hurt, hurt. Lord, have mercy.

(p. 84; italics mine)

This tooth of endless remorse/aurality may be denied—“‘It ain't hurting me no more’” (p. 86)—but will never be extracted from the central black consciousness of “The Sky Is Gray.” Of course, too, there is a shrewd and even humorous irony involved in attempting to exorcise the black hyperverbality by “prayer”—whether this be Baptist or Catholic incantation—for the Word/word, spoken or sung, lies at the root of black religiosity. Yet James, for all his acuteness of perception, can never follow Emerson into the parody of the Biblical command, “Pray without ceasing”: the New-England sage demands, “Observe without ceasing” (Journals XII: 478; italics mine). The only way that James can truly understand his world is by authoritarian explanation—the tongue and ear informing the eye: “Auntie and Monsieur Bayonne talked to me and made me see” (p. 90; italics mine).

The trip to town on the bus marked “White” and “Colored” represents the real rite de passage for the black youth in white America—the blurring of his sensibilities into gray: “The river is gray. The sky is gray” (p. 91). From henceforth, James' own “long day” will be comprised of this struggle between “black blood” and “white blood” within a cerebral “sky” of “gray”—a terrifying and chilling confrontation with one's own senses and sensibilities. The first thing that James learns is to rein in his potential visuality—to accept verbal blinders for his eyes: “Mama tells me to keep my eyes in front where they belong” (p. 93; italics mine). Next, James discovers that the dentist's “colored” waiting-room is a place of intensified vocality and aurality, where patients are “hollering like pigs under a gate” (p. 94) and where “all round the room people are talking” (p. 99). Here, the key episode occurs between the “liberal” black student and the “conservative” black preacher—a paradoxical conflict between Word and word, between faith and sight. The black student demands hypervisuality—“Show me one reason to believe in the existence of a God” (p. 96; italics mine)—while at the same time demanding a reinterrogation of his verbality: “What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored mean?” (p. 97; italics mine). The student wants very much to deny his aurality—“Me, I don't listen to my heart” (p. 96)—and he ends up sad and depressed over his liberalism and scepticism: “I hope they aren't all like me. … I was born too late to believe in your God” (p. 102). What the student desires is a new age for American blacks—one which can blend “faith” with “sight,” the “ear” with the “eye,” one's internal “blackness” with the surrounding “whiteness” into “The Sky Is Gray.” James is acute enough to sense a kindred dilemma and thinks to himself: “When I grow up I want be just like him” (p. 100).

Again, Gaines is shrewd enough not to let James end his ordeal at this point but forces him to confront the obstacles of bitter cold and hunger in order to accomplish his sensory rite de passage. Being told that he must return after lunch, James goes with his mother out into the sleeting streets of Bayonne. He hears his mother complain—“We the wrong color” (p. 103)—and he sees for himself the relative comfort of the “white people” eating in a nearby cafe. This time the trial is so severe that the verbal command is ineffectual: “Mama tells me keep my eyes in front where they belong, but I can't help from seeing” (p. 104; italics mine). Nor can the mother's demands for stoicism keep James from nearly succumbing to the piercing chill of the sleeting “gray sky.” At this point, almost by deus ex machina, the black youth's deepest self reasserts itself in all its visceral aurality: “My stomach growls and I suck it in to keep Mama from hearing it. … It growls so loud you can hear it a mile” (p. 105). Moreover, it soon becomes clear that the black mother and son must accept the fact that they have now become the observed, not the observers—that they are the ones who dearly need to be seen for what they are, cold and hungry. An elderly white woman and store-owner declares, “I saw y'all each time you went by” (p. 113). The blacks, now realizing that they are not going to conquer the keen-eyed compassion of this woman and her husband, bow and accept food and a perhaps-too-generous supply of “salt meat” under the transparent pretense of James' doing some “chores” for the shopkeepers. The blacks then leave the store under the kindly but acute “genius in America, with tyrannous eye”: James recounts how “she's still there watching us” (p. 117; italics mine).

All in all, the only pride that can be salvaged at the conclusion of the story is the black mother's verbal assurance—“You not a bum” (p. 117)—and the visual accommodation whereby James “turns down the collar” of his coat in order to appear as an Afro-American or newly reconstituted hyperaural/hypervisual “man.” This is what the black student in the dentist's office had desired—the best of both cultures, of ear and eye. But the question remains whether or not in this blending of “black” and “white” into “The Sky Is Gray” there still may be too great a personal pain and sense of loss or self-betrayal for black youth or artist ever to transcend Gunnar Myrdal's penetrating observation:—“The colored peoples are excluded from assimilation.”15

O Say, Can YOU See that in one's “bloodline” one may indeed rediscover the “wise blood” of his or her deepest cultural and aesthetic self?


  1. William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Random House, 1952), p. 192.

  2. James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” in Black Literature in America, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 310.

  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, ed. Linda Allardt, Alfred R. Fergusson, and Harrison Hayford (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1978), XIV, 166. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. Ernest J. Gaines, “A Long Day in November,” in his Bloodline (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 3. Hereafter cited in the text by page reference only.

  5. William Butler Yeats, “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in Selected Poems, ed. M. L. Rosenthal (New York: Collier, 1968), iii. 12 (p. 13).

  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton, 1960), p. 238.

  7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Selections, ibid., p. 22; italics mine. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  8. Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in Leaves of Grass, ed. Sculley Bradley (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 161; italics mine. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. William Wordsworth, “Preface to the 1792 Edition of Lyrical Ballads,” in Anthology to Romanticism, ed Ernest Bernbaum (New York: Ronald, 1949), p. 304; italics mine.

  10. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in American Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks (New York: St. Martin's, 1973), I, 755.

  11. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929; rpt. New York: The Modern Library, 1965), p. 298.

  12. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Sorrow Songs (1903),” in American Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks (New York: St. Martin's, 1973), II, 1762.

  13. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p. 244.

  14. Ernest J. Gaines, “The Sky Is Gray,” in his Bloodline (New York: Norton, 1976), p. 83. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  15. Gunnar Myrdal, qtd. in Black Voices, ed. Abraham Chapman (New York: Mentor, 1968), p. 36.

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6566

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 are remarkable. Unlike the fiction of Walker Percy, which in many essential respects returns to Agrarian modes of thinking about the machine, the works of Ernest Gaines couple a highly realistic depiction of technological change with an insistence on the value of connection with the past and the responsibility of the individual to communal needs.

Ernest Gaines began his career as a novelist in the late fifties, a period of turbulent social protest and unprecedented economic progress in the South. The issues of social and economic change are clearly in the forefront of Gaines's fiction, a fact which a number of commentators have stressed. However, the diversity of critical opinion concerning the treatment of change in Gaines's fiction invites a more detailed study of the author's view of the New South and of the participation of blacks in the post-war boom of the region.

As a subject of fiction, the New South has occupied Gaines's attention from the beginning of his career up to the present, as a detailed analysis of two of his works, the early collection of stories Bloodline and the later novel, In My Father's House, will demonstrate. Furthermore, as in the case of Flannery O'Connor and other post-war southern writers, Gaines's fictional treatment of the New South has affected his narrative aesthetic. The distinctive features of prose style and technique in his fiction have evolved, at least in part, from the necessity of representing the subject of social and economic change. Where Gaines is most innovative, in the subtle effects of voice and point of view, he is often dealing directly with the impact of social and technological change on his rural Louisiana setting. Gaines also resembles O'Connor in the extent to which he has appropriated a highly developed southern literary tradition that suggests conventional responses to mechanization. There are important echoes as well of the major black writers, especially Charles Chestnutt and Richard Wright, who wrote into their works an often bitterly ironic response to the “New” South. Gaines's accomplishment may well be to have brought together a black literary tradition, with its emphasis on ironic commentary and folkloric material, and the southern literary aesthetic of Glasgow, Faulkner, and O'Connor.

Historians such as George Tindall, John Hope Franklin, and Gavin Wright have documented the extent of social change in the post-war South, pointing to new deal policies and war-time expenditures as major factors in changing economic and social attitudes. The location of military bases in the Deep South provided new contact with thousands of soldiers from outside the region and provided the impetus for growth in such cities as Mobile and Norfolk. Despite a limited amount of integration within the services, military service opened up new skills and experiences for black enlisted men. Equally important, with 17.6 percent of the total expenditure for war plants going to the South, southern cities were rapidly transformed into industrial centers, and the phenomenal post-war growth of southern cities brought immigrants, many from Latin America, along with “internal immigration” from other regions of the country. As Wright has shown, the most significant effects of this development were the disappearance of the low-wage economy and the growth of investment in land development, which promoted civic improvements and investment in education and infrastructure. Significant for an understanding of Gaines's fiction, the pace of development has been greatest in Louisiana and Texas. A very large proportion of war-time spending went to the gulf Southwest, where “more than half of the total investment went into Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, in that order” (Tindall 699-700, 703).

As social historians have documented and as Gaines shows in his treatment of post-war black urban life, the effects of urbanization on blacks in the South were not entirely positive, especially in respect to unemployment and the family. As John Hope Franklin shows, “for many black newcomers to the city, employment failed to materialize. … Men were less likely to secure employment than women, thus replicating the Southern rural experience where the perception of black masculinity was constantly challenged at home and in the workplace” (421-22). Nonetheless, despite the enormous pressure of social change and continued prejudice, the black family remained relatively stable until about 1970. As Franklin states: “The sharp rise in black female-headed households since 1970 was the most significant indication of the deterioration of the black family” (422).

As a writer of fiction, Gaines has realistically described the effects of urbanization on southern black community. Discussion of Gaines's fiction has dealt frequently with two elements of his treatment of the transition to modernity: his representation of the black community and his stress on the black family. This critical approach has produced useful readings of the stories in Bloodline: for example, as Todd Duncan reads “Three Men,” Procter Lewis is charged by an older male with the responsibility for changing his own relation to the black community. Duncan writes: “Like the young college student [in “The Sky Is Gray”] … Procter is rebellious. The problem is that Procter's mind has been conditioned by an oppressive social situation and his energies confined to a circuit of peer-destruction which ultimately becomes self-destruction” (92). The origin of Procter's self-destructiveness can be traced to the breakdown of family with the “deep sense of rejection” that he felt after the death of his mother, and there is no one in the family or community left to fill her role. Although he was on his way to becoming a habitual offender, a victimizer of his own community, Procter is saved by the paternal concern of Munford. As Duncan observes, the title of the story emphasizes “one of Gaines's most important concerns … the connection between generations and the acceptance of the responsibilities of literal or symbolic parenthood” (94). Michel Fabre also centers his argument on the importance of a stable community: despite the increasing threat to order which mechanized agriculture poses, Gaines's “universe remains a stable one” (113). Fabre also discovers a connection between the rural culture “where words are weighed” and a prose of “careful transcription by one who simply takes his time.” Stressing the patient use of repetition and “brief passages where meaning fills the gaps,” Fabre believes that a “waiting tension” which “explodes into tragedy” is characteristic of the Gainesian style.

The readings of Duncan and Fabre, along with the insightful criticism of Charles H. Rowell in “The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place,” view Gaines as an author recording “a static world fiercely resistant to change” (735). Accordingly, these critics have treated Gaines as a writer whose prose aesthetic reflects the qualities of rural life. Certainly this analysis identifies one aspect of Gaines's aesthetic; yet, increasingly, especially in his more recent fiction but also in passages in the early stories, Gaines explores the consciousness of those who are alienated from the rural community. Even within the same work, the laconic, impassive naturalism which Fabre identifies as “Gainesian” may suddenly shift into a hurried, discontinuous, expressionistic style.

In Catherine Carmier, for example, the oppressive “circling” style of the passage in which Aunt Charlotte questions Jackson about his loss of faith is followed closely by the scene in which Jackson walks the field, hardly recognizing it as the place where he grew up:

The old houses that had once stood back there had been torn down. Many of the trees has been cut down and sold for lumber and firewood, and the places where he used to pick pecans and blackberries were now plowed under. Patches of corn, cotton, and sugar cane had taken the place of everything.


When dealing with the subject of technology, the mechanized farming which has destroyed Jackson's home place, the prose becomes purposeful, analytical, and transparent, suggesting the “classical” influence of Turgenev on Gaines's treatment of landscape. Yet this scene is followed almost immediately by Jackson's meeting with Catherine: the style now becomes fragmented, excited by broken phrases and rapid monosyllables. If Jackson was unable to identify with Aunt Charlotte's religious faith, he is also separated from Catherine, whose meaning he attempts to read “behind” her ordinary words and facial expressions. She “seems” to be saying: “All right, nothing can come of our love, but we can like each other, can't we? They can keep us apart, but they can't make us stop liking each other, can they?” (125).

The richness and variety of this style derives from an attention to specific situation and character. Indeed, Gaines's prose may be far more complex and varied than the author himself admitted when he spoke of “writing as well as I can—writing cleanly, clearly, truthfully, and making it simple enough so that anyone might be able to pick it up and read it” (Rowell, “Interview” 49). Many passages in his work achieve nuances of style which reproduce the essential features of the subject. The frequency with which this subject is transition, not the static but the changing landscape of the South, produces an aesthetic capable of representing fragmentation, bewilderment, and despair.

Even in Bloodline, where stories such as “The Sky Is Gray” appear to record the pre-industrial culture, a harsh but loving community with its lessons of manhood and its rewards of identity and social acceptance, Gaines injects an inevitable “future” of modernity in which, albeit in his role as provider for his mother, James intends “next summer” to begin earning money by entering the larger economy as an agricultural worker. The town of Bayonne, a “little bitty town” with “the pavement all cracked” and “grass shooting out the sidewalk,” still manages to mark a transition from rural to urban setting, for the lesson of racial division is enforced just as well in Bayonne as in Baton Rouge. If James's visit to the dentist represents the solace which he hopes to find “in town” and in the future of accomplishment which he dreams of in the world beyond Bayonne, the town is also peopled with enough prejudice and indifference to challenge the child's future development. Danger comes not just in the guise of a pimp who approaches his mother in a cafe, but also in the decisive scene where a black student, politicized and questioning the existence of God, argues against the conventional beliefs of an elderly black preacher. As often, Gaines seems skeptical of the contribution of the black church, which, as one historian suggests, “operated largely in a context of fundamentalism that excluded the social and economic issues of the day” (Tindall 566). Instinctively, James feels that he wants to emulate the student, yet the student's questioning of tradition and of the meaning of common language angers the listeners in the waiting room and puzzles James. Significantly, perhaps, we never learn the reaction of James's mother, Octavia, for James's attention is focused on the college student, who quite possible prophesies James's future: “Faith—if not in your God, then in something else, something definitely that they can lean on” (Bloodline 102).

On their way out of this underworld of the town, Octavia and James are befriended by an elderly white couple, Helena and Alnest, whose grocery represents the old order of human relations based on community rather than the individualistic modern order of commerce. The “sale” of a quarter's worth of salt pork turns out to be a gift rather than a commercial transaction, until Octavia insists on fair payment, asserting her own worth and providing a lesson for James. In this respect the story replicates the finding of social historians who conclude that traditionally the number of blacks on public assistance was proportionately smaller among rural than urban populations (Tindall 547). In other ways, traditional values seem to temper the ending of this story about a youth's first awareness of urban life: the grocery is both home and business; Alnest, who is never seen, is ill and perhaps dying, but his and Helena's humanity is passed on to the child; James himself is thinking of the comfort of home, although the story implies that his character will be tested in the city, perhaps in Baton Rouge, which looms in his memory as a place he once visited with his father.

In the story “Three Men” the setting shifts to the modern city, presumably Baton Rouge, although the scene could be any city jail. “Seven Spots,” the tavern where Procter murders another black in self-defense, also ties the story to the urban setting. It is a roadside tavern that men visit in automobiles, where there is jukebox music and dancing, and where sexual encounters are easily arranged. It is also the locale where, as Munford eventually forces Procter to admit, blacks are perpetuating a cycle of violence against other blacks, and where the “brutish” treatment of women is part of the same cycle of defeated expectations. Gaines might almost be paraphrasing John Hope Franklin, who found that for the urbanized black male, “unemployment and idleness brought on frustration, not infrequently culminating in abuse of the family at home and criminal acts away from home” (422). Going to the penitentiary is one way for Procter to break the cycle, not as a punishment but “to sweat out all the crud you got in your system” (141).

Munford presses Procter to consider, for the first time apparently, the question of his “manhood”—his responsibilities as an adult within a larger community. Although the paradigmatic setting for an understanding of community and of general responsibility may in fact be, as Charles H. Rowell states, the Quarters, the traditional lessons must be translated to the urban culture, for in the outline of modern history that Gaines implies, actual return to the rural culture is a frustrating and self-defeating gesture of nostalgia. More productive is what might be termed an imaginative return to history. Looking into history, as Jerry H. Bryant states, Gaines finds “that the enduring woman and the courageous man are the critical elements in the black race's existence and embody jointly, in their loving struggle of values, the characteristic features of life: change and growth. The political act, performed in courage, is the sign of growth, and implies both duration and satisfaction” (859).

Undertaking a temporary retreat from modernity, the Gainesian hero reviews his or her relation to rural traditions but does not plan to return to an actual agrarian life. Indeed, to a greater extent than has been realized Gaines's fiction implies an acceptance of, even an insistence on, change. Although Gaines describes rural life with nostalgia, he is well aware of the demographic shift of black population to the cities. Population figures show that in the South as a whole, the number of black farm operators declined from over 550,000 in 1950 to just over 85,000 in 1969. These numbers are mirrored in the statistics for Louisiana, where the 40,600 operators of 1950 declined to about 5,500 in 1969 (Smythe 291). Gaines's stories set in rural Louisiana reflect this black migration to the cities, where by 1980 eighty-one percent lived (Franklin 420). Despite this reality Gaines is determined to preserve the cultural ties between urban present and rural past, particularly in terms of an ethos of family and community responsibility. In his treatment of the New South, Gaines suggests the need to draw on the past for ethical direction and the need to maintain a sense of one's ancestors as contributors to an evolving civilization. As William L. Andrews writes, Gaines explores an “understanding of progress as a conserving process.” Andrews notes that Jane Pittman's story shows that “the folk has assumed over the years an identity based on progressive struggle, not socio-political struggle, but the struggle to recognize and conserve its spiritual resources and heroic folk traditions” (149).

Such an understanding of the past is implied in Todd Duncan's description of Mme. Toussaint, the conjure woman in “A Long Day in November,” who advises Eddie to burn his car if he wishes to regain his wife. Her wisdom derives from “a connection with intuition and to dimly remembered traditions on the Mother Continent,” yet she is “testing Eddie's persistence and his readiness for change” (Bloodline 87). What Mme. Toussaint advises is not the return to an agrarian economy—the story hints that Eddie may own an automobile again in the future—but she is suggesting a renewal of familial and communal relationships, which do not depend on an actual return to the rural way of life. Indeed, as Mme. Bayonne clearly sees in Catherine Carmier, the Cajuns have destroyed the Quarters forever by their land purchases and mechanized farming. The remaining residents are permitted to live in the Quarters “as long as you keep your nose clean” (78), but for the young there is no alternative to urban migration. Nor does Gaines romanticize the agrarian way of life, for one sees everywhere in his stories examples of poverty and hardship among those who remain on the farm. Gaines is also quite realistic in representing the demographic shift to the cities. The portrait of emigration from the Quarters that one reads in Catherine Carmier is confirmed by historical evidence, for by 1940 forty percent of southern blacks were town or city dwellers, and those who remained on farms found their position deteriorating, even in respect to jobs traditionally open to them (Tindall 570).

Gaines's narrative presents realistically the declining condition of farm life. Wideman has noticed the realism in Of Love and Dust, in which “Bonbon on his horse trailing Marcus is, among other things, a statement about the monotony and brutality of field labor” (80). Not only did the mechanization of farm labor drive black workers from the land by reducing the demand for labor and by destroying the profitability of marginal land, it also reduced the standard of living for those who chose to remain on the farms. As Mabel Smythe writes, “The changes in methods and location of cotton cultivation, combined with the poverty of most black farmers, worked both to push negroes out of farming and to make the attractions of city life irresistible” (288). The thesis that machines have taken jobs from rural blacks may be correct, but this does not lead Gaines to the conclusion that blacks should destroy “Western Civilization” and return to a pre-technological agrarian society, as the young radical, Billy, urges (House 162). As a matter of fact, the more attractive characters in the fiction are not always rural survivors; role models appear equally often in urban settings, and may be connected with machinery and technology. As Alvin Aubert points out, in Of Love and Dust the character of “Jim Kelly, the plantation tractor driver and maintenance man … serves as a constant reminder to his ward, the intractable youth Marcus, of his responsibility for his own predicament” (72).

As Rowell terms it, “the quarters in Gaines's fiction is a ritual ground of communion and community,” a past to which Gaines must return in order to understand the present (“Quarters” 750). Catherine Carmier does not imply a continuing agrarian life for the young, but it does reach a hopeful resolution as the young reenact through ritual the lessons of their ancestors. In fact, Mme. Bayonne assumes all along that Jackson will return to California after he has told his great-aunt of his plans, but the very act of telling her of his intention, what will amount to “the worst moment of her life” (70-71), may serve as a rite of passage through which Jackson will be enabled to transfer her essential lessons of humanity to an urban setting.

Perhaps the most significant treatment of modernity in Gaines's fiction is the novel In My Father's House. Set in the town of St. Adrienne, a growing community within commuting distance of Baton Rouge, the novel describes a locale which is in transition from rural to urban. Accompanying this social change, the major characters in the novel are defined according to their attitudes toward regional progress. The optimism of Rev. Phillip Martin, the protagonist, is based on the belief that black southerners will achieve full economic participation in the New South's prosperity. During the post-war era, St. Etienne has undergone a degree of racial progress, but after the death of Martin Luther King the civil rights movement faces challenges from outside, in the form of cajuns like Mr. Chenal, and from inside, as the black organization in St. Etienne has become stagnant and less solidified.

Even before the traumatic experience with his son, Rev. Martin projects a sense of inertia and complacency. As his supporters notice a growing timidity and acceptance of gradualism, younger workers are impatient and seem merely to tolerate their leader on the basis of past accomplishment. The sense that Martin has lost enthusiasm for his public role is related to the fact that his belief in progress is a limited and materialistic answer to more complicated problems of modernization. Gaines suggests that Martin's complacency toward his role in social justice is reflected as well in a willingness to accept the “boosterism” of the town's white leaders, and that his weak grasp of both problems has its source in a failure of nerve. The inability to connect with others, an insistence on proud isolation, may be seen as Martin's psychological defense against society's ongoing attempt to degrade him. As Gaines makes clear in an interview with Charles H. Rowell, the performance of the black father is conditioned by his position in society outside the home. As Gaines states, “I don't know that the father will ever be in a position—a political position or any position of authority—from which he can reach out and bring his son back to him again” (40). Martin also interprets his failure as a parent in the light of black history, excusing the abandonment of his first family as the result of a “paralysis” residue of slavery. Part of the complexity of Gaines's treatment of character is illustrated in the way that Martin becomes a fully “rounded” character: his actions are understandable in human terms as the struggle for self-preservation of a proud, strong man, but from another point of view, they are rationalizations based on historical grounds.

As his son, Robert X implies, Martin's justification has become weak rationalization for a hidden defensiveness. By the end of the novel, faced with consequences of his disregard of others—his son's suicide and the alienation of his second wife and children—Martin gives up, at least for the moment, his role as a community leader and questions his vision of the New South as a progressive coalition of blacks and whites. Gaines suggests no alternative to the spread of “progress” that has left Martin disaffected from those closest to him. However, Gaines insists on a critical examination, a tallying up, of the actual benefits and costs of development. At the heart of this examination is the fact that Martin's rise in fortunes operates as a defensive avoidance of the more strenuous task of maintaining a coherent identity in relation to family, community, and state. Martin's social position and wealth offer an illusory confirmation of self that leads him to lose sight of his own and others' human needs; his success masks his deep alienation from every form of intimacy.

In many ways Martin has endorsed the program of regional development promoted by white leaders in the South, and he has accepted a filter-down theory of economic reform. Though Martin “fights” the remaining business that discriminate, he only fights when he has the support of paternalistic white moderates, thereby collaborating with the town's white leadership by not pushing too hard. Surrounded by a group of whites and aging blacks as advisers, he speaks of waiting for the proper time for action and finding the proper means of protest. Having won privilege for himself, Martin epitomizes the historical problem of a separation of leadership from constituency within the civil rights movement (Tindall 568). Ironically, Martin may be more respected by whites, who envy his material prosperity and political power, than by blacks, who are able to see through the rhetoric of change to his underlying self-interestedness. Gaines's description of his residence as “the most expensive and elegant owned by a black family in St. Adrienne” (28) suggests Martin's relationship to the black community, for the expense and elegance of his home project his separation and defensiveness. His display of wealth is intended to cover an underlying insecurity which extends to every human relationship, most importantly that with his family. Epitomizing the New South ethos of success, Martin occupies a position of comfortable prominence, living in a large modern house and driving a luxury automobile. His expensive clothes are intended to impress others with his status, and he has come to believe that comfort and status are the ends of existence.

Certainly Martin wants these benefits for others, but by the same token he holds an exclusive position as long as they have not been extended to all. Howard Mills's accusation that his friend went behind the backs of his family and community in making a decision about calling off the boycott is the crux of Gaines's critique of the New South ethos. The modern South is morally corrupt, because its pursuit of success has displaced the shared human values of communal life, including the practices of family and community involvement in decision-making. Even his closest supporter recognizes that Martin has failed to respect the rights of others, and especially the political right to choice. Countering Martin's statement that he acted for the benefit of his son in calling off the boycott, Mills says, “We want this world better fit for everybody's children … Not just for one man” (127). That Martin has the potential for becoming an autocratic leader is suggested by hints of past violence toward his own people, for we learn that in his youth the minister was twice picked up as a suspect in killings and for fighting (85).

There is also the carnal side to the Faust-like Martin, who tends to accept pleasure as his due and in return for political complacency: he has had many mistresses, enjoys rich food and drink, and his body has become soft and heavy. His striving after comfort and status characterize Martin as a representative of a certain New South boosterism, which Gaines undoubtedly intends to bring into question. Another point that connects Martin with the modern South is the facile way in which he claims to have “found God” (100). The reappearance of Etienne, the alienated son from his first marriage, and Martin's effort to save him are events that completely upset his complacency. Martin is forced to admit the self-interest which underlies his faith in regional progress.

One aesthetic device appropriate to Gaines's interest in social reality is the use of setting to comment on a character's assertions. This realist technique is used in the passage which describes Martin's visit to Baton Rouge in search of Chippo Simon. Everywhere he looks in Baton Rouge, the setting refutes Martin's complacent faith in regional progress. Martin arrives on the same day that a young Vietnam veteran has been shot for stealing food, but we learn that similar acts of violence occur daily. At the heart of this underworld is East Boulevard, a street that Martin remembers as lively and prosperous, although even as the remembers it, East Boulevard was “a dangerous place” where “you could easily get yourself killed” (140). The district now shows the typical signs of urban blight: dilapidation, abandonment, darkness. While Martin does not yet see the connection between his “personal” life and the problems of the larger community, the ironic contrasts between his suburban lifestyle and the inner-city poverty of East Boulevard make the point clear. For example, the presence of Martin's automobile, which draws comment from nearly everyone he meets, is ironically contrasted with the setting in which most residents are on foot, exposed to the cold and rain. In this urban setting Martin feels even more isolated from people than in St. Etienne: he notices that he recognizes almost no one in Baton Rouge, the city where he apparently spent most of his youth, and with his narrow interest only in his own family, he has nothing in common with the individuals whom he meets.

The scene that describes Martin's first “conversation” with his son, Robert X (as he prefers to be called), reveals their differing views of existence. Ironically, Martin attempts to make conversation by pointing out that spillways have brought progress to the area, a point of regional pride which elicits only silence and scorn on the part of his son. Martin speaks only of the future, predicting economic development that will presumably include blacks, but his future-orientation obviously masks a fear of examining the past and present. Turning his back on his son even as he attempts to reconnect with him, Martin adopts the same approach to Robert X as he has shown toward his current wife, Alma, and their children. He provides them with a comfortable life, but, because of a history of guilt and insecurity, he holds himself apart. The origin of Martin's alienation, as his wife Alma analyzes it, is that he is trying to make up for the past. He has been “running” and has isolated himself (136).

When Martin offers the “excuse” that he had abandoned Robert's mother because he had been paralyzed by the pattern of slavery, he may have hit on the truth, but he fails to see that his paralysis has not been alleviated by his participation in regional prosperity. His son rejects this argument entirely and judges his father without taking into account the impact of social conditioning on his father, yet the son is equally the product of this conditioning. His nihilism—his idea that “no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, how much you love, they catch you off guard one day and break you” (27)—arises from a personal history of defeat. Although the two men analyze the past in different ways (Robert calls his father a “rapist” and labels his love “lust,” while Martin asserts that he loved Robert's mother), both are partially correct: one can “love,” in Martin's sense, and at the same time “rape,” in Robert's sense. Ironically, both are partially justified, but neither can communicate his partial vision to the other.

In My Father's House represents a development of Gaines's style toward “a severe detachment, a distance between story and narrator,” as Frank Shelton notes (340). As Gaines tells the story, he uses many fictional techniques to comment on his central character. Not only does Martin's perception of the setting clash with what is really there, what Martin says about the New South often conflicts with what he thinks. Through the omniscient narrator we enter a consciousness filled with self-doubt and evasion, a mind seduced by the material rewards of participation in progress but already doubting that these rewards are worth the price of personal isolation. In several ways the novel's language is used to comment ironically on Martin's belief in progress. The description of his visit to the Quarters on Reno plantation includes a complex use of irony to distinguish between Martin's judgement about the “backwardness” of conditions there and the actual state of things: the emotional support and communal solidarity that makes a rich life possible even under difficult financial strain. Commenting on the narrative distance necessary to present Philip Martin, Gaines noted that the omniscient point of view was dictated by his character's isolation: “You cannot tell that story from the minister's point of view because the minister keeps too much inside him. He does not reveal it—he won't reveal it to anybody” (Rowell, “Interview” 41).

Though the treatment of Martin is often ironic, and particularly so when Gaines deals with him as a representative of New South values, the irony is never so strong as to destroy the reader's sympathy. While we may suspect that his “paralysis” is partially the result of cowardice, we are also presented with a figure of considerable moral stature and emotional power. Ultimately, Martin rises above the level of pathos, a figure who elicits the reader's pity, to the level of tragedy, for through his character Gaines raises serious ethical issues and shows the destructive conflicts within a noble man attempting to meet conflicting responsibilities. Under the pressure of this conflict, he becomes tyrannical and blind but finally realizes his condition. The character is successful because of Gaines's fidelity to a realistic aesthetic that places the character in a specific social setting, in this case the moment of the post-war South when the rising level of material prosperity, never extended fully to blacks to begin with, has collided against the psychological and emotional needs for a sense of the continuity of family and community. Gaines's sense of assurance in pointing to ethical resolutions contrasts with the fragmentation and ambivalence of modern writers in dealing with a similar landscape of social change. For Gaines, as for O'Connor, the machine connotes neither the ultimate destructiveness nor the seductive attraction that it suggested for Faulkner or Wright. His touchstone is always the actual quality of life within the social community. This perspective neither lauds technology as panacea nor dismisses its physical benefits, but the sober realism unflinchingly records the material and psychological transformation of the post-war South.

Indeed, both Gaines and O'Connor depict the New South as a wasteland in which both individual identity and communal ties have been distorted by materialism and mechanization, yet neither finds a “solution” in fleeing the devastation. Rather, both writers suggest a reconsideration of the essential needs of human beings, including social and psychological needs that are largely unchanged by the transition from rural to urban life. The extent to which these needs are being met is a measure of the actual quality of life, not the mere quantity of change. A similarity also exists between the use of the machine as symbol in the two writers: repeatedly the protagonist of a story must give up dependence on machinery in order to gain the wisdom to control it. As in the conclusions of O'Connor's Wise Blood and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which the transforming moment of recognition arrives only after the protagonists give up or are defeated by the automobiles they prize, similarly Gaines suggests repeatedly that the power of machines and possessions conflicts with communal values in that ownership separates the individual from the social group and focuses one's labor on self rather than social needs. Both writers hold out the possibility of a sort of “redemption” of the mechanical realm, and by implication of the New South itself, but only after a re-affirmation of the priority of human needs over mechanical technique. As Amy declares at the conclusion of “A Long Day in November,” the family can anticipate owning an automobile again “‘when you learn how to act with one’” (Bloodline 77).

The increasing urbanization of the South threatens the black community, but as an external “environmental” force the threat can be dealt with by means of education that often takes the form of knowledge passed down from elders. Gaines urges his reader to consider the relationship of present to past, and to ponder the continuing existence of ethical choices of individual and political bodies whereby the impact of mechanization will be humanized. One should add that in the case of O'Connor, the modern devastation is more fundamentally a reflection of human nature itself, which in her view has always tended toward the mechanical and inhumane. Her fiction thus implies a less attractive notion of what human beings might be like to begin with in communal and traditional settings such as Gaines's “Quarters.”

One might also compare Gaines's treatment of modernization with that of another contemporary, William Styron. While Styron describes the transformation of war-time Norfolk, his home region and the home of many of his protagonists, nowhere does he provide the graphic evidence of change that one might expect, particularly when one considers that during the war Norfolk “achieved an unequaled reputation for squalor” (Tindall 702-703). Styron's reaction to the urbanization of the South is “aesthetic,” based on the assumption of the writer's power to transform physical reality with an art that will replace the “monstrousness” of modern life with a serenity analogous to the effect of classical music. In comparison with Styron's deliberately less realistic treatment of change and its social consequences, Gaines writes a more direct, realistic account of black neighborhoods in Baton Rouge in the sixties and seventies, as black businesses close, housing conditions deteriorate, and lives unravel.

In the fiction of Ernest Gaines, as in that of O'Connor and Styron, the New South after the Second World War is a subject which informs the aesthetic practice of the novelist in significant ways. To some extent Gaines's style, his use of point of view, his handling of comic and tragic genres, and his shaping of metaphor and symbolism is determined by an intention to record and change contemporary experience. With the eye of a powerful realist, Gaines carefully records his vision of the post-war South. With the development of his work from Bloodline through In My Father's House, Gaines has shown an ability to adapt his realist aesthetic to the demands of the imaginative subject in ways that we are only beginning to appreciate.

Works Cited

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 (Winter 1977): 146-49.

Aubert, Alvin. “Ernest J. Gaines's Truly Tragic Mulatto.” Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 68-75.

Bryant, Jerry H. “Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History.” Southern Review 10 (1974): 851-64.

Cobb, James C. Industrialization and Southern Society, 1877-1984. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1984.

——— and Michael V. Namorato, eds. The New Deal and the South. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1984.

———. The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-1980. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982.

Duncan, Todd. “Scene and Life Cycle in Ernest Gaines's Bloodline.Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 85-101.

Fabre, Michel. “Bayonne or the Yoknapatawpha of Ernest Gaines.” Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 110-24.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. 6th ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Gaines, Ernest J. Bloodline. New York, Dial Press, 1968.

———. Catherine Carmier. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

———. In My Father's House. New York: Knopf, 1978.

———. Of Love and Dust. New York: Norton, 1967.

Rowell, Charles H. “The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.” Southern Review 21 (1985): 733-50.

———. “‘This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me’: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 39-51.

Shelton, Frank. “In My Father's House: Ernest Gaines after Jane Pittman.” Southern Review 17 (1981): 340-45.

Smythe, Mabel M., ed. The Black American Reference Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Tindall, George Brown. The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UP, 1967.

Wideman, John. “Of Love and Dust: A Reconsideration.” Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 76-84

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UP, 1951.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Joseph Griffin (essay date June 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3994

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 accident. The novel is set on an October Friday afternoon and evening during the late 1970s in the fictional St. Raphael's parish in Louisiana, and earlier in the day the Cajun Beau Boutan has been murdered, Candy assumes, by Mathu, who now sits on the gallery of his shack, gun in hand, not far from the murdered man's corpse. Knowing that Boutan's murder will be attributed to Mathu—indeed, things seem to point in that direction—Candy has devised a way of protecting her foster father: she will shoulder the blame for the crime herself, and she will gather together as many old men as can be found who have an axe to grind against Boutan and have them stand with twelve-gauge shotguns containing empty number five shells, each man ready to proclaim his killing of the Cajun. The men respond to Candy's summons; in fact, they are ready to use live ammunition if necessary to protect their friend and make a stand again past oppressions. The successful stand they make challenges in an extreme way the established authority. As Carl Wooton, speaking of A Gathering of Old Men in an interview with Gaines, puts it: “… the good that occurs happens through the individuals who are willing to go against the system. There does seem to be a premise that men and women are capable of the courage to do what they ought to do, in spite of the system” (Gaudet and Wooton 22).

Events that ensue are not entirely as drastic as the above-mentioned scenario might suggest. Although two younger men are killed in the gun-fight that erupts in Mathu's yard that evening, the old men escape unscathed. Their response to Candy's summons has resulted in no tragedy to themselves, although they have had to bear the tensions of the long afternoon, and the taunts—some, even the blows—of the brutish sheriff, Mapes. The old men's stand is, none the less, real and convincing, and is the major manifestation—though not the only significant one—of the theme of personal growth, of passage from uncertainty and fear to self-assurance and responsibility, that dominates the novel. In the articulation of this theme, Gaines is heavily reliant on the deployment of personal names (the names by which people are named, the names by which they are called by their familiars) especially as these names occur in a society where white supremacy has been the status quo and where inroads are being made into long-held notions of superiority and subservience.

Gaines signals the importance of names in his novel by the headings he attaches to its units. In the manner of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Gaines structures A Gathering of Old Men as a series of monologues spoken in the first person, each identified by the name of its speaker. However, Gaines extends Faulkner's method by using a more complete name, i.e., by giving the Christian and family names, as well as the less formal names by which the speakers are known. For example, the first monologue, spoken by a black child, is headed “George Eliot, Jr aka Snookum”; the fourth, by one of the old men of the book's title, is called “Robert Louis Stevenson Banks aka Chimley”; the eighth, by a white newspaperman, is entitled “Louis Alfred Dimoulin aka Lou Dimes.” In all, there are fifteen speakers, who deliver a total of twenty monologues. Nine of the monologues are by whites; eleven by blacks, including eight by various of the old men. All monologue headings use the same general structure: the formal name, the acronym aka, the familiar name.

Such a reiterated pattern invites, initially, general considerations about the relative significance of formal and informal names. The formal name provides one's identity in society and in law and is the name inscribed in the documents of the state; it is usually constituted of one or more given names and a family name. Conventionally, the family name, or surname, establishes one's rootedness in a family that goes back in time, that has a history. But in the history of black Americans, family names present a special case. Of the pre-Abolition period the historian John C. Inscoe writes: “Surnames for slaves were by no means uncommon, but neither were they by any means universal. The extent to which slaves took second names [i.e., family names] is difficult to determine because of their reluctance to use them openly and their owners' refusal to acknowledge them, if indeed they were aware of them.” Emancipation was marked by “the [freedmen's] sudden clamor for surnames. … It reflected their eagerness to demonstrate their new status and affirm the dignity and self-esteem that accompanied their newly acquired independence” (547-48).1 The given name or names (whether they be the names of saints, ancestors, national heroes, sports or entertainment celebrities) set one's identity as an individual person within that family. The informal name, the name by which one is called by those in whose company one spends his time (parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, neighbors) has, normally, no legal status and is usually not written. Informal names may be altered forms of either given or family names, or nicknames, names not based on the owner's formal name but derived from some other source. Informal names usually bespeak endearment, fellowship, camaraderie, even when they (especially nicknames) might in themselves sound a pejorative note.

Seen in the light of the above, Gaines's use of personal names in both the monologue headings and the text of A Gathering of Old Men prompts certain comments. In the novel's monologue headings, formal names always precede informal names and are printed in upper-case type (unlike informal names which appear in lower case, except for initial letters, of course). In the text, though, characters almost invariably refer to themselves or are referred to by their informal names. When formal names are used within the monologues, they are always used deliberately and with specific purpose. The informal names in the monologue headings take various forms. Of the fifteen speakers, ten are informally identified by nicknames, and of these ten, eight are black males (mainly the old men) whose nicknames range from the unflattering Dirty Red to the neutral Rufe and Cherry. The other nicknames belong to young white men. Horace Thomson, a member of the lynch gang, is called Sharp; Thomas Vincent Sullivan, an LSU football player, is also known as TV or Sully. But for one, Lou Dimes, which is a pseudonym, the other informal names are diminutive forms: the black housekeeper Janice Robinson is called Janey; Mathew Lincoln Brown is known as Mat; Myrtle Bouchard, an older white woman, is Merle; the white bartender Jacques Thibeaux is Ti-Jack.

Generally speaking, then, the blacks' informal names are nicknames; the whites', diminutive forms. This situation is dictated, at least in part, by racial politics in a community where there is intercourse between black and white. That is to say, whites address blacks by their nicknames, some of which are pejorative, but blacks do not address whites by nicknames. Miss Merle, for example, is known as Miss Owl in the quarter but is not addressed as such.

It is evident that Gaines, in establishing his monologue headings according to a fixed pattern which allows for certain variations within that pattern, is drawing the reader's attention to the relative significance within his fiction of formal and informal names. It is worth noting as well that in two of the early monologues, which deal with Candy's efforts to mount her plan for the protection of Mathu, the reader's attention is directed to the subject of names in an overt way. In the opening monologue the boy Snookum recalls running through the quarter summoning the people to Mathu's yard: “I didn't see half the people I was hollering at. … I just hollered names; running, spanking my butt, and hollering names” (7). In the third monologue Miss Merle recounts her efforts, again prompted by Candy, to get Jancy, the Marshall's maid, to muster assistance in Mathu's cause. “Make her give you some names,” Candy tells Miss Merle, “Lots of names.” When Merle approaches Janey her requests are replete with the same emphases. “You and Bea think up some names,” she says. “Think up a dozen of them” (25). And later: “You all better have me some more names ready. You hear me, don't you?” (26) Such repeated injunctions may perhaps be read as decontextualized directives to Gaines's reading audience to be alert to the import of names in the novel.

Two observations seem pertinent as to the particular appropriateness of Gaines's monologue headings. First, the play between formal and informal names announced there continues in the novel proper, pointing to its major themes of the coming of age of persons and the concomitant maturing of the society which is the novel's setting. Second, the novel includes some important characters whose names do not follow the model announced in the monologue headings, and in most cases this departure is significant.

A number of characters in A Gathering of Old Men are not given informal names. Sheriff Mapes and his deputy Griffin are never referred to or spoken of by any but their family names. By virtue of their function in the society, and especially because of the bullish methods they use to assert their authority, they are outside the pale of both white and black, not on good enough terms with anyone to be granted the privilege of a familiar name. By contrast the novel's other policeman, Russell, is referred to as Russ by both Mapes and Gil Boutan. He acts much less belligerently than his fellow officers, even though his assignment at the “headquarters” of the potential lynch party is a particularly sensitive one. Of the old men come to defend Mathu, all of whom are known to each other and call each other by nick-names or diminutives, Jacob Aguillard is an exception: he is given no familiar name. Until that afternoon, he, as a Creole, has stood apart from the rest of the Afro-American community, his sense of superiority attested to by his light skin and French New Orleans bloodline. Mathu himself is addressed only by that name: not only is he given no familiar name (Mathu is an anglicized pronunciation of the French Christian name Mathieu), but also we do not learn his family name. He too has lived outside the circle of the Afro-American community, the source of his aloofness and sense of superiority his blue-black complexion, the proof that his pure “Singaleese”2 blood has never been diluted with white. Reverend Jameson, understandably, has no familiar name, but that is not as much a sign of respect for him and his office as an indication of the indifference and dislike with which he is regarded in his community. As the afternoon wears on and the preacher betrays his cowardice, references and addresses to him deteriorate from the respectful “Jameson,” or “Reverend Jameson” to “that preacher Jameson” and finally to “bootlicker” and “old possum-looking fool” (106). Jameson too is on the outside, the novel's principal Uncle Tom figure. It is important to note that our recognition of the social status of Mapes, Griffin, Aguillard, Mathu, and Jameson as evidenced by the lack of each of a familiar name is a product of the repeated use of familiar names in the novel's monologue titles and text: because these characters break the conventional pattern of naming, we are forced to assess the relevance of the deviations from the pattern.

However, the more important aspect of Gaines's strategy with names is his working within the established pattern itself rather than with deviations from it. It is Mat, one of the old men, who raises the issue of personal names in the first place. As Mat proceeds with his friends by truck to Mathu's yard he describes one of their number, Robert Louis Stevenson Banks aka Chimley:

Chimley was sitting in the middle. He was smaller than me and Cherry Bello. Blacker than me and Cherry too, that'a why we all called him Chimley. He didn't mind his friends calling him Chimley, 'cause he knowed they didn't mean nothing. But he sure didn't like them white folks calling him Chimley. He was always telling them that his daddy had named him Robert Louis Stevenson Banks, not Chimley. But all they did was laugh at him, and they went on calling him Chimley anyhow.


According to Mat, Chimley is sensitive to his nickname because it draws attention to the blackness of his skin. The whites' insistence on using the name, even when he objects, amounts to a denial of his real identity as a person, and a confirmation of all that his blackness entails about his restricted place in the human brotherhood. Of course, he tolerates the name from other blacks because he knows they share with him the liabilities of color, even if he is of a blacker shade than they.

The same preoccupation about names recurs, in even more pointed fashion, in a later monologue by Joseph Seaberry aka Rufe in which he records the old men's spoken histories of past oppression. One such history is told by Yank, who in his time has made a living breaking horses and mules, but whose job has become superfluous with the mechanization of farming. Yank speaks with pride of his career, enumerating the names of the animals he has trained and recalling their careers:

That's right. Anybody needed a horse broke they called on Yank. In the parish, out the parish they called on Yank. Any time they needed a horse broke for a lady they called Yank, 'cause they knowed I knowed my stuff. Lots of these rich white folks you see riding these fine horses in Mardi Gras parades, prancing all over the place, I broke them horses. I, Sylvester J. Battley.


Yank's invocation of his full formal name reenacts Chimley's gestures in kind, but in a more solemn public way, in the presence of the white officers of the law and of his black brothers and sisters. Minutes later, after Yank proclaims his murder of Beau, Sheriff Mapes instructs his deputy Griffin to put Yank's name on the record. Griffin complies: “I got it. Yank. Y-a-n-.” But he is cut off. “Sylvester J. Battley,” Yank says. “Be sure and spell Sylvester and Battley right, if you can. When my folks read about me up north, I want them to be proud” (99). Yank's insistence on using his formal name and on having it inscribed on an “official document” is of a piece with his pride in his ability, finally, to make a stand.

Early in his account Yank has occasion to list the names of some of those in attendance at Candy's rendezvous: “Mathu, Rufe, Tucker, Gable, Glo.” Soon after he is calling out the names of his horses and mules: “Snook, Chip, Diamond, Job, Tiny, Tony, Sally, Dot, Lucky, John Strutter, Lottie …” Gaines's point is well made: the names on the two lists are interchangeable; names by which blacks and animals are called are the same. Hence the necessity for the Chimleys and Yanks to assert the existence of their real selves, to identify themselves as human. And, of course, the impetus for this self-acknowledgement is their pride in coming to Mathu's defence and reversing years and generations of passivity and fear.

It is in the words of the slow-witted Charlie Biggs that the recognition of one's coming of age and the insistence on being called by one's formal name come together most explicitly. Charlie appears on the scene late in the afternoon and reveals, to the surprise of all but Mathu, that he has killed Boutan. He has spent the afternoon cowering, as he has spent his life running, but has now emerged of his own will, ready to shoulder his responsibility.

“I'm a man,” he says to Lou Dimes. “I want the world to know it. I ain't Big Charlie, nigger boy, no more. Y'all hear me? A man come back. Not no nigger boy. A nigger boy run and run and run. But a man come back. I'm a man.”

Then he says to Mapes:

Sheriff, I'm a man. And just like I call you Sheriff, I think I ought to have a handle too—like Mister. Mister Biggs.


Mapes complies with Charlie's request, repeatedly calling him Mr. Biggs, and according to Lou Dimes, in whose monologue Charlie's revelation is related, he does so “with sincerity.” Charlie's satisfaction is complete: he has become a man, and that attainment has been recognized by the officer of law. Subsequently, just before Charlie is killed in the gunfight, Lou Dimes, echoing Mapes's acknowledgement of Charlie's manhood, shouts to him, “Hey Charlie—Mr. Biggs.” Charlie's answer reinstates the informal name to acceptability. Once Charlie has been acknowledged to exist, has been rendered visible, he no longer considers the informal name to be identified with his former self. “That's all right, you can call me Charlie,” he shouts back. “We all in the dirt now, and it ain't no more Mister and no more Miss” (205). Charlie's response draws attention to the common lot of all, as does his earlier reiterated celebration of his newly acquired manhood. His coming of age is not merely a growing up but a growing beyond the limits his color has imposed. He has acquired at least for the space of his short happy life an entry into the human brotherhood.

It is possible to see in Charlie's acceptance by Mapes and Lou Dimes the signs of a certain loosening of Jim Crow attitudes and a certain easing of tensions between white and black, particularly in the context of other evidence to the same effect. Gil Boutan, an LSU football player, brother of the murdered Beau, rejects his father's invitation to avenge in the traditional way his brother's murder. Gil is committed to the principles and practice of racial equality, and is encouraged by the policeman Russell to maintain this commitment even in the face of the painful rupture with his father and family. Russell tells him: “Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow. … You can help the country tomorrow. You can help yourself” (151). “Tomorrow” is the day of the football game between LSU and Mississippi in which Gil will play in the LSU backfield before a national television audience with the black player Calvin Harrison. The information about Gil's football career comes in a monologue spoken by the third-string LSU quarterback, Thomas Vincent Sullivan. “It will be the first time this has happened,” remarks Sullivan, in reference to the television appearance of the integrated backfield, and the two players will play mutually supportive roles.

Here again, much is made of details of naming and calling. Sullivan's first mention of the mixed backfield incorporates their nicknames and their formal names: Calvin “Pepper” Harrison and Gilbert “Salt” Boutan. Thus nicknames are not seen as negating identity as they are elsewhere in the novel. Here, the total names of the black and white players are pronounced in parallel terms, and the nature of the two nicknames stresses the mutually complementary roles of the athletes. To be noted especially is Harrison's nickname Pepper. Like the name Chimley, Pepper draws attention to skin color. However, Harrison does not resent it and Gil and Sullivan use it easily and without self-consciousness. Like the new Charlie Biggs, “Pepper” Harrison has been given assurance of his importance, at least within the limited society of a racially mixed college football team.

Evidently, times are changing in Gaines's St. Raphael's parish and perhaps beyond; “something else is growing,” to use Russell's words. The collective attitudinal growth of a region or a nation is always a factor of the maturing of its individual people. Here, maturing involves for some the recognition of their subservience and the courage to address it, and for others the acknowledgement of misplaced assumptions of superiority and the willingness to be freed of them. The significance of personal names as tools of manipulation and as measures of intrinsic human quality is at the heart of Gaines's novel.

What's in a name? asked the poet. A great deal, counters Gaines, for whose characters life is assuredly no bed of roses. Charlie Biggs's comment, “We all in the same dirt now, and it ain't no more Mr. and no more Miss,” points hopefully to the new era proposed in Russell's advice to Gil Boutan about the necessity of producing the conditions “for something else to grow.” But Russell also draws attention to the prematurity of Charlie's hope when he says: “Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing. …” The rose that by any other name would smell as sweet, that is, the racially mixed society that will use names without discrimination of color and thus evidence equality, will be a product of the new growth Russell envisages. Gaines's old and young men alike enact the breaking of the new ground in their creator's dramatization of the conditions that make such a new growth both necessary and possible.

It is surely relevant to mention, although this is not an explicit factor in Gaines's analysis in A Gathering of Old Men, that the insistence of such characters as Robert Louis Stevenson Banks aka Chimley, Sylvester J. Battley aka Yank, and Charlie Biggs aka Big Charlie that they be called by their full formal names replicates the emancipated slaves' gesture of taking family names (or of revealing family names already taken). Inscoe's comment on the importance of surnames for the newly freed blacks might be applied as well to Gaines's gathered old men: “The changes in black names that came with emancipation reveal a great deal about the freedmen's attitudes towards themselves and their identities during this complex transitional period” (553). During the complex transitional period following the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, a century after the original Emancipation Proclamation, Gaines appeared to anticipate a more thorough-going, less troubled emancipation.


  1. Inscoe's study is limited to the situation in North and South Carolina. He writes concerning given names: “That such a remarkable degree of homogeneity of names and naming trends existed despite the variety of situations and sources from which the names were drawn suggests that this two-state sample is by no means unique but is rather a model representative of slaves throught the South” (530-31). It seems reasonable to assume, as well, that the situation concerning the taking of family names was generalized throughout the South.

  2. Clatoo, the old man who refers to Mathu as “one of them blue-black Singaleese niggers,” most certainly means that Mathu is Senegalese. In Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the central character/narrator refers to Harriet Black, a queenly woman of blue-black skin, as “one of them Singalee people” (131). Both “Singaleese” and “Singalee” are surely local pronunciations of Senegalese.

Works Cited

Gaines, Ernest. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990.

Inscoe, John C. “Carolina Slave Names: An Index to Acculturation.” Journal of Southern History 44 (1983): 527-54.

Lee Papa (essay date summer 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3883

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 uses tend to have their origins in Christianity, only in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a direct tie to Christianity dominant.

Previous studies of religiosity in Gaines's work have failed to plumb the depths of the topic. Audrey L. Vinson, for example, has observed of Jimmy's murder in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that “he is slain for his obedience to a duty which was conferred on him through spirit and intellect. Yet having made the sacrifice, he conferred subsequent social gains on the community” (37). The young men whose lives are sacrificed in Gaines's fiction are not simply Christ symbols; for Gaines to adopt this posture would be to acquiesce to the religion forced on the slaves. More complexly, Gaines is concerned with the personal test of religion; his characters reassess and reappropriate religion in order to accept it on their terms, not on terms imposed by the community and through institutional Christianity. For Ernest Gaines's characters, the Christian church exists as a system of white oppression, whereas the denial of the church and the rejuvenation of a personal and communal religion become parts of the route to freedom and the realization of self.

Gaines and his characters are creating a new text of religiosity that stands at an opposite pole from traditional Christianity. While I use the word text with some trepidation, the term serves to underscore the use of Christianity to codify a system of oppression, and it also provides a way to relate that codification to Gaines's new text, which expresses the divinity of the people and the Earth, not just of God and heaven.

The characters' creation of this text is complex and not altogether consistent. The first step seems to be an outright rejection of the church, and this is most obvious in the confrontations between several rebellious characters and church leaders. In “The Sky Is Gray,” a young man in the dentist's office directly challenges a preacher regarding the existence of God: “‘You believe in God because a man told you to believe in God,’” the boy says. “‘A white man told you to believe in God. And why? To keep you ignorant so he can keep his feet on your neck’” (96). The preacher slaps the young man for his beliefs, recalling to a lesser degree the actions of European Christian missionaries attempting to bring their religion to non-European races, and in so doing he reveals himself to be a maintenance man for an oppressive system. Some critics may dismiss this episode because the young man becomes one of Gaines's most radical characters, extending his questioning of beliefs to the words he has been taught by white society, but Gaines does not pass judgment on the young man. In fact, others around him, such as the woman who laughs at him for saying “‘The wind is pink’” (100), are made to seem ridiculous against his solemnity.

Reverend Jameson in A Gathering of Old Men is another religious figure who crumbles in the face of adversarial conditions. When the old men arrive to make their stand in support of Mathu and against Fix, Jameson implores them to give up: “‘That's what y'all come here for?’ he asked. ‘To die? Y'all think that'll make up for all the hurt? That's what y'all think?’” (55). He is first ignored, but eventually confronted:

“Reverend Jameson, just shut up,” Beulah said. “Just shut up. Nobody listening to you; so just shut up. Go on back home. … Nobody listening to you today.”

“Maybe I ought to shoot him,” Rooster said. “You think I ought to shoot him, Dirty Red?”

“No, let him slide,” Dirty Red said. “He might change 'fore the shooting start.”


This is one of the first steps the old men take on their path to selfhood. Previously they traversed the graveyard of their ancestors, confronting then leaving behind their collective past. Now they face off against the leader of their church, who in this situation becomes a powerless figure to be derided.

Ned Douglass places himself in direct confrontation with the church in The Autobiography of Jane Pittman. Upon his reunion with Jane, he questions her as to what the preachers in the church have been teaching. “Was they teaching Mr. Booker T. Washington or was they teaching Mr. Frederick Douglass?” (100), Ned wonders, probing whether the church is propagating a system of oppression or helping the community to question its place in the slave quarters. When Ned dooms himself by “preaching” freedom, the institutional religious community ignores him out of fear and refuses to allow him to teach in any church. It remains for the people who follow him to convert his personal vision into something greater.

It is true that the achievement of a communal vision occurs in the works of Gaines only after some act of martyrdom. However, the martyrs' accepting religion on their own terms precedes communal understanding. That is, the leap is from the personal to the communal, and it occurs outside of any sort of imposed religious or legal system. To demonstrate this in its different forms, I am going to focus on Jimmy, Ned, and Jane from Autobiography and Charlie Biggs from Gathering.1 Vinson examines Jimmy and Charlie as “examples of crucifixion archetypes” (37), but the very idea of the crucifixion belongs to Christianity and serves to ground the characters in the very system they are attempting to overcome. In order to move beyond the bounds of institutionalized religion, the other characters must come to view the deaths not as another propagation and affirmation of the system, but as a means to achieve something different and more meaningful.

When the old men enter Mathu's shack at the end of Gathering, Mathu and Clatoo acknowledge their accomplishment in standing firm against the repressive forces and direct opposition they have always faced; this recognition is identified solely within the community of black men. Neither Candy nor any other white character sees their success, which implies that the realization of selfhood and manhood takes place when the community itself understands the men's achievement. Mathu says he is “‘proud to be African’”:

“‘I been changed,’” he says. “‘Not by that white man's God. I don't believe in that white man's God. I been changed by y'all. Rooster, Clabber, Dirty Red, Coot—you changed this hardhearted old man’” (182). This final denial of “the white man's God” is the last chain to be broken, the ultimate system to be overthrown. In doing so, the men not only achieve a fuller identity, but the truth about Beau Boutan's death can be revealed.

And Charlie's appearance seemingly from nowhere provides a multi-layered revelation. On a basic level, the whole story of Beau's murder comes to light when Charlie returns to Mathu's home. Charlie explains that, at fifty years old, he no longer could tolerate the abuse of his white boss. Beau and Charlie fought, and Charlie sought refuge with Mathu, his parrain ‘godfather.’ Mathu pushes Charlie into manhood by giving him a gun to face Beau, and Charlie, confronted by a rifle-toting Beau, shoots and kills the white man.

More significantly, Charlie brings with him a new religion, a new text of gospel, born in his flight from Marshall. Charlie feels as if, running away through the swamps,

… something there stopped me, too. Something like a wall, a wall I couldn't see, but it stopped me every time. I fell on the ground and screamed and screamed. I bit in the ground. I got a handful of dirt and stuffed it in my mouth, trying to kill myself. Then I just laid there, laid there, laid there. Sometime 'round sundown—no, just 'fore sundown, I heard a voice calling my name. I laid there listening, listening, listening, but I didn't hear it no more. But I knowed that voice was calling me back here.


Lou Dimes, a white reporter narrating at this point, comments, “… there was something in his face that you see in faces of people who have just found religion” (193). This religion is found in the earth, in the ground with which Charlie fills his mouth. In the recognition of his having “‘dropped a heavy load’” (193), of bearing his own burden, Charlie achieves a divinity in which he is baptized with earth and dirt, not water, like the river which is controlled by the Cajun farmers.

His divinity is also one of selfhood, something Charlie is unable to pass on himself. It is a triumph of the personal over the imposition of history. When Dirty Red asks Charlie what he saw in the swamps, Charlie tells him, “‘You seen it too, Dirty. … All of y'all seen it.’” Pressed further, all Charlie will say is that “‘you got it, Dirty. … You already got it, partner’” (208). When Charlie dies, the community attempts to get from Charlie what they do not have and what nothing else can provide. Dirty Red says,

I leaned over and touched him, hoping that some of that stuff he had found back there in the swamps might rub off on me. After I touched him, the rest of the men did the same. Then the women, even Candy. Then Glo told her grandchildren they must touch him, too.


While I will not presume to explain with any sort of definitiveness the poignant indeterminacy of this moment, perhaps in touching him they too attained a recognition of self as a part of their own culture. Only in seeing one man take on the consequences of completely owning his identity—Charlie goes from coward to namer to leader to martyr within the course of a single day—are the people on Marshall able to complete their movement to self-realization, the process of which also overthrows the shackles of any religious beliefs they themselves do not wish.

To take this one step further, the black people of the Marshall quarters complete a conversion begun with the alienation of Reverend Jameson from the community. This process continues through the denial of the white god and reaches its culmination with the raising of Charlie to martyrdom. As a consequence, a new, communal religion is forged.

Ned Douglass in Autobiography comes to be deified in a similar way. Like Charlie Biggs, Ned's speech asserting self-identity for his people is given the label of a spiritual experience, a “sermon,” but the sermon contains no references or supplications to the Christian God. What Ned does instead is to ask the people to move beyond the heavenly; he calls for an earthly religion. “‘This earth is yours …,’” he says. “‘It's yours because your people's bones lay in it; it's yours because their sweat and their blood done drenched this earth’” (107). For Ned's congregation, Christianity is a religion which does not admit the earthly; it looks forward to the afterlife instead of looking for sanctity in the earth. The scene just after Ned's death presages the scene in Gathering in which the people touch Charlie. Shot by Albert Cluveau, Ned's bloody body is placed atop the wagonload of wood he was bringing to help build a school:

When the people heard the news they started crying. The ones living side the road followed the wagon to the house. … They ran up to the wagon when it stopped at the gate. They wanted to touch his body, they wanted to take it inside. The road was full, people coming from everywhere. They wanted to touch his body. When they couldn't touch his body they took lumber from the wagon. They wanted a piece of lumber with his blood on it.


The lumber is not sanctified in any way, except by Ned's blood. Significantly, this scene is not hard to compare to funerals of Islamic holy men, where mourners touch the body or the casket in the belief that the touch will give strength and power and holiness; the implications of this suggest that Ned receives his true divinity outside of the church which had forsaken him. Ned's death, however, does not bring about a new age, and it does not imbue Jane with any additional strength. She eventually retreats into Christianity.

Jane's religious conversion has been seen by most critics as a joyous occasion, but Gaines craftily words the scene in such a way as to cast doubt on the reverie of the experience.

I had a load of bricks on my shoulders and I wanted to drop it but I couldn't. It was weighing me down and weighing me down, but I couldn't let go of the sack. Then a white man with long yellow hair—hair shining like the sun—came up to me. (He had on a long white robe, too.) He came up to me and said, “Jane, you want get rid of that load?” I said, “Indeed, indeed. But how come you know me? Can you be the Lord?” He said, “To get rid of that load and be rid of it always, you must take it 'cross you river.”


Further in the episode, Jane tells the Devil that “… the White Man told me to cross yon river with the sack” (137). Taken out of context, the line would seem to imply a type of slavery; indeed, it may recall the description of the white men on the river watching Ned give his sermon. Jane cannot be truly free if her God is the white God she has been taught exists. Albert Wertheim describes this passage as reflecting Jane's “freedom of the soul” (230), yet if her spiritual freedom requires a white overseer, it is a dubious freedom at best.

However, as Jane ages, she is not a good churchgoer; she skips church to hear Jackie Robinson play, and at one point she is accused of not being faithful by Just Thomas, the head deacon, who asks her, “‘When the last time you got down on them bending knees?’” (225). Thus, Jane's religious “travels” are a way of reappropriating the institution to fit her personal needs; they cast a brighter light on the efforts of Ned and Jimmy, who must achieve freedom of both soul and body outside the church.

A positive aspect of Jane's conversion is that she “finds 'ligion” in her own way; she does not simply conform to what her friends believe. On the other hand, Jimmy's conversion is forced on him so that he can meet the Christian expectations of the community: All the people in the quarters believe he is “the One,” the person who will lead them on the road to spiritual and physical freedom. The community “wanted him to get religion that summer he was twelve. [His mother] made him go to prayer meeting every night, … and every night they prayed over him” (211). The people in the quarters have all lived under and conformed to Christianity and are attempting to impose the same system on Jimmy. But if Jimmy truly is “the One,” then he cannot be held to the same laws; he cannot turn to religion. Even Jimmy's presumed conversion is presented by Jane so dryly that it rings false. He cannot find religion and be the One within the text of Christianity. Rather, he must create his own text, his own testament.

Once again, this testament cannot be completed until he is dead. Shortly before his death, Jimmy comes to church to speak, and Just Thomas attempts to portray him as a devil, an anti-Christ, because he no longer attends the Christian church: “‘That's what happen when the devil walk in. … Good Christians fight’” (224). However, Jimmy tells the congregation that they have the strength of a “‘Christian people’” and adds, “‘I left the church, but that don't mean I left my people’” (225). Elder Banks, the church leader, draws a fine but distinct line between the actions of the church and the actions of the people as a separate community when he tells Jimmy, “‘… I can't tell my church to go with you. If they want to go, it's up to them’” (226). And Jimmy affirms that line with his final words at the church:

“You mentioned you have an old church … because you want me to see your way of life. Now, I mentioned what we have, because I want you to see our way of life. And that's the kind of life the young will feel from now on. Not your way, not no more. But we still need your strength, we need your prayers, we need you to stand by us, because we have no other roots. I doubt if I expected you to understand me this time. But I'm coming back. I know we can't do a thing in the world without you—and I'm coming back.”

He told us he was sorry he had disturbed our church, and he walked out.


This speech illustrates Jimmy's recognition of the duality of a church with both repressive and strength-giving qualities. The old church is comfortable in its old ways; and Jimmy is attempting to provide an alternative to these complacent traditions, to demonstrate that spiritual freedom has to be tied to earthly freedom in order to legitimize freedom. The old church cannot provide the means for this, so a new type of religion is necessary, one that is based on the strength of prayers, but is able to see below the heavens to the earth that Ned previously tied to the people. Jimmy apologizes for “disturbing the church” out of respect, but his intention was disruption as a means to dispose of the old text of their lives, especially the part of the text which is tied to the church. Jimmy, in the end, is able to see this because he is outside the religion. Recognition by the old people comes too late to help Jimmy. During his next visit to the church, the congregation will walk away rather than listen, clinging to their centuries-old text.

In the wake of Jimmy's death, the old people of the quarters come to support his ideas. Jane says the area is “quiet the way it is on Sunday nights when you don't have church” (242-43), tying the effort to achieve selfhood to the absence of the church. Jimmy's death “is the germ that has fallen like a new religion into the hearts of some of the older people especially, and among them Jane Pittman” (Ensslen 151), who perhaps has the strength because of her ability to see religion as something that exists outside the church. She may be a strong believer in a Christian God, but she does not feel bound by the laws of the church; her triumph is in the acknowledgment of both texts—and finally moving past the owner of the quarters to embrace the new text.

The Christ connection between the three fallen figures discussed here is impossible to deny. But it is a mistake to see that connection as a continuation or reaffirmation of Christianity. Instead, Gaines is indicating that the appearance of a new Christ means the dawn of a new religion, a reappropriation of religion on the terms of the black characters, not a revisiting of the repressive system of Christianity that has been forced on them. Christianity for the older characters promises hope for the afterlife in opposition to the constant suffering of the earth. Ned and Charlie make direct connections between the earth and the people, and, along with Jimmy, create the conditions whereby some of their people move into a religion of both heaven and earth.

Relatedly, the characters that do make the move to the heaven/earth conjunction have placed their institutions under scrutiny, testing whether the ideal of the institution of religion conforms to the needs of a people living under a system of oppression. When this personal test is complete, certain characters, such as Jane, are able to define themselves within the institution, while the other characters seek to redefine the institution on the personal level. Because Charlie, Ned, Jimmy, and Mathu are able to reappropriate the most personal of institutions, religion, they are able to succeed in overthrowing all the systems of oppression. Christianity, represented by the white man's God, is not seen as a legitimate spiritual basis for these characters. Gaines's rebellious characters seek to rewrite the text of religiosity on the basis of personal revelation in order to further the redefinition at a communal level. The sanctity of that individual and of the idea of self-realization through the new text is found in the community and the communal process. The sanctification of the community on these personal and earthly terms is revealed in the scenes where the people touch the fallen Charlie and Ned; the touch is the direct communication and acceptance of the new religiosity, one that is outside of law or system.

On a deeper level, Gaines's characters are creating their new religion as a reconnection with African cultural identity. When the connection to the earth is achieved, the characters discussed here hearken back to the religion and culture which was denied them for centuries. Perhaps that is what Charlie Biggs finds in the dirt—a revelation of culture which, as he says, all the characters “‘got it.’” The discovery and embrace of the cultural identity within the religious context provide the most meaningful establishment of new identity. For Ernest J. Gaines's characters, the greatest leaps forward are instigated by the inward search for the old—self and culture and community—which can create the new.


  1. I have deliberately excluded Phillip Martin of In My Father's House from the discussion here. Martin is a Baptist preacher who is shaken by the return of his abandoned son. Christianity, for Martin, is a retreat from his true past, his suppressed and denied past. In the end, Martin is left to recreate himself with the complete knowledge of that past and, indeed, the past of African America. While the failure of Christianity to compensate for Martin's character flaws is related to this discussion, Gaines does not have Martin pass his own revelations on to the community in the same way Charlie, Ned, and Jimmy do.

Works Cited

Ensslen, Klaus. “History and Fiction in Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture. Ed. Gunter H. Lenz. Frankfurt: Campus, 1984. 147-66.

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. 1971. New York: Bantam, 1972.

———. A Gathering of Old Men. 1983. New York: Vintage, 1984.

———. “The Sky Is Gray.” 1968. Bloodline. New York: Norton, 1976. 83-120.

Vinson, Audrey L. “The Deliverers: Ernest J. Gaines's Sacrificial Lambs.” Obsidian II 2 (1987): 34-48.

Wertheim, Albert. “Journey to Freedom: Ernest Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.The Afro-American Novel since 1960. Ed. Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: Grüner, 1982. 219-35.

David E. Vancil (review date fall 1994)

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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 demands created by the multiple levels of irony in the book, Gaines despaired of ever finishing this, the best novel of his career.

Readers of Gaines's previous novels, including A Gathering of Old Men and the deservedly famous Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, are in for a surprise. Gaines continues to use theme and voice to provide impetus to the story, and as in earlier books, he experiments with point of view, this time returning to a first-person narrator. Yet this narrator is neither naïve nor dispassionate, but complex and not altogether admirable. Because the narrator Grant Wiggins is aware and judgmental, his self-deprecatory and scornful voice is often ironic. By the same token, the structure of the narrative, with its use of Christian stories of redemption, whether those of Christ himself or those found in morality plays, is full of irony, an irony both bitter and humorous, tragic and comedic. In no previous work of fiction has Gaines used irony to such a great extent, employing it in A Lesson both to develop his themes, on the one hand, and to explode them, on the other. The use of sustained irony, while making great demands on the reader, allows Gaines's story to occupy linear and cognitive space simultaneously. As a result of the associative richness emanating from Gaines's multilayered technique, the reader can empathize with most of the characters—even the worst ones—but still maintain the distance necessary to understand the complex moral implications of the story.

As narrator, Wiggins is immersed in his own concerns and relates to his community from a perspective of superiority—a superiority as much bestowed as felt. Yet, despite his cultural sophistication, Grant is much like everyone else in wanting something better. Only reluctantly does he assume the role of secular priest, when his God-fearing Aunt Lou asks him to help prepare a former student, Jefferson, godson to his aunt's friend Miss Emma, to meet his execution like a man, not the unthinking hog he has been labeled by his white lawyer. The story soon takes on the trappings of Christ's crucifixion and also the morality play Everyman, but with a difference. Before Wiggins, the disdainful observer, can help another person, he must first be delivered from his own malaise of resentment against his people for their history of remaining downtrodden. Also, Grant must come to terms with his hatred toward whites, who are themselves trapped in roles they have inherited or accepted blindly. Therefore, redemption is not just an act of acceptance or acknowledgment, but a process by which individuals may ameliorate conditions and improve society. Near the end of the novel, Jefferson's barely literate writings, which have been encouraged by Grant, speak eloquently of his humanity. In a strange and unsettling way, Jefferson's death allows Grant to live more wholly and to forge an alliance with the white world in the person of Paul Bonin, a saint of sorts, who is one of Jefferson's jailers and his final witness.

By the extensive use of literary irony, combined with his grounding in the oral tradition, Gaines works up his themes of the dilemma of community and self and the nature of race and freedom in a fully realized manner. The often sly humor found in Gaines's other works is replaced in large part by large comic scenes or ironic understatement. The comic scenes help both to alleviate angst and to deflate the smugness of the narrator. They also prepare the reader for a complex yet life-affirming conclusion to the novel. There may be answers, Gaines suggests, but no easy ones.

In a memorable comic scene, a white school superintendent visits the schoolhouse. Wiggins wants to focus on needed school books, but the superintendent is more concerned with hygiene. He examines the children's gums, Wiggins observes, as if they were horses. Although sympathetic to Wiggins's request for more books, he tells the teacher that white schools are not much better off. The reader realizes in this novel set in the years right after World War II that education opened few opportunities for African Americans in Louisiana and other places. Wiggins fails to realize that he is more important as a symbol than as a teacher. If the dreamer himself (Wiggins resembles Professor Higgins in some ways!) is a failure, then at least the dream must continue to live. So, too, must Jefferson continue to live, at least as potentiality.

Set against the ineffectiveness of black men and the stupid blindness of white men is the sustaining resilience of women, black and white. They provide the bedrock of family life and keep the community unified, even if imperfectly because of the continuation of inequality. Without the hope that these women provide through their belief in redemption in the future, life would be intolerable. The dream of freedom would fail. Surely Jefferson has received the name of a founding father who believed in equality for a reason. It is a bitter irony that this Jefferson is not free and will be punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The first words of the novel are these: “I was not there, yet I was there.” It would perhaps belabor the point to spell out how both Grant, who has returned from California to teach, and his charge Jefferson, a repressed and unthinking member of a post-slave society, achieve a level of self-awareness which allows them to achieve redemption into life. Suffice it to say that separation from the community of mankind and nature, whether through arrogance or fear, becomes the spoiler of life. In this context, racists are as much objects of compassion as scorn. Pity them for they know not what they do.

In this book are many miracles. Evil spirits are cast out. A man who acts like a swine comes to act as a man. There are at least two other works by Gaines in which the hog motif appears, but there is no redundancy of treatment. In A Lesson before Dying, the depiction is the most graphic. Jefferson literally wallows in his food, so the reader feels relieved and cleansed when Jefferson finally discovers his humanity.

The use of Christian beliefs is interwoven with the character of the place and people who inhabit this corner of Gaines's fictional St. Raphael Parish. Here are people, in the years just after World War II, who go to prayer meetings and long for redemption. There is nothing phony or forced in this book. Besides carrying an aura of authenticity, the novel is simple to read and understand, but unlike a parable, which it might be said to parallel in its intent, there is no simple moral. The nature of morality in its social and individual aspects is itself explored.

Gaines, who has entered his sixtieth year, recently received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation award. Will he find more time to write now? Given the time it takes to create a book as accomplished as A Lesson before Dying, with its ironic use of the Christian story of redemption mingled with Gaines's themes of individual and group identity in a racially torn world, it seems unlikely that the author could produce a more superbly crafted book. As he indicates in the recent Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, Gaines considers himself first a writer for young black people and secondly a writer for young people in general. Perhaps he will continue to write for a young audience, as he did in A Long Day in November (1971), or to write novellas, his preferred form, and short stories (one of which appeared recently in Southern Review). Whatever Gaines decides to do, readers must be thankful for what he continues to find time to give them.

Philip Auger (essay date spring 1995)

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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 appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language … but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word and make it one's own. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”)1

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot …
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain. …

(Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”)

From Ernest Gaines's earliest published works of the late 1950s and '60s to his most recent novel, A Lesson before Dying, Gaines consistently writes about black men who face the problems of being denied the dignity and self-worth found in the status of “manhood.” In A Lesson before Dying Gaines again picks up this theme as the narrator of the story, Grant Wiggins, a black college-educated school teacher, takes on the responsibility of convincing Jefferson, a non-educated black laborer who has been sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit, that Jefferson is indeed a “man,” and not a “hog” as his white attorney declared as part of his defense strategy:

Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here could plan a murder. … a cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, but to plan? … I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.


While much of Gaines's work addresses the issue of establishing manhood, A Lesson before Dying is distinct in that it focuses on this issue in a most direct way: the problem Grant and Jefferson are faced with is a problem of redefining Jefferson, from his identity given to him by the white dominant culture, hog, to a new identity, man.

Within the scope of this problem, A Lesson before Dying explores the roles of social institutions such as education, law, and especially religion as they all have a part in producing human dignity and self worth. It is in the mythologies and ideologies these social institutions produce that the foundations for definition and identity are created. Jefferson does feel that he has experienced a change in identity by the novel's end, and that change is made possible through his and the black community's appropriation of social institutions and of myths and ideologies themselves. Gaines recognizes that for a change in Jefferson's identity to have any lasting “substance,” language itself, the complete make-up of discursive formations surrounding Jefferson, must change also. More specifically, Jefferson's becoming a man at the novel's end is an act based on the reinscription of (among other things) a most essential foundation for discourse, the Bible. In doing so, Jefferson is understood as a man because his life first takes on Christ-like significance.

In defining discourse and its social power, Michel Foucault writes that the discursive power of a doctor, the power to present and sanction truth, is socially determined through a network of systematic authorization involving medical, judiciary, educational, and even religious representation: “discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality” (50). In this respect, the task before Jefferson and Grant takes on enormous significance. Jefferson is a “hog” because the socially dominant system of inscription, white-supremacist patriarchy, deems him so. In effect, for an act of redefinition on Jefferson and Grant's part to have any lasting impact, the totality of systematic networks of authorization must be breached.

It is important to remember that although Jefferson's symbolic importance in the novel is central, this is Grant's story. Grant is the novel's narrative voice, and he is the person given the primary responsibility of transforming Jefferson's status to that of “man.” Obviously, Grant's own situation is somewhat similar to Jefferson's in that both he and Jefferson are undergoing a profound change in their own self-perceptions. Grant doesn't want the responsibility for initiating this transformation mostly because he feels any effort made toward this end would be futile. Grant makes it clear that even he, a black man who has become college educated, cannot express himself in the way he wishes in his community. He finds his own freedom extremely limited, if it indeed exists at all, and he sees the future of his students to be lacking in any promise of advancement. He realizes, for instance, that the work his students perform for the schoolhouse, chopping wood and other menial chores, is the same work they will likely have in the future:

And I thought to myself, What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are doing exactly what the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything?


Grant feels that his role as an educator bears no promise of producing change either; he finds that he must work to promote the dominant white-supremacist ideology—or not work at all. Grant is doing the same work and teaching the same ideas that his own teacher, Matthew Antoine, had done a generation earlier. And Grant has come to share Mr. Antoine's pessimistic conclusions as well: “‘It doesn't matter anymore,’ he said. ‘Just do the best you can. But it won't matter’” (66).

Grant realizes that the powerlessness of Jefferson is, in fact, not so different from the powerlessness he himself feels. While Jefferson is imprisoned in a literally confining structure of white law, Grant is also imprisoned within the structures of white discourse. The most obvious example of such discursive confinement is that of the educational system itself. The schoolhouse is a detention camp of sorts in which Grant is allowed to teach only the ideology that will keep himself and his black community powerless. And Dr. Joseph, the school superintendent, is, in effect, a type of warden whose role is to make sure Grant and the students stay powerless. Grant even sees some telling significance in the way Dr. Joseph inspects the school children:

And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves. …


Gaines emphasizes the complete imprisoning function of white discourse by the many “structures” he selects for the voice(s) of white patriarchy. Pichot and the town's patriarchal elite often take refuge in Pichot's library, a structure designed to surround one with the white-supremacist ideology presented in his books; the sheriff is often behind his desk at the prison, and the group of white men who declare Jefferson a murderer are found within the confines of the courtroom. Even Dr. Joseph is secure in his “confining structure”—the school house. The connection is clear: these white men are so powerful not simply because they are positioned in such architectural structures; instead, their power is supported by the discursive structures that they all, in return, uphold and enforce. These discursive structures—of ideology, law, and ultimately language itself—are, literally and figuratively, structures designed to preserve white forms of power. These structures are the manifestations of power Foucault refers to when he speaks of discursive totality. For black members of this Southern community, such “structures” of white patriarchy are there to disempower, to convict, to imprison, to enslave.

The way in which Grant's aunt (Tante Lou), Jefferson's godmother (Miss Emma), and Reverend Ambrose learn to deal with such oppression is through their faith and in the institution of religion. Grant, however, sees religion as doing little to produce change. The prayers his students recite are the same ones he recited as a student, and the Christmas play his students perform hasn't changed, nor has it proven to effect change. Grant has as little “faith” in institutional religious practice as he does in his own ability to produce change within the educational system.

In order to subvert a discursive formation that defines Jefferson as a hog, Grant comes to learn that simply recognizing the problems that cause such injustices is not enough; nor is it enough to “put one's faith” in institutionalized religion which seems to promote passivity and patience more than any active approach to change. The change that is needed is one in which the foundations for definition, for identity, are subverted. And although Grant isn't necessarily aware of the changes he is helping to bring about, Gaines presents the solution to changing identity as nothing short of a revolutionary discursive shift, built upon a whole new rhetorical foundation for language itself.

In discussing the relationship between language and the cultural critic who presents himself as the agent of change, Terry Eagleton, in Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, provides a significant “anatomy” of revolution which is certainly applicable to Gaines's novel:

To say that [a text] is “true” is not to state that it represents a real state of affairs. It is to claim that the text so fictionalizes the “real” as to intend a set of effects conducive to certain practices that are deemed, in light of a particular set of falsifiable hypotheses about the nature of society, to be desirable. … The practice of the [revolutionary] cultural worker, in brief, is projective, polemical, and appropriative.


In theorizing “toward a revolutionary criticism,” Eagleton writes that even a Marxist critic like himself must to a certain extent become a Platonist, advocating an absolutist philosophy to which, by nature, Marxists stand in opposition. In other words, since all truth is based on relational discursive formations (and therefore fictional), the agents of change should move beyond the inevitable fictionality of their position and be more interested in doing all that they can to promote their desired ends. If that means appropriating the language of the opposition, then so be it.

The theory I aim to pose in this essay is that the lesson Gaines puts forth in A Lesson before Dying is one similar to the revolutionary theory of Eagleton's: that producing change is ultimately a rhetorical act. If one's goal is to change identity, one must subvert the dominant discursive formations themselves. Only with such a foundational change can hogs be redefined.

In subverting the white power structure, Grant does understand part of what he and Jefferson have to do:

‘Do you know what myth is, Jefferson?’ I asked him. ‘A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they're better than anyone else on earth—and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and to show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth.’


Grant understands that “truth,” or at least this truth about common humanity, is based on myth. In order to destroy the myth, it is their job to show its falseness. What Grant doesn't understand is that in destroying one myth he is being, in Eagleton's words, “projective, polemical and appropriative” in that he must replace one myth with another. Grant sees that white power is based on lies; he comes to learn from Reverend Ambrose that to produce a feeling of power for the black community, he must lie as well:

Yes, you know. You know, all right. That's why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings—yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. 'Cause reading, writing, and 'rithmatic is not enough. You think that's all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie.


As I have suggested earlier, the lies that keep the black community so oppressed and keep Jefferson from gaining his “manhood” are ingrained deeply into the social institutions that control discourse. If one can gain control of these institutions, one can control the mythology that produces identity. The “lying” that Grant produces takes shape in the way that he, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and the whole black community work together to do more than simply destroy the white-supremacist mythology; they effectively replace that mythology with one of their own.

It is the first priority for Jefferson's godmother, as initiator of this new mythology and, ultimately, the reinscription of Jefferson, to penetrate the cage of white-supremacist discourse that surrounds him. And for that reason, her and Tante Lou's insistence on entering Jefferson's prison cell is significant; their success represents the first ray of hope that the “prisonhouse of language” can be breached.

The many images Gaines provides of Jefferson's family, Reverend Ambrose, and other members of the community entering the prison to be with Jefferson are also significant, for they show how the forces creating ideology and mythology, such as communal affirmation, education, and religion, are allowed to penetrate white discourse. Just as the legitimacy of Pichot's patriarchal power is confirmed by his various forms of social affirmation—especially in the way he usually surrounds himself with the affirmational support of other patriarchs—so it is that Jefferson will ultimately reach some feeling of self-worth.

Yet this step is only the beginning. The abundance of communal affirmation given to Jefferson gives him symbolic and even iconographic value. The image of him kneeling to gain forgiveness is an important one for Reverend Ambrose, and the image of him standing with pride upon facing his death is the image his aunt and the whole community want confirmed in the end. With this in mind, the new mythology being created is one in which Jefferson becomes a Christ-figure in that his divinity, his centrality as a transcendental meta-signifier, is the power that allows for his “manhood” to become a reality. Like Christ he is both God and man. What Grant comes to learn by the end of this experience is that change isn't built upon a simple eradication of the old God. Instead, he and the black community have to produce a new God, one that can confirm the community's human dignity. He learns that in order to redefine a man, one must first redefine God.

Gaines overtly presents those who “play God” as representing discursive power. According to the dominant discourse, the white patriarchy are the God figures, and therefore they control the discursive power—the power to confirm or deny humanity. Grant asks “Who made them God?” after he realizes that they have “come up with the time and the date to take the life of another man.” And, of course, Grant asks a similar question about himself when he begins to understand the significance of the task being asked of him: “The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death. Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know—prove to these white men—that he's not a hog, that he's a man. Who am I? God?” (31). This passage makes clear the power that the God-figure has in creating identity. So much so that when Vivian is asked by Tante Lou about the future of her religious affiliation, the phrasing is especially poignant: “You'll leave your church and just become—nothing?” (114). Similarly, in the Christmas play put on by Grant's students, the scene they re-create emphasizes the power of the God-figure to take the “nothings” of the world and give them self-worth:

But we ain't nothing but poor little old shepherds.
WISE Man One:
The lowest is the highest in His eyes.


The transformation of Jefferson into a God-figure is also foreshadowed by Grant's reflection on the God-like significance of Joe Louis to the black community:

I could still remember how depressed everyone was after Joe had lost the first fight to Schmeling. For weeks it was like that. To be caught laughing for any reason was a sin. This was a period of mourning. What else in the world was there to be proud of, if Joe had lost? Even the preacher got into it. “Let us wait. Let us wait, children. David will meet Goliath again.”


And after Louis's win in the rematch, Grant remembers the explosion of pride in his community: “For days after the fight, for weeks, we held our heads higher than any people on earth had done for any reason” (89). The symbolic power of this black man resisting and defeating the white heavyweight champion makes him God-like in that he is a positive creator of identity for his black following. The preacher's sermonizing about Louis proves his mythological importance. It is in this victory of biblical proportions that Louis's followers gain their “manhood.”

In Jefferson's resistance to the white patriarchal labeling of him as a hog, Ernest Gaines shows that such resistance makes Jefferson similar in god-like stature to Louis. In fact, Gaines again overtly establishes the Christ-like significance of Jefferson. Besides the obvious connection of this innocent man being put to death for a less than just cause, Jefferson's death is timed by the town's officials so as not to conflict with a religious holiday, as Christ's death is timed by Roman and Jewish authorities so as not to coincide with the Jewish Passover. The actual span of Jefferson's life in prison is from the Christmas season to the Easter season. And the moment of his actual death happens appropriately “on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three” (158). His Christ-figure status is further established in his wish to die like “He” did, without “a mumbling word,” and the connection is perhaps most explicit in that he realizes that what Grant is asking is that he “take the cross” of others: “Me, Mr. Wiggins. Me. Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan's cross, my own cross. Me, Mr. Wiggins. This old stumbling nigger. Y'all axe a lot Mr. Wiggins” (224).

Jefferson's Christ-figure significance establishes an allegorical dimension to A Lesson before Dying that reinforces the role of myth in the re-creation of Jefferson. With Jefferson as the Christ, Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother, takes on the role usually reserved for God the father: she is the initiator of the discursive movement; from her ultimately springs a new identity for Jefferson and his “followers.” In this sense she has the creative potential associated with God. Her role as godmother is also significant in that it establishes the new mythology being created as matriarchal. This may be Gaines's way of expressing the fullness of this discursive shift away from both whiteness and patriarchy, and it may be a statement by Gaines about an absence of father figures from such impoverished black communities of the Deep South. But it is important to note that although Gaines presents her as the initiator of this discursive shift, her power diminishes after this effort. Her principle role from that point is as a provider of physical nourishment in the form of the food she makes for Jefferson; the metaphysical nourishment he needs as a symbolic and mythical figure is taken over by the other “god-figures,” mainly Grant and Reverend Ambrose.

The significance of Grant and Reverend Ambrose in this regard is important in the appropriative scheme Gaines sets up. In appropriating the white patriarchal order, a complete shift to matriarchy would not be necessary (or believable). The educational and religious significance of Grant and Reverend Ambrose is that they represent a discursive order reinscribed with black faces, but not necessarily with matriarchy. In appropriating the Christian mythos, Gaines must maintain a patriarchal order with its symbolically central “God become man.” In this respect, Jefferson's “manliness,” as a gendered entity, bears its greatest importance. In order to re-create Jefferson as a powerful source of identity within a patriarchal order (white or black), Gaines must insure that Jefferson's iconographic value increases in direct proportion to his ability to “reflect patriarchy.”

Moreover, the allegorical resonance of Jefferson as Christ figure is again compounded with Gaines's inclusion of Jefferson's journal. In it Jefferson relates all of the simple expressions of love he encounters in the days before his death. He includes passages about many firsts: the first time he tells somebody (Grant) “i like you,” the first time members of the community, including the handicapped Bok, show him expressions of love, and the first time he experiences such affection from his godmother: “… an i tol her i love her an i tol her i was strong an she jus look ole and tied an pull me to her an kis me an it was the firs she never done that it felt good an i let her long is she want …” (231). Perhaps the most important first of the journal is in his confirmation that Grant's efforts have paid off: “… i cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody ain't never been that good to make me think im somebody …” (232). Jefferson shows with abundance the power to be gained in the spirit of mutual giving. Jefferson and the members of his community all gain in their actualizations of self-worth as they give to each other. Perhaps a significant distinction to be acknowledged here is that Jefferson as a reinscribed God is not the vengeful God of law represented in the Old Testament. The patriarchs of the white community take on this role. Instead, Jefferson becomes the giving God of faith of the New Testament. His power resides in his ability to make people believe that “to give is to receive.” Obviously the form of Jefferson's discourse, as written, takes on religious significance as well. In line with his significance as a Christ figure, he leaves behind “the word,” a Biblical text that can be read as a guide to “lov[ing] one another.” In this regard Jefferson provides a literal “new testament” of great symbolic weight.

Along with the allegorical impact Jefferson's writing has as a Biblical text, one must not overlook the symbolic and revolutionary impact to be found simply in the act of Jefferson's writing. In “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes” Henry Louis Gates puts this idea in perspective as he discusses the symbolic importance of writing in Western culture in the eighteenth century:

Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable” and hence “men,” if—and only if—they demonstrated mastery over “the arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century's formula for writing.


Although the plot of Gaines's novel is, of course, set well after the eighteenth century, a similar argument is used by Jefferson's attorney in declaring Jefferson's lack of manhood; he notes Jefferson's illiteracy as proof of this lack:

Oh sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this—this—this a man? No, not I. … Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether his eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose, to quote from one passage of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.


Set against this white patriarchal prescription for manhood, Jefferson's writing must be recognized as a radical act in itself. Of course, Grant's college education is seen as a threat to Pichot and his fellow patriarchs. But Jefferson's writing isn't simply a cry for legitimacy in white culture. Perhaps his writing “across the lines instead of above them,” as well as his already noted concentration on the issue of mutual giving, is indication enough that Jefferson's discourse is “going in a different direction,” truly a “new testament” of how legitimacy and manhood can be obtained.

Into this unfolding, biblically allegorical scheme that A Lesson before Dying takes on, the significance of Paul, the guard who befriends Grant and Jefferson, seems to fit almost too neatly. Like his namesake of the New Testament, Paul is the converted soldier struck by a “bolt of lightning” to ultimately preach “the word” of the Christ:

I heard the two jolts, but I wouldn't look up. I'll never forget the sound of the generators as long as I live on this earth. … Allow me to be your friend Grant Wiggins. I don't ever want to forget this day. I don't ever want to forget him.


Paul's eagerness to read the journal after Grant is finished and to help Grant spread “the word” to Grant's students that Jefferson was the “bravest man” at the execution adds to his parallels with the biblical St. Paul. And perhaps the most significant connection to his biblical namesake rests in the importance St. Paul places in justification by faith above the law:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

(Romans 5: 1-5)

One can easily imagine Gaines's character giving a similar formula for hope to Grant's students.

Grant tells Paul in the final chapter that “You have to believe to be a good teacher” (254), and Paul then bears witness to the transformation Grant's teaching did produce. In the creation of this new Christ, Grant and his community have created and “share the glory” of someone they can believe in. Grant's original hope of debunking faith was due to the problems he had with the form the Christ figure takes in the white dominant discourse—a white patriarch. Grant learns that his role as an agent of change is not simply to debunk the myth but to appropriate the myth—to reinscribe it, so it works toward his and his community's own ends. Ultimately, the teaching of St. Paul rings true for Grant. Throughout the novel he struggles to find something to believe in; in the end he finds it in Jefferson, and he finds it in himself. It is important to note that the meaning he is seeking, his own justification, is not obtained by realizing any “tangible” results: Jefferson still dies unjustly, and the black community is still fundamentally oppressed. Yet, Grant, Paul and the members of the black community have received “justification by faith.”

Since such “tangible” results have not been realized, one must ask about the “actual” limits of power gained by this discursive reinscription of Christian myth. Can Grant now be as subversive as he pleases in the classroom? Does Paul stand a chance as a white police officer preaching about black “manhood” in a white-supremacist, Southern black town? The answers to these questions seem less than hopeful. One can hear the voice of Sheriff Guidry holding the novel's hopeful ending in check: “… the first sign of aggravation, I'm calling it off” (50). His voice, as representative of white patriarchal law, suggests that although Miss Emma and Grant have been able to penetrate white discourse, they have also been contained within it. Their interaction with Jefferson, always within the country jail, would seem to confirm this. However, the transformation of Paul confirms that some “substantial” change can be effected. Although Paul is acknowledged from the beginning as being “from good stock,” he is also a representative of white patriarchal law. His change has its greatest value in its symbolic importance: it shows that white patriarchy has not contained this new discourse; instead, white patriarchy is now being changed, not just penetrated. While “practical,” “substantial” change still seems remote, the symbolic power in the transformations of the black community and especially of Paul show that the potential for such change is great.

And perhaps that potential is the most significant New Testament connection of all. Christ's presence in the New Testament signifies the promise of eternal life—not its fulfillment. As with Christ, Jefferson's symbolic value has only begun in his death. The point here is that A Lesson before Dying, like the New Testament, resists closure. It is the novel itself that confirms the promise of the “projective” power within the “appropriation of the word.” The transformative power that Jefferson's word has on Grant and on Paul is projected to readers in Grant's (gospel) narration. The novel itself becomes the promise renewed and extended.

Ultimately, the Lesson before Dying that Ernest Gaines provides is a lesson about manhood. Gaines makes it clear that “being a man,” especially for a black man in the white-supremacist South, has more to do with appropriating discursive power than with being male. For Jefferson, as for the white patriarchs of his community, the power to define oneself and to define others is confirmed in the ideologies produced by the social structures of culture. With this in mind, Gaines shows how becoming a man is truly an act of mythical and even biblical proportions.


  1. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates, ed., “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference it Makes,” “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) 1.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Texas: U of Texas P, 1981.

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Gaines, Ernest. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis, ed. “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.” “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” Selected Poems of Claude McKay. New York: Bookman, 1953.

“The Letter of Paul to the Romans.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York: Oxford UP, n.d.

Leslie Lockhart (review date spring 1995)

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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 keen eye for the plagues and longings of the human spirit, Gaines raises questions whose answers are elusive.

The novel is set in the 1940s, in Bayonne, Louisiana, which is the backdrop for all of Gaines' fictional work. Young Jefferson shares a ride to a liquor store with two friends, Brother and Bear. The two young men become angry with the white store owner, Alcee Grope, when he refuses to sell them liquor on partial credit. In a matter of seconds Grope fires gunshots, Brother and Bear return fire, and all three fall dead. Jefferson is the only one left standing at the scene.

Despite his innocence, Jefferson is eventually charged with robbery and the murder of Grope. The young man's court trial introduces one of the novel's most disturbing ironies. Ostensibly, Jefferson's defense attorney speaks in an effort to save the young man's life; however, it is the attorney's words that inflict a spiritual murder on Jefferson even before he is convicted:

Gentlemen of the jury, look at this—this boy … Oh, sure he has reached the age of twenty-one … but do you see anyone here who could plan a murder? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the jungle of Africa … No gentlemen this skull holds no plans. What you see here is a thing … what justice would there be to take his life? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

The dehumanizing use of the word “hog” resounds in the ears of Jefferson's godmother and the community of witnesses.

Following the trial and conviction, Jefferson's godmother, the elderly and fiercely determined Miss Emma, appoints Grant to visit Jefferson at the jail house. She intends for the reluctant Grant to restore her godson's dignity, “I don't want them to kill no hog. I want a man to go to that chair on his two feet.” With the help of Grant's equally forceful Aunt Lou, Miss Emma convinces Grant to try to help Jefferson.

Both Aunt Lou and Miss Emma lack formal education; their ways are rural, contentedly self-sacrificing and communal. From the two women's perspective, it is natural for Grant to use his “learning” to heal a despondent son of their community. In contrast, Grant offers his time and energy begrudgingly and feels discontent with his rural community, “I need to go someplace I can feel I'm living. I don't want to spend the rest of my life teaching in a plantation church. I don't feel alive here. I'm tired of feeling committed.”

For much of the novel, Grant is distant toward everyone except his girlfriend Vivian. He revels in Vivian's physical beauty, cosmopolitanism, and her ability to inspire him; he views her as an equal, perhaps because she is not from Bayonne. Although Vivian and Grant talk of leaving Bayonne to begin a new life, she reminds him of his commitment to his students and to Jefferson.

Grant's daily interactions with his students result in feelings of displacement and disillusionment. Grant compares his students to some of the older uneducated townsfolk and finds that his hours in the classroom make little difference, “What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all?” As he confronts his own disillusionment, Grant replays the words of his former teacher and mentor, Matthew Antoine. Antoine warned Grant that his teaching efforts would be fruitless:

He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself and contempt for us.

Grant's own struggle with self-contempt and hatred for his students culminate in his jail-house mission to resurrect Jefferson. Initially, Jefferson is stubborn and bitterly angry. Jefferson relinquishes his humanity by imitating and calling himself a hog. As a result, Grant wonders if it is even worthwhile to convince him otherwise. However, Grant continues his visits, as Aunt Lou and Miss Emma wait for a changed Jefferson.

After months of frustration, Grant brings a radio as a gift for Jefferson, then the young man begins to respond. Jefferson becomes even more responsive after Grant gives him a notebook to record his thoughts. Thus, music and the power of expression through writing are the salve that return signs of life to the debased Jefferson.

After Jefferson receives the notebook, the novel shifts from Grant's first person narration to notes from Jefferson's journal. The journal chronicles a progression from Jefferson's uncertainty that he has anything important to say to a clear statement of his feelings and his burgeoning dignity:

im sory i cry mr wigin im sory i cry when you say you ain't comin back tomoro im strong … reson i cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody ain't never been that good to me an make me think im sombody.

Although Grant's gifts are catalysts, Jefferson's transformation is not the result of Grant's singular efforts as savior. The young man is showered with concern from Grant's students, who send him home grown pecans, candy, and prayers. Bayonne's Reverend Ambrose visits the jail cell to assure Jefferson's entrance into heaven. Miss Emma sends chicken lunches for Jefferson and the other inmates. Most significantly, Grant is a consistent presence, who is transformed into a believer in Jefferson's dignity.

As an answer to Miss Emma's prayer, Jefferson is able to walk to the electric chair, as a man, without bowed head or bent back. Jefferson's final journal entries indicate his reconnection with his manhood and his humanity, “good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin … sincely jefferson.”

At the close of the novel, the reader encounters Grant, moved to tears by the young man's resurrection. The reader may even forget momentarily the Grant who is restive and frustrated with his people and his home. We are left with the feeling that Grant has succeeded in connecting with and uplifting a man as part of a communal duty. However, Grant's fate may still be to leave his home and pursue his dreams elsewhere. A Lesson before Dying leaves us with Grant's unresolved dilemma and the haunting question of how personal passions are reconciled with communal needs.

Anissa Janine Wardi (review date summer 1996)

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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 to rob a liquor store and murder the white store owner. The narrative reveals that Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, having taken a ride from the actual killers just prior to the murder. Because these men were themselves shot and killed by the store owner before he died, and because a flustered Jefferson was caught leaving the store with the cash register money, Jefferson is pegged as an accomplice.

Jefferson's defense attorney, in an attempt to gain an acquittal for his client, argues Jefferson's innocence to an all-white jury. He reasons that Jefferson, as an African American, may be predisposed to random acts of violence, but is genetically incapable of planning a criminal act. This racist defense is epitomized by the following passage:

Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan—can plan—can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa—yes, yes, that he can do—but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder.


The attorney's discourse of racial denigration reaches a climax as he dehumanizes his client, proclaiming that putting him to death would be equivalent to tying a hog down to the electric chair.

The jury of twelve white men, whether they deem Jefferson a man or not, sentence him to death by electrocution. Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma (his maternal figure), is as distraught by the defense attorney's reference to Jefferson as a hog as she is by his death sentence. She is determined, in the months her godson has left to live, to convince him of his humanity: “‘I don't want them to kill no hog,’ she [says]. ‘I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet’” (13). It is this mission that drives the narrative, as Miss Emma elicits her best friend's nephew, Grant Wiggins, to facilitate Jefferson's transformation.

Wiggins, a college educated school teacher who narrates the text, is persuaded to visit the imprisoned Jefferson, which he does reluctantly. Initially, Wiggins is incapable of seeing the value in helping a man who is sentenced to death. This apathy is telling of Grant Wiggins, who is angered by the racist hierarchy of the South, which prescribes that the only available career option for educated African Americans is school teaching. Because Wiggins feels trapped and totally defined by racist structures, he is indifferent towards the school children he teaches and the community at large. Although he envisions a better life somewhere else with his girlfriend Vivian (a relationship which is the least successful aspect of the novel), this escape is never realized. The reader learns that Wiggins has earlier made a trip to California, where his parents live, only to return home to Louisiana dispirited, having found no refuge in his new surroundings. Wiggins's eventual growth, in fact, is not precipitated by any kind of societal development; rather, a personal transformation is realized through his encounters with Jefferson. Only as a changed man, the text implies, can Wiggins himself become a catalyst for social equality through education.

The relationship that develops between Jefferson and Wiggins forms the emotional core of the novel. The force of A Lesson before Dying is a result of the dialogue that Gaines poignantly renders between the demoralized prisoner and the disheartened school teacher. Jefferson is despondent during his initial visits with Wiggins, often refusing to speak or even acknowledge his presence. Through repeated visits, however, a metamorphosis gradually takes place, as both men learn an invaluable lesson about human dignity and personal heroism. In fact, Jefferson becomes a symbol of hope for the entire African American community. He inspires the community by eventually subverting his attorney's dehumanizing definition of him (and by extension all African Americans) with an affirmation of his manhood. Despite Jefferson's dire circumstances, he still has agency: he can choose how to face his execution. This seemingly small act of heroism upsets the white power structure by illustrating that the system (regardless of its suffocating oppressiveness) need not determine one's entire existence. Perhaps the most profound lesson of the narrative is the one which Jefferson teaches to the community: that individual triumphs must precede any meaningful societal change. By this measure, Jefferson's is an exemplary life.

Gaines's narrative also points to the role that language can assume in symbolic enslavement and in freedom. Jefferson is able to recognize his humanity through writing (Wiggins has provided him with a tablet and pencil). In the first entry he writes in his journal, the semi-literate Jefferson grapples with and eventually dismisses society's racist narrative of himself as a subhuman creature. Freedom through literacy is a primary trope in the African American expressive tradition. Henry Louis Gates, in his vernacular theory The Signifying Monkey (1988), argues that the first inscription of this trope is found in African American slave narratives, wherein “the slave wrote … to demonstrate his or her own membership in the human community” (Gates 128). Gates's theory further holds that African Americans “had to represent themselves as ‘speaking subjects’ before they could even begin to destroy their status as objects, as commodities, within Western culture” (129). Gaines signifies on this African American tradition, powerfully creating, through Jefferson, a countertext. It is through the act of writing that Jefferson is able to fulfill his godmother's wish that he die with dignity.

With subtle prose that belies the complexity of the narrative, Gaines chronicles two men's journey to self worth—a symbolic transformation which encourages the reader to reconsider the qualities that characterize a hero. A Lesson before Dying is an extraordinary literary accomplishment: both moving and thought-provoking, it reminds the reader that the potential for heroism (which, as in all of Gaines's fiction, is represented by simple yet powerful gestures of dignity and morality) is present in all of us.

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

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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 since February. What are your impressions about Europe, especially France? How do people react to your works?

[Gaines]: I have been to France before. I was there in '92, and I spent some time in Angers as well as in Paris. I came back in '94 when A Lesson before Dying was published in France, and I had this tremendous reception. And, of course, I taught creative writing at the university of Rennes this past spring. It was the first time that a creative writing class had been taught for a complete semester in France. My work has been received very well in France. The sale of the books has been good, and I suppose I've been interviewed more in France during the last year than I have been in the States in the last four or five years. But, at the same time, Germany was the first foreign country to publish and translate my work. They started with Catherine Carmier under the title It Was the Nightingale, which was taken from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, one of those romantic stories. I started writing it when I was in Stanford and it took me a long time to do it because I didn't know how to write novels. Anyway, Germany published that story in the Seventies, and they also published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and, of course, A Lesson before Dying. They might have published A Gathering of Old Men, too, but I am not sure.

Did you get the impression that critics in Europe react differently towards your novels than in the States?

Not all critics. I have a good friend in Paris, who taught at the Sorbonne, and I think he is as perceptive about my work as many American critics are, but he knows a lot about Afro-American writing. He is the executive of Richard Wright's papers, Michel Fabre. Michel has given me some good criticism, and my French translator has done an excellent job. Unfortunately, I haven't met critics who can explain the German translation to me, but I have met people in Paris who have explained the French translation. I don't read French. I have met the French translator, and, as a matter of fact, we had two or three readings together in Paris. I would read in English, of course, and she translated it into French, and we were sitting right there reading to an audience. Others who had read the novels and short stories both in French and in English have agreed that she is very good. So, there are those who understand the work and state it very clearly.

What I think is very important in your works is that you are depicting the same area in all of them, and you are very specific; it is really so authentic that it almost becomes universal in a way, so that many people can relate to it even if they have never been there.

I got that technique from Faulkner, from his Yoknapatawpha County—and I can only say Yoknapatawpha County before I drink. And there is, of course, Joyce and Dublin. And Faulkner might have gotten the idea from Joyce.

I think that in each one of the books, there is some other little detail I might bring out about the area. The area is one which I know pretty well. I lived there the first 15 and a half years of my life. Since I am teaching in Louisiana, I travel those roads, and the rivers, and the towns.

In the project I'm working on, I am trying to work out your “philosophy of progress” as it may be implicitly reflected in your works. I start out by concentrating on those people who more or less openly rebel against the status quo, figures like Jackson Bradley, Marcus Payne, and Grant Wiggins. What I found very intriguing is that you seem to have much sympathy for all of your characters. Jackson Bradley, for example, is mainly a nihilist, but you make him very understandable, so that we can really relate to him and to his inner feelings.

I suppose I got a lot of these ideas from reading European novelists, especially looking at Bazarov in Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. But also from other characters in Dostoevsky's works, and, of course, Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the time I was writing about Jackson and Catherine Carmier, these were the influences. These young men who were at odds with their community, with their family, with religion, in other words, who were questioning these different things in their lives. And, yes, I agree with you. I suppose the only way they could free themselves was by questioning things.

But, on the other hand, they don't have any vision; they don't have any values that can replace or complement the older ones.

Well, that is the search, that is the quest, that is what they have to find out. They don't have it at that moment. But they are very educated, except Marcus, who is just a rebel any time and anywhere. But, in order to go some place else and in order to make progress, you must leave something. And most of those young men are in the process of leaving the old order and moving to another order, which they do not yet recognize themselves.

Could we read A Lesson before Dying as a sequel to Catherine Carmier?

You mean Grant and Vivian?

Well, all of the characters really. Grant in a way parallels Jackson, and Vivian recalls Catherine, and also Tante Lou is reminiscent of Aunt Charlotte. The difference seems to be that the characters in A Lesson before Dying seem to be one step ahead of those in Catherine Carmier.

Well I hope I have progressed a little bit over the last few years. I think that's a very good reading. I think you have read very well.

A character like Marcus Payne in Of Love and Dust is very fascinating to me. On the one hand, he is very egocentric and individualistic. But, on the other hand, he cannot be broken or defeated. He has created his own way of resistance which makes him really likable.

[Laughter] You know, a lot of people both in France and in Germany have said the same thing. A lot of people here really love Marcus and consider him a really great character. But I know of others in the States who didn't. But I feel the same way about Marcus. I feel that he is a rebel, a troublemaker, but I love him, I created him. And Jim, he learns at the very end to appreciate Marcus, and to see what kind of character, what kind of person he really is. No, I think he is a great character. Marcus and Miss Jane, I think those were the two characters I had most fun writing and creating.

And a similar character in a way is Copper in “Bloodline.” But he is a bit too militant.

Well, you know, he is a bit mad, that's why he has that vision of armies and tearing up things. But I was thinking of Procter in “Three Men.” After I wrote “Three Men,” it was then that I wrote Of Love and Dust and invented Marcus. I said, O.K., suppose I get a person like Procter out of jail. Let's say Procter does not do what he does at the very end, when he goes to the penitentiary in order to become a man, and when he has to save this kid. But suppose I had gotten him out of prison, and put him out on a plantation, then he would have become Marcus. So those two are very similar. And Copper is as well; they're all that same kind of rebel. I hope that I am not repeating myself. I hope they are not copies of each other.

No, surely not, but I found it a little dangerous to conclude “Bloodline” the way you did.

[Laughter] How was that, why dangerous?

It's because you close the story with Copper saying “I'll come back with my army and bathe this whole plantation in blood, if I don't get my rights.” But then, of course, “Bloodline” is followed by “Just Like a Tree,” and that modifies the picture of violence and militancy.

Well, as I said, Copper is mad. Copper has no army to come back. He has nothing; he is mad. That's all I can say. He has nothing to come back; he will never come back. He might turn out to be in an insane asylum because he's nuts. He is a pathetic character really. I mean he is a lovable character, but a pathetic character really.

That's why I think it's good to have “Just Like a Tree” as the closing story in Bloodline.

Some have compared the stories to an episodic novel, because it began with a child, and then in each story the character is a little bit older. For example in “A Long Day in November,” the child is six years old. In “The Sky Is Gray,” the child is eight. In “Three Men,” Procter is 17 or 18, and I think Copper in “Bloodline” is a little bit older. And then you reach the old lady, Aunt Fe, in “Just Like a Tree.” And then, of course, you have the young Emmanuel, the civil rights worker, who is something like Jimmy in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Did you use the name Emmanuel because of its meaning, ‘God be with us’?

Yes, that's right.

What I find very fascinating in your works is that you never pass judgment on anybody, not explicitly. This is true, among other works, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I'm thinking about the scene with Albert Cluveau and also about the massacre scene. And I think the way you are depicting these events is very successful in drawing the reader in and really arousing his feelings.

Yes, that's absolutely true. And that's what I've said to many of my students. Especially African American students ask me, “How could you write such a scene as the massacre scene without being angry at those who do the killings?” And I said, “Well, what I wanted to do with that scene is to write it so well, and make you to see and hear and feel, that you will try to never let something like that ever happen again. That you will stand up and speak.” It's not that I try to arouse certain violent feelings but a feeling of sympathy, a feeling of compassion, a feeling of empathizing with the characters. And that's what I'm trying to do with this particular scene, and with Albert Cluveau. Cluveau is controlled by the society in which he lives. He was Miss Jane's best friend, and he was very close to her and would do anything for her.

That character actually existed. Of all the characters in the book, he is the one person or character who actually existed. He and the professor, the young black professor who, in 1903, or at the turn of the century, was teaching young black children how to read and write, how to swim, how to do gardening. The whites in that area felt that he was doing too much, and they got this man, this assassin, to get him. This assassin had killed other men, though. This professor was not the only person he had killed, and later, he would also be killed himself. I did not know all the details about it, and most of what I have there is created. I created all these situations. I did not know exactly how he killed the professor. It was not the way it is in the book. I did not know how it happened; I only knew he had killed this guy, and I created everything around it. So I didn't know how this man looked like. But after the film was made, which became very popular in the U.S., there was a very old lady, a French lady—real French and not Cajun—who was in her 90s, and she came up to me and told me that she could remember the day when the teacher was killed. She was a little girl at that time. But she said, “Oh, but your Mr. Cluveau in the movie didn't look like the real one. The real Cluveau had a long beard.” She said he had a very long beard. So she had remembered that, too, and I, of course, had no idea what he had looked like, I just created him.

Yes, and I tried to give him humanity.

You do that also in A Gathering of Old Men, which I find so fascinating because one doesn't see that as much with other writers.

Oh, you've read well. Someone told me, “You gave life to the Ku Klux Klan. You made the Ku Klux Klan look good.” But that's something I would not have done. I just give them humanity.

You bring in your criticism other ways. As for example by the description of clothes, when you contrast figures like Luke Will and Deputy Russell. Like Will is depicted as wearing his shirt out of his pants and having dirty hands. On the other hand, Russell, the deputy, is described as neatly dressed, thus paying tribute to the mourning in the Boutan house.

Yes, that shows the character Luke really is. You have really read well.

What's your assessment of the Schlondorff movie?

Well, I liked some of it [Laughter]. I think Volker worked well with what he had. The script was not exactly the way it should be. He could have had a better script, but, as I've said, I think he worked well with what he had. But he didn't have time. If you're making a film for television in the U.S., you have about five weeks for a two-hour-film. And when it is raining, you cannot shoot outside. And it rained all the time. There are some good points in the film; there are other points where I think they could have been stronger. For example, the scenes in the yard where the old men are standing around and waiting. I thought there was not enough intensity there. You know, someone was throwing a ball around. You don't do that. When you are waiting for a mob scene, a lynching scene, and someone is playing baseball, or someone rode a bicycle! Little things like that should not be there. But I am sure they had told him to loosen it up a bit. And the ending, of course, is not the ending I have in the novel.

I wanted to ask you about that. Because some critics have said that the movie places too much emphasis on the mere gathering, disregarding that a struggle for changing things often entails the use of violence. I've always felt that your emphasis is on the internal victory of the men.

Well, it's really on both. It's the internal victory of Charlie, and the old men gathering and standing. When I saw the movie, I could understand why it ended that way. But at the time I was writing the story, I thought it should end with Charlie, and with Luke Will, dying. But the gathering is really the important thing, and the second most important thing is that Charlie is coming back. Remember, these old men had never done anything like that before, and one day they had found the courage to do that. That spirit is very important.

The way you describe the shooting at the end is full of humor. It shows the absurdity of old men having to fight. That's why I thought that it is probably too hard to translate the humor onto the screen, and that's why Schlondorff may have left it out.

Well, people have different opinions about this ending, depending on the group. There are many black students who are against that ending. Many white students felt that Charlie's coming back and that standing were the big victory. I have been criticized for the very last chapter of the book by those who think it's too much of a farce. But at that particular time, I was not thinking about that. And now … I don't reread my books, I don't do that.

So why exactly did Charlie have to die? Couldn't he just have gone to prison and take his stand like Jefferson does in A Lesson before Dying?

Well, you know, that's the Chekhovian theme. If the gun is there, if the gun is over the mantle, the gun must come down at the end. Since all the old men gather with their guns, the guns have to be used. And that's why Luke Will and Charlie had to shoot it out.

Also, when I wrote that story, it was a different time in my life. Not that I was any more angry at that time than I was when I wrote A Lesson before Dying, but at that time I felt that this was the way to write the ending. Maybe I was not as mature as I was 10 years later when I wrote A Lesson before Dying. Maybe if I had written A Gathering of Old Men after A Lesson before Dying, I would have had a different ending. But at that particular time that was the ending that I could see.

Well, I had other endings. At one time, I had old man Marshall and Mathu shooting at each other. I had all kinds of things. Originally, the book had been written entirely from Lou Dimes's point of view, just from a single point of view. But I realized that Lou Dimes couldn't get inside the minds of all these old men, and they wouldn't have told him all the things they have said among themselves through multiple narration.

I had problems with the figure of Lou Dimes. He was the only one I could not really relate to. Well, I guess he is a journalist and he has to be somewhat detached, which makes him able to recognize things that other people can't; for example, the true relationship between Mathu and Candy. But I am not sure whether he has learned enough at the end, whether he has really understood what was going on at the end and what significance this day had.

Well, I was sort of hoping that he had learned something at the end. But Lou Dimes is sort of an outsider, really. He is not part of Candy's crowd, the plantation owner's crowd. Lou Dimes is from a poor family; he would have played basketball with blacks, but he did not grow up or live with them. And, of course, he would not know the older people who lived on the plantation, who Candy knows, or Mapes would know. Sheriffs always know these people. You know, in the state of Louisiana, I think we've had about four different sheriffs within the last hundred years, who when they die, their wives take over [Laughter]. It's really a family thing. So these guys get to know everybody. And Lou Dimes hasn't been around long enough to know the people. So Candy and Mapes know the people. And Miss Merle, because she goes from one house to the other, gossiping all the time.

Many people I have shown the movie to were overwhelmed by the way the atmosphere was captured. That's also why I think it is an important movie in order to fully understand your work, particularly for those who have never been to Louisiana.

Yes, the atmosphere is perfect. Especially with the opening scenes they have done fantastic things. The first different shots of the row of houses, and the cane burning scenes. The atmosphere is captured very, very well. When they were shooting the film, I was invited to the set, and I spent quite a bit of time with Volker. We dined together and had coffee together quite a few times, and we were talking. I was not officially involved in the film, of course. When he asked questions, I, of course, tried to answer, but I did not volunteer any information. I was just there.

Another thing I'm interested in is the importance of cross-generational relationships that have always been prominent in your works. In this sense, I regard A Gathering of Old Men as a kind of synthesis of your previous works. When the old men take their stand, this is witnessed by the young boys like Toddy and especially Snookum. And when Charlie is coming back, he is also assuming a symbolic father role for these boys, which is also manifested when they are touching his dead body.

That scene, and also the importance of Salt and Pepper, the two football players. Maybe I became too obvious about what Americans are supposed to be like: blocking, tackling, and running; you know. When I think of the story, maybe even Charlie is too obvious. I had to have him come back. And there are a lot of people who don't feel that Charlie could do this, who think that Mathu is the actual killer. I really had to convince people very hard that Charlie is the killer and has that courage.

But to run away is something that none of my little people have been able to [do]. Miss Jane tried to get to Ohio; Grant went to California, but he came back; Charlie tried to go, but could not go; Catherine would like to leave, but she cannot leave. They are rooted there, and they just cannot escape it. And Aunt Fe is just like a tree; she dies before she can leave.

So by witnessing what happened on that day, Snookum might become a more mature grown-up, and get rooted there, and tell the story to his descendants.

Oh yes, definitely so, that's what happens in A Lesson before Dying. Grant must go back to that school and that's when he turns around to his kids and he is crying in the very last sentence. He's gonna put everything now into being a better teacher and try to save these kids. And they will probably grow up and become rooted there. Otherwise some of them might have run away and done the things this dying professor had told Grant he should do. But now the kids will stay and do all the work that is necessary. And those are the ones that have made all the difference in the South, staying, working there, living there, fighting, and dying. They are the ones.

I have discovered that you share several viewpoints with Martin Luther King, Jr., as far as communal progress is concerned. First of all, the integrationist impulse, which in this case means that if you imprison one, you imprison all. Progress can only be achieved for the whole society or for no one.

Yes, I do admire him very much. You know, we were born on the same day, though he is four years older than I am, but we are both born on January 15. There were three of us in San Francisco who were born on January 15. And after he was assassinated, we would always have a birthday party where we put a large picture of him in the back. And we'd have a birthday cake which would have Martin, Ernie, C. B., and Mary written on it. Yes, I am a great admirer of his, but I never met him personally.

Also, King had this concept of creative suffering, by which is meant that if you stand up for what you believe, you may have to suffer for it, but this will have a redeeming effect and will restore your dignity.

Yes, I have that as a sort of constant theme from one book of mine to the other. There is a line. Most of my characters are willing to go over that line, whether that means harm or death or whatever, when they cross that line. Jimmy Aaron, Marcus, and Jackson who loses Catherine. You do suffer; you have to suffer in order to make any changes, especially when you have something so ingrained as racism, and over so many years, in order to have any change at all. And it has to begin with one person, and others will follow. It's usually one person that must be willing to pay a big price to make this change.

Does that on the other hand mean that if you are holding back, you are in a way guilty of your own oppression, that “silence is betrayal,” as Dr. King said.

Yes, ah, I don't know how to say this. Most of my characters don't look at themselves as revolutionaries. They just feel that “I have to do this” and don't think about whether others will follow. On the other hand, in A Lesson before Dying, Jefferson has been convinced by Grant to make this move to change things for others.

I found it remarkable that the more I read Dr. King's speeches, the more similarities I discover.

You know it's not that I have read his speeches that much. But I think it was that at that time we had the same sort of feeling about how things ought to be changed. I remember that Alex Haley wrote Roots at the same time I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and neither of us knew the other. But we were writing about the same sort of thing; he was writing about Africa at a certain point in time, and I was writing about slavery at a certain point in time.

I think that's what happens among people. It just had to happen at that time.

So you were not consciously trying to adopt King's philosophy?

No, but it was there. I have been asked if I was influenced by Malcolm X when I created Procter in “Three Men.” No, I was not. He had to go to prison and suffer there in order to change things. No, I did not have that in mind. But there was something going on, there was something in the air, in the spirit at that particular time.

I have been a great admirer of Hemingway. A man who loses out physically but some way comes up morally stronger, and the spirit rises. But when I am writing, I don't have Hemingway, or Malcolm X, or King in mind. It's that my characters take over. I think I do it subconsciously. These things gather deep down in me, and they come out when I am creating a character. But I am not influenced directly by it when I'm sitting at the desk and writing.

But you have always admired people who have stood up for their beliefs, like Dr. King or James Meredith. You have once said that you would like to translate into your works what Meredith stood up for.

Meredith was the reason why I went [back] to Louisiana. I was supposed to run away with some friends to Mexico in 1962. I was supposed to leave America because we thought it was too commercialized. It did nothing to help the writer to be creative. Everything was already there, everything was dying. Friends of mine, both white and black, were leaving America, going to Africa, to Europe, to Mexico. I was supposed to join two friends in the summer of '62. But I didn't have any money in my pocket and I had to work. And then James Meredith went into Ole Miss in September of that year, and it completely changed my life around. If I had gone to Mexico, I would have been running away. Running away from my writing. I would have been running away from myself, really. I would have been running away from life. But because he went to Ole Miss, it made me face up to life. It made me see that in order to accomplish something, you have to stay and not run. At that time I thought he had to be the bravest man in the world. The bravest man in the world. And, of course, I felt the same way about King. And because of Jim Meredith I went to Louisiana in January of '63 and I spent six months there. I am sure those six months saved my writing career because I had been trying to write Catherine Carmier for four years, and I could not do it. But after spending six months there and working on the book, I came back to San Francisco and finished the novel. I don't know that I would have ever finished that novel, had I not gone back to Louisiana. And I don't know that I would have gone to Louisiana had James Meredith not gone to Ole Miss. He is really a hero of mine.

That leads to the question about contemporary heroes. Where do the heroes come from today?

I don't know where they are. Our writing is not taken as seriously as I would like to see it in the States. I think there are some very good writers there, but we are not in the forefront, as the civil rights demonstrators were, or our religious leaders, or our athletes, or our entertainers. I think that if we read more in the States, and if more attention was paid to writers, I think we could find the heroes there because we have some very good African American writers in the States today, like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. There are quite a few.

But I don't know where the heroes will come from next. I have no idea who will be the next heroes.

You also have a lot of athletes as heroes in your works, but again, if you look at the contemporary scene, the whole sports scene may be just too commercialized now to produce outstanding models.

Yes, when you look back at the Joe Louises and Jackie Robinsons, they were real heroes because we had nothing else. We had absolutely nothing else.

I've gotten this idea of bringing in athletes from Hemingway, and also from Joyce's “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” and how they talk about past heroes.

In your recent interview with John Lowe, you mentioned that you were planning on writing two novellas. How much progress have you made with them?

Actually, I have three novellas in mind, but they are really very sketchy. I haven't been able to concentrate any time on it. I need a block of two or three months where there is nothing else to do but to concentrate on that, and I haven't had that kind of time since I've been in Europe. As I said, it is sketchy and I will continue to work at it, but these novellas are not even half developed.

As a Gaines aficionado, I am, of course, looking forward to reading anything new from you.

When I go back to the States in January, I will spend a lot of time working on these new stories. And I will be teaching creative writing at the University of Southeast Louisiana next fall.

Keith Clark (essay date winter 1999)

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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, Interview with Michael Harper

It's not between the character and the writer. It's the voice, not the person himself, but the voice. … When I come to the omniscient point of view and I create a character, a narrator who's much like myself, I do too much thinking. I don't have the freedom. That's one of the things I criticize Invisible Man about. There's too much thinking going on all the time. There's thinking in every goddamned sentence. You don't think. Let the thing flow. Let it go.

—Ernest Gaines

The collective writings of Ernest Gaines have challenged and critiqued literary and cultural constructions of the black male subject. As the epigraphic “reading” of Ralph Ellison suggests, Gaines is not satisfied with earlier “blueprints” for “Negro” men's writing1: throughout his career, he has foregrounded the differences between his work and that of his literary forebrothers, most notably Richard Wright and Ellison. By centering the experiences of black men within a certain cultural context, Gaines's novels and short stories reveal a consanguineous if not harmonious relationship between his and Wright's writings, which revolved around a debilitated male subject—one rendered disabled and disfigured by the scourges of racism and classism.

Indeed, most of Gaines's fiction (the notable exception being his 1973 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) charts black men's attempts to re-situate themselves as subjects—a liberating domain where they attain some degree of agency, self-definition, and authority amidst an abnegating southern environment. Because he and Wright share common geographic place, the different fictive spaces they configure are made even more marked. From early works such as Bloodline (1968) to his latest novel A Lesson before Dying (1993), the author has embarked upon a re-figuring of the black male literary subject: his protagonists depart substantially from the psychologically and culturally mutilated Bigger Thomas of Wright's 1940 classic Native Son.


Of course, any discussion of black men's literary discourse that examines protest writing and subsequent artists' critique of it must take into consideration social and cultural dynamics. Wright's insistence on a deformed black male subject reflected what he considered the cultural evisceration of black men; his introduction to Native Son, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” lays the groundwork for the maimed male subject that permeates his fiction. However, what is so intriguing about the work of Ernest Gaines generally, and his 1984 novel A Gathering of Old Men specifically, is its radical insistence on black men challenging and interrupting their seemingly inexorable victimhood. Though many critics have discussed Gaines's centering of male rituals and the integral role storytelling and voice play in his fiction,2 I posit that Gaines's artistic accomplishments have even more salient implications vis-à-vis the protest tradition, which Wright epitomizes.

I will illustrate how Gaines's aesthetic endeavor involves the re-centering not merely of the black male voice, but of a black male communal voice which contrasts sharply with the mono-voicedness of protest discourse. In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines's re-examination and reinscription of black masculinity result in a revised representation of black literary subjectivity. Specifically, the author deconstructs the notion that black masculinity is merely derivative, and he simultaneously demonstrates that voice and story function not only as fictive tropes but as viable vehicles for the transformation of the black male self. This essay argues that Gaines's relationship with the protest tradition is more countertextual than intertextual: he appropriates but also subverts discursive features of protest fiction in order to center the empowering nature of communal storytelling and storylistening in terms of black male agency and subject formation.


In light of Trudier Harris' trenchant observation that “There is much more of a tendency among black male writers to use their characters in the thematic illustrations of problems in the society” (192, emphasis added), it is not surprising that “protest literature” remains the discursive category for African-American men's writings, especially between the 1930s and 1960s. Unequivocally, Native Son emblematizes the tradition: the plethora of books and articles it has stimulated attests to its centrality in the American/African-American canon, and it continues to inform writing by and about black males in the 1990s.3 However, the black protest tradition has become a realm of contention among many post-1960 male writers. Novelist Charles Johnson, for example, consigns most black men's writing before and since 1970 to this category, and he assails it for jejunely telling the “same story” (74).

Moreover, Gaines repudiates its influence vis-à-vis his own Louisiana upbringing and the genesis of his literary voice:

Native Son would not have had an influence on me, had I read it. It's urban, Chicago. It was not a part of my experience. I didn't know a thing about urban life. If I had come from New Orleans, if I had been there and seen the violence, seen the [French] Quarter, seen that kind of background, maybe I could have tried to write that. But I came from a place where people sat around and chewed sugar cane and roasted sweet potatoes and peanuts in the ashes and sat on ditch banks and told tales and sat on porches and went into swamps and went into the fields—that's where I came from.

(Gaudet and Wooton 36-37)

One can clearly detect an anxiety of influence in Gaines's rendering of his fictive modus operandi: as he does with Ellison, he clearly “reads” Wright and locates his own bucolic experiences as his artistic locus; simultaneously, he eschews violence as the sine qua non for black men's writing and thereby deconstructs the key component of black masculinist protest writing. Well within the “signifying” tradition, Gaines therefore “tropes” both Wright and Ellison not merely in the novel's title—A Gathering of Old Men connoting ceremony, maturity, and community as opposed to the isolation, dependency, and absence which Native Son and Invisible Man suggest—but more discernibly through his revision of black protagonists' relationship to voice and the formal strategies he deploys to reify the voice-community-subjectivity nexus.4

Perhaps the most salient discursive feature of 1940s protest writing is its insistence on a de-formed black male subject, whose desires are totally informed by exogenous social constructs and institutions. The protest subject is defined primarily by physical and psychological absence and alienation—the subject's existence as lacking in terms of white hegemonic culture. Bigger craves his slice of the American pie not based on its intrinsic worth, but solely because bourgeois, commodity American culture—and white men—denies him the objects that it valorizes and fetishizes. The protest subject therefore exists as a cipher, forever under erasure. The black community represents an unwilling but culpable accomplice in the black man's disintegration, for it fails to comprehend the extent of his plight; instead, it measures him against a myopic and culturally incorrect narrative of white masculinity.

Gaines inscribes an antipodal narrative in A Gathering of Old Men, where white masculinity is not the benchmark for black men's subjectivity. One narratological feature of protest discourse is the protagonist's and author's interlocking quests for authority, which result in a sort of battle royal between writer and protagonist. Bigger's inculcation of the tenets of white masculinity mirrors Wright's own immersion in discourses such as naturalism and Marxism; what results is a “dialogic” conflict reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's attempts to situate his tale within a framework of American “success” narratives in his Narrative, with the requisite testimonial-like prefaces by two white male abolitionists. By utilizing first person male narrators and their unique personal histories (see Gaines's prefatory comment on Ellison), narrators who are not surrogates for the author himself, Gaines effectively de-centers his own authorial voice and re-centers the voices of the heretofore silenced black old men. By foregrounding orality, storytelling, and storylistening as the matrices of black male subjectivity, Gaines de-emphasizes the sanctioned of Western/American modes of narrative discourse and definitions of masculinity as black men's primary conduits for empowerment and wholeness.

Obviously, definitions of black masculinity and its broader white western counterpart are conterminous. Many critics have theorized the construction of black masculinity5; a recent work by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson (a sociologist and a psychologist, respectively) lucidly addresses how black men transform themselves into “gendered subjects.”6 The authors first adduce that

Historically, racism and discrimination have inflicted a variety of harsh injustices on African-Americans in the United States, especially on males. Being black and male has meant being psychologically castrated—rendered impotent in economic, political, and social arenas that whites have historically dominated. Black men learned long ago that the classic American virtues of thrift, perseverance, and hard work did not give them the same tangible rewards that accrued to whites.


This standard delineation of black men's inability to conform to prototypically “American” definitions of masculinity captures the raison d'etre of protest masculinist discourse, which depicts black men as victims of a culture that does not bestow upon them the “privileges” of white manhood. Absent, of course, is a problematizing (if not a condemnation) of the very terms that figures such as Bigger—and Wright—have inculcated unequivocally. Yet, as Majors and Billson assert,

African-American men have defined manhood in terms familiar to white men: breadwinner, provider, procreator, protector. Unlike white men, however, blacks have not had consistent access to the same means to fulfill their dreams of masculinity and success. Many have become frustrated, angry, embittered, alienated, and impatient. Some have learned to mistrust the words and actions of the dominant culture.


The authors could very well have been diagnosing the personalities of Wright, Bigger, or Invisible Man. What happens to a dream deferred? Black men's protest writing of the 1940s and 1950s insists that the psychic and physical implosion of the black male self is foreordained.

Alternatively, the power of A Gathering of Old Men lies not only in its reconceptualization of black masculinity, but in its eloquent critique of standard constructions of subjectivity. If fierce individualism, economic independence, isolation, hypersexuality, and violence emblematize American masculinity, then Gaines's novel performs not only literary discursive work, but also significant cultural work as well. Perhaps because Gaines is less concerned with anachronistic constructions of maleness, he centers voicedness and the collective retelling of black men's (hi)stories as his novel's subject. At the core of the novel's agon is a concern with black men who are not obsessed with inter- or intra-racial struggle (though decades of wanton white violence catalyze the “gathering”), but who are instead in conflict with their own selves; thus, Gaines foregrounds the power of the black speech community as an alternative vehicle for black men's subjectivity.

The most critical aspect of Gaines's resituating of the subject is not only the centrality of voice and voicedness, but of storytelling and storylistening. As Gaines's own earlier comments suggested, a fertile black speech community spawned and ignited his fictive imagination. The author's concentration on black spoken discourse and the rituals it animates separates him further from the discourse of protest, which narratologically reflects mono- or double-voicedness and limits points of view to an “outraged” black male victim and/or his authorial counterpart. John Callahan's point about the storytelling event in Gaines is instructive: “Unlike Ellison's character/narrator, the people Gaines invests with the rights and responsibilities of storytelling do not undergo a transition from speaker to writer, from oral to literary tradition” (88). Indeed, the novel dramatizes the “transferential”7 or the organic and suturing power of storytelling and storylistening. Therefore, black male oracy is the novel's focal point, as opposed to innumerable abuses which imperil and marginalize the protest protagonist. Because he foregrounds the curative function of voicedness—not black men's attempts to in Wright's own words “get white men to listen”8 and thereby validate and authenticate their lives—Gaines inverts and/or subverts the fictive machinery behind Wright's and Ellison's work. By situating black men within a gendered community, a primarily (though not exclusively) male milieu where they maintain the responsibility for witnessing and testifying to and for each other, the author further signifies on one of the key facets of protest discourse: the privileging of a singularly damaged and debilitated male subject who exists in diametric opposition to a potentially empowering group of black people.

Therefore, to recapitulate my central claim, Gaines's storycentric discourse interrupts, disrupts, and demythologizes standard literary and cultural figurations of black male subjectivity: central to his aesthetic apparatus is a radical reenvisioning of what constitutes “masculinity.” Black men engaging in intimate acts of storytelling and listening catapults Gathering into the realm of “speakerly text,”9 where a polyphony of voices conveys not only individual and collective pain, but also resistance and transcendence. As Charles Rowell articulately observes, “These old men's recollections are a choral litany for the quarters; their voices merge as a kind of contemporary chorus recounting physical and psychological violence done them and their immediate families, as the list of wrongs they cite reverberates down the centuries” (747). But as significant as the characters' verbal remembering of things past is the author's discursive act of intervention, where the storytelling event, the granting of black men the voice and authority to speak of the heretofore unspeakable, becomes a major contribution to post-1970s black masculinist literary discourse.


Though I am arguing that Gaines ultimately deviates from the discursive formations specific to protest writing, ostensibly he imbues his fiction with situations that recall Wright's prose: clearly, he is a descendant of Wright and Ellison, and not a radical post-modernist like Clarence Major. In fact, his ruminations on his fictive aims could just have easily been spoken by Wright himself: “My heroes just try to be men; but because the white man has tried everything from the time of slavery to deny the black [man] this chance, his attempts to be a man will lead toward danger” (O'Brien 85). This comment implies a notion of “manhood” that comes notoriously close to what bell hooks has labeled “patriarchal masculinity,” which enshrines physical violence, a lack of expressiveness (voicelessness), and a dependence on white valorization. But notwithstanding the author's own comments and a “plot” that superficially echoes protest fiction, Gaines ultimately centers storytelling and not plot, an aesthetic maneuver that allows him to reconfigure black masculinity by accentuating black men's internal relationships. Thus, Gaines astutely—and deceptively, like another southern male writer-trickster, Charles Chesnutt—draws upon but subverts the discursive elements of protest in order to convey his divergence from that tradition.

Initially, the novel's premise appears to be that black men have been historically passive, deformed figures—subjects in the sense that they have been powerless and self-effacing. Set on a Louisiana plantation in the 1940s, the action occurs at and near the black “Quarters” on the Marshall plantation. At the center of the text are a group of elderly black men who have not acted as elders: throughout their lives, the men's collective response to white male recklessness has been fecklessness; whites have committed copious acts of violence against the black men and their families, only to have encountered fear, trepidation, and silence. The galvanizing event occurs when Beau Boutan, a white Cajun with a protracted history of killing blacks, is murdered. The whites/Cajuns assume the culprit is eighty-year-old Mathu, the only black man who heretofore has challenged white male sovereignty. The old men's historical paralysis is voiced by one of the youngsters, who mockingly declares: “Y'all [Chimley and Mat, two of the “old men”] can go and do like she [Candy Marshall, the white plantation owner who summons the old men and vows to “protect” them from the white sheriff] say or y'all can go home, lock y'all doors, and crawl under the bed like y'all used to” (28). The old men's cravenness is rooted in the same feelings of powerlessness and frustration that drove Bigger Thomas to commit ephemerally “liberating” murders. In the same vein, the outline of Gathering parallels Native Son in that white racism has extirpated the black male psyche; in that context, Beau's murder becomes a watershed event in which the black men can either fear and flee or stand and deliver. But whereas Wright offers violence as a natural—and ultimately, destructive—response to externally eviscerating social conditions, Gaines has his characters turn inward and forces them to create constructive means for resituating themselves as subjects.

Thus, physical violence as a central component of black manhood is not necessarily displaced but is de-emphasized: as an alternative, Gaines proffers voice and community as the principle means of resisting erasure. He transports his old men through a ceremonial expiation and exorcism in which they confront and claim responsibility for their subjugation. Specifically, the characters interrupt historic deformity through the stories they tell, and the mutual confessions inaugurate their re-formation—their unification and atonement for the sins of self-erasure. To highlight the curative function of voice, Gaines places at the center of his narrative an amalgam of stories—this in stark contrast to the “center” of Native Son, which chronicles Bigger's debilitating “fear.” In effect, a veritable “laying on of stories” emerges as the vehicle through which Gaines challenges atavistic conceptions of black masculinity.

The most critical phase of the old men's refashionings of self occurs at Mathu's house in the Quarters. Candy Marshall has summoned the old men and concocted a plan to “protect” her godfather, Mathu: she orders each man to fire one shot from his gun, which would thereby complicate the identifying of the actual murderer.10 By placing a white woman in such a patronizing position, Gaines deftly problematizes notions of white patriarchal hegemony by making a white woman plantation “master.” Moreover, he deconstructs conceptions of white womanhood which played such key roles in earlier black protagonists' conceptions of themselves: the masculinized Candy is a far cry from the ravaged Mary Dalton or even the over-sexualized white women who lust after Invisible Man. Upon arriving at Mathu's, each old man is interrogated by the white Sheriff, Mapes. Since they have always been scared silent, Mapes assumes that he can frighten them into divulging the killer. But the old men scuttle Mapes's inquest by claiming responsibility: “I did it” becomes a mantra, a linguistic act of resistance that each old man repeats despite Mapes's violent responses to the phrase (he strikes each old man in the mouth after it is uttered). Because the old men's self-imposed silences have reverberated throughout the Quarters, their verbal declarations are liberating speech acts that demonstrate their transformation from objects to subjects. In fact, Mathu's house becomes the site of the ritual and reciprocal confessions, performances which are the cornerstone of the text.

The most polyphonous section of the novel is entitled “Joseph Seaberry aka Rufe”; each section of the multivoiced novel is headed by the narrator's formal name (some, such as George Eliot, being distinct references to whites) followed by one the black community has bestowed, which recalls Toni Morrison's black characters' perpetual naming and renaming in Song of Solomon (1977). In this pivotal section the old men begin to lift their individual and collective voices, thus reiterating the centrality of communal voice in Gaines' reconceptualization of black male subjectivity. One particularly revelatory exchange epitomizes how the gathering abrogates a heretofore inviolable white patriarchy represented not only by the Boutans, who have ruthlessly murdered scores of blacks, but by Mapes,11 the prototypic “southern sheriff” who countenances white-on-black violence:

“Till today,” Dirty Red said. He looked up at Mapes, with his head cocked a little to the side to keep the smoke out of his eyes. “Today, I—” You trying to cut in on me when I'm talking to you, Mapes asked him? Look like he's doing more than just trying, Johnny Paul said, from the other side of Mapes.

(87, emphasis added)

This verbal joust demonstrates the old men reclaiming their voices, as their verbal interruption of and signification on Mapes parallel their disruption of the heretofore self-erasive relationship with the white community. The phrase “cut in,” which connotes linguistic interference as well as violence, bespeaks the severity of the old men's verbal uprising. While critics of black women's writing have delineated “sass” as a uniquely female mode of self-protection and resistance,12 I would challenge that it is a solely distaff domain: indeed, sass becomes a vehicle for black men's resituating themselves as subjects, a way to counter a legacy of abuse, be it verbal or physical. This encounter also presages the central storytelling ritual, where multiple confessions mark the birth of a plurivocal13 speech community.

The stories the old men now feel empowered to share have a healing impact, engendering a shift from de-formed object to re-formed subject. Through a Morrisonian process of “re-memory,” the old men revisit their tortured racial past and expiate for it within a collectivity of nurturing black people, primarily black men. Marking this transformation from voiceless to voiced, Gaines inscribes a reservoir of stories, where one flows directly into another: Tucker laments how the Boutan family (led by the patriarch, Fix), murdered his brother Silas, who had challenged and defeated the tractor-owning Boutans in a plowing race; this tale sparks Yank's remembrance of how mechanization rendered his horse-breaking skills obsolete; this recollection prompts Gable's harrowing account of his sixteen-year-old son's execution “on the word of a poor white trash” girl; and World War One veteran Coot recalls his demoralization after whites forced him to remove his uniform because “they didn't cotton to no nigger wearing no medals for killing white folks” (93-106). In this section Gaines centers the imperativeness of excavating one's own personal and collective history as a form of speaking one's self into existence and, concomitantly, renegotiating the conditions of one's subject status.

Cumulatively, these speech utterances constitute a ritual exorcism, a negation of whites' historic mutilation of the black self. More significantly, the old men's voices form the matrix of a gendered community of testifiers and witnesses. By imbuing storytelling and storylistening with the power to revitalize the old men, Gaines gainsays the belief that the basis of subjectivity is individual; contrapuntally, the text valorizes the assertion of a collective voice by men who had heretofore been unequivocally de-voiced. In further contradistinction to protest discourse, Gaines focuses on black men's centering and corroborating of each other's experiences. Recall Bigger Thomas's “confession” in which Boris Max solicits the roots of the black boy's psychic malaise and disintegration. Bigger then assails America's unwillingness to allow him to construct himself as a gendered subject via the accouterments of white masculinity—the prototypical construction of masculinity that exalts materialism, isolation, and violence. Subsequently, Max vows to “witness for Bigger Thomas,” a problematic declaration in terms of both black oral tradition and Bigger's desire for voice (348). A repository for Bigger's black self in pain, Max not only assumes the role of “witness,” a vaunted position in the black community that involves a cosmic connection of similarly (dis)placed individuals, but his transformation of Bigger's life into sociological treatise is yet another example of white men mediating—speaking for—black subjects. In getting the white man to listen, Wright/Bigger further legitimize a form of subjectivity that is the basis for the historic erasure of black people.

Countertextually, Gaines embroiders a speech ritual that situates black men as the tellers and hearers, irrespective of whites' desires either to hear or silence their stories. One of the old men, Coot, basks in the power of voicedness, epitomizing his repositioning of himself as silent object to voiced subject:

Coot went on rocking another minute after he finished talking. He was proud of his little speech. He looked at us to see how we felt. I [Rufe] nodded to him. Couple other people nodded to him. He was proud the people had listened to him.


Coot and his fellow witnesses reflect a newly formed “black expressive community,”14 which demands that one's story be heard and affirmed by a group of similarly placed people; thus, Gaines concretizes the voice-community nexus. As Herman Beavers perceptively notes in his recent study on Gaines, storytelling “destabilizes the regulatory machinery that has shaped their [the old men's] sense of possibility and becomes the vehicle that carries the old men into transgressive space” (167). Furthermore, this exchange also demonstrates the paraverbal nature of black discourse, where not just the unspeakable but the unspoken—gestures, nods, and other non-verbal signs—reflects the multidimensionality of black performance rituals and the different ways blacks “signify” or acknowledge each other that traverse speech.

Along with the affirmation of Coot's story, one of the women, Beulah Jackson, supports another man's testimony by forthrightly asserting “I hear him. … He's making sense” (90). Though I have focused on the voice-community-subjectivity nexus in terms of black men and black men's literary discourse, I would be remiss in downplaying the role of women in the male speech community Gaines fashions. As Beulah's response indicates, though Gaines unequivocally privileges men's voices in the text, he does not render women invisible and, in fact, retrieves them from the margins—another way in which he signifies on and departs from protest discourse. While the fictions of Wright and Ellison often concentrate on intra-racial sexual conflict and thereby privilege black men's relationships with white women,15 Gaines elides this discursive feature not only by “de-sexualizing” white women (re: Candy the plantation “master,” not mistress), but he challenges the portrayal of black women as pawns of hegemonic institutions who contribute to the demise of black men. As a response to the histrionic Thomas women,16 the pathetic Bessie Mears, and the (s)mothering Mary Rambo, Gaines combats the notion that black women are thorns in the men's collective side. Indeed, Beulah is a key witness during the storytelling episode, and even though the old men exclude all women—black and white—from their final assemblage in Mathu's house, this act does not make Gaines and his characters sexist or misogynistic. Thus, I would agree only partially with Bonnie TuSmith's observation that “The community initiated by these newly liberated old men—a desire to fight back is not perfect, to be sure. For one thing none of these men even considers inviting women along” (98). Clearly, Gaines's storyworld is not utopic: the novel insists that the men's history of self-silencing and powerlessness requires them to accept their complicity in their victimization. This does not mean that his ultimate configuration of community is phallocentric, but it is male-centered. Thus, by ascribing black men the power of sass and invective, and by making black women an integral part of the gendered speech community, Gaines challenges circumscribing notions of black male subjectivity: re-negotiating their position does not require black men to denigrate black women.

The act in which the old men decide whether to engage in armed struggle with the whites and Cajuns who seek retribution for Beau's murder marks the crystallizing of the male community. When one thinks of “space” in protest discourse, Bigger Thomas's jail or Invisible Man's underground sanctuary comes to mind: these tombs reify the black protagonist's status as subjected—silenced and hermetically sealed. Contrapuntally, Gaines ascribes to space a curative quality, a psychologically and nurturing environment akin to Virginia Woolf's metaphorical “room of one's own.” Rooster describes the final “war council” at Mathu's house thusly:

We went inside. It was dark in there, and Clatoo pulled the string to turn on the light. You could see from the way the place was kept Mathu stayed there by himself. The wallpaper his wife, Lottie, had put there, years ago was all faded and torn. Dirtdobbers' nests hung on the wall and on the picture frames. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Mathu had a old chifforobe in one corner, an old washstand with a china bowl and a pitcher in another corner, a old brass bed sagging in the middle against the wall by the window, and a rocking chair and a bench by the firehalf. He had a coal-oil lamp on the mantelpiece, in case ‘lectricity went out. His old tin cup he used to take out in the field was on the mantelpiece, too. The old cup was so old it had turned black. Mathu stood at one end of the firehalf, Clatoo at the other end. Billy Washington caught the door, Rufe caught the window. Now it was hot and stuffy in there with the door and window both closed.


In stark contrast to the asphyxiating tombs of the protest narrative, Gaines's descriptions connote gestational images; the enclosed space is transformed into a womb, giving birth to newly constructed black male selves irrespective of age. Outwardly, Mathu's house appears the antithesis of a fertile, regenerative milieu; in fact Rooster's picayune details render it a rather bucolic version of the Thomas' squalid urban tenement. But more significant than the physical dimensions and accouterments of place is the existence of a masculinized space—a hallowed site that fosters not merely physical closeness, but emotional connectedness as well.17 Gaines perspicuously challenges the idea that space functions merely as an objective correlative for black men's psychic and cultural disjointedness. By having the old men convene indoors, he conveys that the domestic sphere is not solely the domain of women; instead it buttresses Gaines's redefinition of black masculinity.

I have chosen not to elaborate extensively on the climactic battle between the old men and the white/Cajun vigilantes, primarily because the violent confrontation is anticlimactic in terms of the novel's construction and the author's reconstruction of black subjectivity. Certainly, one could argue that it was necessary for the men to attach action to their words, and, indeed, violence functions much more constructively than it does in Native Son. The death of Charlie Biggs,18 Beau's actual killer, is significant because Charlie embodies the black men's paralysis; appropriately, he dies defending himself and the community and therefore expiates for his “emasculization.” But I believe Gaines's construction of the novel demands that we look beyond obvious indicators of masculinity. Instead, I think it instructive to reiterate how Gaines's polyphonic discourse is a narratological response to the protest poetics of his literary predecessors.

On the surface, Gaines appropriates standard literary genres, not only the protest novel, but also the detective novel. These modes center both violence and plot in rather traditional ways; not surprisingly, the white characters' primary concern in the novel is “whodunit.” But Gaines recalls literary brother/trickster Chesnutt again in his ability to signify and subvert. The (hi)story of black lives, not the plot of internecine racial conflict, is Gaines's fictive apparatus. Not only does he background racial violence literally by relegating it to a mere six pages toward the end of the novel, but he divests it of the metaphorical power to restore or destroy black men. The final courtroom scene is a comic tour de force in which no one is convicted; the judge only decrees that the old men be put on probation “for the next five years, or until their deaths—whichever came first” (213). This denouement forces the reader to reevaluate the importance of violence in black men's construction of masculinity and to reconsider black men's ability to invent creative means to reform themselves. By centering the power of black men resituating and reclaiming their subjectivity through voice and renewed ties to community, the author illustrates that personhood must be negotiated on a much more perilous terrain than the battlefield: the internal terrain of the self.

The 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., emphasized the need for black men to interrupt a history of social- and self-erasure through collective, communal action. One might conjecture that the palimpsestic A Gathering of Old Men, with its layers of black men's histories presented within a milieu of historically and socially linked persons, represents a fictive inscription of the March: it elucidates the importance of black men deconstructing the terms of manhood and redefining themselves by locating a communal voice. Indeed, Gaines's communal poetics marks a refiguration of the black literary male subject, a signification upon earlier constructions of black maleness and a demonstration of the collective power native sons can locate within each other's stories.


  1. I refer here to Wright's 1937 essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” in which he outlines his literary aesthetics.

  2. See for instance Mary Ellen Doyle, “Ernest Gaines' Materials: Place, People, Author,” and Mary T. Harper, “From Sons to Fathers: Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men.

  3. The plethora of recently published books such as Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America and Sanyika Shakur's (aka Kody Scott) Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member fall squarely within the Wrightian protest tradition. These biographies depict young black men enervated by both an oppressive white majority culture and a dysfunctional black community; hence, Bigger Thomas's story might be considered an ur-text for these contemporary cautionary tales.

  4. Henry Louis Gates theorizes extensively the intertextual relationships among black literary texts in The Signifying Monkey: “It should be clear, even from a cursory familiarity with the texts of the Afro-American tradition, that black writers read and critique texts of other black writers as an act of rhetorical self-definition” (122). About Wright and Ellison specifically, he posits, “The play of language, the Signifyin(g), starts with the titles. Wright's Native Son and Black Boy, titles connoting race, self, and presence, Ellison tropes with Invisible Man, with invisibility as an ironic response of absence to the would-be presence of blacks and natives, while man suggests a more mature and stronger status than either son or boy” (106, author's emphasis).

  5. See Robert Staples's Black Masculinity for a socio-historical exegesis on black manhood, or Marcellus Blount and George Cunningham's Representing Black Men for a literary-cultural exploration.

  6. See Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, where he discusses the psychosocial development of children as “gendered subjects” from Lacanian and Freudian schools of thought (154).

  7. I take this term from Peter Brooks's Psychoanalysis and Storytelling in which he discusses the reciprocal nature of the storyteller-storylistener relationship from a psychological perspective (50-51).

  8. Tellingly, Wright entitled a 1957 non-fiction collection White Man, Listen!—a title which itself connotes a desire to garner a white audience which could acknowledge the depth of black despair.

  9. Gates uses the term “speakerly text” to describe Zora Neale Hurston's narrative strategies in Their Eyes Were Watching God, where she attempts to collapse the distinction between writing and speaking.

  10. Writing about Candy Marshall's role in the old men's revolt, Sandra Shannon asserts that Candy is “the embodiment of the well-meaning but ineffectual white liberal who, though essentially benevolent, is in fact a deterrent to the cause of freedom” (207).

  11. I am indebted to the reading of a colleague and friend, Hilary Holladay, who suggested the auditory connection between “Mapes and “rapes.” Certainly, Mapes epitomizes historical southern white male authority figures (for instance, “Bull” Connor in Alabama) who have categorically “raped” the black community in both real and figurative terms.

  12. Joanne Braxton constructs a paradigm detailing the importance of sass and invective in early African-American women's literary discourse, specifically in texts such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

  13. I take the term “plurivocal” from Portelli's The Text and the Voice.

  14. Baker writes of the emergence of the “black expressive community” as a creative and curative response to whites' attempts to erase black personhood (154).

  15. In “Reading Family Matters” Deborah McDowell admonishes several black male critics who have attacked Morrison, Walker, et al. for “negative” portrayals of black men while myopically canonizing Wright despite the misogynistic underpinnings of his work. McDowell posits that there is a “critical double standard that glosses over the representation of violence, rape, and battering in Richard Wright's work and installs him in a ‘family portrait’ of black writers, but highlights that representation in The Bluest Eye,The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and The Color Purple to justify ‘disinheritance’” (80).

  16. Trudier Harris provides a comprehensive examination of Wright's “female trouble” in her essay “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters.”

  17. Though it does not examine Gaines's works in great detail, Michael Cooke's Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy is a seminal study on issues such as intimacy, community, and kinship in black literature.

  18. Herman Beavers notes that the name Charlie Biggs is a “play on Wright's Bigger perhaps” (171-72).

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Blount, Marcellus and George P. Cunningham, eds. Representing Black Men. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Brooks, Peter. Psychoanalysis and Storytelling. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Callahan, John F. “Hearing Is Believing: The Landscape of Voice in Ernest Gaines's Bloodline.Callaloo 7 (1984): 86-112.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. “Ernest Gaines' Materials: Place, People, Author.” MELUS 15 (1988): 75-93.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Random House, 1984.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gaudett, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Harper, Mary T. “From Sons to Fathers: Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men.College Language Association Journal 31 (1988): 299-308.

Harper, Michael. “Gayl Jones: An Interview.” In Harper and Stepto, eds., Chants of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979, 352-75.

Harris, Trudier. Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Burning Rituals. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

———. “Native Sons and Foreign Daughters.” In Keneth Kinnamon, ed., New Essays on “Native Son.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 63-84.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Majors, Richard, and Janet Mancini Billson. Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. New York: Touchstone, 1992.

McCall, Nathan. Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. New York: Random House, 1994.

McDowell, Deborah E. “Reading Family Matters.” In Cheryl A. Wall, ed., Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989, 75-97.

O'Brien, John T. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.

Portelli, Alessandrro. The Text and the Voice: Writing, Speaking, and Democracy in American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Rowell, Charles H. “The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place.” Southern Review 21 (1985): 733-50.

Shakur, Sanyika (aka Kody Scott). Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.

Shannon, Sandra G. “Strong Men Getting Stronger: Gaines's Defense of the Elderly Black Male in A Gathering of Old Men.” In David C. Estes, ed., Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Staples, Robert. Black Masculinity: The Black Male's Role in American Society. San Francisco: Black Scholar Press, 1982.

TuSmith, Bonnie. All My Relatives: Community in Contemporary Ethnic American Literatures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Wright, Richard. “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” New Masses II (1937): 53-65. Rpt. in The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972, 315-26.

———. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940.

———. White Man, Listen! Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964.

Jeffrey J. Folks (essay date spring 1999)

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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 culture with roots in folk and popular tradition. In novels such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,In My Father's House,A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying, we see Gaines's efforts to lay bare a cultural tradition and to write narratives in which the past constitutes the basis for a progressive vision of the future. As an African-American writer who focuses on the problem of representing a coherent cultural tradition, Gaines has faced the central problem of the African-American Diaspora, in which a coherent African folk culture was fractured by removal to America and in which the possibility of an alternate New World culture has been undermined further by more recent migration out of the South.

In his own case, having as a teenager moved to California to live with his mother and stepfather. Gaines found that it was necessary to suppress his own rural cultural heritage. In California he learned that “you were never supposed to tell people you came from the country,” yet for Gaines this silence was a denial of his historical identity based on his childhood experience in “the Quarters” (the community that centered around the former slave quarters near New Roads, Louisiana) and his intimate contact with the storytelling and local knowledge of his elders: “Not only was he lying to himself, but he was denying knowing the others, the ones he had left, and wasn't that the same as denying who he was?”1 Gaines never forsook his Southern heritage entirely, but in his early writing he viewed that heritage with greater distance and irony than in his more recent novels. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gaines never sought a direct African source as the basis for cultural order. The real source of cultural coherence at the center of all of Gaines's writing is precisely that culture which he was told to conceal in California: the Southern rural folk tradition.

In A Lesson before Dying, Gaines adopts a more affirming attitude toward the entire range of Southern traditional rural culture, and he finds in this culture, which includes African-American religion, respect for elders, loyalty to family and neighbors, and common-sense morality, a useful and enduring cultural tradition that can be set against the fragmentation inherent in the long Diaspora. The importance of A Lesson before Dying rests in the novel's acceptance of a Southern folk culture about which Gaines has demonstrated considerable ambivalence through most of his career. In this novel, Gaines has achieved a greater clarity and perspective in his presentation of the workings of an entire cultural system. As a result of his discovery of the traditional culture as a basis for authority, he appears more hopeful. There is a real sense that the components are there to restore order to a culture fragmented by Diaspora.

In his effort to reverse the cultural alienation resulting from the Diaspora, Gaines adopts the model of nineteenth-century realist fiction. This tradition of classic realism, analyzed by Georg Lukács in The Historical Novel and other works, serves Gaines well as a model for illuminating the historical causes of cultural symptoms, and while the relation of Gaines's work to a Lukácsian conception of history is questionable at several points—for example, in Gaines's manifest effort at moral fable and in the static, assured chronicle of history suggested in some of his writing—the terms of Lukács's theory are nonetheless useful in understanding the work of this major contemporary author.2 Gaines's place in literary history comes late, well after the period of classic nineteenth-century realism, but I would suggest that his work, interpellated as it is with the evidence of cultural fragmentation, duplicates the progressive aesthetic of earlier realist texts. Gaines's novels link individuals to their social context with the explicit purpose of combating the alienation of capitalist and racist society. Gaines has never been content to replay the naturalistic mode of representation of other late capitalist texts, for beneath the sensuous detail of his novels rests the author's vision of social change. In interviews Gaines has frequently stressed that he is writing with the self-conscious intention of examining the course of American social history, not merely to represent this history in naturalistic terms but to change it.3 Thus, his fiction aspires to and achieves a distinctive mode, fusing careful observation of social history with a forceful social vision.

A Lesson before Dying may well be, as Publishers Weekly suggested, Gaines's “crowning achievement,”4 for this novel is clearly the culmination of a sustained meditation on the larger issues of history and ethics. By focusing his narrative on the execution of an innocent man, and on the relationship of that man to his own marginalized community and to the dominant community that unjustly convicted him, Gaines is able to explore the structure of communal association and to imply the possibility for social change. Significantly, in a novel set in the 1940s in rural Louisiana, the issue of capital punishment has been displaced by an interest in relating and underscoring the positive resources of the traditional black community. Clearly, Gaines intends to locate his novel within a literary tradition in which the powerful subject of the execution of an innocent man is a familiar trope used to represent the broader repression of African Americans, but Gaines employs this trope in a way that carries the narrative beyond naturalistic representation focused on the past. Jefferson, his protagonist, is a dynamic character who, along with Grant Wiggins, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and others, becomes a center of agency in the novel by virtue of his decision to reject a victimized status. Gaines treats the issue of capital punishment as a manifestation of an underlying cultural problem with roots in American history, which he carefully positions in historical terms.

Although he spent his early years in rural Louisiana, in several respects Gaines stands outside the tradition of Southern African-American narrative running from Douglass to Wright. For one thing, it is important to understand that Gaines's perspective has never been specifically “Southern.” Like so many of his protagonists, Gaines was educated and lived much of his adult life in California, and as a result he brings an outside perspective to the Southern African-American historical narrative. Even as a teenager Gaines habitually saw racial issues in ameliorating terms. As he stated in a recent interview with Bernard Magnier, “I went to California when I was very young, to a decent, small town where I was completely integrated into the school.”5 In California, Gaines soon learned of more diverse communities than those of his childhood in rural Louisiana: “blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos—all the groups, races, who were Californians at that time” (“Order,” p. 247), and though conflict existed, a progressive vision of cooperation was surely more available than in the South at that time. The “California perspective” is a significant element of Gaines's historical fiction, for it underlies his ability to read the Southern past as a “pre-text” to the present, to use Lukács's phrase.

Gaines begins his novel with a conventional narrative of victimization, structuring his plot around an innocent black man who, without adequate legal representation, is convicted by an all-white jury of murdering Groupé, a Cajun store-owner; yet Gaines's interest centers less on this injustice than on the restoration of Jefferson's human dignity. The hegemonic system that prosecutes him is nearly erased from the novel as Gaines shifts the sense of agency to Jefferson, Grant, and Paul, Jefferson's poor white jailer. In restoring Jefferson's status as a worthy member of society, Gaines focuses in particular upon the importance of male role models in the family and community. In the interview with Charles H. Rowell, Gaines traced the fragmentation of African-American family life back to the effects of slavery, in which families were routinely separated: “I feel that because of that separation they [father and son] still have not, philosophically speaking, reached each other again” (p. 40). Grant Wiggins's relationship to Jefferson repeats a familiar cultural pattern in which an older male abnegates his responsibility for a younger male. Only at the insistence of his elders, particularly the women elders of his community, does Grant accept his responsibility to “teach” younger males. Grant has taken on the crucial role of “teacher” in his small community but has reneged on the responsibility to support the community's indigenous system of belief. The task that Gaines sets for Grant and Jefferson is to free themselves from an enslaving myth based on past events—in Lukács's terms, to quit an antiquarian narrative of history, and to enter history as actors.

The essentially social nature of Gaines's fiction is everywhere apparent in A Lesson before Dying. Significantly, all of Gaines's protagonists—indeed all of his significant characters—possess the sort of social relationship and “personal history” (the development from one stage of life to another and out of a contextualized setting and past) that Lukács identifies with realist characterization. The historicity of Gaines's fiction has compelling consequences. In Lukács's terms, the concrete (in Hegel, “real”) potentiality evident in his fiction restricts rather than expands possibilities of abstract thought, and it is the limiting of potentiality that shapes great historical fiction and leads to positive development toward positive social ends. As Lukács recognizes, in life, situations arise in which people are faced with choices, and choice calls forth the person's character. Similarly, in realist literature, a character's decisions alter the future in concrete ways, and the acknowledgment of concrete potentiality implicit in realist aesthetics is the basis for compelling narrative of social responsibility and accountability.

Accompanying Gaines's realist ideology is the severe transparency of his style. Nearly all critics of Gaines's work have recognized the “clarity” and “simplicity” of his writing, but it has not been generally understood that his style functions in opposition to a body of modernist and postmodernist writing in which aesthetic distortion reflects a static and ahistorical condition of existence and in which an incoherent surface displaces a coherent weltanschuung and ethical vision. Gaines is using narrative style in a very deliberate, self-conscious way, as evidenced by his comment: “I think of writing as well as I can—writing cleanly, clearly, truthfully, and making it simple enough so that anyone might be able to pick it up and read it” (Rowell, “Interview,” p. 49). By asserting “cleanly, clearly, truthfully” as his artistic standards, Gaines reveals a great deal about his position vis à vis modernism.

The “clarity” and “truthfulness” that Gaines insists on are possible only in the representation of a definite historical setting. Gaines's language is complex in its connotative richness, but his use of language is grounded in a historical community in which the layers of implied meaning are clearly understood. An example of the use of communal language is the children's rendering of the Nativity, transferring the words and the imagery of the Biblical story into local experience. With a hammer hanging from his overalls loop, Joseph looks down on Mary and the Christ child; the Three Wise Men kneel down, each placing “a penny on the bench beside Mary.”6 The shared dialect and sociolect is based on mutual assumptions and past history as a point of reference, and many of these assumptions are shared by both black and white residents. (As an educated black who is therefore automatically judged by both races to be a partial “outsider,” Grant, at several points, violates the repressive code that prohibits blacks from using standard English. For example, he almost makes the “mistake” of properly pronouncing “batteries” with three syllables, instead of the regional “batteries” expected by Sheriff Guidry and other whites.) The communal norms can be restrictive, but Grant's reaction is to dismiss entirely the importance of communal history, and in doing so he sets aside the belief in historical consequences that underpins all forms of social responsibility.

In opposition to Grant's uncommitted perspective, Gaines asserts the importance of belief in a coherent system of human responsibility. A Lesson before Dying is structured around the dominant metaphor of the “lesson,” with its attendant figures of “teacher” and “pupil.” Developing his metaphor of education, Gaines employs the idea of the “teacher who must learn.” Grant Wiggins, the central consciousness in A Lesson before Dying, is an elementary school teacher in the fictional Bayonne, Louisiana. Viewing his role as teacher in a purely mechanical way as he teaches reading, writing, and arithmetic and “drills” the class in preparation for the annual visit of Dr. Joseph, the school inspector, Grant's intention of making his class “responsible young men and young ladies” (p. 39) must be taken as quite ironic. From the community's perspective, the teacher's knowledge must be reliable and comprehensive, and the teacher himself a “model” for his students; consequently, the teacher's lifestyle and demeanor are examined for imperfections. Grant fails this high standard set by the community, and he must look to Jefferson as a model of learning that is based on more than “book knowledge.” Ultimately Grant is willing to embody the community's values of moral education in his daily life, including a willingness to humble himself before his elders. Grant's accommodation with Rev. Ambrose, and his acquiescence toward Tante Lou and her friend Miss Emma, are crucial narrative actions, for they enact his changing attitudes toward a traditional community. By embracing his role within his own history, Grant finally becomes a teacher in the fullest sense: one seeking “‘to relieve pain, to relieve hurt,’” as Rev. Ambrose puts it (p. 218).

From Grant's initial point of view, one of the “flawed” aspects of his history is the dependence of African-American society on Christianity. Grant's conflict between religion and secular humanism, reaching back to his adolescent rejection of the church, repeats a familiar situation in Gaines's work, but in this novel there is more understanding of the function of Christianity within social community and a warning concerning the social, if not spiritual, consequences of its repression. The religious calendar against which the novel's events take place, beginning one month before Christmas and ending the second Friday after Easter, introduces a meaningful annual cycle around which the local community organizes its life. The enactment of the Nativity, the passage of Lent, and the festivity of Easter Sunday are shared experiences that are passed down from one generation to the next; they form one basis of shared communication between individuals. However, Grant's condescending attitude toward the Bible verses that his pupils recite is indicative of a more general complacency toward his people and their particular culture: “After listening to one or two of the verses, I tuned out the rest of them. I had heard them all many times,” Grant says (p. 33).7 Yet in the crucible of events leading up to Jefferson's execution, Grant comes to understand the role of religion as a collective narrative of hope within a traditional community. Although Grant may never be convinced of the truth of Christian dogma, he does come to accept the value of belief, as he sees it work through the agency of Rev. Ambrose, and its productive and unifying role within the community.

Grant's earlier denial of religious belief was connected to his denial of the potential for “heroism” in himself. To paraphrase the argument between Grant and Rev. Ambrose, any significant self-sacrifice in life, especially for one faced by an imminent death sentence, appears to require faith in an existence that continues after death; in the context of Southern rural society, to deny the afterlife is to undercut the very basis of responsibility that holds the community together and that binds individuals to the community, educating them to norms of behavior based on an acceptance of social responsibility. What Grant sees as his own intellectual “honesty,” his refusal to “lie” to Jefferson about his skepticism concerning the afterlife, amounts to an abnegation of participation in a particular community. It is a refusal to take seriously the belief system of the time and place in which he lives, and inevitably his skepticism becomes a corrupting model for others. In a sense, Grant is responsible for Jefferson's presence during the murder of a liquor store-owner, and for the other youths who murder. Once the binding of shared values is severed, discrete acts of irresponsibility and violence occur with increasing frequency. The individual is unable to invent a personal culture; human civilization is the shared creation of the human masses over time. Despite his air of narrow-minded dogmatism, Rev. Ambrose sums up this conception of cultural order with his remark to Grant that “‘long as I can stand on my feet, I owe her [Miss Ella] and all the others every ounce of my being. And you do too’” (p. 216).

Grant mechanically repeats this message of moral obligation to Jefferson: “‘No matter how bad off we are … we still owe something’” (p. 139), yet Grant views this obligation in merely personal, not communal, terms (as evidenced by his consuming yet unfulfilling relationship with Vivian Baptiste, which ironically might lead to their “running away together”). He does not yet understand the more universal responsibility of human beings for others outside of an intimate relationship, and he has little if any sense of obligation to ancestors or descendants. Characteristically, as Grant gradually comes to understand the human need for shared belief, he does so by relating it to his literary education. After listening to the old men relating the exploits of Jackie Robinson, Grant thinks of James Joyce's “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” through which he discovers the universality of the need for heroes, whether in Ireland or in Louisiana. Only at the very end, however, does Grant connect his reading with the situation he now faces, of trying to convert Jefferson, and necessarily to convert himself, to the belief in responsibilities beyond his own immediate needs or feelings. Thinking of Jefferson just before the execution, Grant asks: “Have I done anything to make you not believe? If I have, please forgive me for being a fool” (p. 249). Reflecting on how Rev. Ambrose is able “to use their God to give him strength,” (p. 240), Grant thinks now of the “old man's” fortitude, yet he still refuses to kneel and pray with his students. Following the execution, a butterfly appears in the field of bull grass and flies away, signaling the passage of Jefferson's soul. Still uncertain of his own belief, Grant nonetheless tells his new friend Paul: “‘You have to believe to be a teacher’” (p. 254).

Behind the fabric of the novel one perceives Gaines's usage of his fable as a “lesson”—really a form of chastisement (a “lesson” in a remediating sense)—to instruct the reader in a fundamental truth about moral choice and historical immersion. Like Grant, and like Jefferson, all human beings are “condemned” by their involvement in history, facing the same “death sentence” by virtue of their mortality, and forced by their nature to become actors within a historical context that limits potentiality. Like Grant and Jefferson, all face a fundamental and inescapable decision: to choose to be actors within a flawed and unjust history or to withdraw from it as passive “victims” or onlookers. Grant's “lesson” leads him to adopt a more comprehensive and, paradoxically, more local perspective based on his own commitment to a particular place. His relationship with Vivian leads to a more earnest commitment to particular human beings, for after she becomes pregnant with his child, Grant's relationship to the entire community gradually changes. As Vivian is forced by the terms of her divorce to remain within visiting distance of her ex-husband, Grant is now also tied to the area. His dream of escaping the South, perhaps moving back to California (and, in fact, of fleeing all connection with particular human communities), is replaced by the necessity to remain and to change the social conditions of a specific place.

The conflict between Grant and Rev. Ambrose is symbolized by the radio that Grant brings Jefferson. Characterized as a “sin box” by Rev. Ambrose, the radio is viewed as merely “company” by Grant. At first Jefferson plays the “sin box” loudly enough to distract his mind from what Rev. Ambrose and Miss Emma are trying to do for him, but finally the radio, while still playing the night before his execution, is muted. As Grant increasingly reconciles with Rev. Ambrose, and as Grant's new influence is felt by Jefferson, the radio continues to play but ceases to be a distraction. Its muted play reflects the accommodation of Grant and Rev. Ambrose. More important than the radio, Grant brings Jefferson a pencil and paper and suggests that Jefferson write down his thoughts, especially the thoughts that come to him at night. This gift leads to an important development in Jefferson's character: the beginning of his self-expression and communication with others.

The awakening of self-respect in Jefferson is paralleled by Grant's restoration as a responsible human being who believes in his own self-worth, especially in his role as a teacher. Watching the enjoyment of his fifth- and sixth-graders sawing and chopping wood (tasks familiar to their ancestors in slavery times), Grant had wondered if he had taught them anything. Repeating the lives of the older black men, the boys show little interest in the educational skills that, Grant believes, will lift them out of rural poverty. As one reviewer noted, “Grant's own struggle with self-contempt and hatred for his students” was in part the legacy of his teacher, Matthew Antoine, and this struggle “culminate[s] in his jailhouse mission to resurrect Jefferson.”8 It may seem troubling yet Jefferson's sacrificial death seems to be a necessary prelude to Grant's self-discovery—which emerges fully only at the moment of Jefferson's death. Jefferson's individual heroism not only restores Grant's faith and gives the dying Miss Emma someone “to be proud of”; it lifts the community as a whole beyond its habitual posture of “broken men.” The very definition of a “hero,” as Grant recites it to Jefferson, is of one “who does something for other people … something that other men don't and can't do” (p. 191). Perhaps stated most directly and eloquently, “a hero does for others” (p. 191). Implicitly this definition has been understood by Grant's class, if not immediately by their teacher, as they perform the Nativity pageant with its celebration of Christ as “a hero [who] does for others.”

Implicit in Gaines's definition is the realization that heroic action implies social connection: heroism in the peculiar modernist sense of the isolated aesthete shaping a private mythology is unthinkable. Rather, heroism arises out of the hero's sense of relationship to a community (the most striking embodiment of such heroism is the 110-year-old Jane Pittman's participation in a protest march at the conclusion of her life). The act of heroism, in fact, is collective, for it is impossible without the community's participation. In A Lesson before Dying, the women participate in and incite the heroism of Grant and Jefferson by a number of actions that reinforce their communal ties. In prison, Jefferson responds to Miss Emma by eating a bit of her gumbo—signaling his acknowledgment of his social ties to her. Similarly, following his run-in with the two mulattos at the Rainbow Club, Grant is served food by Vivian as a mark of her concern. Again, Tante Lou sends Grant food when he feels most depressed. At the Rainbow Club the waitress Thelma, who loans Grant her hard-earned money to buy Jefferson a radio, insists on serving him food in a ritual that reinforces their common beliefs and hopes. All of these examples of providing sustenance are ritual actions that suggest a faith in life. As David E. Vancil writes, Gaines associates a “sustaining resilience” with women: “Without the hope that these women provide through their belief in redemption in the future, life would be intolerable.”9 The serving and partaking of food is an elemental ritual activity, and the manner in which a meal is shared is closely connected with the idea of shared humanity, especially in the context of a person awaiting execution. Visiting Jefferson in the prison dayroom, Miss Emma and Tante Lou make a point of “setting the table” in a respectable fashion by bringing a tablecloth, silverware, and cloth napkins for the table service. The meal is not merely for sustenance but to embody in the ritual a certain image of human existence—in this case, the choice to restrain animal impulses and to share a meal with dignity—an act, which to use the language of the novel, separates “man” from “hog.” Thus, by the end of the novel the “gallon” of ice cream that Jefferson requests is changed to a “cup,” to be consumed following a meal cooked by Miss Emma. Jefferson's final meal is dignified, not the gorging he had envisioned.

The lesson that Jefferson gradually discovers in himself and that others learn from him surely has to do with what it means to be a civilized human being. The “dayroom” is important as the setting for Jefferson's transformation, for in the dayroom visits can take place with a sense of dignity, as everyone can sit around a table instead of having to stand or crouch in Jefferson's cramped cell. Walking around the dayroom with Grant, Jefferson begins crying because of his certainty that “lowly as I am, I am still part of the whole” (p. 194). This is the beginning of Jefferson's knowledge of a humanity learned only with the support of Miss Emma, Tante Lou, Grant, Rev. Ambrose, and countless others in the village. Appropriately, the novel ends with the establishment of several friendships, including that of Miss Emma and Jefferson, Jefferson and Grant, Grant and the white deputy Paul, suggesting the fabric of community that is tied so closely to the ideal of education in the novel. Jefferson has never spoken of friendship to anyone, but on the eve of execution he not only declares it but begins to articulate its meaning in his crudely written but eloquent journal: “i just feel like tellin you i like you but i dont kno how to say this cause i aint never say it to nobody before an nobody aint never say it to me. … i aint done this much thinkin and this much writin in all my life befor” (pp. 228-229).

Of course, it is not only Jefferson who is in need of communal support, or who, in a larger sense, is “dying.” Every human being is mortal and thus exists in need of the assuaging and supportive rituals that Gaines details in A Lesson before Dying. As we have seen, Grant Wiggins's cynicism concerning human potential parallels Jefferson's despair following his trial. Those who are ill or dying are in equal need of support. After Miss Emma, distraught over the impending execution, takes to her sickbed, a crowd gathers at her house, now managed by Tante Lou. The universal practice of “visiting” to express support for the sick and/or dying is acted out in a way that demonstrates the communal mores. In another example, members of the community employ clothing to express their sense of deference for an important occasion. At the Nativity performance, all show up appropriately dressed in their “going-to-town clothes,” different from “Sunday best” and from ordinary working clothes. Following the intricate regulations of a traditional community, human beings take responsibility, to the extent possible, for their own appearance on such important occasions. Through the use of such shared signals, a system of communal support and faith is maintained.

It is precisely this group involvement in the process of change that William L. Andrews stresses in his reading of Gaines: “the folk has assumed over the years an identity based on progressive struggle … the struggle to recognize and conserve its spiritual and heroic folk traditions.”10 As a social realist, Gaines pursues an aesthetic in which character is embedded in the process of a concrete social history and in which ethical choices are shown to have particular consequences. Given this artistic and social ideology, Gaines's fiction takes the form of a chastisement—a “lesson before dying” for the reader, who is equally involved in historical process. All images of chastisement (Grant's correction of his students, Tante Lou's correction of Grant, Rev. Ambrose's lecture to Grant, Jefferson's restoration to dignity) are related and subsumed to the overriding lesson of social responsibility, which itself is commensurate with a recognition of social change as dependent on human agency. The importance of the social community lies in its power to support and pass on traditional knowledge, particularly knowledge of ethical consequences. As a writer working within a classic tradition of social realism, Gaines has contributed to an understanding of the historical context of African-American society and he has envisioned progressive change through the agency of its members.


  1. Ernest J. Gaines, “A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity,” Southern Review 26 (May 1990), 250.

  2. Throughout this essay I rely heavily on the narrative theory of Georg Lukács, particularly “The Ideology of Modernism,” in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (New York: Prometheus, 1979) and The Historical Novel (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990). William L. Andrews, Jerry H. Bryant (“Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History,” Southern Review, 10 [October 1974], 851-864), Michel Fabre (“Bayonne or the Yoknapatawpha of Ernest Gaines,” Callaloo [May 1978]. 110-124), and Charles H. Rowell (“The Quarters: Ernest Gaines and the Sense of Place,” Southern Review, 21 [July 1985], 733-750), among others, have examined the aesthetic implications of Gaines's historical narrative.

  3. See, for example, Charles H. Rowell, “‘This Louisiana Thing That Drives Me’: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines,” Callaloo, 1 (May 1978), 39-51.

  4. Daisy Maryles, “Behind the Bestsellers,” Publishers Weekly, September 22, 1997, p. 21.

  5. Bernard Magnier, “Ernest J. Gaines Talks to Bernard Magnier,” UNESCO Courier, 4 (April 1995), 7.

  6. Ernest J. Gaines. A Lesson before Dying (New York: Vintage, 1994), p. 150.

  7. At the same time, Gaines remains realistic about the function of both white and black Christianity within the social and political order of the South. Filtering his commentary through Grant's consciousness, Gaines ironically notes the lack of true “sensitivity” among Christians toward the taking of life: “Always on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three. But they can't take this one's life too soon after the recognition of His death, because it might upset the sensitive few. It can happen less than two weeks later, though, because even the sensitive few will have forgotten about their Savior's death by then” (p. 158). (The date set for Jefferson's execution is delayed to April 8, two weeks after Easter.)

  8. “Review of A Lesson before Dying,Black Scholar, 25 (Spring 1995), 66.

  9. David E. Vancil, “Redemption According to Ernest Gaines,” African American Review, 28 (Fall 1994), 490.

  10. William L. Andrews, “‘We Ain't Going Back There’: The Idea of Progress in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,Black American Literature Forum, 11 (Winter 1977), 149.

Nicola Upson (review date 29 May 2000)

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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.

Walkin' the Dog, Fortlow's second appearance, is not a crime novel, but a series of scenes in which Socrates faces the responsibilities that freedom entails. Comparatively few dramas happen here—in fact, there's no real plot to speak of. But with this story of how a man learns to live with himself and those around him, Mosley creates a unique character and surely one of the wisest novels of the year.

Nearly a decade after his release from prison, still trapped in his own mistakes, Socrates is approaching 60 and living in a makeshift corridor between two disused furniture stores. But he now has new ties and more to lose: a steady job; a two-legged dog called Killer; and a boy he treats as a son, whom he rescued from a gangland existence. Socrates has opened his life to hope, but this becomes increasingly fragile as the police continue to make him a prime suspect for every crime in the neighbourhood. It is this conflict that gives Walkin' the Dog its edge. Although Mosley has consistently written about black male heroes, his cast of characters is multiracial and reflects the reality of Los Angeles today. He examines a relationship rather than a hierarchy, and his wars are never solely between black and white, but between men and women, between black men who have authority and those who don't, between a man's conscience and the violence of his past.

There are many remarkable things about this novel, not least Mosley's lyrical prose and his dialogue, which is as deceptively casual and improvised as the music that haunts Socrates's sleep.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is the way in which small, daily triumphs and seemingly insignificant moments add up to Socrates's ultimate victory—his ability to stand up for himself without killing. Despite the under-lying violence and age-old hatreds, Walkin' the Dog is more about goodness and compassion than transgression. It is a meditation on how one man can make a difference.

In Ernest J Gaines's 1983 novel, A Gathering of Old Men—at last published in Britain—it isn't one man who counts, but 18 men. As in Walkin' the Dog, this impressive book explores the point at which a stand against brutality and corruption becomes necessary. On a sugar-cane plantation, a Cajun farmer is shot dead. A 30-year-old white woman claims to have done it, as do 18 elderly black men, each armed with a shotgun. Faced with such solidarity, and despite being convinced of one man's guilt, the sheriff is powerless to do anything but wait for the lynch mob that the murdered man's father is expected to lead.

Set in the 1970s, this is not a simple indictment of race relations in the American south, but a multi-layered tale told with dignity. One act of unexpected retaliation for years of Cajun cruelty unleashes long-suppressed emotions; who pulled the trigger becomes less important than the justification that each man had for doing so. These include personal reasons, such as the beating of a son or the rape of a sister, and shared resentments, such as the destruction of heritage or the lack of respect for black soldiers returning from war.

Gaines captures the achievement of these men, who are courageous after 70 years of hanging their heads in fear. As the tension builds to a moving and unexpected conclusion, there is a sympathy for both sides, if not for the generation that started the violence, at least for the sons and daughters expected to perpetuate it.

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

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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 safe to say that no other fictional character had as much influence on the American freedom struggle as Miss Jane Pittman. Her story has been read in American literature classes around the world. And Chicago's Derrick Carter, the master mixer of cutting edge house music, leads his newest CD About Now with a spoken word track taken from this Gaines classic.

Since 1956, Ernest Gaines has written eight books of fiction, including In My Father's House,A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying. Four of his works have been made into films. His contemporaries count him as one of the great Southern writers. Currently, Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Gaines was interviewed this spring in Columbus, Ohio, by Dale Brown, a professor in the English department and director of the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brown's most recent book is Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work (Eerdmans).

[Brown]: This all started for you on the plantation in Louisiana where you wrote letters for neighbors and old people. And your first performances were in church?

[Gaines]: I tried to put on a little play. I had to be producer, director, and actor. I even had to pull the curtain. I think I was 13 or 14.

Your church background comes up in each of your stories. There's “Determination Sunday,” for example.

That was the day that the people would get up and sing and the meeting would be about three hours. They would sing and tell their plans for heaven. Each person had his own particular song. You could identify people by their songs. If you were not in the church, even from a distance you could tell who was testifying. I was baptized as a Baptist, baptized in the same river that I write about, the same river where we'd fish and wash our clothes. We washed our souls in that same river. White folks were baptized there too. We were all baptized there, because we all lived on that same plantation. But my stepfather was Catholic, and I went to little Catholic schools during my last three years in Louisiana.

Do you feel indebtedness to this religious background?

Certainly there is ambivalence, but I would not be the person I am today if I had not had that background. The old people had such strong beliefs and they tried to guide me.

You have many endearing characters in your stories, usually the older women who live in the stream of faith. The ministers and the professionals, however, are often treated with considerable satire.

I was educated in the 1950s in San Francisco, and I was reading books like Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those books began to make me aware of myself and what was really going on. I began to ask myself about these folks who claim to be Christians. I'm not talking about the old people on the plantation; their faith was real enough. But those folks on television and those who fought against anti-lynching laws made me question the whole business.

Your books also speak powerfully to the issue of displacement. Each of your books, in one way or another, notes the difficulty of leaving and the terror of staying. So many characters get caught between two worlds.

I was finally able to come back to Louisiana when I was 50—18 years after I'd left it. All kinds of things kept pulling me back, all my stories went back there to the plantation, but I couldn't have accepted conditions in the South. When I left, I left because I had to, because there was no high school nearby for me to go to, and there was definitely no library for me to go to. I had to leave, but I left something I loved. But I was able to come back. So many Southern writers, like Richard Wright, say, “That's it. Forget it. I will never go back there again.” They took everything with them. I have brothers who I don't think will ever come back here to live.

You dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to your Aunt Augusteen. “To the memory of my beloved aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, who did not walk a day in her life but who taught me the importance of standing.” Does “standing” mean taking responsibilities?

Right. You've got a responsibility to yourself and to the less fortunate others. I felt responsible for my siblings and for the community. Aunt Augusteen died in 1953, but I'm sure if I had been in the South in the 1950s and 1960s I would have been expected to be the one going to the demonstrations and marches.

You seem wary of many of the labels with which critics try to corner you. To say “Ernest Gaines writes about race” or to call you a “Southern writer” isn't quite adequate?

Someone asked me recently if I was limited by writing about the South. Faulkner wrote about the South and won a Nobel Prize. Joyce wrote about Dublin. I think Louisiana is a little bit bigger than Dublin.

Gordon Thompson, a professor of African-American literature, says, “Gaines writes about the small minded and misguided only if he can love them.” You are startlingly even-handed in your books. You complicate characters like the white jailer, Paul, in A Lesson before Dying. We're all set to see a stereotype and you jar us with a good white person.

When I first went to California, we were living in government project housing, and there were different races there—white, black. Hispanic, Asian, Native American—all there together. I met some bastards, but I met some white guys who would just do anything to help; some of them would bend over backwards to help you. I've known “Pauls” who have come back to Louisiana to teach.

You don't really have heroes and villains. Even the good people have flaws, and the bad folks have their moments of grace.

Sure. Someone criticized the ending of A Gathering of Old Men because of my treatment of Luke Will. They said I was helping the KKK because of Luke Will's speech asking someone to look after his wife and kids. “Why'd you make him so human at the end?” someone asked. Well, he is human. He just cannot accept certain things. He cannot accept this black man, but he loves his own little child. He's a human being.

So with the world exploding—Bull Connor setting dogs on civil rights advocates in the South and school president S. I. Hayakawa cracking down on protesters at San Francisco State—you were writing novels?

Yes, especially at San Francisco State, my friends, black and white, said I should be out there on the line with them. They wanted me to carry their protest signs. I told them that I was writing a book about a little lady born in slavery who lived to be 110. And they said, “Listen, Gaines, nobody wants to hear about a little old lady in slavery; we're talking about the changing times.” I said, “But I thought she would be important.” So I just stuck to that.

In correspondence between Mississippi writers Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, Foote said, “I seriously think that no good practicing Christian can be a great artist.” Can a believer write a good book?

I think a writer has to have doubts. I think the writer must feel that nothing is absolute, nothing is perfect. And a writer questions, questions, questions. Mark Twain says that novels should neither preach nor teach but in the end do both, and I think that's what I try to do in my writing. I do not believe in standing on a soapbox.

I don't know if I could tell anybody how to live. I don't know how to live. I just try to get something going, something comic, something tragic. And then I try to write it well enough so that anybody could pick it up and say, “Oh yes, this could be me.”


Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 18)


Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 3)