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.
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.
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.
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.