Discussion Topics

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Why do you think Ernest J. Gaines’s fiction appeals to high school and college students?

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Find examples of strong black women characters who hold the moral center in much of his fiction.

How does the author’s portrayal of racism in the United States function as a lesson to readers unfamiliar with this history?

Using examples from his fiction, discuss the author’s skill in portraying the essential humanity of characters whose actions are intrinsically evil.

Does the author take a political position on the issue of capital punishment in A Lesson Before Dying?

Some have criticized Gaines’s work for not expressing a strong enough protest against racism. Do you agree?

Films of Gaines’s fiction are available in schools and libraries. Compare one of these films with the original text and discuss whether it fits your own interpretation.

Other Literary Forms

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Aside from his short fiction, Ernest J. Gaines published several novels, including Of Love and Dust (1967), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), In My Father’s House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993).

Achievements

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Ernest J. Gaines won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award of the San Francisco Foundation in 1959 for the short story “Comeback.” He received a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1970), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1971), and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1993). The Commonwealth Club of California honored him with the fiction gold medal in 1972, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and in 1984, for A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Gaines also won the American Academy of Arts and Letters literary award in 1987 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993, for A Lesson Before Dying, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. A few of Gaines’s novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying, were turned into made-for-television movies, and “The Sky Is Gray,” a short story, was dramatized for the Public Broadcasting Service short-story series.

Other literary forms

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Ernest J. Gaines published a collection of short stories, Bloodline, in 1968. One story from that collection, A Long Day in November, was published separately in a children’s edition in 1971.

Achievements

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Throughout his career, Ernest J. Gaines has been a serious and committed writer of fiction. He has always worked slowly, frustratingly slowly to his admirers, but that is because of his great devotion to and respect for the craft of fiction. His six novels are all set in rural Louisiana, north of Baton Rouge: Gaines, like William Faulkner, has created a single world in which his works are centered. Even though Gaines has written during a time of great racial turmoil and unrest, he has resisted becoming involved in political movements, feeling that he can best serve the cause of art and humanity by devoting himself to perfecting his craft. This does not mean that he has remained detached from political realities. Taken together, his novels cover the period of 1865 to 1980, reflecting the social movements that have affected black Americans during that time. Gaines has said again and again, however, that he is primarily interested in people; certainly it is in his depiction of people that his greatest strength lies. His focus is on the universals of life: love, pride, pity, hatred. He aspires thus not to have an immediate political impact with his writing but to move people emotionally. His supreme achievement in this regard is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. With its publication—and with the highly acclaimed made-for-television film based on the novel—Gaines achieved the recognition he had long deserved.

Bibliography

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Auger, Philip. Native Sons in No Man’s Land: Rewriting Afro-American Manhood in the Novels of Baldwin, Walker, Wideman, and Gaines. New York: Garland, 2000. Looks at Gaines’s use of religious allegory in commenting upon and providing role models for manhood in his novels.

Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A solid introduction to the author and his works. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. This thoughtful analysis of the literary kinship of Gaines and McPherson with their precursor Ralph Ellison focuses on all three writers’ characters’ sense of community, storytelling, and self-recovery. While beginning with a look at their southernness, Beavers examines all three as American writers and discusses all Gaines’s work through A Lesson Before Dying.

Burke, William. “Bloodline: A Man’s Black South.” College Language Association Journal 19 (1976): 545-558. This study centers on the design of the five stories in Bloodline and argues that they are a coherent record of changing race relations prompted by the African American male’s recovery of his masculinity.

Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An introductory overview of Gaines’s work, with analysis of each of his novels and short-story collections and a thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Clark, Keith. Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. The chapter on Gaines focuses on the “neo-masculinist literary imagination.” The opening chapter of the book outlines the aesthetics of black masculinist protest discourse since 1940, contextualizing Clark’s later discussion.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. A celebration of Gaines’s characters. Doyle examines the ways in which Louisiana’s bayous and cane fields are peopled by Gaines with characters that exemplify their real life counterparts.

Estes, David E., ed. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Fourteen essays that cover all six novels to 1994 and Bloodline as well as film adaptations of Gaines’s work, offering detailed explications in addition to broad analyses of pastoralism, humor, race, and gender. An excellent introduction highlights important biographical facts, secondary sources, and literary themes in Gaines’s work.

Gaines, Ernest J., Marcia G. Gaudet, and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. A transcription of an intimate interview conducted by colleagues of Gaines, this work offers an insightful look at how the author has transmuted his Louisiana heritage, familial experiences, literary influences, and strong folk tradition into fiction with a distinct voice.

Jones, Suzanne W. “New Narratives of Southern Manhood: Race, Masculinity, and Closure in Ernest Gaines’s Fiction.” Critical Survey 9 (1997): 15-42. Discusses Gaines’s deconstruction of stereotypes and presentation of new models of black and white southern manhood. Asserts that Gaines suggests that in order to reconstruct the South, black and white men must reject the traditional Western model of manhood that links masculinity and violence.

Lowe, John, ed. Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A selection of interviews in which Gaines speaks about his life, his themes, and his works. Includes and index and chronology of his life.

Magnier, Bernard. “Ernest J. Gaines.” The UNESCO Courier 48 (April, 1995): 5-7. In this interview, Gaines discusses his childhood and family background, the books that most influenced him, his feelings about Africa, and other topics.

Papa, Lee. “‘His Feet on Your Neck’: The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines.” African American Review 27 (Summer, 1993): 187-193. Claims that Gaines is concerned with characters who must make a personal test of religion, not accept it as imposed by institutional Christianity.

Peterson, V. R. “Ernest Gaines: Writing About the Past.” Essence 24 (August, 1993): 52. A brief biographical sketch that discusses Gaines’s background, his typical themes, and the development of his writing career.

Shelton, Frank W. “Ambiguous Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines’ Bloodline.” College Language Association Journal 19 (1975): 200-209. Shelton notes that although the African American males in Gaines’s stories strive for manhood and dignity, they are only partially successful in their quests.

Simpson, Anne K. A Gathering of Gaines: The Man and the Writer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1991. Simpson’s study, well documented with excerpts from Gaines’s personal papers, offers a biographical sketch, an examination of his stylistic influences and characteristics, and a critical overview of his fiction. It includes an unannotated but thorough bibliography.

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Critical Essays