Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As a new novel by the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which had been published in 1971, A Gathering of Old Men was assured of a respectful response upon its publication in 1983. The novel was widely and, on the whole, favorably reviewed, and its reputation has held steady ever since. Some critics have regarded it as Ernest J. Gaines’s finest novel.

Gaines was reared in southern Louisiana by older women. His stepfather, who was in the merchant marine, was often away from home. His relationship with the men who worked in the fields was, he has commented, “quite tenuous.” It was when he started coming back to the South as an adult, and as a writer, that he became closer to older men, men of the generation of the characters in A Gathering of Old Men. These men had been thrust into competition with white men from a position of almost absolute social, political, and economic weakness. One of Gaines’s accomplishments in his novel is to get their story told with sympathy and understanding.

The stories the old men told him are a source, not necessarily for the particular details, but for the general qualities of the stories embedded in A Gathering of Old Men. True to his source, Gaines employs a multiplicity of narrators, giving the characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. This choice reflects Gaines’s commitment to black oral folk culture as a literary source. Gaines has...

(The entire section is 528 words.)