A Gathering of Old Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

A Gathering of Old Men marks the culmination of Ernest Gaines’s longstanding literary debate with William Faulkner. Although he has set each of his five previous books in the Yoknapatawpha-like Bayonne (Louisiana) County, never before has Gaines so directly confronted his problematic white predecessor’s vision of the Southern heritage. Insisting on a thorough repudiation of the paternalistic tradition of the Old South, including the ostensibly benevolent aspects of that tradition, Gaines presents a brilliant critique of the limitations of Faulkner’s understanding of Afro-American humanity. When Gaines departs from the emphasis on literary revision of the Southern past and attempts to portray the realistic complexities of the New South, however, A Gathering of Old Men flounders badly. Curiously, the failure derives primarily from Gaines’s somewhat naïve and distinctly un-Faulknerian belief that the poor white community can be convinced to enter the New South without a direct confrontation with and physical expression of its violent past.

Thematically and structurally, A Gathering of Old Men draws on several Faulkner novels, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942). Its primary point of reference, however, is clearly Intruder in the Dust (1948), Faulkner’s controversial response to a proposed federal antilynching law. Both novels concern the murder of the son of a powerful but distinctly unaristocratic white family; both focus on the presumed guilt of an aging and somewhat aloof black man (Gaines’s Mathu and Faulkner’s Lucas Beauchamp) who has earned the grudging respect of his community by refusing to surrender his dignity to a repressive social system and who says very little in his own defense; both generate a vision of salvation based on interracial cooperation. Whereas Faulkner emphasizes the role of whites able to maintain some sense of innocence (his saviors are a young white boy, his black companion, and an elderly white woman), Gaines emphasizes the need for an Afro-American self-assertion predicated on direct confrontation with past experience. Gaines does, however, acknowledge the participation of whites in the metaphorical salvation of the Southern soul: Candy, the young heiress to the Marshall plantation where the killing takes place, sets in motion the machinery leading to salvation because of her deep, if paternalistic, love for the accused Mathu; Mapes, a Southern sheriff in the mode of Faulkner’s Hope Hampton, respects Mathu’s dignity and, despite his personal racism, does everything in his power to discourage violence against the black community; Lou Dimes, a Baton Rouge journalist and frustrated suitor of Candy, is perceptive, but his insights, like those of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson and Gavin Stevens, are rendered nearly useless by an inability to take action.

Gaines’s focus, however, remains firmly on the group of about fifteen black men, all past seventy, who gather at the scene of the shotgun killing of Beau Boutan, whose father, Cajun patriarch William “Fix” Boutan, has terrorized the black population on and around the Marshall plantation for a half century. Summoned by Candy, who claims to have killed Beau herself, the old men—identified both by given name (Robert Louis Stevenson Banks, Matthew Lincoln Brown, Cyril Robillard) and nickname (Chimley, Rooster, Clatoo, Dirty Red)—arrive at Mathu’s cabin with shotguns and discharged five-gauge shells. When Mapes arrives, each claims responsibility for the killing. The old men’s explanations of their motivation testifies to a past of submission and a present and future destroyed by mechanization. Having watched the younger generation either move away or being driven into jails and asylums, the old men commit themselves to resisting the expected lynching of Mathu, who embodies the dignity salvaged from past suffering. Johnny Paul both summarizes this past and embodies this determination when he stands up to Mapes, the symbol of white power, for the first time in his life:I did it ’cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn’t do it, one day that tractor was go’n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was. Like now they trying to get rid of all proof that black people ever farmed this land with plows and mules—like if they had nothing from the starten but motor machines.

Once awakened, this fierce dignity transforms the endurance of the Faulknerian black sufferers into a repudiation of both black passivity and white paternalism.

From the beginning, Candy predicates her determination to shield Mathu from Mapes and the Boutans on the premise that the residents of Marshall are “black and helpless.” Even Jack Marshall, the titular owner of the plantation—who, like numerous Faulknerian aristocrats, lives in an alcoholic stupor, fixated on a vanished past—identifies Candy as the new slaveowner: “I have no niggers. ...They belong to her.” Despite her good intentions, Candy lives up to her historical position when she angrily, and unsuccessfully, rejects the desire of the black men to meet without her: “You know where you’re at? You know who you’re talking to? Get the hell off my place.” Her words reveal an ironic commitment to the Old South’s social structures even more extensive than that of the Boutans, whose association with the tractor identifies them in part with the mechanized and indifferent New South. Deepening the irony, Mapes accurately expresses the contradictions of Candy’s contemporary paternalism when he accuses her of enforcing the silence against which Johnny Paul spoke: “you want to keep them slaves the rest of their lives. ... At least your people let them talk. ... Now you’re trying to take that away from them.”

In fact, Candy has no desire to silence the black community; she simply cannot conceive of any action not predicated on paternalistic attitudes. Whatever her sincerity, whatever the depth of the love she feels for Mathu, she cannot protect anyone, including herself, from the system in which she plays a central role. Rather, the full burden of protection—ultimately the burden of emancipating both blacks and whites from psychological enslavement—falls to the Afro-American community, which must overcome the fear that has circumscribed its past actions. Repeatedly, as the old men claim responsibility for Beau’s death, their stories focus on their past evasion of...

(The entire section is 2699 words.)