Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

Critics have been kind to Gaines, but his reputation has not risen with such meteoric speed as have the reputations of some of the other contemporary black writers of his generation. In the introduction to Ernest Gaines, Valerie Babb’s biography of Gaines through the lens of his work, Babb writes, ‘‘taken as a whole, Gaines’s canon represents a blending of Louisiana, African-American, and universal human experience. His writings reproduce the communal nature of storytelling in his rural parish while accenting the historicity that joins members of the African-American diaspora to larger American soT ciety. By recording and preserving his people’s culture in his literature, Gaines creates both an ongoing memorial to a vanishing way of life and an enduring testament to human concerns.’’

Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton share many of Babb’s observations, particularly with regard to the importance of dignity under strain and courage. In their introduction to Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft they write: ‘‘Gaines’s characters evoke laughter, joy, despair, grief, anger, sympathy, and—perhaps most of all— pride. Whatever their struggles, their successes and failures, they move toward a perception of their dignity.’’ Describing the events that led to the set of oral interviews which comprise Porch Talk they write ‘‘through our association with him we have discovered that dignity and pride are not only themes that pervade his art, but qualities that characterize him as a teacher and a man.’’

John Lowe, editor of Conversations with Ernest Gaines provides a somewhat more rounded, though still uniformly laudatory, response to Gaines’s works. He states that Gaines was ‘‘shockingly underrated’’ at the beginning of his career. Some of the reasons for what Lowe considers the unfair ‘‘obscur[ity of] Gaines gifts’’ are that Gaines writes about ‘‘a largely rural community, isolated by both its southernness and its special Louisiana qualities, which it is true make it exotic, but at the same time somewhat inaccessible, even for many African Americans.’’ Another reason Lowe cites for Gaines neglect ‘‘is his refusal to cater to stereotypes.’’ He states that although people expect stories set in Louisiana to take place in New Orleans, Gaines has never set one there. And since his stories are set in the past, his African-American characters appear subservient and are not placed in the ‘‘revolutionary poses favored by some of Gaines’s contemporaries such as James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, John O. Killins, John Wideman, or David Bradley.’’

In sum, while Gaines may not have had the wide recognition of other African-American writers early in his career, there is a broad critical consensus that he is an important writer, a good writer, and a writer who has perhaps been undervalued and may continue to gain increasing recognition in the years to come, in part because he was somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries during his early years, in part because of the increasing importance of studies of masculinity in the literary canon. As Gaudet and Wooton point out, ‘‘Gaines has come to the fore in many critical studies lately because of his searching appraisal of the masculine search for identity, particularly that of African-American men.’’

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Essays and Criticism