A Gathering of Old Men
A Gathering of Old MenIntroduction
Ernest J. Gaines
A Gathering of Old Men (1983) by Ernest J. Gaines is a novel about race relations in the American South. The action takes place over the course of one day in rural Louisiana. A white man has been shot dead and lies in the yard of a black man's house. Eighteen old black men gather at the house and each claims that he is responsible for the killing. The brutal white sheriff conducts his investigation as the old men await the revenge of the dead man's relatives, who have a fearsome, longstanding reputation for exacting vigilante justice against black people. By the end of the day, there have been many surprises, and many of the characters have changed in ways that they could not have imagined. The conclusion of the novel hints that although the wounds of the past run deep and still influence the present, times are changing, and in the future, black people can hold out hope for a new era in which everyone is treated equally under the law.
A Gathering of Old Men was Gaines's fifth novel. Gaines is an African American who was born and raised on a plantation in Louisiana, a fictional version of which is the setting for all of his work. His novels and short stories have been widely acclaimed for the accuracy with which he captures the language of rural African Americans in Louisiana, and the way he envisions the possibility of positive change for his characters, even those who are caught in the most difficult of circumstances.
Ernest J. Gaines was born on January 15, 1933, on the River Lake Plantation near New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. He was the son of Manuel (a laborer) and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines. As a boy, Gaines worked in the plantation fields near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1948 he moved to Vallejo, California with his mother and stepfather, (Gaines's parents separated when he was young). Gaines read voraciously in the Vallejo Public Library but found nothing that resonated with his own experience of life, since all the writers he read were white and did not portray blacks accurately.
Gaines attended Vallejo Junior College before being conscripted into the army in 1953. He served until 1955, writing fiction during his off-duty hours. After military service he enrolled at San Francisco State College (now University), where he majored in English. His short story, "The Turtles," which appeared in the magazine, Transfer, was his first published work. Gaines graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957 and was awarded the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate study in creative writing at Stanford University from 1958 to 1959.
Gaines continued to publish short stories, one of which, "Comeback," won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Foundation in 1959. His first novel, Catherine Carmier, set on a plantation in rural Louisiana, was published in 1964. A second novel, Of Love and Dust, with a similar setting, followed in 1967.
A collection of stories, Bloodline, appeared in 1968 and one of those stories, "A Long Day in November," was published separately as a children's story in 1971. In 1971 Gaines was a writer in residence at Denison University, Granville, Ohio, and it was during this year that his most well-known and widely acclaimed novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was published. In 1972 the novel received an award from the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and the fiction gold medal from Commonwealth Club of California. It was made into a television movie in 1974.
Gaines's fourth novel, In My Father's House, was published in 1978 followed by A Gathering of Old Men in 1983. The latter was made into a television movie in 1987.
More recognition came Gaines's way in 1987, when he received a literary award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He had already received honorary doctorates of letters from Denison University (1980), Brown University, (1985), Bard College (1985), and Louisiana State University (1987).
In 1983 Gaines became professor of English and writer in residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana.
Gaines's 1993 novel is A Lesson before Dying, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
The first narrator in A Gathering of Old Men is a black boy, Snookum. He says that Candy has instructed him to run and tell some of the local people to gather at Mathu's house. Snookum sees Beau lying in the yard, and Mathu tells him to go away. Snookum runs off on his errand.
At Marshall House, Jack Marshall is asleep and drunk on the porch, and his wife Bea is in the pasture. When Snookum arrives with his message, Janey, the housekeeper, calls Lou Dimes and Miss Merle. When Miss Merle arrives, Janey tells her there has been a killing. Miss Merle drives to Mathu's house where a group of men has gathered, some of them with shotguns. Candy tells her that she killed Beau, but Miss Merle does not believe her. Candy says that Mathu claims to have shot Beau and that two of the other old men also claim to have shot him. Candy asks her to get more people there with twelve-gauge shotguns and empty number five shells, so they can all claim they committed the killing.
Chimley is fishing with his friend Mat when they get the message to go to Mathu's house. They are scared because they know the whites will seek revenge for the killing of Beau. But they feel they ought to go to Mathu's since he was the only one they knew who had ever stood up to the whites. They agree to get a ride with Clatoo.
Mat waits for Clatoo to arrive and argues with his wife Ella. He tells her not to try to stop him from going to Marshall. Clatoo arrives with Billy Washington, Jacob Aguillard, Chimley, and Cherry Bello. As they head for Mathu's house with guns, they are scared but determined. They pick up Yank and Dirty Red. As they near Mathu's house, Clatoo lets them off and goes back for more men. They walk together and reach a graveyard, where each man visits his family plot. Clatoo returns with more men.
There are now eighteen old men at Mathu's house. Mathu says that when the sheriff arrives he will turn himself in, but all the other men claim that they are the killers. Reverend Jameson pleads with Mathu to turn himself in and tells the others to go home, but no one listens to him.
Lou Dimes arrives from Baton Rouge. Candy again claims that she killed Beau, but Lou knows she is lying. He tells her that Fix, Beau's father, will come looking for blood. Mapes arrives and he does not believe Candy either. He slaps Billy Washington and Gable, but both men still insist that they killed Beau. Then Mapes hits Reverend Jameson. Mapes believes that Mathu is the killer, but he cannot persuade anyone to change his story. Billy Washington says he did it because thirty years earlier, Fix's men had beaten his son. But Mapes knows that Billy cannot shoot a gun accurately.
Mapes questions Mathu, who admits his guilt but refuses to tell the other men to go home. Ding Lejeune says he killed Beau because of what the whites did to his sister's young daughter. Johnny Paul claims he did it to preserve the memory of his family who worked the fields with plows and mules before the tractors came. Tucker explains how all the best land has been given to the Cajuns, and how Felix Boutan beat his brother Silas to death. Yank recalls how he used to break all the horses, but has had nothing to do since the tractors came. Gable tells how forty years ago, his sixteen-year-old son was sent to the electric chair for raping a white girl on questionable evidence. Coot, a veteran of World War I, tells of injustices against black servicemen.
Gil Boutan gets the news that his brother has been killed. It is the day before a big football game between Louisiana State and Mississippi. Sully drives him to where the old men are gathered, but Mapes tells Gil to go home. Miss Merle brings food and they all eat. She is bewildered by the strange situation in the house.
Sully drives Gil to his home where family and friends are gathered. Gil tells his father Fix that Mapes does not want him to go to Marshall until he is sent for. Luke Will and some of the others want to go there immediately and lynch Mathu. But Gil pleads with his father not to, because his own chances of making All-American at LSU will be shattered if he is involved in anything illegal. Gil's brother Claude says he will do whatever his father says, but another brother, Jean, agrees with Gil. Fix reacts bitterly and banishes Gil and Jean from his house. He tells the others there will be no lynch mob, although Luke Will does not accept his decision.
The narrative moves to Tee Jack's store, where there are several customers, including Jack Marshall and a quiet man who teaches at the University of Southwest Louisiana. Jack is uninterested in making conversation. Luke Will and his friends enter, and Luke hints at what they plan to do. When the teacher tries to persuade them not to, they force him to leave.
Back at the house, Mapes announces that Fix will not be coming, but at first the men do not believe him. Then Mathu says he will turn himself in, but Clatoo asks Mapes for a few minutes in which they can talk. Candy protests at being excluded, and Mathu tells her to go home. Lou hauls her off and throws her in the back of her own car. Mapes gives them fifteen minutes to talk. Clatoo says there is no one to fight and they should go home. The others protest and say they will go to jail with Mathu. Mathu says it is the proudest day of his life because he has finally seen the men stand up for themselves. He tells them to go home too, but then Charlie steps forward, saying Mathu does not have to go anywhere.
Lou and Candy return and hear that Charlie has confessed. He says that Beau attacked him with a stalk of sugar cane, and Charlie hit back. He ran to Mathu's house, and Mathu told him not to run from Beau, and gave him his own gun. Beau came into the yard, loading his gun, and Charlie shot him. Then Charlie ran away, asking Mathu to take the blame. But just before sunset he realized he must return. Mapes and Charlie step out onto the porch, only to hear Luke Will demanding that Charlie be handed over.
Mapes is wounded by a shot by Luke Will, and all the men except Jean Pierre and Billy Washington stream out of the house. They break up into three groups. There are several exchanges of gunfire, and one of the lynch mob is injured. Snookum tries to get out of harm's way. Outside, under the house, he sees that Mapes is unable to get up. Mapes tells Lou that he, Lou, is in charge.
Leroy Hall, the wounded man, snivels and pleads to give himself up. Luke Will kicks him and tells him to shut up. Luke asks Mapes to stop the blacks from shooting and he will turn himself in, but Charlie is in charge and refuses the offer. He heads for the tractor, which shelters Luke Will. There is more shooting, and Charlie and Luke Will are both killed.
For the trial that takes place later, the courthouse is packed, and half of those in attendance are from the news media. All the defendants, black and white, are put on probation for five years, and banned from possessing guns or being with anyone who has them.
Jacob is one of the old black men. His sister Tessie was killed by white men in 1947. He carries his gun like a soldier, and he takes part in the final shoot-out.
Robert Louis Stevenson Banks
Cherry Bello is a seventy-four year old black man who owns a liquor and grocery store. He is one of the men who gathers at Mathu's house.
Charlie Biggs is a big, fifty-year-old black man. All his life he has been timid and submissive, but he finally learns to stand up for himself when he kills his employer, the abusive Beau, who is going to shoot Charlie. After the killing, Charlie hides for a while but finally realizes he must come back to face up to the consequences. He believes that by his actions he has finally become a man, and he insists on being called Mr. Biggs. He is killed in the shoot-out with the lynch mob.
Beau is the aggressive, racist Cajun farmer who leases the plantation from the Marshall family. Beau attacks Charlie, who shoots him dead. He is mourned only by his own family.
Claude Boutan is one of Gil's older brothers. He drives a truck for an oil company. In the meeting at Fix's home, he says he will do whatever Fix decides.
- An audio tape titled A Gathering of Old Men/ Readings was produced in 1987 by Amer Audio Prose Library.
- Volker Schlöndorff directed a made-for-television adaptation of A Gathering of Old Men (1987).
Fix Boutan is the father of Beau. For many years he and his family and other like-minded whites have been able to take the law into their own hands. They have a long history of beating, killing, and abusing black people. As everyone expects, Fix wants to go to Marshall to lynch the killer of Beau. But two of his sons, Gil and Jean, oppose him, and Fix calls the lynching off. He says that the family must act as one, and if they disagree, he will not act. Fix says that he never wants to see his sons Gil and Jean again, but at the end of the novel there is a hint of reconciliation between Fix and Gil, as they sit together in the courtroom.
Gil is a student at Louisiana State University and he is an outstanding football player, the best fullback in the Southern Conference. Known as Salt because he plays so well with Cal, who is called Pepper, Gil desperately wants to be an All-American, like Cal. Unlike the rest of his family, he is not a racist, and after the killing of Beau he urges his father not to take the law into his own hands. He is bitterly upset when his father banishes him from the house.
Jean Boutan is one of Gil's older brothers. He is in his mid-thirties and owns a butcher's shop in Bayonne. Like Gil, he tries to persuade Fix not to send a lynch mob to Marshall, saying that they should allow the legal process to take care of the situation.
Matthew Lincoln Brown
Candy is the strong-minded, independent, thirty-year-old niece of Jack and Beatrice Marshall. Her parents were killed in an automobile accident when she was five, and she was mostly raised by Miss Merle and Mathu. Her boyfriend is Lou Dimes. Candy is small and thin, with close-cropped hair. She wants to protect Mathu, and she insists that it was she who killed Beau. It is also her idea to summon the men to bring shotguns and empty number five shells, so that they can all claim to have killed Beau. When Mapes arrives, Candy is vigorous in her defense of the black men, and contemptuous of Mapes. Later, she becomes resentful when all the men want to discuss the situation in private. Mathu tells her to go home, and Lou bundles her into the back seat of her own car. In the courtroom scene at the end of the novel, Mathu asserts his independence from her, while she and Lou are reconciled.
Chimley is a seventy-two-year-old black man who is fishing with his lifelong friend Mat when he is summoned to Mathu's house. His first reaction is fear, remembering how the white people react after any violent incident, but he puts this aside and decides to go. Before he leaves he tells his wife to make sure his food is ready for him when he returns.
Clatoo is one of the leaders of the black men. He drives many of them to Mathu's house in his truck, and he tells them to carry themselves like soldiers. He hates Fix because Fix's brother Forest tried to rape one of his sisters just before World War II. Like the other black men, Clatoo claims to have shot Beau. It is Clatoo who organizes the scheme whereby the men reload their shotguns, and it is he who stands up to Candy, telling her that the men are going to have a meeting without her. During the shoot-out, it is Clatoo who organizes the black men.
Coot goes to Mathu's house proudly wearing his World War I uniform. He says that when he got home from the war, a white man told him never to wear his uniform again, since people in that part of the world did not like black men wearing medals for killing whites. But the day of Beau's killing, Coot decided to wear his uniform and shoot anyone who laughed at him or told him to take it off. He claims he shot Beau when the Cajun would not stop coming toward him with his gun.
Lou Dimes is a white man who has been seeing Candy for three years. He works as a journalist for a newspaper in Baton Rouge, and appears not to share the racist attitudes of most of the white characters. He arrives at Mathu's house when Janey calls him and says that Candy needs him. Lou takes little part in the action himself but he closely observes and reports on what happens. In the shootout, the injured Mapes puts Lou in charge of the situation, and Lou unsuccessfully tries to negotiate a truce between Luke Will and Charlie.
Louis Alfred Dimoulin
Dirty Red, one of the old black men, always has a self-rolled cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. He is the last of his family, and he has a reputation for laziness. But he acquits himself well in the shoot-out.
George Eliot Jr.
Griffin is Mapes's young deputy. He is a slender, unimpressive man, ready to bully the defenseless but wary of anyone he thinks might fight back. Just before the shoot-out begins, he tells Mapes that he will not use his gun against white men in defense of black men.
Leroy Hall is a boy of seventeen who associates with Luke Will and his friends. He is wounded in the shoot-out and whines like a coward.
Calvin, known as Cal, is a black football player who plays alongside Gil so well that the two of them are known as Salt and Pepper. Cal has been nominated for All-American.
Glo Hebert is the grandmother of Snookum, Toddy. and Minnie.
Herman is the coroner who collects Beau's body. He is in his mid-sixties.
Beulah Jackson is Rooster's wife. She says she is ready to go to jail with the men.
Reverend Jameson is the only black man who does not have a gun, and he is despised by the other men. He is short and bald, with a white mustache and beard. He is scared of what may happen and pleads with the men to go home, but no one listens to him. But even Reverend Jackson refuses to give Mapes the answers he wants, even when Mapes hits him.
Janey is the housekeeper at the Marshalls' house. She is scared when Snookum tells her about the killing, and repeatedly calls on Jesus to help her. Miss Merle bullies her into making a list of people who do not like Fix.
Bing Lejeune is a mulatto who is one of the men at Mathu's house.
Ding Lejeune is Bing's brother. He has a grudge against Fix because he believes his sister's child was poisoned by one of the Cajuns.
Mapes is the white sheriff. He is in his late sixties, about six feet three, and heavy. He is a bully and starts his investigation by hitting three black men in quick succession. With the exception of Mathu, he does not respect the blacks. However, Mapes does try to avoid more bloodshed by instructing one of his men to keep Fix away from the house, and trying to persuade Mathu, whom he believes is guilty, to turn himself in. He also learns to respect Charlie Biggs. Mapes is slightly wounded in the final shoot-out, and has to sit on the porch, unable to get up. In the courtroom scene, he is embarrassed by having to admit his inability to do anything to stop or resolve the shoot-out.
Beatrice Marshall is Jack's wife. She shows no interest when she hears that Beau has been killed, since she has never liked him.
Jack Marshall owns the plantation but takes no interest in it, passing his responsibilities on to his niece, Candy. He drinks every day in Tee Jack's store, and seems to have no interest in anything in life. He knows that the situation at Mathu's house is dangerous but he refuses to do anything to defuse it.
Mat is seventy-two-years old; his closest friend is Chimley. He and Chimley decide that for once in their lives they are going to stand up for themselves against the whites. Mat refuses to tell his wife where he is going, and they quarrel. He weeps with anger over injustices that his family has suffered but he is determined finally to do something with his life.
Mathu is a black man in his eighties. He is tall and dark-skinned, and is proud of having no white blood. His ancestors came from Senegal in Africa. Mathu is the only one of the blacks who all his life has stood up for himself, not letting the whites push him around. He once beat Fix in a long fistfight. This is why Mapes is so ready to believe that Mathu killed Beau, since Mapes does not think any of the other blacks would have been capable of it. Mathu helped to raise Candy, and that is why she tries to protect him, but he is willing to take the blame for the killing of Beau, even though he did not do it.
Miss Merle is a family friend of the Marshalls. She helped to raise Candy and has known her for over twenty-five years. Janey thinks she is good-natured, but Miss Merle has a patronizing attitude toward the black men. When she takes sandwiches to the people in Mathu's house, she expresses anger to Candy and Mapes, and is bewildered by the strange situation.
Johnny Paul is one of the first of the old men to say he shot Beau. He reminisces about the past, when the blacks worked in the fields with hoes and plows from dawn to sunset, before the days of the tractor. He says he killed Beau to stop the tractors plowing up the graveyard and erasing all memory of his own people.
Gable Raund is one of the black men who claims he shot Beau, and he refuses to change his story even when Mapes hits him. He is angry because over forty years ago his sixteen-year-old son was sent to the electric chair after being unfairly convicted of raping a white girl.
Rooster is married to Beulah Jackson. Clatoo describes him as "yellow, with nappy black hair."
Rufe is one of the first of the black men to arrive at Mathu's house and one of the first to claim that he shot Beau.
Russell is the deputy charged by Mapes to stop Fix coming to Marshall.
Sharp is one of the whites who accompanies Luke Will in the lynch mob. Like Luke Will, he is a truck driver.
Snookum is the young boy who is sent by Candy to tell the neighbors to assemble at Mathu's house. He lives with his grandmother, Glo Hebert, and has a sister, Minnie, and a brother, Toddy.
Thomas Vincent Sullivan
Sully is a friend of Gil and Cal. Like them, he is a football player, although a mediocre one. His main hobby is watching television. It is Sully who drives Gil to his father's house.
Tee Jack owns a grocery and liquor store. He is a racist and does not care who knows it. He is intimidated by Luke Will and his friends when they come into the store, and he has to be careful of what he says in case they cause trouble.
Cedric Tucker is a quiet black man who usually keeps himself to himself. At Mathu's house, he tells the story of his brother Silas, who was the last black sharecropper at Marshall. Silas was killed by the whites in a fight after he had dared to perform better with his two mules than Felix Boutan did on his tractor.
Billy Washington is one of the old black men. He is a terrible shot, and could not hit the side of a barn. The others tease him about it. Mapes hits him but he continues to insist that he shot Beau. He says it was because Fix and his men beat his son so hard his brain was permanently damaged.
Luke Will is a truck driver and a friend of Beau. He is big and rough looking, and is a racist who leads the lynch mob to Marshall. He is killed in the shoot-out.
Yank is one of the black men who go to Mathu's house. He is in his early seventies, and he used to break in the horses. He resents the whites because their tractors rendered horses unnecessary.
Racism pervades the novel, which shows that blacks have suffered discrimination and abuse for many generations. The racism continues even into the late 1970s. Many of the whites, including Luke Will and Tee Jack, routinely use the offensive word "nigger" to describe any black person. The Cajun Boutan family are guilty of innumerable ugly incidents involving blacks. The law either looks the other way or accepts a skewed version of events, as is revealed, for example, in the incident related by Tucker, in which his brother Silas was beaten to death by whites because he had dared to perform better with his mules than they did with their modern tractors. Tucker says, "Where was the law? Law said he cut in on the tractor, and he was the one who started the fight." In the story related by Gable, the word of a white girl of dubious reputation is enough to unjustly send a black boy of sixteen to the electric chair.
Sheriff Mapes's attitude when he first arrives at Mathu's house is testimony to the way whites treat blacks. When he does not get the answer he wants, Mapes resorts to beating three of the old men. That is the only way he knows how to deal with black people. When that does not work, he does not know what else to do.
As well as suffering abuse as individuals, blacks are also collectively discriminated against. When the white landowning Marshall family leased the land to sharecroppers (tenant farmers), they gave the best land to the Cajuns who had never been on the land before, and the worst land to the blacks even though the blacks had been working the land for a hundred years. This ensured the continuing poverty of the blacks.
Topics for Further Study
- Have race relations improved in the United Have race relations improved in the United States since the 1970s? What are some of the problems associated with race relations and how can they be addressed in a constructive manner?
- Gaines is sometimes accused of creating negative stereotypes in his portrayal of white people. Is there any truth in this in A Gathering of Old Men? How are the whites such as Mapes, Fix Boutan, Gil Boutan, and Luke Will presented?
- What role do the black women play in the novel? Do they share in the empowering of the black men? What kind of relationship do black men such as Chimley and Mat have with their wives?
- Choose a character from the novel and write a narration of the trial scene from that person's point of view.
There is also a hint that racism exists amongst the blacks as well. Mathu, who is very dark-skinned, prides himself on the fact that he has no white blood in him, and he looks down on others who have mixed blood, like Clatoo, who had a white grandfather and an Indian and black grandmother, and Rooster, who according to Clatoo is "yellow, with nappy black hair."
There are signs, however, that things are changing. Not only does the Boutan family decide not to seek vigilante justice as they did in the old days (even though family friends like Luke Will do not respect the decision), but Mapes develops a respect for a black man, Charlie Biggs, that he never had before. Finally, the close partnership between Cal and Gil, a black man and a white man, on the football field is a parable of how things might and should be between the two races. As Sully explains, they are of equal ability, and they work hard for each other:
Wherever you went, people spoke of Salt and Pepper of LSU. Both were good powerful runners, and excellent blockers. Gil blocked for Cal on sweeps around end, and Cal returned the favor when Gil went up the middle.
When the old black men decide to stand up for themselves after a lifetime in which they have passively endured humiliation and abuse, they finally become men in their own eyes. They face up to a challenge with courage instead of running from it or hiding.
Alone amongst the black men, Mathu has always managed to do this. He has always retained his dignity as a man and stood up to the whites. This has involved him in many fights, including one that Chimley recalls—a toe-to-toe fight between Mathu and Fix that broke out after Mathu refused Fix's request to return a bottle to the store. This is why Mathu is respected by Mapes, who regards him as a real man. It also explains why Mapes is so ready to believe that Mathu killed Beau, since Mapes does not think that any of the others would have had the courage to do it. Mapes does not regard the others as real men.
The theme of attaining manhood begins early in the novel, in the first sections narrated by black men. Chimley and Mat agree that this time it would take more strength to crawl under the bed than it would to stand up to Fix and his men. Mat says he has to go to Mathu's house because this may be his last chance to do something with his life. It must be remembered that the old black men are voluntarily walking into a highly dangerous situation in which they fully expect a lynch mob to appear at any minute to avenge a killing that each one of them is going to claim he committed. But they feel good and are determined to be courageous. As they approach Mathu's house, for example, "Jean Pierre, Billy Washington, and Chimley was doing all they could to walk with their heads up and backs straight."
When the men are interrogated by Mapes, they seem to get stronger every minute. They do not look down at their feet in a submissive posture but are able to look Mapes straight in the eye. They also talk back and mock him, to his bewilderment. They also mock Griffin, the young deputy, who, it is implied, has a long way to go before he attains real manhood. Griffin is ready to talk big and bully the defenseless but he has no real strength or authority. No one respects him, not even his boss, Mapes. And when Mapes tells him to stop Candy from blocking the door, Griffin backs off when he sees she is ready to punch him.
The theme of manhood becomes fully explicit in the character of Charlie. Charlie is the most timid of the black men. No one even considers that he might have been the killer. Although he has been bullied for years by Beau, he has never answered back or stood up for himself. Nevertheless, when Beau is ready to kill him, he finds the courage to defend himself. But Charlie's growth is not yet complete, because his first action is to run away and leave Mathu to take the blame. However, after hiding for a few hours, Charlie realizes what he has to do, and after he confesses to the crime he repeatedly exclaims his newfound self-respect:
"I'm a man, Sheriff," Charlie said. "I want the world to know I'm a man. I'm a man, Miss Candy. I'm a man, Mr. Lou. I want you to write in your paper I'm a man."
Charlie's self-respect is also apparent in his request to be called Mr. Biggs. Mapes, who now has some respect for Charlie, is happy to oblige. From that point until Charlie's death, he is the man in charge of the situation, not Mapes, or Lou Dimes, and certainly not the would-be lyncher, Luke Will. When Charlie dies, leading a charge on the enemy, it is the death of a man, not a boy.
Structure and Point of View
The novel is divided into twenty short chapters or segments, each of which is narrated in the first person. There are fifteen different narrators, ten black and five white (this is fewer than the number of chapters because Lou Dimes narrates four chapters, and Snookum and Sully two each). Dimes is given four chapters probably because Gaines thought him well suited, as a journalist, to report on events. Dimes supplies much objective information, since he adopts a fairly neutral stance, favoring neither the old men nor Mapes. The segments are also arranged with pacing and emotional tension in mind. Gaines stated in an interview that he tried to arrange the narratives of the different black men for variety. He wanted to avoid having two highly emotional segments following in succession.
Gaines's original idea was to have the novel narrated entirely by Lou Dimes, but he decided that this method was unsatisfactory because it could not capture the language that he wanted. The multiple narrative that he finally decided upon captures a variety of voices. Each narrator supplies not only his or her own point of view on the action but also an individual voice. The voice of Janey, for example, as she constantly appeals to Jesus for divine aid, is very different from that of the boy Snookum, who rushes off on his errand "spanking my butt the way you spank your horse when you want him to run fast." The language that Mat and Chimley use as they narrate their segments about fishing together is also very distinctive, with its use of black dialect that deviates from standard American English. It is quite different from the objective narrative of Lou Dimes, told in standard English, whose voice is in turn distinguished from the other white characters such as Tee Jack, Sharp, and Sully. In the long reminiscences and stories of the black characters in the segment narrated by Rufe, Gaines has also captured something of the quality of the oral tradition of storytelling that is a part of black culture in the region.
None of the major characters, such as Mapes, Candy, Mathu, Luke Will, Gil, Charlie, or Fix, is allocated a narrative segment. This means that these characters are revealed solely through what they say and do and what others say about them. The reader is given no direct insight into their thoughts (even though sometimes the narrators do offer comments on what Mapes is thinking, but that is still their opinion, formed from their perspective, not that of Mapes).
Gaines said he could not have Candy or Mathu narrate because they know too much about what happened, and this would have spoiled the effect for the reader. Mathu, for example, could hardly have avoided hinting that he did not kill Beau, but for the sake of telling a good story, Gaines wants this to come as a surprise to the reader. Saving this revelation for the end also helps to establish in the reader's mind the central idea that Charlie's act was not his alone. The accumulation of all the stories of racial injustice told by the other black men make it clear that everyone, black and white, is involved in the shared history of a single, albeit divided, community, and that everyone bears some responsibility for what finally happens.
Lynching in the South
The long list of injustices suffered by the old blacks in the novel, including the threat and the reality of lynching, is rooted in the real experience of black people in the South. According to Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, in A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930, there were 2,805 documented lynchings between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states. Approximately 90 percent of the victims were African Americans. This means that on average, one black person was lynched by a white mob every single week from between 1882 until 1930, although in reality the lynchings reached a peak in the 1890s and declined afterwards. Victims were often tortured and mutilated before their deaths, and parts of their bodies were sold as souvenirs.
The four states with the worst records were Mississippi (463 lynchings, 1882–1930), Georgia (423), Louisiana (283) and Alabama (262). In Louisiana six lynchings occurred in Pointe Coupee Parish, where Gaines was born and raised, between 1881 and 1908. Some of these were "private" lynch-ings, carried out by relatives and friends of the victim; others were by a posse (groups of men appointed by the sheriff to track down suspects) or by a mass group. The last lynching in Louisiana, of a black man accused of intent to rape, occurred in 1946. The year 1951 was the first year since records began in 1882 when there were no lynchings anywhere in the south. The last officially recorded lynching in the United States occurred in 1968.
The fictional old men in the novel (which is set in 1979) were born sometime between the last years of the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, making them well able to remember what happened to black people during this period. In the novel, Fix and his confederates are known and feared for their lynchings. In real life Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s, eighteen men were lynched, fifteen of whom were black, including two men who were lynched on the same day in 1928, their only offense apparently being that they were the brothers of a murderer.
Tolnay and Beck list seventy-five reasons given for lynching black men. These included, in addition to murder, robbery, and rape: acting suspiciously, gambling, quarreling, adultery, acting "improper" with a white woman, arguing with a white man, indolence, inflammatory language, being disreputable, being obnoxious, insulting a white man or woman (a black man named George Paul was lynched in Pointe Coupee Parish in 1894 for offending a white man), courting a white woman, demanding respect, trying to vote, voting for the wrong party, and unpopularity.
Some of these killings took place before the victim's arrest and some afterwards, often with the connivance of the authorities. Even if the black person accused of a capital offense was given a trial, the legal system was stacked against him. Although he would be given a lawyer, the lawyer was often inexperienced and given neither the time nor the resources to mount an effective defense. The verdict was often preordained, and was followed by swift execution.
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: The southern United States is a largely segregated society. Blacks face institutionalized discrimination in all aspects of their work and social life. They are excluded from positions of power and treated as second class citizens. Many are denied the right to vote.
1960s: As the Civil Rights movement gathers momentum and affirmative action programs are introduced by private and public employers, a new era in race relations begins. However, there is a long way to go before the legacy of hundreds of years of injustice can be completely removed.
Today: In terms of racial justice, southern states are almost unrecognizable from what they were fifty years ago. Alabama and Mississippi, for example, are now the two states with the highest number of African Americans elected to government offices. However, racism has not been eradicated, and problems in race relations remain.
- 1930s: Capital punishment reaches a peak in the United States, with an average of 167 executions per year.
1970s: In 1972, the Supreme Court declares the death penalty unconstitutional, but it is reinstated in 1976.
Today: Many experts regard the death penalty as unfair because it affects black people disproportionately, reflecting conscious or unconscious racism in the judicial system. They point to the following statistics: Of the 752 (as of January 16, 2002) people executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 35 percent have been black, 7 percent Hispanic, and 56 percent white. Of those executed for interracial murder, only eleven were whites who killed blacks; 167 were blacks who killed whites. Those who murder whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murder blacks.
- 1930s: Although on the decline, lynchings still take place in the south. Five lynchings of black men occur in Louisiana.
1980s: White supremacist groups are on the increase in the United States and incidents of violence against black people and other minorities show a corresponding increase.
Today: Incidents of racial violence still take place. In 1998 James Byrd, a black man in Jasper, Texas, dies after being chained to a pickup truck and dragged behind it by three whites. Some see this case as a modern-day lynching.
Lynching, as well as other mob violence such as race riots, declined after World War II as the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, which had peaked in membership in the 1920s, went into decline. By the 1950s, the Klan consisted mostly of poorly educated whites (like Luke Will in the novel).
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new era in race relations in the south. It secured voting and other rights for black people and made discrimination illegal. In many parts of the rural south, however, change was slow, as the novel amply demonstrates. Tee Jack's bar, for example, has officially been desegregated for at least fifteen years, but blacks and whites still do not sit in the same place. Blacks buy a drink in the store and drink it outside, since Tee Jack and the white customers find many ways to make them feel unwelcome.
And even in the new era of civil rights, African Americans did not always have the full protection of the law. In an interview given in 1983, Gaines commented that old-style white vigilantism had ended but it was always likely to spring up in new guises. Now, "the Luke Wills are in the police department," he said.
A Gathering of Old Men was received with unanimous praise by reviewers, who admired Gaines's ability to recreate once again, in his fifth novel, the texture of the lives of black and white people in rural Louisiana, especially the way the people actually spoke.
Reynolds Price, in The New York Times Book Review, drew attention to Gaines's "innovative method" of employing so many different first-person narrators, and the unexpected conclusion. He concluded that Gaines had constructed
with large and single-minded skills, a dignified and calamitous and perhaps finally comic pageant to summarize the history of an enormous, long waste in our past—the mindless, mutual hatred of white and black, which, he implies, may slowly be healing.
Ben Forkner, in America, pointed out that the poor conditions under which the blacks live is not entirely due to racism. An underlying theme of the novel "is the simple, natural dispossession of old age, of the traditional and well-loved values of the past, the old trades and the old manners, forced to give way to modern times."
John F. Callahan, in The New Republic, described the novel as "a remarkably original gathering of voices," and praised Gaines's exploration of how the old ways and customs that operate between blacks and whites have changed and continue to do so. He also pointed out that Gaines "does not romanticize anyone, and even the deeply felt and deeply rendered recriminations of the old men are touched with occasional comic posturing, exaggerated emphasis, and obvious preaching."
Mary Helen Washington, in the Nation, wrote that the novel's greatest strength lay in its language, which recreated the past:
These communal voices constitute a kind of collective revision of history, giving proof in their own words of the existence of ordinary people whom the world noticed only briefly in the long-gone era of the civil rights movement.
But Washington was also disturbed by the subordination of women in the novel. Candy, for example, although she is a strong woman, is finally shown as "just another threat to manhood. Women leading men is just another form of slavery, so Candy must be eliminated." Washington noted that black women were silenced also, and this meant that the novel underestimated the contribution made by women in shaping their own history.
The reviewer for People Weekly pointed out that although the novel has a serious subject, it "is often very funny." Later critics have examined Gaines's humor in the novel in more detail, as well as other aspects of his language, such as its roots in the oral traditions of southern black culture.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the theme of change in the novel.
Change is a prominent theme of A Gathering of Old Men. The old men change the habits of a lifetime and decide that this time they are going to stand up for themselves. Almost all the major characters undergo some decisive change in their attitudes or in their understanding of life. But although these changes happen quickly, the forces that lead to them have been building up for a long time. The origins of this momentous day in the history of the region lie in the changes in the methods of agricultural production that took place several decades previously, and which produced profound social as well as economic changes. In the novel, this is symbolized by the looming presence of Beau's tractor, which Snookum sees standing in front of Mathu's house at the very beginning of the novel, and which also serves as the focal point of the final shoot-out. It is as if all the action takes place in the shadow of this giant piece of machinery.
It was the coming of the tractor to the Marshall plantation that changed everything. Before, there had been a sense of community amongst the black people who worked in the fields. They cultivated the land with mules, hoes, and plows, and there was a camaraderie amongst them, even though the work was hard. As Johnny Paul says in the moving chapter in which the blacks reminisce: "We stuck together, shared what little we had, and loved and respected each other." But in the late-1970s, the time in which the novel is set, that world has vanished. The houses where the black families used to live, the church where they used to worship and pray, have long gone, and all that is left are weeds, not the flowers that used to flourish in their yards. The process of change has come close to annihilating them, and Tucker fears that soon the tractors will reach the graveyard, where so many of their older relatives lie, and will tear it up, leaving no trace that he and his people ever existed.
Mapes asks if they have ever heard of progress, but the truth is that the process of agricultural mechanization was progress not for all groups equally. The blacks were exploited by an unjust, racist system that cared nothing for them as human beings and did not honor their long tradition of working on the land. Progress for some meant that others lost everything that gave their lives identity and meaning.
Gaines revealed in an interview that this aspect of the novel was exactly true to what happened in real life Louisiana when he was growing up. When he left the area for California in 1948, he says, the whites had tractors but he did not know a single black farmer who had one. The delicate, interdependent relationship between the blacks, their families, and the land that sustained them was broken, all in the name of superior technology. Eventually the black people were driven off the land altogether, and all the young blacks (many of whom had already left the area to serve in World War II) had to move north in search of work. The novel, Gaines explained, is all about "The ones who loved the land, worked the land, and then were kicked off the land."
For the blacks on the plantation, the processes of time and change, to which all humans are subject, have been especially cruel. It is perhaps not surprising that the old men live in the past, with their memories both of race-based injustice and of former intact families and communities. Most of the characters in the novel, white as well as black, live in the past also. Change has come, but they are unable to cope with it, or in many cases even acknowledge that it has happened. This includes Fix, who is unable to understand that the days of the lynch mob are over, and Mapes, whose way of conducting a police investigation is to hit people who give him an answer he does not wish to hear. It also includes Jack Marshall, who owns the land.
When Marshall drinks in Tee Jack's store, he always makes a point of facing the room that used to be reserved for the black customers in the days of segregation. In those days he used to order drinks to be taken in to the blacks. Tee Jack wonders whether Marshall is hearing ghosts singing as he stares at the door of that room. This is an apt metaphor for Jack Marshall, who lives entirely in the past. He has completely abdicated his responsibilities as landowner, which he never wanted in the first place, but which came to him only by inheritance. He takes refuge in drink and expresses no interest in anything, not even the death of Beau. He has failed to move with the times or exercise the social responsibility that his position of power and influence demands.
When Luke Will tells him that one of his "niggers" killed Beau, Jack Marshall says he does not have any because "They belong to her," meaning his niece Candy. He speaks like a slaveowner of old, to whom human beings are just pieces of property. His wife Beatrice has no sense of social responsibility either, even though the Marshall family is at the top of the social hierarchy. The two of them drink and nap their way through their days, together making fine symbols of an effete ruling class whose time has long past. The Marshalls have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had and remain as relics of an unjust and obsolete power structure.
It is tempting to see the situation in Marxist terms as a class struggle in which economic relations between different classes determine relative power and social position. As in Marx's analysis of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, the economic system revealed in the novel benefits the few and enslaves the many; it is based on class and race, on positions inherited rather than attained by merit. The terms of competition are weighted in favor of one group, the Cajuns, at the expense of the blacks. The lazy self-indulgence of the Marshalls is made possible only by their ownership of the land, even though they contribute nothing to the cultivation and stewardship of it. The blacks, since they own nothing, are an oppressed class. (Marx advocated the abolition of private property, and held that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be held in common, i.e., owned by the state. In the history of Marshall as depicted in the novel, this would have resulted in the common ownership of the tractors—the means of production—which, in theory at least, would have evened up the economic discrepancies between the Cajuns and the blacks.)
The other prominent member of the ruling, landowning elite is Candy. Candy is the opposite of her uncle and aunt (the Marshalls) in the sense that she cares about the blacks and takes their side. In political terms she might be thought of as the white liberal who embraces the causes of the oppressed, but can never really understand or be fully a part of their struggle. Candy has good reason to care about Mathu, since he, with Miss Merle, raised her, but she also makes the mistake of assuming that the blacks are weak and need her to protect them. Whatever her good intentions, she remains the representative of a paternalistic system that does not treat all people as equal in their humanity. And when the pressure builds up on Candy during the stand-off at the house, she reveals that she is not quite as benevolent and large-minded as she believes herself to be. When Clatoo tells her that the men are going to talk in private, without her, she becomes angry and orders Clatoo off the property, reminding him that she is the one who owns it. Rooster, who narrates this segment, notes that Candy glares at Clatoo in an attempt to get him to look down (as the blacks were accustomed to do-ing—before this memorable day—when spoken to by whites).
Under pressure, Candy reverts to the usual white attitude toward blacks. She too is living in the past, and she too must learn to change. And with Mathu's help, she does. It is Mathu, asserting his independence from her, who tells her to go home. Later, when the trial ends, Mathu is careful to distance himself from Candy. He declines her offer of a ride home, preferring instead to travel back with Clatoo and the others. Immediately after this, in the final sentence of the novel, Candy reaches out to Lou Dimes, her boyfriend; perhaps now she is ready to let the past go and live in the present.
Letting go of the past is of course easier said than done. For the blacks, bent low under the weight of the past, it is especially hard. But Gaines is careful to give each man, however humble, his moment of transformation. A case in point is Dirty Red. Dirty Red is one of the least significant of the black men. He has a reputation, even amongst his own people, for laziness, and he appears never to have done a day's work in his life. "Even to bat his eyes was too much work for Dirty Red," says Cherry. In the eyes of the world, Dirty Red amounts to very little. And yet near the end of the novel, as he lies next to Charlie in the darkness, he shows a strong desire to learn. He wants to know what has happened to Charlie, who has just been through an almost religious experience that has given him—after a lifetime of servility—pride, self-respect, and courage. Dirty Red wants to know what Charlie saw in those hours he spent in the swamps. Charlie does not answer him directly except to say that Dirty Red has seen it too. Then finally Charlie says, "You got it, Dirty. You already got it, partner." Like Charlie, Dirty Red too is changed; his moment has come, and he does what he has to do without fear.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Gathering of Old Men, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Mary T. Harper
In the following essay, Harper discusses the transformation of men into respected elders in Gaines's novel.
In A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines again returns to the Louisiana plantation, where he focuses on the black elders of a community who collectively are challenged to rise above their individual turmoil to confront an oppressive soci-ety—a group of men who develop from benign "men-children" to respected "fathers" and role models of the community.
As the novel opens, Beau Boutan, a Cajun farmer and boss of leased Marshall Plantation land, has been killed in the Quarters in front of Mathu's cabin. Determined to protect Mathu, the eighty-plus-year-old black man who helped rear her, Candy Marshall, the plantation's young white owner, persistently declares that she has shot Beau and summons Mathu's peers so that together they can form a united front against both Sheriff Mapes and the expected retaliation from Fix Boutan, the Cajun family patriarch.
Beau's death and Candy's summons set the stage for Gaines to present complex aspects of rural Louisiana life using a multiple first-person point of view. That is, the voices of eleven blacks and four whites reveal the ever-present social stratification and attitudes, especially the difficult acceptance of change. Certainly, these voices capture the rich-ness—the humor and pathos—of folk life, centered on the introspection and actions of fifteen or more old men who answer Candy's summons, each bearing a twelve-gauge shotgun containing an empty number-five shell.
Candy Marshall's directive regarding the shotguns has several implications. First and most obviously, since Mathu has allegedly used such a weapon to kill Beau, pinpointing the actual killer will be difficult if everyone is similarly armed and admits guilt. Second but most important, an empty shotgun is a useless weapon just as the men possessing such weapons are harmless; hence, Candy becomes the protector. Regardless of her assertion that all black families have at sometime suffered Fix Boutan's wrath and that they now have an opportunity to confront both Fix and Mapes, this situation can be viewed as an example of the child-protector syndrome, with the thirty-year-old plantation mistress paternalistically and benevolently caring for her seventy-plus-year-old men-children. Adamantly, Candy tells Myrtle Bouchard (Miss Merle), the white neighbor and family friend who also helped rear her: "I will not let Mapes nor Fix harm my people…. I will protect my people. My daddy and all them before him did…." Third, an empty gun is analogous to the lives these men have lived. Unlike the elderly Howard Mills of Gaines' In My Father's House who rejects his assigned social "place," or Ned Douglass, Jimmy Aaron, and Joe Pittman of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman who face life fearlessly, realizing that they must risk death in order to live fully, these men—with the exception of Mathu—have faced life fearfully, refusing to take risks. Instead, they have become empty shells of men, regarded by whites such as Miss Merle as bedbugs—hidden, infesting insects—hidden in the tall weeds which presently mar the landscape of the Quarters.
Further, having seen how past fears have immobilized their elders, even the young blacks do not expect them to be other than elusive bedbugs. Gaines presents this negative image through the remarks of Fue, a somewhat effeminate but perceptive youth. After delivering Candy's message to seventy-two-year-old Robert L. Stevenson Banks (Chimley) and seventy-one-year-old Matthew Lincoln Brown (Mat), Fue sardonically reminds them of their alternatives: to act or "go home, lock y'all doors and crawl under the bed like y'all used to".
These words, demeaning in their implication of men crawling and hiding, serve as a catalyst, moving Mat and Chimley from idle reflection on their past to an assessment of their present and future. In spite of their visible but unspoken fears—for they know this is the first time a black man has actually killed a white man in their parish—they renew their dormant spiritual strength and rise to Fue's challenge. Gaines shows the beginning of this transformation in the men's conversation:
Mat: He works in mysterious ways, don't He?
Chimley: That's what they say.
Mat: 'Bout that bed…. I'm too old to go crawling under that bed. I just don't have the strength for it no more. It's too low, Chimley.
Chimley: Mine ain't no higher.
Mat: I have to go, Chimley…. This can be my last chance
Chimley: I'm going, too.
Determined, Mat returns home to prepare both himself and his wife Ella for this new action, an exchange Gaines again succinctly captures:
Ella: You old fool. Y'all gone crazy? Mat: That's right…. Anytime we say we go'n stand up for something, they say we crazy. You right, we all gone crazy.
He describes feeling as if he'd "been running up a … steep hill, and now … had reached the top". With this description Gaines' images change from negative to positive—from crawling to running to ascending.
Reminding his wife of his years of unrewarding toil, of having cursed God and the world, of turning in frustration against her, of their son's death for lack of medical care because of his color, Mat restates his realization: "He works in mysterious ways…. Give a old nigger like me one more chance to do something with his life." Similarly, such introspection and reassessment seemingly characterize all the elders to whom Candy's summons has been directed, for Fue's comment to Mat and Chimley has symbolically echoed throughout the parish challenging the men to act, as Mathu had bid them do in years past.
One of these men, Cyril Robillard (Clatoo) becomes a leader, tending men's spirits rather than crops. Instead of peddling his produce, the gardener Clatoo now uses his truck to transport this aged, scared, but proud group. In effect, he nurtures a rebirth of spirit as he picks up elders throughout the parish. Perceiving their need for unity, their need for sustenance, he directs them to assemble in the black graveyard so that together they may walk to Mathu's cabin.
Clatoo intuitively understands the significance of this gathering spot, for here past, present, and future merge. Each man searches among the unmarked graves for his family plot as if to draw strength from the ancestors, to recall how many of them had lived and suffered. This unkept burial ground, covered with weeds and grass like the landscape of the Quarters, also parallels the fear which stifles their lives. But among the weed-covered graves is life, for just as the abundant fruit from the nearby pecan tree covers the ground about them, providing actual physical nourishment, so too are their spirits nourished, even as they realize that their actions may result in their deaths. They are then ready to heed Clatoo's command as he tells them: "Heads up and backs straight. We going in like soldiers, not like tramps".
This transition from tramps to soldiers is a new experience, for much of their lives they have been trampled. Throughout the novel Gaines most poignantly allows the various voices to reiterate the many ills they have endured. He shows how their displacement, ill-treatment, and nonrecognition have resulted in a loss of pride, moving them towards invisibility, with little regard for their past efforts and creativity. Corrine, for example, one of the elderly women gathered to lend support to the men, bemoans their losses as she speaks of the St. Charles River which they have been prohibited from using freely:
That river…. Where the people went all these years. Where they fished, where they washed they clothes, where they was baptized. St. Charles River. Done gived us food, done cleaned us clothes, done cleaned us souls. St. Charles River—no more though. No more. They took it.
Their restricted use of the river with its nurturing, renewing, life-sustaining powers then becomes symbolic of all they have lost—physically, spiritually, and psychologically.
Gaines' voices make it clear that until the elders accept the challenge to unite at Mathu's cabin, they have mainly been old people recalling past years, looking down the empty Quarters deserted by the young for greener fields, looking at the weeds wondering what has happened to the roses, the four-o'clocks—the flowers of nature and the flowers of humanity that once kept the community vibrant. Gaines depicts this resurging vibrancy as Clatoo's "army" joins Mathu, Candy, and other men, women, and children already gathered. And though they at first have empty shotguns, like the soldiers Clatoo has commanded them to become, they indeed ready themselves for battle as they one by one load their guns with shells hidden behind Mathu's cabin.
Sheriff Mapes, however, remains unsuspecting. While he initially regards these elders as mere extensions of the Quarters' overgrown weeds, he does respect Mathu. He comments, "… I admire the nigger. He's a better man than most I've met, black or white". Mathu, still tall and straight, described by Gaines as "built like … [an] old post in the ground," the only black ever to stand up to Fix Boutan, does not deny killing Beau. Looking Mapes directly in the eye, he tells him: "A man got to do what he thinks is right, Sheriff…. That's what part him from a boy".
The actions of the men reflect Mathu's words, for in spite of the tactics Mapes and his deputy employ, the men remain united, each steadily admitting guilt, with the exception of Rev. Jamison. Like the preacher in the dentist's office in "The Sky is Gray," he prefers passive acceptance to direct action. Philosophically outside the group, he is willing to surrender Mathu, afraid of their taking a stand primarily because he fears his personal loss, his own further displacement. He and Lou Dimes, Candy's fiancé, refer to the "wall of old black men with shotguns" as fools. But unlike the others, Rev. Jamison cannot withstand the physical abuse and falls to the ground. Just as Rev. Phillip Martin of In My Father's House falls to the floor when confronted by his illegitimate son, so too is Jamison felled, not only by physical pain but also by fear and spiritual weakness.
Mapes's respect for the men grows, however, and as he converses with them, we see his awareness of changes wrought by time. The Lifesavers he continually sucks come to represent what he stands for—a saver of lives—for he, too, realizes that the vigilante tactics of Fix and his friends are outmoded. Accordingly, he disperses a deputy to dissuade the Boutan family from retaliating.
As the who-killed-Beau mystery unfolds, we learn that Charlie, the godson of Mathu, is the actual killer. Constantly humiliated by Beau's curses and threats to beat him no matter how diligently he works, he finally can take no more, and he and Beau fight in the canefield. Thinking he has killed Beau, he runs to his Parrain or godfather, Mathu, who gives him a gun as Beau approaches on a tractor. Then fearing for his own life, he shoots Beau; and as Candy approaches, he asks Mathu to take the blame while he runs.
His running, however, takes a new turn. Just as the cemetery renews the elders' spirits, so does Charlie experience a spiritual conversion as he hides among the cane and in the swamps. It is as if the spirits of those before him stop his running away from life. Returning just before Mathu surrenders to the sheriff, he recounts his experience: "… I heard a voice calling my name. I laid there listening, listening, listening, but I didn't hear it no more. But I knowed that voice was calling me back here". No longer does he see himself as "Big Charlie, nigger boy"; after fifty years of running he becomes Mr. Biggs and demands that Mapes address him accordingly. In effect, Charlie's process of un-naming and renaming signifies his self-liberation, his re-creation and reformation.
Gaines also shows the effect of change on others in this Louisiana setting. Just as skin color and personal motivation have separated the black community in the past, so do the social codes separate the whites. For example, Gil Boutan, Beau's brother, tells Candy of her attitude toward Cajuns:
You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we're a breed below you. But we're not, Candy. We're all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Your father had a break, mine didn't, that's all.
Ironically, these words also mirror black feelings.
Then there is Candy's Uncle Jack, aloof and nihilistic, uninterested in the present, one who closes his eyes to the controversy about him. Gaines allows Jacques Thibeaux, the white owner of the combination grocery and liquor store, to describe Jack Marshall:
… he live on the land 'cause they left it there, but he don't give a damn for it … Get up and drink. Take a little nap, wake up and drink some more…. Don't give a damn for nothing. Women or nothing…. Politics or nothing. Nigger or nothing…. Things just too complicated. I reckon for people like him they have always been complicated—protecting name and land…. Feeling guilty about this, guilty about that. It wasn't his doing. He came here and found it, and they died and left it on him.
Marshall finds his refuge in drink, and though he curses the system that forces him to uphold its traditions, ironically, he still does not fully perceive of blacks as people; to him they are still possessions. To Luke Will's statement that Beau had been killed by "one of your niggers …", Jack replies: "I have no niggers … Never will have any niggers. They belong to her [Candy]".
Unlike her uncle, who abhors such possessions, Candy sees these black as extensions of the plantation's property and has difficulty understanding that she no longer owns them. Although Merle and Mathu have cooperatively reared her—"one to raise her as a lady, the other to make her understand the people who live on her place"—she fails to understand the changes that are continually occurring. For example, she becomes irate when the men exclude her from their conference inside Mathu's house, not understanding that their excluding her, their refusal of her paternalistic protection, is another meaningful step towards their manhood.
Gaines also uses Candy to illustrate the theme of racial interdependence when she tells Mathu that having known all of the Marshalls, he is the essence of the plantation's life. Recalling her forefathers' words, she tells him: "They said if you went, it went, because we could not—it could not—not without you, Mathu". But Lou, her fiancé, does understand both the changes that have occurred and the transformation the men are presently undergoing. He tells Candy that Mathu doesn't need her protection, that he must live his life "his own way".
The author again illustrates the same interdependence theme with Gil "Salt" Boutan, the Cajun LSU fullback, and Cal "Pepper" Harrison, the black LSU halfback. Together, they are a formidable team, a pair on whom both blacks and whites are depending if LSU is to defeat "Ole Miss" in the football game scheduled for the next day.
Although distraught over his brother's death, Gil tells his father that he refuses to participate in the vigilante acts for which his family is known and further tries to explain how such acts will invalidate his chances to become an all-American and how he and Cal work together on the football field. Hurt and unable to understand Gil's point about black-white cooperation nor his refusal to protect family honor, Fix concedes—but not Luke Will, a fellow Cajun determined to avenge Beau's death and to control blacks. Fix, however, now as old as the blacks awaiting his arrival, refuses to support Luke, asserting: "I have no other cause to fight for. I'm too old for causes. Let Luke Will fight for causes. This is family". With such scenes, Gaines develops another dimension of Cajun life—their differing values and rationales for their actions, the conflicts they, too, experience as a result of change.
Thus, the confrontation between Cajun father and son culminates with Gil planning to play in the forthcoming game—a symbolic gesture to beat Luke Will and also symbolic of a changing South and hope for the future. Deputy Russell tells Gil: "Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow…. You can help this country tomorrow. You can help yourself".
However, when Mapes informs the elders that Fix is not coming, they believe him to be lying. But he is happy that violence has been avoided, and drawing an analogy using Gil and Cal, he reminds them of the effects of change:
No, y'all wanted them to play together…. Y'all the one—you cut your own throats. You told God you wanted Salt and Pepper to get together and God did it for you. At the same time, you wanted God to keep Fix the way Fix was thirty years ago so one day you would get a chance to shoot him. Well, God couldn't do both.
Mapes' joy is short-lived, for Luke Will and his friends, strengthened by liquor, arrive to avenge Beau's death.
Once children but now men, the elders bravely confront the enemy, led by Charlie and Antoine Christophe (Dirty Red)—all having been reborn in the plantation's swamps, canefields, and graveyard; having been infused with the spirit of their ancestors, a spirit that lives on just as the pecan tree continually bears fruit. Just before he stands and moves toward Luke, Charlie tells his friend Antoine that "life's so sweet when you know you ain't no more coward".
Once again, Gaines effectively depicts the trauma of change. Both Luke and Charlie kill each other—one dying trying to prevent change, the other having been changed. Charlie's act then culminates the transformation of " menchildren" to fathers, symbolizes a recognition by all that thwarted dreams can become present realities, that resignation can be replaced by renewed involvement and commitment, and that one's mortality need not preclude one's becoming a "new soldier" in the quest for manhood and dignity.
Source: Mary T. Harper, "From Sons to Fathers: Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, March 1988, pp. 299-308.
Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton with Ernest Gaines
In the following interview, Gaines talks about the film version of his novel as well as music and writing.
After watching the movie version of A Gathering of Old Men, what's your general response to what they did with the movie in relation to your book?
Well, I think they did a pretty good job. The biggest change is the ending. When they came to Louisiana to shoot the film, the director told me they had changed it. He said, "I think it's for the best, and I think you'll like it."
I don't know if I like it or not. I never argue with what they do in Hollywood. They have their own way of communicating with an audience, and I don't argue with it. Most people remember the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by the ending—Miss Jane walking to the fountain—which I did not write. With A Gathering of Old Men, I was trying to prove a point—showing the old men standing. They brought guns, and I believe in the old Chekovian idea that if you bring a gun into the play, the gun must go off by the drop of the curtain. I don't know if there is any difference in the point made in the movie. They just didn't think they had to stick too close to Chekov.
I think if this film had been made for the theater, they could have done it better. Since it was done for television, maybe they didn't want a black and white shoot-out. I heard from some of the New York press that people were disappointed with the ending of the movie. They wanted to see the ending as I had written it.
How much of the filming of A Gathering of Old Men did you get to watch?
I went down to Thibodaux three weekends. I went on Saturdays and watched the shooting. Out of all the shooting, which took about a month, I saw about six days of it. There are lots of things you can criticize anytime someone makes something else out of your work. I'm sure Shakespeare could have criticized productions of his work, Tolstoy or Faulkner, you know, God with the Bible. Somebody is going to have to pay for it when they get up there with Him. They're going to have to pay for what they did. They'll line up and they'll have to pay Faulkner and Hemingway and Shakespeare for what they've done to their works.
It's a different medium. There's a story about Brahms. He saw one of his concertos being conducted by some crazy gypsy. This guy was just bouncing and jumping in the air directing the orchestra, and Brahms just sat there. At the end, someone asked him, "Herr Brahms, what do you think?" And Brahms said, "So, it can be done like that, too." And really, this is what you do. You say, "So, well, it can be done like that. I didn't know that." There are quite a few things they did that I didn't care about. They took liberties with dialogue, and they used their own dialects.
They changed names of characters. Instead of thirteen, or whatever number of old men I have speaking in the book, there are about six or seven speaking. They combined characters, taking the dialogue from two or three characters and giving it to one. They changed the clothes. They changed the size of the characters. In A Gathering of Old Men the character Mapes is big. Richard Widmark [who plays Mapes in the film] is thin.
Fortunately before we started shooting the film, the director [Volker Schlondorff] asked me to take him to the place where I had grown up. I showed him the house there so he could have an idea what the house looked like. I think he really recreated it. The house that they have in the film is just like the one that I showed him. The road is quite a bit like the rear road. The scenery is quite authentic. It was the dialogue which they tried to change a lot when they started combining things. When they started taking a few lines from here and a few lines from there and putting them together into one speech, and adding their own terms to it—that's when they took liberties I did not approve of. But as I said, I'm not part of it. I'm not in the filmmaking business.
Do you think they maintained the humor and the comic aspects?
That is one of the things I'm afraid does not really come through. Sometimes they don't speak the lines exactly the way I wrote them. For example, Widmark is supposed to say something that is very funny, but he does not say it funny. I told Volker, "I didn't hear any laughter," and he said, "Well, you can't hear laughter here because it was not meant for those people to laugh." And he said, "You'll hear laughter from the audience." And I said, "Ohhhh." I said, "I'm the audience now, and I didn't laugh, so I don't know whether or not I'll laugh later at the television screen."
I talked to a newspaper guy from Florida, and he questioned having a German director for the film. He said, "But does he know American humor? Does he know American mood?" You can't just bring in anybody and make this thing funny. You can make it dramatic, but you must know the subtleties to bring off the humor. The humor just didn't come off as it could have come off. Humor depends on that sense of pausing and understanding how the language is used. I don't think the director could handle this. He doesn't know the South. He did a better job with the drama. What went well was when he went into Fix's house. Stocker Fontelieu, who is from New Orleans, plays Fix. Oh, he was good at that. When he comes on the scene he knows what to do.
One thing that everyone seems pleased with was that Lou Gossett Jr. would play Mathu. How did you feel about it when you saw it being filmed?
I saw Gossett in a couple of scenes which were fantastic. One was the scene before Charlie returns and the old men gather in Mathu's house and he's telling them that they should go home. He's going to take responsibility. Gossett really speaks that scene very, very well. My main criticism is that at the very end he is supposed to have a long speech, and this is really minimized.
When I was told that he was in the film, I couldn't really imagine his being Mathu because Gossett is, I think, fifty and, what you could say, good-looking. But then Cicely [Tyson] was much younger when she played Miss Jane. Cicely was still in her thirties when she played someone who was 110. As soon as I saw Gossett in the makeup I knew he could do it because he had all the mannerisms of someone seventy years old. When Gower Frost, the producer, told me that Richard Widmark was playing Mapes, I thought, "Good Lord!" But then when you see it done, you can see that these guys are very good at it.
We were discussing characters one day before they started shooting. Gower Frost and I were talking about Charlie, and I was trying to show him how important it was that Charlie be big, so that when Charlie comes back, this huge guy comes back and people look up to him. And Volker—Volker's very short—said, "People can look at a short man the same way." And I said, "Well, I like bulk. Charlie should be bulk." And they did get someone like that: Walter Breaux. He is big. I have a picture of me standing between Walter and the guy playing Beau Boutan, the murder victim. These guys both weigh over three hundred pounds. I weigh 225, and I look small. These are huge men.
In the film made from "The Sky Is Gray," they used a corn field instead of a cane field, and the sky never was gray in the film. Do those kinds of changes bother you?
No, they don't bother me because by the time you make a film of a book, the writer—unless he's a one book writer—has just about forgotten that book and he's gone to something else. And it's a different medium altogether. You just feel like, okay, let them do what they want to do. You know, take the money and buy something. Invest the money if it's enough. If not, pay off the bills and hope that they'll make a decent film and the people will watch it and go out and buy the book. You're much more interested in selling the book than you are the film. Whether it's a good film or a bad film, people will go out and get that book. Miss Jane Pittman is a very good example. Before the filming, I think we'd had only about three printings in hardback and three or four printings in paperback. Since then, we've had, say, twelve printings in hardback and about twenty-two, twenty-three printings in paperback. Because of that film many colleges and high schools and universities have used that book. Even a bad film will get people interested in the book.
Were you pleased with the film versions of "The Sky Is Gray" and Miss Jane Pittman?
Let's say Miss Jane Pittman was maybe a five on a scale of one to ten and then "The Sky Is Gray" about the same. With Miss Jane Pittman, you could not get the entire story of a hundred years in two hours. You had to choose points, pieces, and then try to mold that into a whole. In "The Sky Is Gray," the main character is a little boy about eight years old, and they could not find a little boy eight years old to carry the story. So they had to get a larger boy about thirteen years old, and that makes a difference on the effect of the story.
The novel about Miss Jane uses the first person point of view. It's very difficult for the camera to look at the character and through the eyes of the character at the same time.
Something was said about the filming of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. In the book you can smell the cabbage cooking. In the film you never could smell the cabbage. There are certain things that you do capture, things that you do put on the screen. There are certain things in the book that you cannot put on the screen—many things. You can put action on the screen, but I don't know that you can put thoughts on the screen and dreams on the screen and really the depth of the personality on the screen. I don't know that you can put that on the screen, flash it on the screen.
You have said over and over again that you see yourself as a storyteller and that you came from a place that was oral, where people talked the stories. One of the things we see in your work is that you've taken an oral tradition of storytelling and you've transformed it into a literary medium.
Right, I try to do that. That's one of the hardest things in the world to do. You can go to any place, any bar on the corner out there and find people who can tell the greatest stories in the world—they can tell you some stories—but if you give one of them a pen and some paper and say, "Okay, write this stuff down," he'll run. He'll drop those things and start running. It's a tough thing to do, to try to recapture these things. But I try to do that, yes.
How do you make the leap from the oral storytelling tradition to the literary medium?
Well, I think it's a combination of things. I think Joyce does it. I think he does it in Finnegans Wake, and nobody can understand what the hell is going on there. I think he also did it in other stories. A good example would be "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." It's the old tradition of these old guys telling the story about the great fighter, the Irish patriot, Parnell, and Joyce can put this in literature because Joyce had such a great literary background. Faulkner does the same thing. "Spotted Horses" is nothing but a guy telling a story about some wild horses beating up on somebody, cutting people up and running people all over the place, and Twain does the same thing. Twain and Faulkner are the fathers of this, this combination of that oral tradition and then integrating it into a literary tradition. So it's something that I inherited from having that kind of background and then having studied literature.
Do you think it's possible for a writer to be able to do this if he's not, first of all, a part of that oral tradition?
I think a writer writes about what he is part of. He has to. I don't know that he could do it if he does not have this kind of background. I don't know that Faulkner could have written what he wrote if he had not come from that kind of background where people squatted around the place, around the stores or the courthouse square or wherever they did, and then did their work like that. I don't know if Twain could have done it had he not been part of that traditional Mississippi River storytelling crowd, and then knowing literature. And I don't know if you don't have that kind of tradition if you can do the same thing.
What you and Faulkner do is to add to the writing something to compensate for not having the audience and the sound and the performance there.
And then you leave off things, too. You leave out some of the things that they do tell you in order to make it in that literary form. You're transferring from the oral thing, a guy sitting there telling you a story. You have to take what he's telling you and use those twenty-six letters over here to put this thing down accurately. You try to put it down very accurately. But then you know you cannot do it because you cannot use all the gestures; you cannot use all the sounds of his voice, his improper syntax, whatever he does. That does not convey to the reader because the reader cannot understand what you're talking about.
For example, let's say we get someone who is a great Cajun storyteller. He can tell the greatest story in the world. You cannot write that! You better not try to write it. Nobody's going to read it. Nobody can understand it. Even someone who knows what he's talking about can't understand a thing, so you don't write it that way.
You can take what he told you and you say, I'm going halfway with what he told me, and I'm going to get what I've learned from all these years of reading. Then I'm going to use proper syntax; I'm going to use proper spelling; I'm going to do all those other little things. I'm going to take from what he gave me and I'm going to use from my background; I'm going to use something from over here that I have, and then I'm going to combine these things and then I'm going to put it out there and pray that someone will understand. I have to do something that can be recognized. I have to write the proper kind of dialogue that you can understand. I try to write in short sentences so you can grasp the dialogue. I try to make things as clear as possible. An actor or performer can make gestures or throw his voice out and cry and weep and do all sorts of things like that. What I have to do is use those twenty-six letters that tell you these things, so I can build up my scenes in that way.
You've talked before about models that you emulated, in the manner that Hemingway says he did Twain, and Norris did Zola.
You do emulate, you do, when you start out. I started out in the libraries, and I was just reading everything in my late teens in libraries. But I was fortunate when I came out of the army that I had some very good teachers who were just coming into San Francisco at that time. They were eager to help, and they were just coming out from the Korean War. At that same time we had the Beat Scene going on in San Francisco, so we were reading a lot of books. Once my teachers saw what I wanted to write about—and that was about rural Louisiana, and this was in the mid-fifties, fifty-five, fifty-six—they encouraged me and recommended writers and stories to read.
I also discovered how music can help, and as Hemingway suggested, paintings can help, just by going to a museum or art gallery. Just look at paintings and see how you can describe a beautiful room with only two or three things, without having to go through everything in the room. Right now I'm thinking of Van Gogh's painting called "Vincent's Room"—it's the room where he used to live and sleep—and how he could do it so well with only two or three things or pieces of things.
I've also learned from the discipline of great athletes by just watching them. I ran a lot of track myself. I was the worst football player ever put a helmet on his head, but I was pretty good at track in college. I know about the discipline of athletes, and I know that same discipline must pertain to the writer, to the artist. He must be disciplined. He must do things over and over and over and over and over. And these kinds of things are also a great influence. The grace under pressure thing I think I learned from Hemingway. I've always said to students, especially black students, that somehow I feel that Hemingway was writing more about blacks than he was really about whites when he was using the grace under pressure theme. I see that Hemingway usually put his people in a moment where they must have grace under pressure, and I've often looked at black life, not only as a moment, but more as something constant, everyday. This is what my characters must come through.
I also learned how to understate things from Hemingway, and I learned from his structure of paragraphs, his structure of sentences, and his dialogue. Hemingway can repeat the lighting of a cigarette, the length or shortness of the cigarette, or the ash hanging, to show how time moves. He repeats little things throughout a scene to make you know the movement of time. Hemingway's importance to me is a combination of the language and that particular theme of grace under pressure. Of course there are also his drinking well and eating well. I like to do that, too.
I learned much about dialogue from Faulkner, especially when we're dealing with our Southern dialects. I learned rhythms from Gertrude Stein, learned to put a complete story in a day from Joyce's Ulysses or Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych."
You have spoken before about how Russian writers influenced you.
Yes, I started out with form from Ivan Turgenyev. I was very much impressed, not only with form but with their use of peasantry. I think serfs are used much more humanely in their fiction than, say, the slaves were used, or the blacks were used, by many of the Southern writers. I remember Tolstoy says, "You just watch a serf, just watch him. He'll never tell you the truth." He says, now if you watch closely, you'll figure out the truth, but boy he's going to lead you all through the swamps, all through the woods, and then you get it. Then you get the truth out of him, and I learned that from just listening to these guys tell a story.
Many writers claim that one of the things they're trying to do is to create order out of all the chaos and disorder in the world. Do you have a sense of doing that?
I try. I think art is order. I think art must be order, no matter what you do with it. I don't care what Picasso did with twisted faces and bodies—all of that sort of thing. I think there has to be a form of order there or it's not art. The novel to me is art. The short story is art. And there must be order. I don't care what the chaos is. You must put it in some kind of decent form. When you leave this thing, you say you've gone through war, you've gone through hell, but this is not hell. This is a piece of art. This is work. This is a picture of hell. After reading this, you felt something very—not good about hell—something good about this piece of work. This is all it takes.
You said earlier that music also helped. How do you think that music helped you as a writer?
During the time I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, I was playing Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." It's about someone going to a museum or art gallery and looking at pictures against the wall. There are different kinds of pictures: dramatic pictures, comic pictures, different colors, all depicted in sound. There is a common motif going through the whole thing. At one time when I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, I was thinking about sketches of a plantation because I had been listening to that so much. I was thinking sketches, sketches, sketches, and then I ceased thinking of sketches, for the autobiography.
Another thing about music: I think some of the best descriptions, especially dealing with blacks, some of the best descriptions of the big flood of '27, which most southern writers have written about, have been described better in music, especially by great blues singers like Bessie Smith, Josh White, Leadbelly, and many others. The whites did the newspaper things at that time, but when it came down to the more intimate things, I think the black blues singers gave us better descriptions even than the black writers did. Another thing especially in jazz music is repetition—repeating and repeating to get the point over—which I try to do in dialogue. I learned from music something that Hemingway also does and that is understatement. Certain musicians, like Lester Young, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists, could play around a note. For example, he didn't have to go through the old beat after beat of "Stardust." He could give you a feeling of "Stardust" by playing around the note. I tried to explain that in one interview when we did "The Sky Is Gray" for the film. In "The Sky Is Gray" the mother and her child must go to town to get the tooth pulled. They must sit in an all black waiting room. They can't have any food or drink or anything "uptown." They must go "back of town" in order to eat or drink. Now if I had wanted to hit the nail on the head, I could have put them in a white restaurant and had them thrown out, but by the fact that they have to go back of town, you know that they would not have been accepted uptown. So, I'm not saying, "Go in here and get thrown out," but instead I'm saying, "Go back of town to eat." This is what they would have had to do. The only whites they come in contact with are people who are kind to them—the old lady who gives them food at the very end, and others at the place where she can go in and pretend to buy an axe handle so the kid can warm himself. It's not hitting the nail on the head, but playing around it. I think this is much more effective.
You have a large collection of jazz albums and have commented before that you usually play music when you're writing. Do you still do that?
Oh, yes. Whether I'm playing jazz or classical music, or just the radio, I usually have music in the background, but soft, so it does not disturb me. I have to keep music. It relaxes me, and at the same time it gives me a sense of rhythm, of beat.
Do you think maybe it tells you the atmosphere or the kind of feeling you want?
I don't know that it sets a mood or anything like that. I think I have to sort of build myself to the mood before I begin to write. Yet at times, it can. It's possible that when I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, because I played "Pictures at an Exhibition" just about everyday while I was writing it—two years I guess—maybe I needed that to get started. But sometimes I play music just for the background—but soft in the background. I don't play Beethoven's Fifth because that's too disturbing. I play some sort of soft music—violin or cello, or whatever—as sort of the background. It's just like you need water or coffee around the place, you know. You have some music in the background to keep you going that day, I guess.
How was music present in your world as you were growing up?
Well, of course, I came from a plantation. There was a church not very far from our house; I could hear the people singing all the time. I had to go to Sunday school and church as a child, and, of course, the people sang. I could never carry a tune myself, but the old ones did. And my mother sang, and my aunt. I didn't hear classical music or anything like that. I don't think the radio worked half the time, but there was always music, somebody doing something.
So far you've described the indirect importance music has had in your writing. Do you ever see it creeping in more directly, through musical language or musical references?
Oh, no. I don't think I ever use music really like that. In Of Love and Dust, Jim has a guitar. I think in "The Sky Is Gray," the young kid, James, thinks back on the old man who plays a guitar around the house. When I was a small child we did have a man like that who played the guitar around the place. But I don't know anything about music. I can't read music at all. I remember when I had to do the reading of the "Portrait of Lincoln" with the University of Southwestern Louisiana orchestra, I explained to the conductor, "I don't know one note of music, so whenever you want me to start reading, you must nod your head." We had a record of Carl Sandburg reading it so I could figure out the rhythm and speed, the way the thing should be read. But I couldn't follow the notes on paper. I don't know a thing about music.
What do you mean by a writer's "work" when you talk to students?
What Do I Read Next?
- Gaines's best-selling, critically acclaimed novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), is in the form of the tape-recorded recollections of the fictional Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old woman who was born a slave but lived to see the coming of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
- Uncle Tom's Children (1938), by Richard Wright, is a collection of four novellas. Set in the American Deep South, it shows how post-slavery blacks resisted white oppression. In "Big Boy Leaves Home," two blacks accidentally kill a white man, and the black community desperately tries to arrange their escape. Unfortunately, one of the men is lynched by a white mob.
- At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (2002), by Philip Dray, presents the history of lynching in the south as a systematic attempt by whites to maintain their power over blacks through a reign of terror. The book covers the period from Reconstruction and the 1875 Civil Rights Act to the mid-twentieth century.
- In Alex Haley's famous best-seller, Roots (1980), the author traces his ancestry back six generations to 1767, when a West African man boarded a slave ship bound for America. Haley's genealogical detective work makes for a riveting and moving story.
Well, I think if we're dealing with time, physical work is getting up and working at the desk. But I would think that a writer never stops working as long as he is conscious; as long as he is awake, he is thinking about his work. And then he sits down four or five hours, six hours, whatever he does a day and does his work there. Work means having your antennae out, too, that you're tuned in. And as Hemingway once said—I have a lot of Hemingway quotes—a writer must have a built-in s—detector. He must know when someone is bulls—ting him. He must know fact from fiction. He must know when someone's pulling his leg; he must know when someone is touching him on the back, whether it's a good handshake, things like this. So the writer is always working. But maybe in work, I mean discipline and sitting down at that desk.
A writer is always observing people.
He is. Well, it's not observing people. He's being. People used to ask me, "Say, why do you go back to Louisiana from California?" And I'd say I'd go back to Louisiana just to be. I never did come back here with a microscope and say, put your hand under here; I want to see skin color and all that sort of thing. I never did just stare at people and say there's a man over there and he's five feet eight, nine inches tall. But when I'd come back, I'd come back just to be back, and then if I went to a cafe to eat, something would come into me. I don't have to look at the place and say this is a little thing I'm going to put down. But if I'm there, something will happen: the color of the oil cloth on the table—you know those checkered oil cloths?—whether blue and white or red and white or red and black, something would happen, and unconsciously I'd become aware of it. I'd become aware of the taste of the food. All this sort of thing because your antennae are out. You're not staring at things, but you're …
You're sort of absorbing it …
You're absorbing it, yes.
Do you ever get so involved with the fictional world that you're creating that you sometimes have difficulty telling the difference between that one and the one you're walking around in?
No, I don't. But when I was writing Catherine Carmier—and I think Of Love and Dust—I used to pray to God to turn it off sometime because I would be so involved that I could not rest. And I didn't care for anything else. And I would just say, "Listen, I'd rather be just a poor writer. If I have to be a good writer to go through this hell, please turn it off. I just can't take anymore of this stuff. I'd rather be just poor and ordinary, just one of the other guys, you know, but just turn it off." But I don't think I've ever reached the point where I was unaware of my surroundings. I've never been in the place that I was writing about.
Humor is very much a part of your writing. Do you feel that your vision is an essentially comic, optimistic one?
I don't really know that I'm very optimistic. I think in much black folklore and blues that even when things are at their worst there's often something humorous that comes through. Even with tough, hard men, whose lives are really rough, something funny at times can happen. I don't know that I'm pessimistic about life, but I don't know that I'm terribly optimistic either. I see lots of things as being humorous, even if it's in a ridiculous way. When people take advantage of people, or when people hurt other people, it's often just ridiculous and the humor comes through. My characters are not usually one hundred percent bitter, not hardened to the point that they cannot feel and give and change. Humor and joking are part of change. I don't know that it is a sign of optimism in my work. I don't go that far.
You've maintained that you wrote what you wanted to write about and that you wouldn't change your writing just to appeal to an audience or to sell your books. But you've also acknowledged making changes suggested by your editor in A Gathering of Old Men. How do you see the relationship between writer and editor and what kind of relationships have you had with your editors?
The most important relationship has been not with an editor but with my agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer. She would suggest things, and it was her opinion I appreciated more than anyone else's. I dealt primarily with her. Yet, at the same time, the editor did make these suggstions for A Gathering. He was right. I could understand how right he was. It was a matter of expediency. What I was trying to do originally was show how all these people lived before that moment, what they did with their lives before that moment that brought them all together. I had the guy sitting on his porch, or I had the guy sitting at the river fishing, or I had the guy doing something else before he arrives at Mathu's house. The editor said to have him come to Mathu's house while thinking back or have him speak with one of the other characters on the scene and then, in turn, tell what he was doing. That's what editors learn from television and movies. You always see the car arriving, especially on television. You don't know where he's coming from, but suddenly he arrives at a certain place like this. And through dialogue they explain where he had come from.
Now, when writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, my editor, who was Bill Decker at Dial, told me from the beginning that the story should be told from the autobiographical point of view, and I couldn't understand what the hell he was talking about. He said to let Miss Jane tell the story. I was telling it from several characters just as I do in A Gathering in Old Men. The original ti-tle was A Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman. Well, once it was "Sketches of a Plantation," then it was "A Short Biography of Miss Jane Pittman," when everyone else tells the story after she's dead. And he said that isn't working, but I couldn't understand what the hell he was talking about for a year. And then I realized, "Damn, it isn't working. It isn't going to work." That's what a good editor can do. A good agent, too, who reads carefully. Dorothea has suggested more than any editor. She was an editor before she became an agent. They can make damned good suggestions. Not always. Lot of times they make suggestions that you cannot accept. I remember that Bob Gottlieb made suggestions about In My Father's House that I could not accept at all. So I just said, "Well, no, I disagree with you." Bill made some good suggestions for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, just as Ed Doctorow made excellent suggestion for Of Love and Dust. He was my editor-in-chief at Dial at that particular time before he became a famous writer. For example, when he first saw Of Love and Dust, he said, "Ernie, I really like the first part of that novel, and I really like the last part of that novel, but the first part of that novel and the last part of that novel have nothing to do with each other." And he said you have to do one or the other with this novel, which I did. I sent it back to him in about three months, and he said it was a hundred per cent improved, and he said he wanted me to run it through the typewriter just one more time. Do whatever I want, just run it through one more time. I did and he published it.
In an article in The Southern Review (October 1974), Jerry Bryant refers to a version in which Marcus and Louise escape.
They escaped, but it was not working out. See, the first part was tragic. That's what Doctorow was saying: the first part was tragic, but the second part was humorous. Marcus was saying I'm getting out of this goddamned place. I'm going to show you guys how to do it. So he started bribing people and getting wine or whiskey or whatever at the grocery store. He knew they weren't going to kill him, so he went and got things on credit at the grocery store and he started selling it to the people in the quarters. They'd just take the bottle and turn it up, you know, for twenty-five cents or fifty cents, so he's accumulating money all the time. He was something like Snopes in "Spotted Horses." He was playing all kinds of tricks on people. He'd do anything since he knew that the guy would not kill him because he's supposed to work his way out of there. So he could do anything he wanted to do. After doing all these things, after pulling all kinds of deals on all kinds of people, he escapes. And Doctorow says, "No, Ernie, no, no, no. We don't have any poetic justice here. This guy's a killer. He's going to kill her one day, and something has to work out here. If you want to make it a comic novel, make it a comic novel."
What Bryant says is that it wouldn't have been an acceptable ending to have the black man leave with the white woman at that time, implying that's why you changed it.
That was not Doctorow's criticism of it. He said I made it comic at the end. He said that the first part was tragic and the second part was comic. He didn't say he shouldn't escape with her. He said it does not follow that the first part of the book is tragic and you expect doom, you expect something to happen, something very terrible to happen, and then in the second part of the book he becomes a comic character and I'm having all kinds of fun with him. I told Doctorow, "Why the hell should he pay for it? The hell with it. Let the man get away." He was talking about balance. He was talking about form. He wasn't talking about the theme, the social thing. He wasn't worried about the ethics of it.
I didn't change it because of the social issue. I would never have changed it because of that. And that's one of the things I was saying a few minutes ago. Editors show me technique and how to do things, but don't ever tell me what to write. No, I did not change it because in the forties the black was not supposed to get away or anything like that.
You wouldn't change your writing to make people buy it.
No way! No way will I change, no! People have asked me quite often, who do you write for? I say I don't write for any particular group. But if there's a gun put to my head and someone says, "Okay, name somebody you write for," I'd say, I write for the black youth of the South. And if there are two groups, I'd say I write for the black and white youth of the South. Those are the people I would write for.
Number one, I would want the black youth to say, "Hey, I am somebody," and I'd want the white youth to say, "Hey, that is part of me out there, and I can only understand myself truly if I can understand my neighbor, if I can understand the person around me." That's the only way one can understand himself, if he can understand other things around him. You know Donne's "No man is an island" and "Don't ask for whom the bell tolls"—every little piece of things around us makes us a little bit whole. I mean we can go through the world being half people, and most of us do that most of our lives. But in order to understand more about ourselves and the world, we must understand what's around. So that's what I'd want: the white kids to understand what the black kid is, and the black kid to understand who he is.
Source: Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, "An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter 1987, pp. 62-70.
Mary Helen Washington
In the following essay, Washington gives a critical review of Gaines's novel, touching on the stereotypical modeling of the female characters.
Ernest J. Gaines's fifth novel, A Gathering of Old Men, is set in the black rural Louisiana parish where all his stories take place—in the cotton and cane fields northwest of Baton Rouge, near the bayous. It is the land where Gaines was born and where he spent the first fourteen years of his life. City people and Northerners may have a hard time understanding the codes of this place, for, in many ways, its inhabitants still live in the house slavery built. They work, usually as sharecroppers, on plantations; the "quarters," as they call the black housing area, look very much like a scene from slavery days—rows of rickety log cabins lined up on a flat, treeless plot of ground; nearby is the "big house," surrounded by magnolias, where the plantation owner lives. On the way to the little nightclub in town, one passes long, gray, lonely cane fields, almost as isolated as the little cemetery where Gaines says "many, many of my people are buried." These images, from a photo essay called "Home" which Gaines compiled between 1963 and 1969, show the bleakest existence, and yet one can see in them all the themes that motivate Gaines's fiction and from which he has created such powerful books as Catherine Carmier (1964), Of Love and Dust (1967), Bloodline (1968), In My Father's House (1978), and the beautiful folk novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971).
Change happens very slowly in this world; codes of behavior are rigidly observed; people live near one another for a lifetime and their kinship networks, like nothing else in their lives, are lasting and dependable. It's not an easy world for readers to enter. I imagine that many will share the impatience of the fast-talking city slicker named James in Bloodline who says of these backwoods people, "All they know is talk, talk, talk…. They do these little bitty things, and they feel like they've really done something. Well, back in these sticks, I guess there just isn't nothing big to do."
Yet these little bitty things James has dismissed—the living with violence, the patient refusal to give up one's dignity, the "bearing witness calmly against the predator"—are the very things which Adrienne Rich says have the power "to reconstitute the world." A Gathering of Old Men asks us to read the lives of black peasants as Rich reads women's lives: with attention to "the enormity of the simplest things."
When twelve old men from those Louisiana backwoods gather with shotguns to prevent a lynching, it is the most courageous and meaningful act they have ever performed. They have lived in continuous submission to the white power structure. Now in their 70s and 80s, they gather to confront the power that has humiliated and degraded them. When Beau Boutan, a vicious Cajun farmer, is found shot, the young white owner of the Marshall plantation, Candy Marshall, calls these aging black men to bring their guns and gather at the plantation before the whites demand "a nigger's blood." The story is told in a succession of voices, as each man explains the complex web of circumstances that drives him to take part in this ritual of resistance. The past weighs heavily on these men because each in his own way feels he has submitted to oppression. "We had all done the same thing sometime or another; we had all been our brother, sister, mama, daddy insulted once and didn't do a thing about it."
The most powerful moment in the novel occurs when the old men, each claiming to be the murderer almost as though he wants to assert that right, stand up to recite the wrong done to them, to acknowledge their complicity in a system of oppression and, in a sense, to reverse that history of themselves as failed men. Gable tells how they electrocuted his retarded 16-year-old son for allegedly raping a white woman: "Called us and told us we could have him at 'leven, 'cause they was go'n kill him at ten." Tucker tells how a white mob beat his brother Silas to the ground for defeating them in a contest between his mules and their tractor. Silas knew he was a nigger and was supposed to lose, and Tucker says he sold him out because he was afraid of the power of white men: "Out of fear of a little pain to my own body, I beat my own brother with a stalk of cane as much as the white folks did." Jacob Aguillard recalls: "It was me…. I remember what that crowd did to my sister." Another testifies: "I kilt him…. Me. What they did to my sister's little girl." A wall of old black men, each speaking his piece of history, a generation of black men living in the Jim Crow South, where the prerequisite for manhood was to break the law and where the price of one's dignity literally meant the willingness to offer one's life. Finally, these old men are prepared to stand against the white men's laws, to make history instead of lying passively beneath its flow.
I have often wondered how black people survived under Jim Crow in the years before the civil rights movement, when it seemed that they were constantly assaulted by laws, written and unwritten, which governed every aspect of their lives from how they were supposed to address a white person to where they could sit on a public bus. Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" suggests that many blacks internalized the submissiveness necessary to accommodate this system and stay alive. Black fiction writers have written about the Jim Crow South in two ways. They have written from the point of view of blacks who were trying to survive and who, in the process, created traditions that sustained and nurtured; or they have written, like Wright, of the power of whites not only to menace blacks but to define them.
Which viewpoint a writer selects is a critical esthetic and political decision. It is a tricky and complex issue, for blacks have always lived, as Du Bois pointed out, with that dubious gift of double consciousness, "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others." And in the South, where the brutality of whites was palpable, the question of viewpoint is all the more difficult. That artistic dilemma is posed in one of Alice Walker's stories of the South, "A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring." In it a young black artist is unable to paint the faces of black men until she resolves the question of who has the power to define:
The defeat that had frightened her in the faces of black men was the defeat of black forever defined by white. But that defeat was nowhere on her grandfather's face. He stood like a rock, outwardly calm, the grand patriarch of the Davis family. The family alone defined him, and he was not about to let them down.
Albert Murray, in South to a Very Old Place, also rejects white definitions of blacks:
When you heard them saying "boy" to somebody you always said mister to, you knew exactly what kind of old stuff they were trying to pull. They were trying to pretend that they were not afraid, making believe that they were not always a split second away from screaming for help. When they said Uncle or Auntie they were saying … you are that old now and more careful now so I don't have to be afraid any more … Their fears of your so-called niggerness became less hysterical not when they themselves grew up but when you grew older…. When some old chicken butt peckerwood says nigger this or nigger that naturally he wants to give the impression that he is being arrogant. But if you know anything at all about white folks his uneasiness will be obvious enough, no matter how trigger-bad he is reputed to be.
Gaines is most in touch with that black sensibility in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and in Bloodline. Jane Pittman's relationships to her husband, to her adopted son, Ned, and to the other people who live that hundred-year history with her are what establish her courage, her character and her identity. With his women characters Gaines seems freer to make those connections between character and community. But when Gaines considers the question of manhood (as he does in nearly all his stories), the arbiter of character is no longer the black community. In order to prove manhood, black men must stand up against white men, and the proof of their manhood is their ability to wrest respect from white men. All the passionate revelations in A Gathering of Old Men are made to the white sheriff, Mapes, and although the men are making their confessions to one another, the call and response is between the men and the sheriff.
What is even more disturbing than the white sheriff's dominant role is the subordination of women in this novel. The one woman who has a strong role is dismissed like a child. The white woman, Candy Marshall, the person responsible for the men assembling in the first place, is finally shown as just another threat to manhood. Women leading men is another form of slavery, so Candy must be eliminated. First she is warned by her black friend Mathu: "'I want you to go home,' he said. Not loud. Quiet. Soft. The way he used to talk to her when she was a little girl." That mild warning doesn't take because Candy is determined to retain her place of power in the men's world. In an act of public humiliation, she is carried off under her boyfriend's arm—at the sheriff's insistence and with the approval of all the black men—and is thrown, kicking and screaming, into her car. We are left at the end of this scene with a strange coalition: these elderly black men and a brutal white sheriff—bitter lifetime enemies—suddenly united in their antipathy for a strong woman.
Black women are just as effectively silenced. Of the fifteen voices joined to tell this story, only one is that of a black woman, Janey, and she is too hysterical to do anything but pray. No women are called to be a part of the resistance movement. The wives of the men involved play out the stereotype of the saboteur of the male quest for danger and glory. Failing to understand their men, they turn into distant and bitter shrews. Old Mat looks at his wife as he prepares to join his buddies and sees for the first time a stranger:
I looked at that woman I had been living with all these years like I didn't even know who she was. My chest heaving, and me just looking at her like I didn't know who she was…. "All these years we been living together, woman, you still don't know what's the matter with me?"
Mat bitterly recounts the life they have lived under a system that has made him poor, cruel, angry and hopeless. But his anger and resentment are directed at her. Like the other old men, he leaves behind a confused, ignorant wife, cowed by this exhibition of manhood and unable to share in his political act.
These portraits of women leave me with a question I will not try to answer here. In exploring this vital issue of how black people can exert control over their history, why does Gaines so thoroughly deny the power of the women who contributed equally to that history? This disempowering of women compromises the novel's greatest strength—its recreation of the past through language. These communal voices constitute a kind of collective revision of history, giving proof in their own words of the existence of ordinary people whom the world noticed only briefly in the long-gone era of the civil rights movement. But in that revision, women are denied the right to suffer or to be heroic or even to claim the power of language.
Someone comes upon this strange scene of old men with shotguns and thinks how much like a Bruegel painting it seems—as weird as the painting of Icarus falling out of the sky and disappearing into the sea while people who may have heard the splash continue with their everyday work. As W. H. Auden suggested in "Musée des Beaux Arts," suffering takes place while the rest of us are busy with our own lives—out having dinner or at a film festival. Ernest Gaines makes us witness the lives and suffering of people whose small acts of courage make up the history of the race. I only wish that A Gathering of Old Men acknowledged that half of those people were women.
Source: Mary Helen Washington, "The House That Slavery Built," in the Nation, Vol. 238, No. 1, January 1984, pp. 22-24.
Callahan, John F., "A Gathering of Old Men," in the New Republic, Vol. 189, December 26, 1983, pp. 38-39.
Forkner, Ben, "A Gathering of Old Men," in America, June 2, 1984, p. 425.
Price, Reynolds, "A Louisiana Pageant of Calamity," in New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1983, p. 15.
Review, in People Weekly, Vol. 20, November 14, 1983, pp. 24-25.
Tolnay, Stewart E., and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930, University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Washington, Mary Helen, "The House Slavery Built," in the Nation, January 14, 1984, pp. 22-24.
Babb, Valerie Melissa, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991.
This text is an analysis of Gaines's work in chronological order, with a chapter devoted to each novel. The emphasis is on Gaines's re-creation in writing of the oral storytelling intrinsic to rural Louisiana.
Estes, David C., Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, University of Georgia Press, 1994.
This collection contains fourteen essays on all aspects of Gaines's work. On A Gathering of Old Men, Sandra G. Shannon writes about Gaines's "defense of the elderly black male," and Milton Rickels and Patricia Rickels discuss folk humor in the novel.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton, Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
This work consists of interviews with Gaines conducted in 1986 and 1987, which explore his development as a writer and the process of transforming folk narrative and culture into literature.
Papa, Lee, "His Feet on Your Neck": The New Religion in the Works of Ernest J. Gaines," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 187-93.
Gaines's novels focus on religion as a tool for self-definition, and he reinterprets Christianity from the African-American perspective. A number of characters, including Charlie Biggs from A Gathering of Old Men, interpret religion in personal terms and undergo an act of martyrdom that helps achieve a communal vision.