Ernest J. Gaines
Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–
Ernest J. Gaines 1933–
“I was 17 when I thought I could write a novel and send it to New York and get it published,” Ernest J. Gaines told Publishers Weekly. Beginning the novel in longhand, Gaines later gained access to a typewriter, which had been rented for him by his mother. Using one finger to type the manuscript—single spaced on both sides of half sheets of paper that he had cut to resemble a book—the young author was ready to mail his work to New York. “I wrapped it in brown paper, tied a string around it, and sent the thing off,” he reminisced. “It came back, of course.”
In 1993 Gaines modestly told Essence that he had been “trying to be a writer for 40 years.” Drawing from the rich cultural diversity and storytelling traditions of the rural bayou region in which he was raised, Gaines has written six novels and a collection of short stories, one of which was published separately as a children’s book. Three of his books and one of his stories have been adapted as television movies.
Unlike many black writers finding their voices in the political and social turbulence of the sixties, Gaines focuses instead on the history and folklore of a more distant past.
“A lot happened in those 350 years between the time we left Africa and the fifties and sixties when [black writers] started writing novels about the big-city ghettos,” he explained in Essence. “We cannot ignore that rural past or those older people in it. Their stories are the kind I want to write about. I am what I am today because of them.”
Gaines was bom in Oscar, Louisiana, in 1933, and raised on the River Lake plantation in Point Coupée Parish. The oldest of six children, he was a bright and active child whose attendance at school was limited to the five or six months between the plantation’s fall harvest and the spring planting. When he was 15, Gaines joined his mother and stepfather who had moved during World War II to Vallejo, California, across the bay from San Francisco. He found greater educational opportunities there. He also found the door open at the Vallejo public library; the public library in Louisiana had been closed to blacks.
Pulling books off the shelf at random, Gaines quickly decided that he liked fiction best. In the late 1940s, however, there were very few books published by or about blacks, so Gaines was drawn to books about immigrants
Bom Ernest James Gaines, January 15, 1933, in Oscar, LA; son of Manuel (a laborer) and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines; married Dianne Saulney (an attorney), May 15, 1993. Education: Attended Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College (now University), B.A., 1957; graduate study at Stanford University, 1958–59.
Author of novels and short stories. Denison University, Granville, OH, writer in residence, 1971; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, writer in residence, 1981; University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, professor of English and writer in residence, 1983—. Whittier College, visiting professor, 1983, and writer in residence, 1986. Military service: US. Army, 1953-55.
Member: Fellowship of Southern Writers (one of 26 charter members), 1987—.
Selected awards: Wallace Stegner fellow, 1957; Joseph Henry Jackson Award, 1959; awards from National Endowment for the Arts, 1967, and Black Academy of Arts and Letters, 1972; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim fellow, 1971; fiction gold medal, Com monwealth Club of California, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1972, and A Gathering of Old Men, 1984; literary award from American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1987; MacArthur Foundation grant, 1993; the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, awarded in 1994, for A Lesson Before Dying; several honorary degrees.
Addresses: Office —Department of English, University of Southwestern Louisiana, East University Ave., Lafayette, LA 70504.
and peasantry. He read books by American writers John Steinbeck and Willa Cather, as well as the works of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. In Ivan Turgenev’s portrayals of Russian serfs, Gaines found a parallel to the lives of plantation slaves. At this point, he was inspired to write that first novel he had naively sent to New York.
Another strong force in Gaines’s early life was his great-aunt, Augusteen Jefferson. From “Aunt Teen,” Gaines learned courage and discipline. Crippled from birth, she could only crawl, not walk; but this did not stop her from taking care of Gaines and his siblings, washing clothes, and even tending a vegetable garden near the house. Augusteen Jefferson was Gaines’s model for the 110-year-old title character in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. “Anytime someone asks me who had the greatest influence on me as an artist or a man, I say she had,” stated Gaines in the Essence interview.
In 1956 one of Gaines’s short stories appeared in the San Francisco State magazine. After reading this story, agent Dorothea Oppenheimer took Gaines as a client, then represented him for more than 30 years. By 1957 Gaines had been accepted to Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship. He changed his focus from writing short stories to writing novels after a visiting critic from New York told a group of students that a publisher would never even consider a collection of short stories written by an unknown author. The only novel Gaines could think to write was the one he had written in high school, the one that eventually evolved into Catherine Carmier.
Even after Gaines graduated from college and served in the U.S. Army, the plot of his first literary effort—the one he had wrapped in brown paper and mailed to New York when he was 17—had stayed with him. Determined to rewrite this novel and do it justice, Gaines spent five years approaching the story from every angle. Finally, in 1964, Catherine Carmier was published by Atheneum. The novel tells the story of a young black man who returns from California to his native South to visit his family. There he meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman from his old community. Although the book did not sell well, Gaines had found the location and the voice for the novels that were to follow.
In Catherine Carmier, Gaines created an imaginary Louisiana plantation region named Bayonne, a place to which he would return in later fiction. Critics have often compared Gaines’s Bayonne to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and Gaines has acknowledged the influence Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway had on him as a developing writer. After Catherine Carmier Gaines completed another novel, Of Love and Dust, before publishing Bloodline, a collection of short stories. The statement of the New York critic from Gaines’s college days seemed to hold true; an unknown writer was not likely to have a collection of short stories published until he had first proved himself as a novelist. From the five stories in Bloodline, “A Long Day in November” was published separately as a children’s book in 1971. Another story from the same collection, “The Sky Is Gray,” is frequently anthologized.
Gaines earned wide recognition with his third novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was later adapted for an Emmy-winning television movie featuring Cicely Tyson in the title role. The novel’s story is told by a 110-year-old first-person narrator. Through the character of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines relates the history of rural Louisiana blacks from the time of slavery and the Civil War up through the civil rights era. “Never mind that Miss Jane Pittman is fictitious, and that her ’autobiography, ’ offered up in the form of taped reminiscences, is artifice. The effect is stunning,” wrote Josh Greenfeld in Life. Deeming the work “a metaphor of the collective black experience,” Jerry H. Bryant further commented in the Iowa Review on Gaines’s uncanny rendering of the character of Miss Jane Pittman. Readers “do not think of [him] as her ’creator, ’” the reviewer noted, “but as her recording ’editor.’”
With his fourth novel, In My Father’s House, Gaines elaborates on another recurring theme in his works—the alienation between father and son. In this novel, 60-year-old Reverend Phillip Martin is confronted by his 28-year-old illegitimate son. This son and two other children were conceived during an extended affair Martin had had 30 years earlier—in the drinking, fighting, womanizing days before he found God. A deeper and more pervasive theme addressed by this novel is one that is also found in Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In each of these works, Gaines tackles the issue of manhood for men of color. In a 1978 interview in the New York Times Book Review, Gaines stated: “You must understand that the blacks who were brought here as slaves were prevented from becoming the men that they could be.… A man can speak up, he can do things to protect himself, his home, and his family.… Eventually the blacks started [saying], ’Damn what you think I’m supposed to be—I will be what I ought to be. And if I must die to do it, I’ll die’ and for a long time they did get killed. Once they stepped over that line there was always that possibility, and quite a few of my characters step over that line.”
In A Gathering of Old Men, 17 of Gaines’s characters step across the line along with a 30-year-old white heiress of an aged Louisiana plantation as they all plead guilty to the murder of Beau Boutan, an antagonistic member of a Cajun clan. As each man relays a tale that justly serves as a motive for the murder, Boutan comes to represent a white world that has stripped each of them of their dignity and manhood. Elaine Kendall noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that these “individual stories coalesce into a single powerful tale of subjugation, exploitation and humiliation at the hands of landowners” ; the men talk about public insults, social and economic discrimination, and various other indignities that they and their families have been forced to endure.
Ten years elapsed between the publication of A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying, a novel in which Gaines returns to the fictional town of Bayonne to confront the issues of racism, dignity, and black manhood. Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post Book World, described A Lesson Before Dying as “quintessential Gaines … a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his work—and, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory.”
Set in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying focuses on a young black fieldworker named Jefferson who has been convicted of a murder he did not commit. In an attempt to save Jefferson from a death sentence, his defense attorney portrays the barely literate and slow-minded young man as a dumb animal incapable of planning a murder. Jefferson accepts the lawyer’s depiction of him as an animal, which incenses Miss Emma, his elderly godmother. Miss Emma then enlists Grant Wiggins, a schoolteacher, to help Jefferson regain his sense of human dignity so he can die “like a man.”
Wiggins must bridge the social distance that separates him from Jefferson in order to accomplish the task set before him. Eventually, the teacher succeeds in forging what Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor called “a small but vital link… (that) puts both men in touch with a power within themselves that no system, however unjust, can ever extinguish.”
Critics frequently comment on Gaines’s ability to convey through his work the insidious effect of racism—without moralizing. Of A Lesson Before Dying, R. Z. Sheppard wrote in Time: “There is an ominous courtesy between the races. The whites are soft-spoken and patronizing. The blacks reply with exaggerated deference and little eye contact. Few writers have caught this routine indignity as well as Gaines. Fewer still have his dramatic instinct for conveying the malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”
In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley stated that “one of the many remarkable things about his work, and thus about Gaines himself, is the utter lack of overwrought emotion with which questions of race relations are treated.” Carl Senna, writing in the New York Times Book Review, found that although A Lesson Before Dying contains “an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality.”
A Lesson Before Dying reached the Quarterly Black Review of Books and Blackboard bestseller lists and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for the best American book of fiction published in 1993. In addition to his recent professional triumphs, Gaines found fulfillment in his personal life as well; at the age of 60, he was married for the first time—to a Miami-based assistant district attorney. “I used to think that when I was 60, I’d like to live near a small university,” Gaines told Emerge contributor Ruth Laney, “someplace where I could communicate with young people who like to write.… And that was before I ever knew that there would be a woman in my life, or who that woman would be. And now there’s Dianne. What frightens me is that so many things are falling into place.”
American Western writer Wallace Stegner once asked Gaines to describe his intended audience; Gaines replied that he wrote for no one in particular. Gaines recalled for Publishers Weekly that when Stegner pressed the issue, he eventually answered: “I’d probably say I write for the black youth of the South, to make them aware of who they are. [I also write for] the white youth of the South to make them aware that unless they understand their black neighbors they cannot understand themselves.”
Catherine Carmier, Atheneum, 1964.
Of Love and Dust, Dial, 1967.
Bloodline (short stories), Dial, 1968.
A Long Day in November, Dial, 1971.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Dial, 1971.
In My Father’s House, Knopf, 1978.
A Gathering of Old Men, Knopf, 1983.
A Lesson Before Dying, Knopf, 1993.
Works by Gaines that were adapted for television include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, CBS-TV, 1974; The Sky Is Gray, public television, 1980; A Gathering of Old Men, CBS-TV, 1987; and A Lesson Before Dying, Walt Disney Television, in production, 1994.
Babb, Valerie-Melissa, Ernest Gaines, Twayne, 1991.
Black Literary Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 2nd edition, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 2: American Novelists Since World War II, 1978; Yearbook 1980, 1980; Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, 1984.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton, Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
America, June 2, 1984; August 28, 1993, p. 21.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, March 28, 1993, p. M-l; April 25, 1993, p. Monday-10.
Boston Globe, April 18, 1993, p. B-41.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 30, 1983.
Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 1983; April 13, 1993, p. 13.
Emerge, May 1994, p. 66.
Essence, August 1993, p. 52.
Iowa Review, Winter 1972, p. 106.
Life, April 30, 1971.
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1983; August 30, 1992, p. BR-11.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1984.
MELUS, Summer 1984, pp.59-81.
Nation, February 5, 1968; April 5, 1971, p. 436; January 14, 1984, p. 22.
New Republic, December 26, 1983. Netusiueefc, June 16, 1969; May 3, 1971.
New York Times, July 20, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967; May 23, 1971; June 11, 1978, p. 13; October 30, 1983, p. 15; August 8, 1993, p. 21.
People, April 26, 1993, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1993, p. 38.
Southern Living, September 1993, p. 44.
Time, May 10, 1971; December 27, 1971; March 29, 1993, p. 65.
USA Today, March 26, 1993, p. D-4.
Washington Post, January 13, 1976.
Washington Post Book World, June 18, 1978, p. E-5; September 21, 1983; March 28, 1993, p. WBK-3.
Gaines was the subject of the film Louisiana Stories:
Ernest Gaines, which aired on WHMM-TV, 1993.
—Debra G. Harroun
Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–
Gaines, Ernest J. 1933–
(Ernest James Gaines)
PERSONAL: Born January 15, 1933, in Oscar, LA; son of Manuel (a laborer) and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines; married Dianne Saulney (an attorney), 1993. Education: Attended Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College (now University), B.A., 1957; graduate study at Stanford University, 1958–59. Hobbies and other interests: Listening to music ("Bach to Coltrane"), watching television, reading, spending time in the gym.
ADDRESSES: Office—128 Buena Vista Blvd., Lafayette, LA, 70503-2059; and Department of English, University of Southwestern Louisiana, P.O. Box 44691, Lafayette, LA 70504-0001. Agent—JCA Literary Agency, Inc., 242 West 27th St., New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Novelist. Denison University, Granville, OH, writer-in-residence, 1971; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, writer-in-residence, 1981; University of Southwest-ern Louisiana, Lafayette, professor of English and writer-in-residence, beginning 1983. Whittier College, visiting professor, 1983, writer-in-residence, 1986. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953–55.
AWARDS, HONORS: Wallace Stegner fellow, Stanford University, 1957; Joseph Henry Jackson Award, San Francisco Foundation, 1959, for "Comeback" (short story); National Endowment for the Arts award, 1967; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim fellow, 1971; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; fiction gold medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1972, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and 1984, for A Gathering of Old Men; Louisiana Library Association award, 1972; honorary doctorate of letters from Denison University, 1980, Brown University, 1985, Bard College, 1985, Whittier College, 1986, and Louisiana State University, 1987; award for excellence of achievement in literature, San Francisco Arts Commission, 1983; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters literary award, 1987; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1993; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, 1993, for A Lesson before Dying; made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1996; inducted into Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, Chicago State University, 1998; Emmy Award for best television movie, 1999, for adaptation of A Lesson before Dying; National Humanities Medal, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2000.
Catherine Carmier (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1964.
Of Love and Dust (novel), Dial (New York, NY), 1967.
Bloodline (short stories; also see below), Dial (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, Vintage Contemporaries (New York, NY), 1997.
A Long Day in November (originally published in Bloodline), Dial (New York, NY), 1971.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (novel), Dial (New York, NY), 1971.
In My Father's House (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
A Gathering of Old Men (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
A Lesson before Dying (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Conversations with Ernest Gaines, edited by John Lowe, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1995.
Gaines's works have been translated into other languages, including German and French.
ADAPTATIONS: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, adapted from Gaines's novel, aired on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), 1974, and won nine Emmy Awards. "The Sky Is Gray," a short story originally published in Bloodline, was adapted for public television in 1980. A Gathering of Old Men, adapted from Gaines's novel, aired on CBS-TV, 1987. In My Father's House was adapted for audiocassette. A Lesson before Dying was filmed for Home Box Office, 1999, and was adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney, 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: The fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, including his 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and his 1993 novel A Lesson before Dying, is deeply rooted in the African-American culture and storytelling traditions of rural Louisiana where the author was born and raised. His stories have been noted for their convincing characters and powerful themes presented within authentic, often folk-like, narratives that tap into the complex world of the rural South. Gaines depicts the strength and dignity of his black characters in the face of numerous struggles: the dehumanizing and destructive effects of racism; the breakdown in personal relationships as a result of social pressures; and the choice between secured traditions and the sometimes radical measures necessary to bring about social change. Although the issues presented in Gaines's fiction are serious and often disturbing, "this is not hot-and-breathless, burn-baby-burn writing," Melvin Mad-docks pointed out in Time; rather, it is the work of "a patient artist, a patient man." Expounding on Gaines's rural heritage, Maddocks continued: Gaines "sets down a story as if he were planting, spreading the roots deep, wide and firm. His stories grow organically, at their own rhythm. When they ripen at last, they do so inevitably, arriving at a climax with the absolute rightness of a folk tale."
Gaines's experiences growing up on a Louisiana plantation provide the foundation upon which much of his fiction is based. Particularly important, he told Paul Desruisseaux in the New York Times Book Review, were "working in fifteen and subsequently went to college there, his fiction has been based in an imaginary Louisiana plantation the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt's house, the aunt who raised me." Although Gaines moved to California at the age of region called Bayonne, which a number of critics have compared to William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Gaines has acknowledged looking to Faulkner, in addition to Ernest Hemingway, for language, and to such French writers as Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant for style. A perhaps greater influence, however, have been the writings of nineteenth-century Russian authors.
Desruisseaux in the New York Times Book Review, were "working in the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt's house, the aunt who raised me." Although Gaines moved to California at the age of fifteen and subsequently went to college there, his fiction has been based in an imaginary Louisiana plantation region called Bayonne, which a number of critics have compared to William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Gaines has acknowledged looking to Faulkner, in addition to Ernest Hemingway, for language, and to such French writers as Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant for style. A perhaps greater influence, however, have been the writings of nineteenth-century Russian authors.
Gaines's first novel, Catherine Carmier, is "an apprentice work more interesting for what it anticipates than for its accomplishments," noted William E. Grant in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The novel chronicles the story of a young black man, Jackson Bradley, who returns to Bayonne after completing his education in California. Jackson falls in love with Catherine, the daughter of a Creole sharecropper who refuses to let members of his family associate with anyone darker than he, believing Creoles to be racially and socially superior. The novel portrays numerous clashes of loyalty: Catherine is torn between her love for Jackson and for her father; Jackson is caught between a bond to the community he grew up in and the experience and knowledge he has gained in the outside world. "Both Catherine and Jackson are immobilized by the pressures of [the] rural community," noted Keith E. Byerman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, which produces "twin themes of isolation and paralysis [that] give the novel an existential quality. Characters must face an unfriendly world without guidance and must make crucial choices about their lives." The characters in Catherine Carmier—as in much of Gaines's fiction—are faced with struggles that test the conviction of personal beliefs. Winifred L. Stoelting explained in the CLA Journal that Gaines is concerned more "with how [his characters] … handle their decisions than with the rightness of their decisions—more often than not predetermined by social changes over which the single individual has little control."
Gaines sets Catherine Carmier in the time of the U.S. civil rights movement, yet avoids making it a primary force in the novel. "In divorcing his tale from contemporary events," Grant commented, "Gaines declares his independence from the political and social purposes of much contemporary black writing. Instead, he elects to concentrate upon those fundamental human passions and conflicts which transcend the merely social level of human existence." Grant found Gaines "admirable" for doing this, yet also believed Jackson's credibility is marred because he remains aloof from contemporary events. For Grant, the novel "seems to float outside time and place rather than being solidly anchored in the real world of the modern South." Byerman held a similar view, stating that the novel "is not entirely successful in presenting its major characters and their motivations." Nonetheless, he pointed out that in Catherine Carmier, "Gaines does begin to create a sense of the black community and its perceptions of the world around it. Shared ways of speaking, thinking, and relating to the dominant white society are shown through a number of minor characters."
Gaines's next novel, Of Love and Dust, is also a story of forbidden romance, and, as in Catherine Carmier, a "new world of expanding human relationships erodes the old world of love for the land and the acceptance of social and economic stratification," wrote Stoelting. Of Love and Dust is the story of Marcus Payne, a young black man bonded out of prison by a white landowner and placed under the supervision of a Cajun overseer, Sidney Bonbon. Possessed of a rebellious and hostile nature, Marcus is a threat to Bonbon, who in turn does all that he can to break the young man's spirit. In an effort to strike back, Marcus pays special attention to the overseer's wife; the two fall in love and plot to run away. The novel ends with a violent confrontation between the two men in which Marcus is killed. After the killing, Bonbon claims that to spare Marcus would have meant his own death at the hands of other Cajuns. Grant noted a similarity between Of Love and Dust and Catherine Carmier in that the characters are "caught up in a decadent social and economic system that determines their every action and limits their possibilities." Similarly, the two novels are marked by a "social determinism [that] shapes the lives of all the characters, making them pawns in a mechanistic world order rather than free agents."
Of Love and Dust demonstrates Gaines's development as a novelist, offering a clearer view of the themes and characters that have come to dominate his work. Stoelting noted that "in a more contemporary setting, the novel … continues Gaines's search for human dignity, and when that is lacking, acknowledges the salvation of pride," adding that "the characters themselves grow into a deeper awareness than those of [his] first novel. More sharply drawn … [they] are more decisive in their actions." Byerman remarked that the novel "more clearly condemns the economic, social, and racial system of the South for the problems faced by its characters." Likewise, the first-person narrator in the novel—a coworker of Marcus—"both speaks in the idiom of the place and time and instinctively asserts the values of the black community."
Gaines turns to a first-person narrator again in his next novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which many consider to be his masterwork. Miss Jane Pittman—well over one hundred years old—relates a personal history that spans the time from the U.S. Civil War and slavery up through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "To travel with Miss Pittman from adolescence to old age is to embark upon a historic journey, one staked out in the format of the novel," wrote Addison Gayle, Jr. in The Way of the World: The Black Novel in America. "Never mind that Miss Jane Pittman is fictitious, and that her 'autobiography,' offered up in the form of taped reminiscences, is artifice," added Josh Greenfield in Life, "the effect is stunning." Gaines's gift for drawing convincing characters is clearly demonstrated in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. "His is not … an 'art' narrative, but an authentic narrative by an authentic ex-slave, authentic even though both are Gaines's inventions," Jerry H. Bryant commented in the Iowa Review. "So successful is he in becoming Miss Jane Pittman, that when we talk about her story, we do not think of Gaines as her creator, but as her recording editor."
The character of Jane Pittman could be called an embodiment of the black experience in America. "Though Jane is the dominant personality of the narrative—observer and commentator upon history, as well as participant—in her odyssey is symbolized the odyssey of a race of people; through her eyes is revealed the grandeur of a people's journey through history," maintained Gayle. "The central metaphor of the novel concerns this journey: Jane and her people, as they come together in the historic march toward dignity and freedom in Sampson, symbolize a people's march through history, breaking old patterns, though sometimes slowly, as they do." The important historical backdrop to Jane's narrative—slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights era, segregation—does not compromise, however, the detailed account of an individual. "Jane captures the experiences of those millions of illiterate blacks who never had a chance to tell their own stories," Byerman explained. "By focusing on the particular yet typical events of a small part of Louisiana, those lives are given a concreteness and specificity not possible in more general histories."
In his fourth novel, In My Father's House, Gaines focuses on a theme that appears in varying degrees throughout his fiction: the alienation between fathers and sons. As the author told Desruisseaux, "In my books there always seems to be fathers and sons searching for each other. That's a theme I've worked with since I started writing. Even when the father was not in the story, I've dealt with his absence and its effects on his children. And that is the theme of this book." In My Father's House tells of prominent civil rights leader Reverend Phillip Martin, who, at the peak of his career, is confronted with a troubled young man named Robert X. Although Robert's identity is initially a mystery, eventually he is revealed to be one of three offspring from a love affair Martin had in an earlier, wilder life and then abandoned. Robert arrives to confront and kill the father whose neglect he sees as responsible for the family's disintegration: his sister has been raped, his brother imprisoned for the murder of her attacker, and his mother alone and reduced to poverty. Although the son's intent to kill his father is never carried out, Martin is forced "to undergo a long and painful odyssey through his own past and the labyrinthine streets of Baton Rouge to learn what really happened to his first family," wrote William Burke in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook. Larry McMurtry, in the New York Times Book Review, noted that as the book traces the lost family, "we have revealed to us an individual, a marriage, a community and a region, but with such an unobtrusive marshaling of detail that we never lose sight of the book's central thematic concern: the profoundly destructive consequences of the breakdown of parentage, of a father's abandonment of his children and the terrible and irrevocable consequences of such an abandonment."
A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines's fifth novel, presents a cast of aging Southern black men who, after a life of subordination and intimidation, make a defiant stand against injustice. Seventeen of them, together with the thirty-year-old white heiress of a deteriorating Louisiana plantation, plead guilty to murdering Beau Boutan, a member of a violent Cajun clan. While a confounded sheriff and vengeful family wait to lynch the black they have decided is guilty, the group members—toting recently fired shotguns—surround the dead man and "confess" their motives. "Each man tells of the accumulated frustrations of his life—raped daughters, jailed sons, public insults, economic exploitation—that serve as sufficient motive for murder," wrote Byerman. "Though Beau Boutan is seldom the immediate cause of their anger, he clearly represents the entire white world that has deprived them of their dignity and manhood. The confessions serve as ritual purgings of all the hostility and self-hatred built up over the years." Over a dozen characters—white, black, and Cajun—advance the story through individual narrations, creating "thereby a range of social values as well as different perspectives on the action," Byerman noted. New York Times Book Review contributor Reynolds Price noted that the black narrators "are nicely distinguished from one another in rhythm and idiom, in the nature of what they see and report, especially in their specific laments for past passivity in the face of suffering." The accumulated effect, observed Elaine Kendall in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is that the "individual stories coalesce into a single powerful tale of subjugation, exploitation and humiliation at the hands of landowners."
Another theme of A Gathering of Old Men, according to America's Ben Forkner, 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." Sam Cornish commented in the Christian Science Monitor that the novel's "characters—both black and white—understand that, before the close of the novel, the new South must confront the old, and all will be irrevocably changed. Gaines portrays a society that will be altered by the deaths of its 'old men,' and so presents an allegory about the passing of the old and birth of the new."
A Lesson before Dying, issued ten years after A Gathering of Old Men, continues the author's historical reflections on the South. The setting is a characteristic one: a plantation and jail in Bayonne during a six-month span in 1948. The unlikely hero is Jefferson, a scarcely literate, twenty-one-year-old man-child who works the cane fields of the Pichot plantation. Trouble finds the protagonist when he innocently hooks up with two men; they then rob a liquor store and are killed in the process along with the shop's proprietor, leaving Jefferson as an accomplice. The young man's naivete in the crime is never recognized as he is brought to trial before a jury of twelve white men and sentenced to death. Jefferson's defense attorney ineffectively attempts to save his client by presenting him as a dumb animal, as "a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton." When Jefferson's godmother learns of this analogy, she determines that her nephew will face his execution as a man, not as an animal. Thus, she enlists the help of young teacher Grant Wiggins, who is initially resistant but works to help Jefferson to resolutely shoulder his fate in his final days.
According to Sandra D. Davis in the Detroit Free Press, "A Lesson before Dying begins much like many other stories where racial tension brews in the background." Yet, as in Gaines's other works, the racial tension in this novel is more of a catalyst for his tribute to the perseverance of the victims of injustice. Unexpectedly, pride, honor, and manhood in a dehumanizing environment emerge as the themes of this novel. Through Wiggins, the young narrator and unwilling carrier of the "burden" of the community, and his interaction with the black community, as represented by Jefferson's godmother and the town's Reverend Ambrose, Gaines "creates a compelling, intense story about heroes and the human spirit," contended Davis. Ironically, Jefferson and Reverend Ambrose ultimately emerge as the real teachers, showing Wiggins that, as Davis asserted, "education encompasses more than the lessons taught in school." Wiggins is also forced to admit, according to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World, "his own complicity in the system of which Jefferson is a victim." Commonweal critic Madeline Marget likened Jefferson's ordeal to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: "A Lesson before Dying is Gaines's retelling of the Passion-a layered and sensual story of a suffering man and his life-changing struggle," one that Gaines explores "through a narrative of tremendous velocity."
Of that community which yields the lessons of Gaines's fiction and his relation to it, Alice Walker wrote in the New York Times Book Review: Gaines "claims and revels in the rich heritage of Southern Black people and their customs; the community he feels with them is unmistakable and goes deeper even than pride … Gaines is mellow with historical reflection, supple with wit, relaxed and expansive because he does not equate his people with failure." The novelist has been criticized by some, however, who feel his writing does not more directly focus on problems facing blacks. Gaines responded to Desruisseaux that he feels "too many blacks have been writing to tell whites all about 'the problems,' instead of writing something that all people, including their own, could find interesting, could enjoy." Gaines has also remarked that more can be achieved than strictly writing novels of protest. In an interview for San Francisco, the author stated: "So many of our writers have not read any farther back than [Richard Wright's] Native Son. So many of our novels deal only with the great city ghettos; that's all we write about, as if there's nothing else." Gaines continued: "We've only been living in these ghettos for seventy-five years or so, but the other three hundred years—I think this is worth writing about."
In Conversations with Ernest Gaines, the author reveals to editor John Lowe some of the factors behind his popularity and critical acclaim. "While a notable consistency in themes and setting is evident within the body of his writing," stated critic Valerie Babb, writing about Conversations with Ernest Gaines in the African American Review, "in novel ways this talented writer consistently re-envisions and reworks the material that inspires him…. The best commentary is Gaines's own … as he assesses his art." "Critiques of racial essentialism are many," Babb concluded, "and there is increased scholarly emphasis on finding voice and telling story, two elements that imbue Gaines's works with their own unique pyrotechnics. With greater appreciation of how small details make great fiction, it seems our critical age is indeed ready to appreciate the fiction of Ernest Gaines."
Gaines's output has been slow but steady, and his focus remains restricted to Louisiana's past. "I can write only about the past," he explained to Jerome Weeks of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "I let it sink into me for a long time, let it stay there. I can't write about something that happened last week." Although his works number less than a dozen, their influence has been widespread. His novels have become part of the mainstay of high school and college literature courses because his characters struggle to define themselves within themselves, their communities, society, and humanity. "We must all try to define ourselves. It's a human struggle," he told Weeks.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Babb, Valerie-Melissa, Ernest Gaines, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1991.
Bruck, Peter, editor, The Black American Short Story in the Twentieth Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, B.R. Gruner (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 1977.
Carmean, Karen, Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1998.
Children's Literature Review, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 62, 2002.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968–1988, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 18, 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, 1984.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Estes, David C., Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1994.
Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton, Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft, Louisiana State University Press (Lafayette, LA), 1990.
Gayle, Addison, Jr., The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
Hicks, Jack, In the Singer's Temple: Prose Fictions of Barthelme, Gaines, Brautigan, Piercy, Kesey, and Kosinski, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1981.
Hudson, Theodore R., The History of Southern Literature, Louisiana State University Press (Lafayette, LA), 1985.
Lowe, John, editor, Conversations with Ernest Gaines, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1995.
O'Brien, John, editor, Interview with Black Writers, Liveright (New York, NY), 1973.
African American Review, fall, 1994, p. 489; February, 1998, p. 350.
America, June 2, 1984.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 26, 1997; July 28, 2002, Teresa K. Weaver, "National Black Arts Festival: The Importance of Reading Ernest (Gaines)," p. L1.
Black American Literature Forum, Volume 11, 1977; Volume 24, 1990.
Black Issues Book Review, May, 2002, review of In My Father's House (audio version), p. 26.
Booklist, June 1, 1999, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. 1796; November 15, 2001, review of Catherine Carmier, p. 555.
Callaloo, Volume 7, 1984; Volume 11, 1988; winter, 1999, Keith Clark, "Re-(w)righting Black Male Subjectivity: The Communal Poetics of Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men," p. 195; winter, 2001, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. 346.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 30, 1983.
Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 1983.
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 1994, p. A23. CLA Journal, March, 1971; December, 1975.
Commonweal, June 16, 2000, Madeline Marget, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. 23.
Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1993, p. 7J.
Essence, August, 1993, p. 52.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 12, 1999, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. D4.
Guardian (London, England), March 18, 2000, Nick Hasted, "Nick Hasted Ghosthunts with Ernest Gaines in Altered Southern States," p. 11.
Iowa Review, winter, 1972, Jerry H. Bryant, "From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines," pp. 206-120.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 28, 2001, Jerome Weeks, "Author Ernest J. Gaines Mines His Rich Southern Past," p. K882.
Library Journal, May 15, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. 192.
Life, April 30, 1971.
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1984.
MELUS, Volume 11, 1984; spring, 1999, Wolfgang Lepschy, "Ernest J. Gaines" (interview), p. 197.
Mississippi Quarterly, spring, 1999, Jeffrey J. Folks, "Communal Responsibility in Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson before Dying," p. 259.
Nation, February 5, 1968; April 5, 1971; January 14, 1984.
Negro Digest, November, 1967; January, 1968; January, 1969.
New Orleans Review, Volume 1, 1969; Volume 3, 1972; Volume 14, 1987.
New Republic, December 26, 1983.
New Statesman, September 2, 1973; February 10, 1984; May 29, 2000, Nicola Upson, review of A Gathering of Old Men, p. 57.
Newsweek, June 16, 1969; May 3, 1971.
New Yorker, October 24, 1983.
New York Times, July 20, 1978.
New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1967; May 23, 1971; June 11, 1978; October 30, 1983; May 22, 1999, Ron Wertheimer, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. B15; September 19, 2000, Bruce Weber, "Last-Minute Lessons for a Condemned Prisoner in the Jim Crow South," p. E1.
Observer (London, England), February 5, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, March 21, 1994, p. 8.
San Francisco, July, 1974.
Sojourners, September-October, 2002, Dale Brown, "A Lesson for Living," pp. 30-33.
Southern Review, Volume 10, 1974; Volume 21, 1985.
Studies in Short Fiction, summer, 1975.
Studies in the Humanities, June-December, 2001, Lorna Fitzsimmons, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: Film, Intertext, and Ideology," pp. 94-109.
Time, May 10, 1971; December 27, 1971.
Times (London, England), March 18, 2000, Paul Connolly, review of A Gathering of Old Men, p. 21.
Times Literary Supplement, February 10, 1966; March 16, 1973; April 6, 1984.
Voice Literary Supplement, October, 1983.
Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2000, Amy Gamerman, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. A24.
Washington Post, January 13, 1976; May 22, 1999, Ken Ringle, review of A Lesson before Dying, p. C01.
Washington Post Book World, June 18, 1978; September 21, 1983; March 28, 1993, p. 3; May 23, 1993.
Writer, May, 1999, p. 4.
NewOrleans, http://www.neworleans.com/lalife/ (summer, 1997), Faith Dawson, "A Louisiana Life: Ernest J. Gaines."
Louisiana Stories: Ernest Gaines (television film), WHMM-TV, 1993.
Gaines, Ernest J(ames)
GAINES, Ernest J(ames)
Nationality: American. Born: Oscar, Louisiana, 15 January 1933. Education: Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College, 1955-57, B.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow, 1958), 1958-59. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1953-55. Career: Writer-in-residence, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971, Stanford University, Spring 1981, and Whittier College, California, 1982; professor of English and writer-in-residence, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, since 1983. Awards: San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1959; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim grant, 1970; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; San Francisco Art Commission award, 1983; American Academy award, 1987; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994, and Pulitzer prize, 1994, both for A Lesson before Dying. D.Litt.: Denison University, 1980; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1985; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1985; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge 1987. D.H.L.: Whittier College, 1986.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Turtles," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1956.
"Boy in the Doublebreasted Suit," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1957.
"My Grandpa and the Haint," in New Mexico Quarterly (Albuquerque), Summer 1966.
Catherine Carmier. 1964.
Of Love and Dust. 1967.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. 1971.
In My Father's House. New York, Knopf, 1978.
A Gathering of Old Men. 1983.
A Lesson before Dying. 1993.
A Long Day in November (for children). 1971.
Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, with Marcia Gaudet and CarlWooton. Baton Rouge. 1990.
Conversations with Ernest Gaines. 1995.*
While best known for his novels, two of which were adapted into made-for-television movies and one of which, A Lesson before Dying (1993), won the National Book Award, Ernest Gaines is an accomplished author whose short stories, though few in number, are equally sophisticated in their construction and their themes. Gaines's first and only short story collection, Bloodline, was published in 1968 . Written in his characteristically direct style, the volume contains stories of diverse characters united by shared journeys toward self-awareness. Bound together by their common struggle for autonomy, Gaines's characters both endure and grow as they move toward more fully realized selves. The power of painful circumstances to precipitate spiritual development is the primary theme in this collection and is a recurring motif in subsequent works.
As an author Gaines defies categorization. His frequently quoted statement that "no black writer had influence on me" has often been used to explain the difficulty in labeling him as a particular kind of author. An African American southerner whose literary beginnings coincided with those of the civil rights movement, Gaines has nonetheless managed to create a body of works that are not guided by any racial agenda. Gaines's refusal to focus his works solely on "the problem"—that is, on racial prejudice—has placed him outside the protest tradition represented by Richard Wright, a fact for which he is sometimes criticized. A basic characteristic of Gaines's literary aesthetic is that racism, while important, is never the definitive issue in the lives of his characters. Although he frequently filters complex issues through the lens of race, class, and gender, his deepest concerns transcend all boundaries.
Because of his extensive knowledge of Louisiana folk culture and his remarkable ability to capture the rhythm and cadence of the oral tradition in which he was reared, Gaines has been called a griot, the West African term for an oral historian and storyteller. His masterful use of colloquial speech emphasizes a primary theme in his fiction—the power of the human voice to convey the essential dignity of the individual. To this end Gaines has created a remarkable array of first-person narrators, among them six-yearold Sonny in "A Long Day in November," whose precise use of Louisiana dialects, with all of their subtle nuances, reflects Gaines's belief in the singular importance of finding and articulating a voice.
Like Faulkner, who used his fictional Yoknapatawpha County as the unifying setting in which to articulate the central concerns of his fiction, Gaines uses a fictive locale—Bayonne, Louisiana—to animate his literary vision. Shaped by his own experiences in the South, Gaines's literary landscape is rooted in the complex history and culture of the region, a fact that reinforces the social realism characteristic of his work. The sometimes violent, sometimes poignant intersection of Louisiana's unique cultural mix of Creole, Cajun, African American, and southern is the source of many of the conflicts central to his short stories. Against the backdrop of Bayonne, in the fictional parish of Saint Raphael, Gaines explores the volatile nature of interpersonal relationships in the changing South.
Gaines's emphasis on the significance of the internal journey coincides with his intense focus on the emotional needs of his male characters. Each of his characters is engaged, covertly or overtly, in the search for stable identity within a chaotic universe. For the majority of his male protagonists, this search takes the form of the quest for the father. Indeed, paternal deprivation lurks at the heart of many of his works, and all actions, tragic and heroic, spiral outward from this painful center. While the formidable monsters that thwart his central characters often come in the shape of racism, poverty, or ignorance, the emotional quest for the father offers the greatest challenge to the characters. For Gaines's male characters recovering the father means recovering that part of themselves lost or distorted by his absence. The step is essential for the characters to achieve a sense of masculine identity that has heretofore alluded them.
In "Bloodline," the title story in the collection, the central character, Copper Laurent, must come to terms with his father's role in his painful past in order to claim his manhood. The product of the rape of a black female sharecropper by the white landowner, Copper struggles to claim his dead father's estate to which, as a mulatto, he has no legal claim. But more than for ownership of the plantation, Copper struggles to define himself in a world unable to look beyond the stigma of his mixed racial heritage. In order for him to recognize himself as a man, Copper Laurent must reconcile himself with the brutal man who fathered him and make peace with the two warring cultures that are his birthright.
The struggle to recover the father and heal the wounded masculine self frequently parallels the efforts of Gaines's male characters to assert their humanity in a culture that dehumanizes them. For example, in "Three Men" the narrator and primary character, Procter Lewis, has absorbed his society's deprecation of African American life to the point that he feels no remorse over killing another black man, albeit in self-defense. It is only through the guiding influence of Munford Brazille, an older African American man whom Procter encounters in jail, that he is able to transform himself from a violent, callous brute with no regard for others into a responsible man who understands that all life, even his own, has value. In "The Sky Is Gray" James, the young narrator, learns the importance of defining his masculine self within the confines of the racist society that will not respect him. In the story James moves from childish ignorance to an adult awareness of the harsh realities of Jim Crow life. Reminiscent of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," "The Sky Is Gray" depicts James's journey from the security of the countryside to the threatening environment of the city as he and his mother make their way to see the area's only doctor willing to treat African Americans. This physical journey through hostile territory mirrors his internal odyssey, a movement toward healthy awareness of his essential worth as a human being. With James's newfound awareness of the challenges that confront him and the skills he must acquire to meet them comes an appreciation of the strength and dignity of his mother and a grateful acknowledgment of the humanity that links them both.
Although the vast majority of Gaines's fiction focuses on men, he is aware of the historical significance of African American women within the community. While often reflecting an older set of values against which his youthful protagonists rail, Gaines's women exhibit qualities associated with the best of human nature—-pride, ingenuity, strength, and endurance. These qualities are most fully realized in Miss Jane Pittman, the 110-year-old narrator of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but they are present in female characters throughout Gaines's short stories. In "Just Like a Tree," the character of Aunt Fe embodies positive characteristics associated with black women. Like the oak tree to which she is compared, Aunt Fe is a symbol of endurance and represents the ability of the human spirit to weather life's harshest elements. She is essential to the history and identity of her community, and the greatest challenge facing those around her is not coping with her loss but rather emulating her behavior. Confronted with the destabilizing effect of her loss, each of the people around her is forced to learn to draw upon his or her own inner resources in order to keep the community intact.
The tenderness and compassion with which he treats all of his characters, male and female, black and white, are trademarks of the fiction of Gaines and reflect his commitment to depicting the human experience with all of its complexity. In his attempt to explore every aspect of the human condition honestly, without prior judgment, Gaines has articulated a basic set of values that transcend race and gender. His body of works excludes or marginalizes no one but is open and accessible to readers of all backgrounds. The clarity of his prose, the compelling characters he creates, and his masterful use of colloquial speech enrich the world of literature.
See the essay on "The Sky Is Gray."
Gaines, Ernest J(ames)
GAINES, Ernest J(ames)
Nationality: American. Born: Oscar, Louisiana, 15 January 1933. Education: Vallejo Junior College; San Francisco State College, 1955-57, B.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow, 1958), 1958-59. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1953-55. Career: Writer-in-residence, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971, Stanford University, Spring 1981, and Whittier College, California, 1982. Since 1983 professor of English and writer-in-residence, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette. Awards: San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1959; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; Rockefeller grant, 1970; Guggenheim grant, 1970; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; San Francisco Art Commission award, 1983; American Academy award, 1987; National Book Critics Circle award, 1994, and Pulitzer prize, 1994, both for A Lesson Before Dying. D. Litt.: Denison University, 1980; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1985; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1985; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge 1987; D.H.L.: Whittier College, 1986. Agent: JCA Literary Agency, 242 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10001. Address: 128 Buena Vista Boulevard, Lafayette, Louisiana 70503-2059, U.S.A.
Catherine Carmier. New York, Atheneum, 1964; London, Secker and Warburg, 1966.
Of Love and Dust. New York, Dial Press, 1967; London, Secker andWarburg, 1968.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York, Dial Press, 1971; London, Joseph, 1973.
In My Father's House. New York, Knopf, 1978.
A Gathering of Old Men. New York, Knopf, 1983; London, Heinemann, 1984.
A Lesson Before Dying. New York, Knopf, 1993.
Bloodline. New York, Dial Press, 1968.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Turtles," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1956.
"Boy in the Doublebreasted Suit," in Transfer (San Francisco), 1957.
"My Grandpa and the Haint," in New Mexico Quarterly (Albuquerque), Summer 1966.
A Long Day in November (for children). New York, Dial Press, 1971.
Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1990.*
Dupree Library, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette.
"Human Dignity and Pride in the Novels of Ernest Gaines" by Winifred L. Stoelting, in CLA Journal (Baltimore), March 1971; "Ernest J. Gaines: Change, Growth, and History" by Jerry H. Bryant, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), October 1974; "Bayonne ou le Yoknapatawpha d'Ernest Gaines" by Michel Fabre in Recherches Anglaises et Américaines 9 (Strasbourg), 1976; "To Make These Bones Live: History and Community in Ernest Gaines's Fiction" by Jack Hicks, in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Spring 1977; "Ernest Gaines: 'A Long Day in November"' by Nalenz Puschmann, in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century edited by Peter Bruck, Amsterdam, Grüner, 1978; "The Quarters: Ernest J. Gaines and the Sense of Place" by Charles H. Rowell, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Summer 1985; Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, edited by David C. Estes. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson by Herman Beavers. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995; Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion by Karen Carmean. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998.
Ernest J. Gaines comments:
I have tried to show you a world of my people—the kind of world that I came from.* * *
The fictive world of Ernest J. Gaines, as well as certain technical aspects of his works, might be compared to that of William Faulkner. But useful as such a comparison may be, it should not be pursued to the point of obscuring Gaines's considerable originality, which inheres mainly in the fact that he is Afro-American and very much a spiritual product, if no longer a resident, of the somewhat unique region about which he writes: south Louisiana, culturally distinguishable from the state's Anglo-Saxon north, thus from the nation as a whole, by its French legacy, no small part of which derives from the comparative ease with which its French settlers and their descendants formed sexual alliances with blacks.
Gaines's Afro-American perspective enables him to create, among other notable characters both black and white, a Jane Pittman (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ) whose heroic perseverance we experience, rather than a housekeeping Dilsey (The Sound and the Fury ) for whom we have little more than the narrator's somewhat ambiguous and irrelevant assurance that "She endured." In general, Gaines's peculiar point of view generates a more complex social vision than Faulkner's, an advantage Gaines has sustained with dramatic force and artistic integrity. Gaines's fictive society consists of whites, blacks, and creoles, presumably a traditionally more favored socio-economic class of African American given to fantasies of racial superiority to those of darker skin, fantasies of the kind the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon explores in Black Skin, White Masks.
The Gainesian counterparts of the Sartorises and Snopeses (the moribund aristocracy and parvenu "poor white trash" respectively of Faulkner's mythical Mississippi county) are the south Louisiana plantation owners, mostly of French extraction, and the cajuns, of French extraction but of lesser "quality." The cajuns are inheriting and spoiling the land and displacing the creoles and blacks, the former tragically though not irrevocably doomed by a persistent folly, the latter a people of promise who have never really betrayed their African heritage.
All Gaines's works reflect the inherent socio-economic intricacy of this quadruplex humanity, though we are never allowed to lose sight of its basic element of black and white. In his apprentice first novel Catherine Carmier, for instance, we see the sickly proscribed love of Jackson, who is black, and Catherine, daughter of an infernally proud creole farmer, as a perverted issue of the miscegenation that resulted from the white male's sexual exploitation of black people. This mode of victimization assumes metaphoric force in Gaines's works, figuring forth in historical perspective the oppression of black people generally. The fictive plantation world, then, is uniquely micro-cosmic. It is south Louisiana, the south, the nation as a whole. This aspect is explored, for example, in the title story of Bloodline. Copper, a character of mythopoeic proportion, the militant young son of a now deceased white plantation owner and a black woman field hand, stages a heroic return, presumably from his education in school and in the world at large, to claim his heritage: recognition of kinship by an aristocratic white uncle and his rightful share of the land. In In My Father's House, and for the first time, Gaines deals with the black father-son relationship, and explores a neglected aspect of African American life: the perplexities of the public vs. private person relative to individual responsibility. The Reverend Phillip Martin, a grass roots Civil Rights leader in the fictional south Louisiana town of St. Adrienne, is forced to confront his wayward past when his estranged son Etienne, reminiscent of Copper, comes to claim paternal recognition and redress of grievances.
In A Gathering of Old Men Gaines extends the thematic concerns of his earlier novels into a new South setting, employing a multiple first-person point of view in the manner of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The conflict between blacks and cajuns comes to a cinematically stylized, somewhat surrealistic climax and resolution as several old black men gather in mutual militant defense of one of their number who has been accused of killing Cajun farmer Beau Boutan, confronting the local sheriff as well as the slain man's avenging father, "retired" nightrider Fix Boutan. The result is a gripping allegorical tale of race relations in the new South resonant with the Gainesian theme of individual responsibility, this time for holding ground in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s.
In Gaines's 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, set in 1940, individual responsibility is highlighted again. Wiggins, the novel's narrator, is a young school teacher and one among a number of Gainesian tutelary figures. Wiggins is pressured by his elders into assuming the responsibility of mentor to Jefferson, a young black manchild who awaits execution for having taken part in the murder of a white storekeeper, a crime for which he is apparently unjustly convicted in a racist environment. A National Book Critics Circle award winner and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, A Lesson chronicles the young Jefferson's gradual assumption of responsibility, under Wiggins's increasingly committed mentorship, for assimilating the attributes of manhood before he dies in the electric chair. In one of Gaines's characteristic ironies, Wiggins's mentorship of Jefferson contributes to his own edification as well.