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Considered one of the most significant Southern writers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ernest J. Gaines has consistently based his fictional work on the African American cultural and storytelling traditions of rural southern Louisiana. Best known as the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Lesson Before Dying(1993), he brought new awareness of African American contributions to the history and culture of the American South. Many critics have observed the originality of Gaines s prose, noting the distance of his aesthetic philosophies from such contemporary literary trends. Commentators have often compared Gaines s fictional treatment of his native Louisiana parish to that of William Faulkner s Yoknapatawpha County and James Joyce’s Dublin.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in Rural South “
Gaines was born on January 13, 1933, in the bayous of Pointe Coupee Parish near Oscar, Louisiana, to Manuel and Adrienne J. (Colar) Gaines. Both of his parents were sharecroppers who worked the local River Lake Plantation. As a youth, Gaines also worked in the fields, digging potatoes for fifty cents a day from the time he was nine years old until the age of fifteen. While his parents worked, Gaines and his twelve younger siblings were essentially raised by Augusteen Jefferson, a paraplegic aunt who served as the model for the recurrent aunt figure in Gaines’s writings. Though bright, Gaines received limited schooling; the cycle was five to six months between the time of harvesting and the time of planting. Jefferson continued to act as Gaines’s guardian after his parents separated in 1941, and he grew up listening to the discussions of his aunt’s friends. Subsequently, Gaines lost touch with his father, who served in World II before returning to New Orleans.
Educated in California
In 1948, Gaines joined his mother and merchant marine stepfather in Vallejo, California, where the couple had moved several years earlier, so he could become better educated. There, Gaines attended high school for the first time and soon developed a passion for reading, especially the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai
Gogol, and Ivan Turgenev. Gaines later became a student at Vallejo Junior College before he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1953. He served at the end of the Korean War, a conflict that lasted from 1950 to 1953. The United States sided with the democratic South Koreans as they sought to repel the aggression of Communist-controlled North Korea into their territory. The war ended with a stalemate and essentially the same borders as before the conflict began.
When his tour ended in 1955, Gaines enrolled at San Francisco State College. In 1956, he published his first short story about the rural South, “Turtles,” in the first issue of the school’s literary magazine, Transfer. One year later, Gaines earned his bachelor’s degree. In 1958, he received a Wallace Stegner fellowship and entered the graduate creative writing program at Stanford University. Gaines withdrew the following year after winning the Joseph Henry Jackson award for his short story ”Comeback” and dedicated himself to writing full-time.
Published First Novel
Gaines published his first major novel Catherine Carmier in 1964. Set during the onset of the American civil rights movement, the novel chronicles the love affair between Jackson Bradley, a young African American man recently returned to Bayonne after completing his education, and the title character, a daughter of a bigoted Creole sharecropper who forbids his family members from associating with anyone with darker skin than their own. Gaines followed Catherine Carmier with a well-received novel about adultery and miscegenation, or the intermarrying of races, called Of Love and Dust (1967) and a collection of previously published short stories, Bloodline (1968). Among the most acclaimed was ”The Sky Is Gray.”
In the early 1970s, Gaines had a major breakthrough as a writer with his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). Widely recognized as Gaines’s masterpiece and an immediate success, the novel chronicles a folk history of African American experience in the United States from the Civil War and Reconstruction through segregation and the civil rights era, as narrated from the perspective of the 108-year-old title character. The same year that the novel was published, 1971, Gaines published his only children’s book, A Long Day in November, and became a writer-in-residence at Denison University for a year.
Gaines’s next novel, In My Father’s House (1978), was considered by many critics to be the author’s most pessimistic work. Principally set in urban Baton Rouge, the novel concerns the relationship between Philip Martin, a prominent civil rights leader at the height of his career, and Robert X, a troubled young man who is one of Martin’s three illegitimate children from an affair decades earlier. Gaines’s literary reputation continued to grow, however, with another major novel A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Styled as a detective story, the novel depicts a group of seventeen elderly black men who collectively make a defiant stand against past injustices by separately claiming responsibility for the murder of a hostile member of a violent Cajun clan.
In 1983, Gaines joined the faculty of the English department at the University of Southern Louisiana as a writer-in-residence. He then taught part of each year at the university as a professor of English and spent his summers in San Francisco. While focusing on teaching, Gaines did not produce another novel for a decade.
A MacArthur Genius
In 1993, Gaines published, A Lesson Before Dying, which earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award for the best American book of fiction. Set both in a jail and on a plantation in Bayonne during a six-month span in 1948, the novel focuses on the friendship between Jefferson, a barely literate young man sentenced to death, and Grant Wiggins, a rural schoolteacher disillusioned and displaced by his work. The interaction between the men eventually transforms the pair as they recognize the meaning of human dignity. That same year, Gaines received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in recognition of his literary accomplishments.
Gaines continued to be lauded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1996, he received the Chevalier de l’Ordre Arts et des Lettres, Paris. In 2004, Gaines was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of his body of work. In 2005, Gaines was named the writer-in-residence emeritus at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. That same year, he published Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. In these pieces, Gaines discusses why he became a writer, his early life in Louisiana, the inspirations behind his books, and his portrayal of the black experience. By 2006, Gaines was working on a new novel. He continues to live and work in Lafayette, Louisiana, and San Francisco.
Works in Literary Context
Gaines’s major works offer an uncommon African American perspective on the rural Deep South, recalling and re-creating the places and people who inhabit the region. Primarily set in the imaginary locale of fictional Bayonne, Louisiana, Gaines’s fiction depicts the complexities of a culturally diverse community that includes blacks, whites, Creoles, and Cajuns. With authentic dialects and convincing characterizations, Gaines has typically written first-person narratives that chronicle the struggles and sufferings of humble black protagonists who possess a strong attachment to the land. Although racial themes often inform the principal themes of his writing, Gaines also displays universal human ideals through particular characters that inhabit a particular place. In addition, he consistently displays the inherent dignity of characters that range from pitiable to contemptible. While Gaines was influenced by such authors as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant, his early childhood experiences of working in the fields, fishing in local swamps, and listening to the discussions of his aunt’s friends, provided core material for his writings.
Authentic Southern Setting and Characters
As depicted and drawn by Gaines, South Louisiana, the region of his youth and literary imagination, is beautiful and distinctive with unique cultural, linguistic, and social patterns. His stories and novels depict his fascination with the interplay of caste and class among the ethnic groups of the area: blacks, mixed-race Creoles, Cajuns, white Creoles, and Anglo whites. Also key to Gaines’s fiction is that blacks and mixed-race Creoles, who were once fairly stable as subsistence farmers, have been dispossessed of the best land or displaced altogether by Cajuns, who are favored by the plantation lords because they are white and use mechanized agricultural methods. Under such socioeconomic conditions, young blacks leave, though they often find themselves drawn back to Louisiana. Such is the case with Catherine Carmier. In this novel, the protagonist is the educated and alienated Jackson Bradley, who returns to his native parish to claim the love of the title character. Racial prejudices and tensions, as well as related violence found in the South, are at the center of A Gathering of Old Men. Historical reflections and the racial inequalities of the Southern justice system are also found in A Lesson Before Dying.
Alienation Between Fathers and Their Children
In varying degrees throughout his fiction, Gaines employs the theme of alienation between fathers and sons. In some cases, fathers and sons are searching for each other. Sometimes, the father is not even in the story, but his absence has an effect on the children in the story. This is the primary theme of In My Father’s House, which focuses on the alienation between prominent civil rights leader the Reverend Phillip Martin and one of the three children he abandoned years ago. At the peak of Martin’s career, he is confronted by his troubled young son, known as Robert X. Robert finds Martin to confront and kill the father whose neglect he sees as responsible for the family’s disintegration. Martin ultimately confronts pasts and learns about the effect his actions have had on his first family. Similarly, in “Bloodline,” the central character, Cooper Laurent, must come to terms with his father’s role in his painful past in order to claim his manhood. Alienation between fathers and children can also be found in several familial relationships in Catherine Carmier and A Gathering of Old Men.
Works in Critical Context
Since his first novels, Gaines has been recognized as an integral interpreter of Southern history and culture. He has been noted for voicing the stories of contemporary Southern African American men—a perspective many scholars feel has seldom been represented in the past half-century as prominently as in Gaines’s fiction. The author has drawn wide praise for his ability to capture the character and speech of ordinary black people of the South, whom he portrays with strength and compassion. While reviewers have charted a shift in his use of black folk materials and storytelling traditions that has accompanied the evolution of his literary vision, other commentators have focused on his thematic recurrence of the African American male’s rite of passage to manhood, the cultural definition of black masculinity, and the relationships between fathers and sons. Many reviewers have also commended Gaines’s fiction for realizing typical human motivations and emotions concerning such topics as American racial relations, human rights, and personal responsibility.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Critics generally found Gaines’s novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to be at the epitome of his fictional power. ”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,” writes 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 ‘autbiography,’ offered up in the form of taped reminiscences is artifice,” adds Josh Greenfield in Life, ”the effect is stunning.” Many critics believe that 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 comments in the Iowa Review. So successful is he in becoming Miss Jane Pitt-man, that when we talk about her story, we do not think of Gaines as her creator, but as her recording editor.”
A Lesson Before Dying
Similarly, critics lauded A Lesson Before Dyingas a gripping exploration of racial tension and the perseverance of the victims of injustice. Sandra D. Gaines of the Detroit Free Press notes that Gaines creates a compelling, intense story about heroes and the human spirit” and that education encompasses more than the lessons taught in school.” Commonweal critic Madeline Marget likens the ordeal of Jefferson, a young man sentenced to death for a crime he did not fully understand, to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Marget writes, 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.”
- Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
- Estes, David C. Critical Reflections on the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
- Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
- Bryant, Jerry H. ”From Death to Life: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines.” Iowa Review (Winter 1972): 206-210.
- Davis, Sandra D. Review of A Lesson Before Dying. Detroit Free Press (June 6, 1993): 7J.
- Greenfield, Josh. Review of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Life (April 30, 1971).
- Marget, Madeline. Review of A Lesson Before Dying. Commonweal (June 6, 2000): 23.
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