2016 (Vol. 49, no. 1) New Criticisms on the Works of Ernest J. Gaines: Man of Letters—Anne Brown, Contributing Editor
Explicit in the canon of Ernest J. Gaines’s work is a delicate intertwining of history with universal themes of personal integrity, human dignity, and self-respect. Through simple dialogue and sparse physical descriptions, his work offers homage to ordinary black citizens who not only deserve respect in their everyday lives but crave it as matter of order and sensibilities. As a son of the South, Gaines’s obsession with the speech, cultural traditions, and mores specific to the Point Coupée Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, is notable in each of his seven works of fiction. When Gaines left the plantation in 1948, at age 15, to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, he had, by that time, become so enamored with the rural land, community, and its people that he was unable to remove himself psychologically from the region. He maintains that his physical body went to California, but his soul and emotions remained in Louisiana. “I left but I didn’t leave. Something kept holding me back, holding me back here [the Point Coupée Plantation]” (Interview, 2006). During his formative years on the plantation he learned the importance of an undesecrated environment, and still, to this day, advocates the joys of Southern life untouched by modern industrialization and development. A fierce believer in the unadorned countryside of his upbringing, he writes, in Mozart and Ledbelly (2005), regarding his early search for literary works reflective of his rural background, that he wanted to “smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, [and] search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river” (Interview. 2006). Not disbanding his desire to return to his Southern roots, he (and his wife, Dianne) returned to Oscar, Louisiana, in 2004.
Even though the author’s experiences on the plantation shaped him, the memories did not dissolve because of his relocation to the West Coast. On the Louisiana plantation of his birth and there were people, he says, “who knew my grandparents’ grandparents . . . so something about it [the plantation] just kept me here . . . and I know that it was because I still felt connected to everything here” (Interview, 2006). While his literary work captures the African American cultural and storytelling traditions of the rural south, his interest remains grounded in the region of his birth: the quarters of the Point Coupée Plantation in southern Louisiana. To Gaines, the plantation is a cultural force in his life and serves as the fictional Bayonne community of his work. The setting of In My Father’s House (1978), Gaines’s 4th novel, however, is the writer’s only work which takes place outside the fictional community of Bayonne. It is also the only work which received unenthusiastic criticism from scholars and critics. This proposed collection, New Criticisms on the Works of Ernest J. Gaines: A Man of Letters, will examine selected texts and narratives in exploration of ways in which the community, as the site for social change, helps define notions of manhood and womanhood, contributes to the social construct of black male identity, and serves as the backdrop of cultural, generational and political consciousness.
Gaines credits Faulkner and other writers, including Hemingway and Joyce, with helping shape his writing. Russian author Ivan Turgenev was also a major influence. Turgenev’s classic work, Fathers and Sons (1862), served as a model for many of Gaines’s works. While Bayonne, Gaines’s fictional community, is often compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatapha County, Faulkner, Gaines says, was influential in showing the author “how to describe the country stores, how people sat around on the porches . . . how to concentrate in a single area . . . [W]hen it came to characters reacting, it was my judgment . . . not Faulkner’s” (Interview). Gaines’s greatest influences, however, come from the plantation: “I draw from the old people. I draw from this land . . . ” (Interview). His “draw from the land” is an appropriate description of his body of work, which extends nearly seven decades.
The work presented by the scholars in this collection will contribute significantly to existing studies in the Gaines repertoire, continue to foster a national and international interest in the writer’s work, extend the intellectual discourse on the literary south and, hopefully, allow the writer’s work to continue to retain its place in the canon of American literature, southern literature, African American literature, and World Literature. While Gaines’s body of work articulates the social, political, and economic position of society’s most vulnerable citizens—the poor, voiceless, disenfranchised and invisible—it also gives rise to the transformative powers of the written word as his narratives speak truth to power. From the author’s youthful days on the Point Coupée Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, to his adult years in California and to his eventual return to the plantation, his affection for the land, its people and their stories has not diminished. Gaines’s work has been shown on both small and large screens (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, A Lesson Before Dying), translated into over twenty-seven languages, including Spanish, French, German and Italian, and performed on national and international stages. As the recipient of numerous state, national and global awards, his novels transcend race, class, gender and identity. The author’s most critically acclaimed novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature.
The ten essays contained in this collective will explore various perspectives, including themes of young womanhood in the author’s works (Biederman and Morrison); redemption and identity (Lillie Anne Brown); mixed-raced characters (Keith Byerman); children as narrators (Alexis Egan); race, masculinity, and communal identity (David Magill); the literary influence of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev on the author’s works (Claire Manes); a Bakhtinian reading of narrative voice (Diane Russo); a parallel study of Creole representations (Matthew Teutsch); cultural “eye” behavior and spiritual sight (Veronica Adams Yon); and sports as “narrative and community” (Michael Zeitler). At age eighty-two, Ernest J. Gaines is a national treasure and a literary icon. Not only is he still writing (The Man Who Whipped Children, in progress) and championing the splendor and magnificence of the American South, he continues to articulate his deep and abiding respect and appreciation for the land, its people and the cultural environment which sustained him during his formal years.
2016 (Vol. 49, no. 2) Voice of Reason: Studies of John Henry Newman—Paul H. Schmidt Contributing Editor