Before it became fashionable, Ernest J. Gaines (January 15, 1933-) was one southern black writer who wrote about his native area. Although he has lived much of his life in California, he has never been able to write adequately about that region. He has tried to write two novels about the West but has failed to finish either of them. Thus, while he has physically left the South, he has never left emotionally. His ties remain with the South, and his works remain rooted there. When he first began reading seriously, Gaines gravitated toward those writers who wrote about the soil and the people who lived close to it, among them William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and Ivan Turgenev. He was disappointed to discover that few black writers had dealt with the black rural southern experience. (Richard Wright had begun his career by doing so, and his work weakened as he moved further from the South.) Thus, Gaines began his career with the conscious desire to fill a void. He believed that no one had written fiction about his people.
This fact helps explain why his novels always concentrate on rural settings and on the “folk” who inhabit them. One of the great strengths of his work is voice; the sound of the voice telling the story is central to its meaning. Among his works, Of Love and Dust, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and all the stories in Bloodline are told in the first person by rural black characters. The voices of the storytellers, especially Miss Jane’s, express the perspective not only of the individual speakers but also in some sense of the entire black community, and it is the community on which Gaines most often focuses his attention.
Louisiana society, especially from a racial perspective, is complicated. Not only black and white people live there, but also Creoles and Cajuns. Thus there are competing communities, and some of Gaines’s more interesting characters find themselves caught between groups, forced to weigh competing demands in order to devise a course of action.
Several themes recur in the Gaines canon, and together they create the total effect of his work. Generally, he deals with the relationship between past and present and the possibility of change, both individual and social. Using a broad historical canvas in his works, especially in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines treats the changes in race relations over time, but he is most interested in people, in whether and how they change as individuals. The issue of determinism and free will is therefore a central question in his work. Gaines has been very interested in and influenced by Greek tragedy, and in his fiction, a strain of environmental determinism is evident. In his works prior to and including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a growing freedom on the part of his black characters can be seen, but the tension between fate and free will always underlies his works.
Some of Gaines’s most admirable characters—for example, Marcus in Of Love and Dust, and Ned, Joe, and Jimmy in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—have the courage, pride, and dignity to fight for change. At the same time, however, Gaines reveres the old, who, while often resistant to change, embody the strength of the black people. In his work, one frequently finds tension between generations, a conflict between old and young that is reconciled only in the character of Miss Jane Pittman, who even in extreme old age retains the courage to fight for change.
Other recurring tensions and dichotomies are evident in Gaines’s novels. Conflict often exists between men and women. Because of slavery, which denied them their manhood, black men feel forced to take extreme actions to attain or assert it, a theme most evident in Of Love and Dust, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and the stories in Bloodline.Women, on the other hand, are often presented in Gaines’s fiction as preservers and conservers. Each group embodies a strength, but Gaines suggests that wholeness comes about only when the peculiar strengths of the two sexes are united, again most clearly exemplified in Miss Jane and her relationship with the men in her life.
Among the male characters, a tension exists between fathers and sons. Treated explicitly in Gaines’s fourth novel, In My Father’s House, this theme is implicit throughout the canon. Though young men look to the older generation for models, there are few reliable examples for them to follow, and they find it difficult to take responsibility for their lives and for the lives of their loved ones.
Gaines’s characters at their best seek freedom and dignity: Some succeed, and some fail in their attempts to overcome both outer and inner obstacles. Viewed in sequence, Gaines’s first three novels move from the almost total bleakness and determinism of Catherine Carmier to the triumph of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In My Father’s House, however, reflects a falling away of hope in both individual and social terms, perhaps corresponding to the diminution of expectations experienced in America during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Gaines’s first novel, Catherine Carmier, based on a work he wrote while an adolescent in Vallejo, has many of the characteristic weaknesses of a first novel and is more interesting for what it anticipates in Gaines’s later career than for its intrinsic merits. Though it caused barely a ripple of interest when it was first published, the novel introduces many of the themes that Gaines treats more effectively in his mature fiction. The book is set in the country, near Bayonne, Louisiana, an area depicted as virtually a wasteland. Ownership of much of this region has devolved to the Cajuns, who appear throughout Gaines’s novels as Snopes-like vermin, interested in owning the land only to exploit it. Like Faulkner, Gaines sees this kind of person as particularly modern, and the growing power of the Cajuns indicates a weakening of values and a loss of determination to live in right relationship to the land.
Onto the scene comes Jackson Bradley, a young black man born and reared in the area but (like Gaines himself) educated in California. Bradley is a hollow, rootless man, a man who does not know where he belongs. He has found the North and the West empty, with people living hurried, pointless lives, but he sees the South as equally empty. Feeling no link to a meaningful past and no hope for a productive future, Bradley is a deracinated modern man. He has returned to Louisiana to bid final farewell to his Aunt Charlotte, a representative of the older generation, and to her way of life.
While there and while trying to find a meaningful path for himself, Bradley meets and falls in love with Catherine Carmier. She, too, is living a blocked life, and he feels that if they can leave the area, they will be able to make a fulfilling life together. Catherine is the daughter of Raoul Carmier, in many ways the most interesting character in the novel. A Creole, he is caught between the races. Because of his black blood, he is not treated as the equal of whites, but because of his white blood, he considers black people to be beneath him. He has a near incestuous relationship with Catherine, since after her birth his wife was unfaithful to him and he considers none of their subsequent children his. Feeling close only to Catherine, he forbids her to associate with any men, but especially with black men. A man of great pride and love of the land, Raoul is virtually the only man in the region to resist the encroachment of the Cajuns. His attitude isolates him all the more, which in turn makes him fanatically determined to hold on to Catherine.
Despite her love for and loyalty to her father, Catherine senses the dead end her life has become and returns Bradley’s love. Though she wants to leave with him, she is paralyzed by her love of her father and by her knowledge of what her leaving would do to him. This conflict climaxes with a brutal fight between Raoul and Bradley over Catherine, a fight that Bradley wins. Catherine, however, returns home to nurse her father. The novel ends ambiguously, with at least a hint that Catherine will return to Bradley, although the thrust of the book militates against that eventuality. Gaines implies that history and caste are a prison, a tomb. No change is possible for the characters because they cannot break out of the cages their lives have become. Love is the final victim. Catherine will continue living her narrow, unhealthy life, and Jackson Bradley will continue wandering the earth, searching for something to fill his inner void.
Of Love and Dust
Gaines’s second novel, Of Love and Dust, was received much more enthusiastically than was Catherine Carmier; with it, he began to win the largely positive, respectful reviews that have continued to the present time. Like Catherine Carmier, Of Love and Dust is a story of frustrated love. The setting is the same: rural Louisiana, where the Cajuns are gradually assuming ownership and control of the land. Of Love and Dust is a substantial improvement over Catherine Carmier, however, in part because it is told in the first person by Jim Kelly, an observer of the central story. In this novel, one can see Gaines working toward the folk voice that became such an integral part of the achievement of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
The plot of the novel concerns Marcus Payne, a young black man sentenced to prison for murder and then bonded out by a white plantation owner who wants him to work in his fields. Recognizing Marcus’s rebelliousness and pride, the owner and his Cajun overseer, Sidney Bonbon, brutally attempt to break his spirit. This only makes Marcus more determined, and in revenge, he decides to seduce Louise, Bonbon’s neglected wife. What begins, however, as simply a selfish and egocentric act of revenge on Marcus’s part grows into a genuine though grotesque love. When he and Louise decide to run away together, Bonbon discovers them and kills Marcus. Even though he dies, Marcus, by resisting brutalizing circumstances, retains his pride and attempts to prove his manhood and dignity. His attempts begin in a self-centered way, but as his love for Louise grows, he grows in stature in the reader’s eyes until he becomes a figure of heroic dimensions.
Through his use of a first-person narrator, Gaines creates a double perspective in the novel, including on one hand the exploits of Marcus and on the other the black community’s reactions to them. The narrator, Jim Kelly, is the straw boss at the plantation, a member of the black community but also accepted and trusted by the whites because of his dependability and his unwillingness to cause any problems. His initial reaction to Marcus—resentment and dislike of him as a troublemaker—represents the reaction of the community at large. The older members of the community never move beyond that attitude because they are committed to the old ways, to submission and accommodation. To his credit, however, Jim’s attitude undergoes a transformation. As he observes Marcus, his resentment changes to sympathy and respect, for he comes to see Marcus as an example of black manhood that others would do well to emulate.
Marcus’s death gives evidence of the strain of fate and determinism in this novel as well, yet because he dies with his pride and dignity intact, Of Love and Dust is more hopeful than Catherine Carmier. Gaines indicates that resistance is possible and, through the character of Jim Kelly, that change can occur. Kelly leaves the plantation at the end of the novel, no longer passively accepting what fate brings him but believing that he can act and shape his own life. Though Marcus is an apolitical character, like Jackson Bradley, it is suggested that others will later build on his actions to force social change on the South. Of Love and Dust is a major step forward beyond Catherine Carmier both artistically and thematically. Through his use of the folk voice, Gaines vivifies his story, and the novel suggests the real possibility of free action by his characters.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Without a doubt, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is Gaines’s major contribution to American literature. Except for an introduction written by “the editor,” it is told entirely in the first person by Miss Jane and covers approximately one hundred years, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Basing the novel on stories he heard while a child around his aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, and using the format of oral history made popular in recent decades, Gaines created a “folk autobiography” that tells the story of people who are not in the history books. Although the work is the story of Miss Jane, she is merely an observer for a substantial portion of its length, and the story becomes that of black Americans from slavery to the present. Gaines’s mastery of voice is especially important here, for Miss Jane’s voice is the voice of her people.
From the very beginning of the novel, when Miss Jane is determined, even in the face of physical beatings, to keep the name a Union soldier gave her and refuses to be called Ticey, her slave name, to the end of the novel, when she leads her people to Bayonne in a demonstration against segregated facilities, she is courageous and in the best sense of the word “enduring,” like Faulkner’s Dilsey. In her character and story, many of the dichotomies that run through Gaines’s work are unified. The differing roles of men and women are important elements in the book. Women preserve and sustain—a role symbolized by Miss Jane’s longevity. Men, on the other hand, feel the need to assert their manhood in an active way. Three black men are especially important in Miss Jane’s life, beginning with Ned, whom she rears from childhood after his mother is killed and who becomes in effect a “son” to her. Like Marcus Payne, Ned is a rebel, but his rebellion is concentrated in the political arena. Returning to Louisiana after the turn of the century, he attempts to lead his people to freedom. Though he is murdered by whites, his legacy and memory are carried on by Miss Jane and the people in the community.
Later, during the 1960’s, Jimmy Aaron, another young man who tries to encourage his people to effective political action, appears. Again the members of the older generation hang back, fearful of change and danger, but after Jimmy is killed, Jane unites old and young, past and present by her determination to go to Bayonne and carry on Jimmy’s work. Thus Marcus’s apolitical rebellion in Of Love and Dust has been transformed into political action. The third man in Jane’s life is Joe Pittman, her husband. A horse-breaker, he is committed to asserting and proving his manhood through his work. Although he too dies, killed by a wild horse he was determined to break, Jane in her understanding and love of him, as well as in her affection for all her men, bridges the gap between man and woman. In her character, the opposites of old and young, past and present, and man and woman are reconciled.
Miss Jane’s strength is finally the strength of the past, but it is directed toward the future. When Jimmy returns, he tells the people that he is nothing without their strength, referring not only to their physical numbers but also to the strength of their character as it has been forged by all the hardships they have undergone through history. Even though the people seem weak and fearful, the example of Miss Jane shows that they need not be. They can shake off the chains of bondage and determinism, assert their free spirit through direct action, and effect change. The change has only begun by the conclusion of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but the pride and dignity of Miss Jane and all those she represents suggest that ultimately they will prevail.
In My Father’s House
Gaines’s fourth novel, In My Father’s House, was the first he had written in the third person since Catherine Carmier; the effect of its point of view is to distance the reader from the action and characters, creating an ironic perspective. Set during a dreary winter in 1970, in the period of disillusionment following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novel suggests that the progress that was implicit in the ending of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was temporary at best, if not downright illusory. The atmosphere of the novel is one of frustration and stagnation.
Both the setting and the protagonist of In My Father’s House are uncharacteristic for Gaines. Instead of using the rural settings so familiar from his other works, he sets his story in a small town. Rather than focusing on the common people, Gaines chooses as his protagonist Philip Martin, one of the leaders of the black community, a public figure, a minister who is considering running for Congress. A success by practically any measure and pridefully considering himself a man, Martin is brought low in the course of the novel. His illegitimate son, Robert X, a ghostlike man, appears and wordlessly accuses him. Robert is evidence that, by abandoning him, his siblings, and their mother many years previously, Martin in effect destroyed their lives. Having been a drinker and gambler, irresponsible, he tries to explain to his son that his earlier weakness was a legacy of slavery. Even though he seems to have surmounted that crippling legacy, his past rises up to haunt him and forces him to face his weakness. Martin wants to effect a reconciliation with his son and thus with his past, but Robert’s suicide precludes that. In My Father’s House makes explicit a concern that was only implicit in Gaines’s earlier novels, the relationship between fathers and sons. No communication is possible here, and the failure is illustrative of a more general barrier between the generations. Although in the earlier novels the young people led in the struggle for change and the older characters held back, here the situation is reversed. Martin and members of his generation are the leaders, while the young are for the most part sunk in cynicism, apathy, and hopelessness, or devoted to anarchic violence. If the hope of a people is in the young, or in a reconciliation of old and young, hope does not exist in this novel.
A Gathering of Old Men
Hope does exist, however, in Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men, for which Gaines returns to his more characteristic rural setting. Here he returns as well to the optimism with which The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ended. This time, as at the end of that novel and in In My Father’s House, it is up to the old among the black community to lead the struggle for change, this time primarily because there are no young men left to lead. All of them have escaped to towns and cities that promise more of a future than does rural Louisiana.
In this small corner of Louisiana, however, as elsewhere in Gaines’s fiction, Cajuns are encroaching on the land, replacing men with machines and even threatening to plow up the old graveyard where generations of black people have been buried. When Beau Boutan, son of the powerful Cajun Fix Boutan, is shot to death in the quarters of Marshall plantation, where Marshall black people have worked the land since the days of slavery, the old black men who have lived there all of their lives are faced with one last chance to stand up and be men. They stand up for the sake of Matthu, the only one of them who ever stood up before and thus the most logical suspect in the murder. They also stand up because of all the times in their past when they should have stood up but did not. They prove one last time that free action is possible when eighteen or more of them, all in their seventies and eighties, arm themselves with rifles of the same gauge used in the shooting and face down the white sheriff, Mapes, each in his turn claiming to be the killer.
As shut off as the quarters are from the rest of the world, it is easy to forget that the events of the novel take place as recently as the late 1970’s. Beau Boutan’s brother Gil, however, represents the change that has been taking place in the world outside Marshall. He has achieved gridiron fame at Louisiana State University by working side by side with Cal, a young black man. Youth confronts age when Gil returns home and tries to persuade his father not to ride in revenge against Beau’s murderer, as everyone expects him to do. Gil represents the possibility of change from the white perspective. He persuades his father to let the law find and punish Beau’s murderer, but he pays a heavy price when his father disowns him. He cannot stop other young Cajuns, led by Luke Will, who are not willing to change but would rather cling to the vigilantism of the old South.
In spite of their dignity and pride, the old men at Marshall risk looking rather silly because after all these years they stand ready for a battle that seems destined never to take place once Fix Boutan decides not to ride on Marshall. Sheriff Mapes taunts them with the knowledge that they have waited until too late to take a stand. Ironically, they are ultimately able to maintain their dignity and reveal their growth in freedom by standing up to the one person who has been most valiant in her efforts to help them: Candy Marshall, niece of the landowner. In her effort to protect Matthu, who was largely responsible for rearing her after her parents died, Candy has gone so far as to try to take credit for the murder herself. What she fails to realize is that the days are long past when black men need the protection of a white woman. She is stunned to realize that she too has been living in the past and has been guilty of treating grown black men like children.
The novel does eventually end with a gunfight, because Luke Will and his men refuse to let the murder of a white man by a black one go unavenged. It is fitting that the two men who fall in the battle are Luke Will, the one who was most resistant to change, and Charlie Biggs, the real murderer, who, at the age of fifty, finally proves his manhood by refusing to be beaten by Beau Boutan and then by returning to take the blame for the murder that he has committed. Charlie’s body is treated like a sacred relic as each member of the black community, from the oldest to the youngest, touches it, hoping that some of the courage that Charlie found late in life will rub off. Apparently it already has.
With A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines returns to first-person narration, but this time the history is told one chapter at a time by various characters involved in or witnessing the action. His original plan was to have the narrator be the white newspaperman Lou Dimes, Candy’s boyfriend. He found, however, that there was still much that a black man in Louisiana would not confide to a white man, even a sympathetic one, so he let the people tell their own story, with Dimes narrating an occasional chapter.
A Lesson Before Dying
A Lesson Before Dying, set in Gaines’s fictional Bayonne during six months of 1948, reveals the horrors of Jim Crowism in the story of twenty-oneyear- old Jefferson, a scarcely literate man-child who works the cane fields of Pichot Plantation. Jefferson hooks up with two criminals who are killed during the robbery of a liquor store, along with the store’s white proprietor. Jefferson is left to stand trial before a jury of twelve white men who overlook his naïveté despite his lawyer’s argument that he is a dumb animal, a “thing” that acts on command, no more deserving of the electric chair than a hog. When this description causes Jefferson to become practically catatonic, his grandmother enlists the local schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins, to help Jefferson gain his manhood before he is put to death. Thus, like A Gathering of Old Men, this novel questions the traditional devaluing of black men in the south.
Reluctantly, Wiggins agrees to help Jefferson by encouraging him to speak and to write, visiting him often and giving him a journal in which to record his thoughts. Finally, right before his execution, Jefferson has a breakthrough when he tells Wiggins to thank his students for the pecans they sent him in jail.Wiggins himself becomes the central character as he learns the real lesson of the novel, that all people are connected and responsible for each other. Wiggins comes to terms with his own role in the system that victimizes Jefferson, and the entire community learns from how Jefferson faces his execution. The novel pays a tribute to those who persevere in the face of injustice, and it also puts forward hope for better racial relationships, especially in the character of Paul, the young white jailer who is sympathetic to Jefferson and to Grant Wiggins’s attempts to bring forth his humanity.
If In My Father’s House represents a falling away of hope for human progress and perhaps also a falling away in artistry, one finds once again in A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying evidence of the same genuine strengths that Gaines exhib- ited in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: a mastery of the folk voice, a concern for common people, a reverence for the everyday, a love of the land, and a powerful evocation of the strength, pride, and dignity people can develop by working on and living close to the soil.
Long fiction • Catherine Carmier, 1964; Of Love and Dust, 1967; The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1971; In My Father’s House, 1978; A Gathering of Old Men, 1983; A Lesson Before Dying, 1993; Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays 2005; The Tragedy of Brady Sims (2017).
Short fiction: Bloodline, 1968; A Long Day in November, 1971.
Miscellaneous: Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines, 1990; Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays, 2005.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.