ERNEST J. GAINES: January 15, 1933-November 5, 2019
Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.” Ernest J. Gaines, A Gathering of Old Men
“Ain't we all been hurt by slavery?”
Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Ernest J. Gaines; Interviews with Ernest J. Gaines
Sometime in the1970’s I was haunting the literature stacks at the Parkway Main Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia like I did on a regular basis. I had always been a reader, but my high school experiences combined with the times in which we lived made me an insatiable and voracious reader, and I spent a great deal of time at libraries. I was reading everything: beat and modern poetry, revisionist histories of the United States, Russian and African writers, books about Blacks in the American West, and tons of poetry and novels by Black authors. In the literature section that day I stumbled across a book that would become one of my guidelines for the next decade:Interviews with Black Authors, by John O’Brien. This book contained interviews with several of my favorite authors at the time-Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man, Robert Hayden, whose poem, Frederick Douglass haunts me to this day, and Al Young, whose touching coming of age and music novel, Snakes, I learned about from a Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice. There were a bunch of other authors with which I was not familiar, and over time I read all of the interviews, and I went on to read books by the people whose interviews intrigued my the most.That is how I discovered such wonderful and creative writers as Ishmael Reed, John Wideman and Alice Walker. And it is how I became acquainted with a Louisiana born writer by the name of Ernest J. Gaines.
Gaines’ interview immediately captured me for two reasons. One was because he talked about capturing the sounds, dialect, time, and feel of the places in which his writing was set. I had read a little William Faulkner by then, and I knew what Faulkner was doing with Yoknapatawpha county in his novels. Gaines acknowledged being influenced by Faulkner, but he also said that he knew that all the people who Faulkner portrayed were not like people he knew in real life on Southern plantations. He also did not see them in the Russian peasant novels he loved by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, so he decided he would portray them as he knew them. Gaines also talked about his Louisiana plantation setting he used in most of his novels almost as if it was a character focusing, for example, on the role dust played in one of his novels, And he talked about how his characters related to struggles between the past and the present, how many of them were trying to define what it meant to be a man, and the various meanings death could have in not only his novels, but in real life. WOW! All of this was heady stuff for a young, urban Black boy in the 1970's, on the edge of “manhood,“ trying to play the blues, exploring his cultural past, loving history, and looking at all of this in different ways. I had to read this man.
I read Catherine Cormier first and got acquainted with how Gaines could capture the dialect and sounds of characters-almost so I could hear them as I read the conversations. I could see how he could hint at themes and meaning without necessarily making it obvious. I was also impressed also by how he could present emotions in such a quietly intense way and how he could make the ordinary lives of so many of his characters feel real and compelling. I don't think i had ever at that point really identified with and really appreciated a female character in a novel before, but Catharine really affected me. This was a wonderful revelation that awakened me to new insights in reading. I was hooked. From there I read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and I then had to read everything he wrote. His characters, ideas, setting, plots and quietly stated themes would sit with me for days after I finished reading one of his works. Some of his books, including, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, I read several times, getting something out of each reading. Ernest Gaines became one of my favorite writers and he taught me and awakened me to so much.
The Autobiography[hy of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying were each made into powerful films. If you are not familiar with Gaines' work but are reluctant to jump right into reading a new author, I would recommend seeing these films. They are incredibly powerful, well-acted and well-directed (although I do have one little problem with a scene in Miss Jane Pittman.) I will see those films over the next week or two, and I may go back and re-read one or more of his books. Ernest J. Gaines wanted to bring the world he grew up in and knew to life in a full and meaningful way. He did that and much, much more.
(Here are a few websites about Ernest J. Gaines: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ernest-J-Gaines