In This Article Ernest Gaines

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies

American Literature Ernest Gaines
by
Valerie Babb
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0200

Introduction

With the publication of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971, Ernest J. Gaines (b. 15 January 1933) was acknowledged as a major American writer. This landmark novel, which was subsequently made into a television movie starring Cicely Tyson, came at a time when all manner of American discourse was re-evaluating the nation’s practices of African American enslavement. The fictional autobiography of a young girl living in slavery whose personal voice relates the events of Emancipation, Joe Louis defeating Max Schmeling, Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement became a microcosm of American history. The intertwining of history with individual stories is a hallmark of Gaines’s writing style. His texts are set in the fictional Bayonne, a reimagining of his Louisiana parish, Pointe Coupée, and all contain characters whose cadences render the traditions and stories of the region, a landscape of bayous, decaying plantations, and tenant farms. Gaines may have been popularly “discovered” with Miss Jane, but he wrote two previous novels, Catherine Carmier (1964) and Of Love and Dust (1967), and numerous short stories, five of which were collected in Bloodline (1968). All mine the reservoir of Louisiana’s culture and exemplify narrative techniques that replicate in writing the oral storytelling intrinsic to his native area. Coming from a long line of storytellers or “liars,” and wanting to incorporate their rural Southern worldview and way of telling in his fiction, he imbricates written form with a mosaic of folk materials. A flawless ear for language developed while listening to storytellers as he sat on his Aunt Augusteen’s porch gives his prose a unique rhythm, while research into the marginalized—the recollections of former slaves, the voices of the incarcerated—gives his themes timeless resonances. Gaines’s long career has seen the advent of many literary movements. He lived in San Francisco during that city’s literary renaissance, and wrote during the social upheavals of the Black Arts period, but through it all kept close to his aesthetic vision. His fiction is filled with political nuances and historic moments from enslavement to contemporary civil rights, but all are rendered in intimate terms through characters, each in his or her own way, facing deterministic factors stemming from race and social class. Gaines has a modernist impulse to make it new, and transforms conventions of prose literature, but change is always in service to embracing a social past that is not really past. Though his writing is deeply rooted in the complex hybrid histories of black and white Americans, Cajuns, and Creoles living in a single fictional parish, it is conversant with perpetual questions of humanity and social justice.

General Overviews

General overviews such as the Callaloo special issue of 1978, Simpson 1991, and Young 2007 characterize Gaines as a regionalist and reveal the relationship of his antecedents in Pointe Coupée Parish to his development as a writer. Brown 2016, Babb 1991, and Byerman 1984 focus on his aesthetics, particularly the way he integrates traditions of orality and vernacular practices into written prose to create a form of writing more appropriate to the subject matter of his fiction. Carmean 1998 and Doyle 2002 are instances of readings that frequently intertwine commentary on region with analyses of Gaines’s fiction.

  • Babb, Valerie Melissa. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Critical survey of Gaines’s major fiction including the short story collection Bloodline and the novels up to A Gathering of Old Men. Viewing Gaines as a bayou griot, uses history, biographical contexts, and interviews to examine Gaines as a writer shaping prose form to embrace the culture and expressive traditions of Pointe Coupeé, Louisiana, while upending conventions privileging traditional narrative forms and voices.

  • Brown, Lillie Anne, ed. Special Issue: New Criticisms on the Works of Ernest J. Gaines. Studies in the Literary Imagination 49.1 (Summer 2016).

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the more recent compendiums of Gaines scholarship. While honoring his devotion to Louisiana environs, the essays go beyond traditional regionalist readings by examining portraits of black women in his constructions of black masculinity, and racial anti-essentialism. Not all of Gaines’s works are treated, but the collection is representative of his major fictional themes including the role of religion, ambiguous race identities, and liberation through language and literacy.

  • Byerman, Keith E. “Ernest J. Gaines.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955. Edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, 84–96. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent introduction to Ernest Gaines that offers a biography as well as analyses of his published fiction up to A Gathering of Old Men. Summarizes plots while also providing critical assessments of Gaines’s themes, uses of regionalism, and narrative strategies.

  • Carmean, Karen. Ernest J. Gaines: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Companion book to Gaines’s fiction that offers critical readings of the novels up to A Lesson Before Dying and the short story collection Bloodline. Engages themes of Southern history and culture, caste, and class. A complete bibliography of Gaines’s fiction that includes selected reviews and criticism is also provided.

  • Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on Gaines’s concern with community whether in portraits of individuals or in his use of communal narrative. Texts examined include early short pieces as well as the full-length works. Covers familiar terrain, considering his narrative form and regionalism, but it also adds to Gaines scholarship by questioning the representation of gender across his works.

  • Ernest J. Gaines: A Special Issue. Callaloo 1.3 (May 1978).

    E-mail Citation »

    A must-read for any scholar of Gaines. It includes poems inspired by Gaines, five critical articles, and his own “The Revenge of Old Men,” a version of the beginning of A Gathering of Old Men. It is particularly useful for the interviews in which Gaines discusses his work. Photographs of the Louisiana region that forms the core of his writing complement the issue’s written works. 142 pp.

  • Simpson, Anne Key. A Gathering of Gaines: The Man and the Writer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Distinguished by the use of Gaines’s papers and manuscripts at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Provides a biographical context for reading of his major works.

  • Young, Reggie Scott. “Ernest J. Gaines: A Portfolio.” Callaloo 30.3 (Summer 2007).

    DOI: 10.1353/cal.2008.0017E-mail Citation »

    Part of the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the journal Callaloo, this collection documents Gaines’s professional life in images and ephemera: photographs of him at work and at the 1990 Louisiana Public Broadcasting Inaugural Louisiana Legends Gala honoring him, a check received for honorable mention in the Air Force Short Story Contest, and pictures of the River Lake Plantation. Together they provide a portrait of Gaines beyond the written page.

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