Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Farewell Blog Post

Today, we are going to do something a little different. At the end of the month, Dr. Matthew Teutsch, the Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center, will say goodbye to us and move on to other endeavors. Before he leaves, we thought it would be a good idea to ask his about his time here, what Gaines means to him, and why Gaines's work is important today. Make sure to keep an eye out for Dr. Teutsch's own blog, Interminable Rambling, which he plans to start in August. As we get closer, we will let you know more about it. 

How long have you been at the Ernest J. Gaines Center?

I have been at the center for a total of three and a half years. I started as a graduate assistant in January 2012. At that time, I finishing up my comprehensive exams for my PhD program and starting to focus on the dissertation. As the graduate assistant, I worked on organizing archival materials, creating lists of scholarship on Gaines, leading tours of the center, conducting lectures, and other tasks. In April of 2014, after the director of the center took a new job, I became the Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. Since then, I have, among other things, acquired new items for the collection, organized the 50th anniversary celebration for Catherine Carmier, worked with NEA Big Read recipients, hosted a concert by Irvin Mayfield, and lectured to classes across the nation. 

What was your first encounter with Ernest J. Gaines?

That depends, do you mean with his writing or with him specifically? With his writing, I picked up A Gathering of Old Men about ten years ago. I read it because I knew Gaines is from Louisiana, and that appealed to me. Afterwards, I thought, “Is this it?” It didn’t really do a lot for me then. I read A Lesson before Dying after that. The story moved me; however, I kind of felt the same way, “Is this it?” I’m not sure what I was expecting—Dante, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Ellison, or something else. Who knows what I thought.

When I picked him up again, around my PhD coursework, I started to reread Gaines, and I really examined him closer when I started working at the center as a graduate assistant. Then, I realized that Gaines writes what I like to call “deceptively easy” texts. He is very accessible, and for that reason, he has both a popular and academic audience. In this way, Gaines recalls one of his inspirations, Ernest Hemingway, who placed 10% on the surface of the text and another 90% underneath (the iceberg theory). Digging through the surface, we see that Gaines does a lot more than it may appear at first. For me, this keeps me coming back because like any good piece of art each time I come back I see something entirely new and enlightening.

My first encounter with Gaines specifically, I think, came at the cemetery beautification in 2009. There, I worked in the cemetery, which in and of itself provides a very unique perspective on Gaines and his writing. He came out there in his golf cart, and I, as most people would be, approached him tentatively. I don’t recall much from the first meeting, but I do know that I discovered ways to speak with him. For me, I talked about sports, and as time went on, I began to loosen up. Eventually, I realized that for all of his fame, Gaines is a person just like me. He likes his Olde Tyme shrimp po-boys and sitting around and talking. Things I like to do as well.   

Once I got past the initial awe of being in his presence, conversation became easier. We would speak about baseball, literature, or food. Hearing stories about Juan Marichal or Hank Aaron always made my day. Hearing him talk about literature, his own writing and that of others, always taught me something new. Hearing him speak about shrimp po-boys, well, just made me hungry. 

What has Gaines taught you?

Gaines has taught me a lot of things. Specifically, he has solidified my thoughts regarding art and the multitudinous ingredients that go into the creation of a piece of literature, a painting, a song, or anything. Gaines speaks about Vincent Van Gogh inspiring him. He speaks about Modest Mussorgsky. He speaks about William Faulkner. All of these influences, and more, had a part in the finished project, whether they appear noticeable or not. For me, the interconnections between all of these things and Gaines's work highlights that life, and art, does not exist in an insular bubble. Everyone, and everything, converses together in one way or another. Today, we need conversation and dialogue on numerous issues, and to me, Gaines provides an avenue to begin some of those conversations.

Along with highlighting the interrelatedness of art, Gaines has also taught me history. He has shown me the lives of individuals (African American, white, Cajun, & Creole) in Louisiana. When most people think bout Louisiana, the "exotic" New Orleans comes to mind. Gaines, unlike many other authors who write about Louisiana, does not focus on New Orleans; in fact, the city rarely appear sin his works, and no action takes place there. Instead, Gaines focuses on the lives of rural Louisianians,  similar to the ways Arna Bontemps does in regards to the central Louisiana region. Gaines writes about a people who do not, as the editor in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman points out, "Do not appear in the history books." I would not have known about people like Miss Jane, Copper Laurent, Mathu, Lou Dimes, Candy Marshall, Grant Wiggins, Tee Bob Samson, or others without Gaines's work.

What is Gaines’s importance?

With everything going on in the nation today, I feel that Gaines's work serves a specific purpose. Reading Gaines, it becomes easy to separate the contemporary from the past that Gaines presents. For instance, A Lesson before Dying takes place in 1948, so a reader can look at the novel and say, "That's a terrible story, but it's in the past. Today we don't have to worry about someone like Jefferson experiencing the same trials and tribulations." However, if we look at what has occurred recently, this sentiment does not hold a lot of water. Was Trayvon Martin like Jefferson? I think Gaines shows us that even though slavery ended, "officially," in 1865 and Jim Crow ended during the 1960s, we still have a long way to go.

Gaines's importance comes from the fact that he does not shy away from showing that the "rules," these unwritten laws that work to keep wealthy whites in power and African Americans, and I would even argue poor whites (think Sydney Bonbon and Gil Boutan), in subjugation still exist. They may not appear on the books, but they remain. Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher, tells him that no matter how hard Grant tries he cannot scrape away three hundred years of slavery and hate when teaching his students. The students exist in the shadow of the past, and until we confront that past, head on, we will continue the cycle.

Do you have any final thoughts about your time at the center? 

The Ernest J. Gaines Center has been a part of my life for the past three years. I never would've thought, when I first picked up Gaines's work, that I would have the opportunity to work at the center and to explore his works in the ways that I have done over the past couple of years. Looking back, I think my time can be summed up by Aunt Clo's description of Aunt Fe in "Just Like a Tree." The story, told from multiple points of view, tells about the last night Aunt Fe spends in the quarters before her family moves her North. Every section carries the narrative forward, except for Aunt Clo's. Her section poetically compares Aunt Fe to a tree being "jecked" out of the ground and dragged to the North. After removing the tree from the ground, one looks into the hole created and sees the taproot remaining. For me, the center is that taproot. I may leave, but a part of me will always be a part of this place.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Poetry in Percy's "The Moviegoer"

Last post, I wrote about the African American presence in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Today, I want to continue the discussion about Percy's novel, but I would like to focus on something I found fascinating this time around. While reading the novel, I kept thinking about two of my favorite poems: W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" and e.e. cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." The themes in these poems are nothing new, and reading them in relation to The Moviegoer doesn't seem like that big of stretch. Both poems, and the novel, deal with a certain anonymity that society creates about an individual, and in the novel Binx struggles to find his own identity and existence in a world that seems somewhat foreign to him. He goes to the movies to escape and to actually feel at times.

At the beginning of the novel, Binx comments on his ideal citizenry and the fact that even as an ideal citizen people do not necessarily recognize or acknowledge him. Speaking about his life in Gentilly, Binx says, "I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in all that is expected of me" (6). He lists all of the pieces of identification he carries (library card, driver's license, and credit cards) and the ones he keeps safe in his house (birth certificate, diploma, stock certificates, etc.). Of these items, Binx says, "It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one's name on it certifying, so to speak, one's right to exist" (7). Binx's thoughts on how society perceives him immediately made me think about Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," a poem that chronicles the life of JS/07 M 378. The numbered citizen worked hard, paid his union dues, served in the war, bought paper everyday, got married, bought material items, and had five kids. From all accounts and purposes, he lived the perfect, modern American Dream life. However, the narrator asks at the end of the poem, "Was he free? Was he happy?" After hearing about his life, this question seems rather absurd, and the narrator acknowledges as much, adding, "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." From the viewpoint of a detached, bureaucratic narrator, nothing appears wrong with JS/07 M 378's life, but from his view, something may have been amiss. Binx, in essence, correlates to JS/07 M 378, and we see from his point of view the struggles of the modern man to navigate a society that seeks to make him a number and not an individual that, no matter what outside appearances show, may be struggling with his very existence.

The other poem that came to mind during my last read through of Percy's novel was cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." As he thinks back to the days when he read only "fundamental" books, Binx comments, "During those years I stood outside the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only for diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie" (69). The use of the pronouns "Anyone" and "Anywhere" made me think of cummings. Binx reads to becomes anyone anywhere, a person of non-consequence to those around him. In the poem, anyone lives his life in a town, and the other people (the someones and everyones) do not necessarily notice him. He marries a woman named noone and life continues. Eventually, anyone and noone die and the other citizens continue on with their lives, reaping and sowing. Thinking about Binx, this recalls his own existence. He lives in a world where he appears almost invisible except to the immediate people around him. He struggles to find love, eventually ending up with his cousin, and does not really accomplish anything in his quest.

One other instance that reminded me of cummings comes earlier when Binx talks about a movie being "certified." A movie becomes "certified" when you, as a viewer, see your neighborhood on screen. Binx says, "But if he sees ha movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere" (63). Seeing the area on screen, in essence, verifies the viewer's existence, making him or her realize that the place is an actual place, a Somewhere, and not a fantastic, or far off locale, an Anywhere. It legitimizes the life. While reading this section, I also couldn't help but think about the song "Cinema Air" by The Gloria Record. The song focuses on the same existential themes that Percy's novel and the poems discussed here. It talks about getting lost in the movies, how they create a sense of escape and a form of identification with the screen. A video of the song is below.

What are your thoughts here? Let us know in the comments below.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Faucet Columbine, 1996. Print.