Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Jim Crow South in Welty's "A Worn Path" and Gaines' "The Sky is Gray"

In the previous post, I wrote about Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and Ernest Gaines' "The Sky is Gray." As mentioned, Gaines said that he had to read Welty's story first in order to write his own. For this post I will continue the exploration of these two texts in conjunction with one another. Specifically, I will examine the journeys that Old Phoenix and James both take to town. Throughout their excursions, both characters experience hardships and encounter racism on their way to a doctor's office and dentist's office respectively. 

As Phoenix makes her way through the countryside, she struggles to get to the doctor in Natchez. When the frozen path begins to go up a hill, she speaks to herself, saying, "Seem like there is chains about my feet time I get this far" (276). Welty's story oozes with symbolism, and Phoenix's statement here registers as symbolic. Phoenix can be seen as a symbol of African American struggle from slavery to the 1930s. Upon reaching the hill, she notices that she will be tired, as she always is at this point, and she specifically mentions that her feet feel like they are harnessed in "chains." The struggle against Jim Crow for African Americans in a racist society can be seen in Phoenix's comment. Immediately after she crests the mountain, Phoenix looks behind her to see where she came from the she begins her descent on the other side. However, her descent is not smooth either. When she reaches the bottom of the hill, her dress becomes ensnared in thorns. Trying to pull the dress free, it only become caught in other places. Phoenix tells the culprits of her captivity, "Thorns, you're doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass, no sir" (277). Whereas racism and oppression are implied in Gaines' story, they are symbolically portrayed in Welty's through Phoenix's reference to chains, her entanglement in thorns that will not let her go, and in her "trial" to get past the log over the creek. 

After resting, and being confronted with the apparition of a boy bringing her cake, Phoenix travels through fields of "dead trees" in a "withered cotton field" and "past cabins silver from weather" (278, 280). See Kevin Moberly's "Toward the North Star: Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path' and the Slave Narrative Tradition" for a discussion of previous criticism of Welty's story and its connection to James Olney's characteristics of slave narratives.   When Old Phoenix begins again, she comes across the white hunter, and her struggles against a society that subjugates her become real instead of just symbolic. She sees a nickel fall out of the hunter's pocket; to distract him so she can pick the nickel up, she sets the hunter's dog and a stray to fighting. The hunter leaves, and she picks up the nickel. Upon returning, the hunter, who does not know that Phoenix retrieved the nickel, levels his gun at her, asking, "Doesn't the gun scare you?" (283) Phoenix basically admits to taking the nickel, but the hunter doesn't realize it, and he lowers the gun and smiles, warning her to "take [his] advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to [her]" (283-284).  The hunter's confrontation, whether joking on not, shows the relationships between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow South. Even his warning to Phoenix displays that no matter how much she tries to climb the hill or get through the thorns that ensnare her, there will always be those that hold her back because of the color of her skin.

In "The Sky is Gray," Gaines does not overtly present Jim Crown racism. Instead, he subtly implies the segregation that exists in Bayonne. Eight-year-old James, getting on the bus, does not mention that it is segregated; instead, he simply states, "When I pass the little sign that say 'White' and 'Colored,' I start looking for a seat" (91). James only says this after the fact that whites sit in the front of the bus and blacks in the back, nothing more. Later, James and Octavia enter Bayonne and see "grass shooting right out of the sidewalk," bringing to mind that James is no longer in the quarters where he can move and go as he pleases without the ever-present fear of oppression. Upon entering Bayonne, James makes three references to segregation and racism. The first comes when the mother and son pass by a school. James sees the "white children playing in the yard" and then passes a cafe where people are eating while he is cold (93). Octavia tells him to keep his eyes forward, teaching him how to act in segregated Bayonne.  Continuing to walk, James bumps into a white man, and Octavia jerks him away. Finally, as they come upon the courthouse. James notices the flag. He comments, "This flag ain't like the one we got at school. This one here ain't got but a handful of stars. One at school got a big pile of stars-one for every state" (93). The flag, of course, is the Confederate Flag, a symbol of Southern hostility towards African Americans.

Both Gaines' and Welty's stories contain images of racism and oppression; each, however, presents segregation and struggle in different ways. Welty presents it through the use of symbols that Phoenix comes upon during her journey. Gaines implies Jim Crow segregation through the narration of an eight year old. There is more that could be said about these stories, especially when considering Phoenix and Octavia in relationship to one another as they show strength in their journeys to town. There could also be a discussion of the ways the nurses treat Phoenix and the scene in the dentist's office in "The Sky is Gray." What do you think about these two items? Make sure you leave a comment below.

There will not be any new blog posts over the next two weeks. Make sure you check back in on Tuesday January 6, 2015 because I will have a post on tips for teaching Gaines and information about the Second Annual Summer Teaching Institute at the Ernest J. Gaines Center.

Gaines, Ernest J. "The Sky is Gray." Bloodline. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. 83-117. Print.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." A Curtain of Green, And Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1979. 275-289. Print.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and Gaines' "The Sky is Gray"

Eudora Welty in 1941
Glancing through Ernest Gaines' works, one notices that most of his novels and short stories begin with a road. A character is moving down a hot, dusty road to somewhere, or a character is waiting on a road for something. Catherine Carmier begins with Brother pulling up to the store before he goes down the road to pick up Jackson. Of Love and Dust starts off with Jim Kelly sitting on the gallery watching a car drive fast down the quarters kicking up dust. A Gathering of Old Men opens with Snookum hearing Candy sitting in the road calling out for Aunt Glo. Virginia, at the beginning of In My Father's House, looks out of her house to see who is knocking on her door. Miss Jane starts her story by talking about the "Sesch Army" and their appearance at the plantation after their long walk on the road. I bring these items up, because one short story that Gaines has cited as an influence on him is Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path." In this post, I will speak briefly about the relationships between Welty's story and Gaines' "The Sky is Gray."

Just as Gaines has spoken of Hemingway, Turgenev, Faulkner, and others as influences, he has mentioned that Welty inspired him as well. Speaking with Elsa Saeta and Izora Skinner in 1991, they asked Gaines in he modeled his short story on Welty "A Worn Path." Gaines replied, "Not modeled on it, but I don't know that I would have been able to write 'Sky' had I not read Eudora Welty's 'A Worn Path'" (245). The main aspect that Gaines drew from Welty's story of Old Phoenix's trek to town to get medicine for her sick grandson is the "the journey." To Gaines, "[t]he journey is the thing: the journey of the old woman going to the doctor, going to town to get medicine for the kid. This is what I was going for--the journey. What does the journey mean besides going to town and coming back?" (245) Both stories contain a journey, and both, as I allude to earlier, start on a road.

Old Phoenix's journey in "A Worn Path" takes place in December on "a bright frozen day in the early morning" out in the country where "an old Negro woman with her hair tied in a red rag, [could be seen] coming along a path through the pinewoods" (275). James does not walk at the beginning of "The Sky is Gray," but he can be seen waiting on the side of the road in his "country" town waiting for the bus to take him and his mother to Bayonne. James says, "Go'n be coming in a few minutes. Coming round that bend down there full speed" (83). Later, we learn that the journey that James and Octavia take to Bayonne occurs on a day much like Old Phoenix's, cold and dreary. While the settings are similar and the time frame of both stories (one day) are similar, there are a couple of major stylistic differences between them.

For one, a third person narrator tells Old Phoenix's story, providing a separate voice to describe her journey to Natchez. We receive James' account of his journey to the dentist in Bayonne from his point of view. Allowing the reader to hear James' account of the journey from his point of view allows for a deeper understanding of his thoughts and actions. For example, it provides insight into his thoughts about manhood, how he feels about his mother, and his reactions to his first encounters in Bayonne. On the other hand, relating Old Phoenix's trip to Natchez from the third person point of view does not give the same insight. Readers do not see the the inner thoughts of her head unless she speaks. This creates a distance between the reader and Old Phoenix where as with James the reader feels more connected with James because he relays his thoughts and desires directly through his narration.

Stay tuned for the next post where I will discuss some other aspects of these stories.

Gaines, Ernest J. "The Sky is Gray." Bloodline. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976. 83-117. Print.
Saeta, Elsa and Izora Skinner. "Interview with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 241-252. Print.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." A Curtain of Green, And Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1979. 275-289. Print.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home"

Hemingway in World War I
During the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Lecture a couple of weeks ago, Dr. John Lowe spoke broadly about Catherine Carmier, its genesis, plot, and early drafts. (The lecture will be available online soon.) Among the myriad of interesting moments from Dr. Lowe's lecture, one comment stuck out to me. When discussing the scene in Catherine Carmier where Aunt Charlotte talks with Jackson to explain to him why she sent him to California and about his lack of faith after his education, Dr. Lowe brought up Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home" from In Our Time. I have written about Hemingway's influence on Gaines and about the role of religion in Gaines' works. Today, I want to examine "Soldier's Home" and the scene mentioned above together. Both contain a maternal figure confronting their charge with questions about religion and faith after traumatic events.

In "Soldier's Home," Harold Krebs, recently returning to his Midwestern town after World War I, tries to come to grips with the things that he experienced. What troubles him throughout the story is the fact that the community he left behind maintains specific ideas about what happened during the war. In order to try and appease those who did not experience the carnage of war, Krebs, like other veterans, lies and exaggerates to placate his listeners. However, "his lies were not sensational at the pool room" where he retreated to because most had already "heard detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine-guns in the Argonne forest" (137). Any story that did not have details like this were not interesting to the men. Telling all of the lies caused Krebs "nausea" because, if truth be told, "he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time" (137).

Even though Jackson did not encounter the horrors of war when he left the quarters for California, he still felt "sickeningly frightened." Even though Jackson does not mention racial incidents in California, it can be implied that some occurred. For instance, when speaking with Madame Bayonne, he tells her, "But when we went up there [California], we found it all a pile of lies. There was not truth in any of it. . . . They don't come dressed in white sheets with rope. But there's no truth" (81). Even before he went to California, Jackson was scared. Responding to Aunt Charlotte's speech about him succeeding for the community and about his loss of faith in the church, Jackson informs her, "You sent me there. . . I didn't want to go. I cried, I cried to keep from going" (100). Krebs enlisted to join the war effort, so any fear that he may have had before his deployment is not mentioned. However, Jackson did not have a say in whether or not he would leave for California. The prospect scared him, and he made sure to let his aunt know that it did. Jackson knew that the community wanted him to go. If he failed, Aunt Charlotte says, "that's all for us" (98). Krebs does not have this responsibility hanging over his head, but his father does want him to get a job instead of lying around all day. His father doesn't even care what that job may be, as long as Krebs works.  

These are just a couple of the similarities and differences between Krebs and Jackson. The main similarity that I want to discuss deals with Krebs' and Jackson's dismissal of faith. At the end of "Soldier's Home," Krebs' mother speaks with him about love and faith. Over the breakfast table, Krebs' mother asks, "Don't you love your mother, dear boy?" (143). Coldly, Krebs replies, "No. . . I don't love anybody," as his mother begins to weep (143). After comforting his mother and telling her that he does not really mean that he doesn't lover her, Krebs agrees to kneel and pray with his mother; however, he tells her, "I can't [pray]" (144). Krebs cannot pray because of the trauma he endured during the war. Instead, his mother prays for him.

The two incidents between Krebs and his mother are similar to the relationship between Aunt Charlotte and Jackson. After Aunt Charlotte slaps Jackson when he tells her that he doesn't "believe in that bourgeois farce" called church, his aunt asks him to kneel with her and pray (100). Jackson responds in the same manner that Krebs does; he says, "I can't" (100). Jackson's reasons for not being able to kneel and pray differ from Krebs'. While it is implied Krebs does not have the power to kneel because he has lost faith after seeing the destruction of war, Jackson simply refuses because he does not want to show weakness. Aunt Charlotte ultimately kneels and prays for Jackson as he stands there quietly. All the while, Jackson thinks about the calendar in the room. The picture on the calendar is of Christ kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane. For Jackson, "both the idea and the portrait were disgusting" (99). For Aunt Charlotte, however, the image gave her strength, thinking about "the Master on his knees" (102). Later, when Jackson finally tells Aunt Charlotte that he plans to leave and return to California, he hurts her in the same way that Krebs does when he says, "I don't love anybody." In this scene, Gaines implies part of the conversation between Jackson and Aunt Charlotte in much the same way that Hemingway does in his work: "But he had not said half of what he wanted to say to her when she staggered against the door as if someone had hit her with his fist" (162). Aunt Charlotte maintains her composure and tries to walk into the house, but she falls again. Before getting into the house, she screams, "Get away from me, Jackson" (163).

Both Krebs and Jackson hurt the maternal figures in their lives by denying religion and essentially telling those who love them that they do not reciprocate that same affection. Krebs' reasons, of course, differ from Jackson's. In Europe, Krebs experienced the horrors of war, and those horrors caused him to feel disillusionment and isolation from the community and his family upon his return. Jackson feels isolation from his family and community as well, but for a different reason. Aunt Charlotte sent Jackson away so he could have the opportunity to return to the quarters to teach and uplift those that remained. His education, though, alienated him from the community. After receiving an education, he could no longer accept the beliefs that Aunt Charlotte held or suffer the oppression that he left behind.

What other similarities do you see in these two works? Are there any other stories in Hemingway's In Our Time or elsewhere that you see reflected in Gaines' writings? What are they?

Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The First Forty-Nine Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1946. 136-144. Print.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Clerk and Social Distinctions on Cane River in Saxon's "Children of Strangers"

Yucca (Melrose) Plantation
Last post, I discussed Lyle Saxon's Children of Strangers (1937) and some of the themes that it has in common with Gaines and other texts. Here, I would like to continue that discussion briefly by bringing up some other aspects of the novel that are worth further investigation.

During Christmas, Mr. Randolph, after "the negroes" had all left the commissary, would take "five of the old mulatto men" with him into the back office and pour six glasses (122). The men would sit around, drink, and talk. Each new about the social distinctions in the area, so that is why they performed this yearly ritual in the privacy of the commissary's office. While Mr. Guy and the mulattoes drink in the back room, the clerk (who I believe is never named) begins to think about the relationships on Cane River. It is not clear where the clerk, often referred to as a hill-man, comes from. Since people refer to him as a hill-man, I assume he comes from North Louisiana, East Texas, or possibly Arkansas. The clerk becomes irritated with Mr. Randolph because the man chose to drink with "a damned race of bastards" instead of with him, a man of Mr. Randolph's own race (122). The clerk recalls that, where he is from, no one would tolerate a white man drinking with mulattoes or "negroes." Along with despising the idea that Mr. Randolph would drink with the "bastards," the clerk begins to think about the fact that the Randolphs, instead of treating him as an equal, treat him "just as a servant, like the niggers, in spite of the fact that he ate at the table with the white people" (122-123). Here the distinction between the clerk and the Randolphs is made clear. Instead of saying, "he ate at the table with them," the narrator specifies that the Randolphs are "white" and the clerk is not. Here, the term "white" constitutes a class distinction because the clerk does not own land and is below the white landowners like the Randolphs.

Immediately after this observation, the clerk starts to think about the distinctions on Cane River.
He couldn't understand these distinctions. There were really four classes on Cane River: Mr. Guy and his kind, and then his, the clerk's kind--he knew that Miss Adelaide considered him 'trash'--then there were the mulattoes who looked down upon the black people, and last, at the bottom of the heap, were the negroes themselves. . . And the negroes didn't seem to give a single damn! (123)
In Saxon's novel, the clerk occupies the position that the Cajuns occupy in Gaines' work. He is "white;" however, he is not white. Since he does not own land, and is considered "trash" by some, he cannot reside on the same level as the Randolphs or the Harrises. Instead, he must maintain a space that does not allow him much movement. What makes the clerk's predicament different from the Cajuns' in Gaines' Catherine Carmier is the fact that Mr. Randolph will drink with the mulattoes and he understands the distinctions, unlike the whites and their relationship with Raoul. In Carmier, Bud Grover provided the Cajuns with more land to farm because, as Madame Bayonne tells Jackson, "White is still white. . . [a]nd white still sticks with white" (73). On the other side, Cajuns still reside below aristocratic white landowners. In A Gathering of Old Men, Gil confronts Candy at Marshall Plantation, telling her, "You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we're a breed below you. But we're not, Candy. We're all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Your folks had a break, mine didn't, that's all" (122). On this scene, Sister Mary Ellen Doyle asserts, "Gil is moved to turn on Candy and assert Cajun identity vis-à-vis upper-class whites," and in doing so. Gil realizes the equality he has with blacks and others (186). The clerk never challenges Mr. Randolph outright; instead, he only thinks about the inequalities that he experiences and lets them stew within him.

As I am writing these posts, I realize that there is more and more that could be said about Saxon's novel. I may do one more post about it next time because the clerk's actions in regards to the mulatto Nita and Henry Jack's relationship with Mr. Randolph's brother Paul are both worth examining. Until then, remember to leave a comment or question or below.    

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2002. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.
Saxon, Lyle. Children of Strangers. New Orleans: Robert L. Crager & Co., 1948. Print.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Lyle Saxon's "Children of Strangers"

Saxon at Yucca (Melrose) Plantation

In 1937, Lyle Saxon published Children of Strangers. The novel, which takes place on Cane River near Natchitoches, LA, chronicles the life of Famie, a Creole, who fathers a son with a white criminal, marries her Creole cousin, and eventually losses her status with the Creole community after she falls in love with a African American named Henry Jack. What makes this novel pertinent, apart from the fact that Saxon sets it during the early part of the twentieth century in a central Louisiana community, is the way that Saxon, almost thirty years before Gaines, explores the intricate relationships between gens de couleur libres (Creoles), white landowners like the Randolphs, African Americans like Henry Jack, Dicey, and Mug, and hill-men like the clerk in Guy Randolph's commissary store. 

Unlike Raul Carmier and his father, Famie's ancestor Grandpére Augustin owned the land. Augustin's grandfather was a Frenchman, Vidal, and his grandmother was a mulatto. Vidal brought Augustin's grandmother from New Orleans, where they met at a quadroon ball, and settled on Cane River, which was then part of the Red River. Even though they could not legally marry, the couple had four children and Vidal left all of the land to them after he passed away. Born in 1768, Augustin inherited a portion of the land from his father. He owned it till his death just before the Civil War, and as a land owner, he even owned more than one hundred slaves. After the Civil War, "the mulatto slave-owners," as Guy Randolph says, "suffered just as the white slave-owners did" (228). They ended up selling some of the land, and Mr. Randolph's grandfather purchased Yucca Plantation, "right in the middle of the mulatto holdings" (228). Eventually, the isolated creole community that flourished on Cane River became integrated when "strange families" moved in. Guy Randolph tells the complete story in Chapter XXI to Harry Smith. 

When he begins to discuss why the creole community has started to disown Famie, Mr. Randolph informs Harry that it is because she has sold her possessions to the whites and eventually plans to sell the land as well so she can support her son who has gone to stay in Chicago. Even though the community does not disparage her for having an illegitimate child with a white man because it makes the race lighter, they disagree with her selling the possessions and land to Mr. Randolph because they believe he is robbing her, and them. Eventually, they will disown her completely because of her relationship with Henry Jack, an African American sharecropper. In these respects, Famie resides in the liminal space between the white and black worlds in the same way that Raoul and his family does in Catherine Carmier. Even though her relationship with the white man is not disparaged because it produces a lighter skinned offspring, the community would have considered her an outcast if she had a baby with a black man.

Famie cannot navigate between the white world, the mulatto world, and the black world. She does not have anywhere to go, but she wants her son Joel to succeed. In order to prepare him for success, Famie watches the way that Mr. and Mrs. Randolph's white children behave. She examines them closely so that her son can imitate them. In some ways, this is like Roxy in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). When Harry asks Mr. Randolph how Famie is losing caste, Mr. Randolph begins his reply by saying,
Just this. She was obsessed about this white child of hers. I used to see her here, watching my children. She noticed what they said, what they ate, what they wore . . . and then her child did the same thing. Of course she spoiled him to death. He was a handsome little fellow, but mean. And the meaner he was to her, the better she was to him . . . Well, now he's gone. (229) 
Famie hopes that Joel will become like the whites so that he can essentially "pass." Joel tells his mother about a white man  from New Orleans who visited Yucca Plantation. The man told Joel, "You could pass for white anywhere" (217). Upon hearing this, "Famie felt exultation" (217). The thought that Joel could pass, and Mrs. Randolph makes the same comment about Famie early in the novel, causes Famie to experience joy because she sees a better life for her son, one where he does not have to worry about people looking down on him because of his race. On his last trip home, Joel informs Famie that he is planning to move to California and that he wants to cut off all relationships with the people he knew in Chicago and with his mother. He says, "I've left Chicago for good and all, and I'm going to California where I don't know anybody at all. I've crossed the line in Chicago, but it's dangerous there" (281). Because of the danger and the fact that "[t]oo many people know that [he's] not all white," Joel feels it is best to leave (281). He does not even tell Famie where he will live in California.

In many ways, the passing aspect of Saxon's novel corresponds to the passing novels by African American authors that appeared around the turn of the century and during the Harlem Renaissance. Works such as James Weldon Johsnon's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Charles Chesnutt's Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (set in New Orleans and kind of a reverse passing novel), Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun, and Nella Larsen's Passing are examples. As well, Saxon's novel can be seen in relation to Antebellum texts like Lydia Maria Child's "The Quadroons" and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" or even Victor Séjour's "Le Mulâtre." Next post, I will explore more aspects of Children of Strangers and how it relates to Gaines' Catherine Carmier.  

Saxon, Lyle. Children of Strangers. New Orleans: Robert L. Crager & Co., 1948. Print. 

Louisiana Authors and Writings Poster (1957)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Mask and Procter Lewis

Earlier, I wrote about the role that Grant Wiggins plays in relation to the whites that he interacts with. Grant consciously decides whether or not he will conform to the role of the subservient African American that whites such as Henri Pichot and Sheriff Guidry expect him to be. Today, I want to explore this same interaction; however, this time I want to look at how Procter in "Three Men" decides to put on the mask in order to possibly get a more lenient sentence or perhaps bonded out of jail for killing Bayou during a fight over a woman named Clara. Like A Lesson before Dying, "Three Men" deploys the first person point of view, in this case, Procter's.

At the beginning of the story, Procter enters the jail to turn himself in. Upon entering, Procter sees two policemen sitting at a desk and talking. Initially, the officers look at Procter, "but," he says, "when they saw I was just a nigger they went back to talking like I wasn't even there" (121). Just as Henri Pichot makes Grant wait to see him, the two men, even though they notice Procter, make him stand there waiting before they even acknowledge him in any way. Trudier Harris points out that Procter's initial referencing of himself as a "nigger" is important. Essentially, through this reference, Procter "labels himself through the eyes of the whites," letting  them determine his identity (43). While Grant has a more fleshed out identity, he acts the same way as Procter does in order to gain a chance to see Jefferson.

Like Grant, Procter knows when to add words like "sir" and "mister" to his speech. However, just as Grant thinks about whether or not he will add these formalities, Procter toys with the notion as well, explicitly leaving "sir" off of statements.  When asked about whether or not Paul, the other officer, had ever brought Procter into jail, he simply responds with, "Yes sir, once I think" (123). Here, Procter uses "sir" as a sign of "respect," but behind his outward comment on going to jail once, he thinks to himself, "I had been there two or three times, but I wasn't go'n say it if he didn't. I had been in a couple of other jails two or three times, too, but I wasn't go'n say anything about them either" (123).

Immediately following this thought, Paul asks Procter if he is good with his fist. Procter replies, "I protect myself" (123). This response causes T.J. to perk up, prodding Procter with, "You protect yourself, what?" (123). This causes Procter to repeat the statement, adding "sir" to the end. After another question, Procter does the same thing by leaving off "sir," and T.J. prods him again. Harris notes that this exchange shows Procter as trickster because "[h]e is mask and wearer, the Uncle Tom and the self-aware trickster, for the trickster registers his true responses to the situation as well as his resistance to the very role he has elected to play out with the white men" (44). Procter maintains his mask, making sure the two officers see him as subservient and falling in line. However, as his previous thoughts show, Procter "registers his true responses." At one point, when T.J. tells Procter that the he would "run every damned one of you off in that river out there," Procter just stands there quietly and thinks to himself, "I was quiet, looking at him. But i made sure I didn't show in my face what I was thinking. I could've been killed for what I was thinking then" (125). We don't know what Procter was thinking, but we do know, through his comments, that it was a thought of resistance. Even with this thought, Procter's face remains the same, showing no evidence of the thoughts that lurk behind his expression.

Procter, like Grant and Booker Wright who I wrote about before, wears the mask. He knows how to respond, and how to resist, albeit in minor ways. What are some other examples, either in Gaines' works, where these interactions appear? Place them in the comments below so we can discuss them.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Three Men." Bloodline. New York: W.W. and Norton, 1976. 121-155. Print.
Harris, Trudier. The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009. Print. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, William Apess, and Daniel Webster

I honestly debated about whether or not to write a blog post for Thanksgiving. Obviously, the part of my brain that told me to do it won out. So, here is today's post. For today, I thought I would do something a little different. Instead of focusing on Gaines' work or how he relates to other authors, I have chosen to focus on William Apess and his response to Daniel Webster's A Discourse, Delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1820. (December 22 commemorated the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.) In his Discourse, Webster honors the Pilgrims and their arrival at Plymouth and even go as far as to say that they "impress[ed] this shore with the first footsteps of civilized man!" (6). The key word here, of course, is "civilized." Later, Webster intones, 
Poetry has fancied nothing, in the wanderings of heroes, so distinct and characteristic. Here was man, indeed, unprotected and unprovided for, on the shore of a rude and fearful wilderness; but it was politic, intelligent and educated man. Everything was civilized but the physical world. Institutions containing in substance all that ages had done for human government were established in a forest. Cultivated mind was to set on uncultivated nature; and, more than all, a government, and a country, were to commence with the very first foundations laid under the divine light of the [C]hristian religion. (42) 
According to Webster, the Pilgrims "cultivated" the previous "uncultivated" land. This included, of course, cultivating the Native Americans of that land as well. Speaking during the era of Manifest Destiny, Webster notes that eventually the Pilgrims, and other settlers, moved further inland from the coast to cultivate the "savage" land: "Two thousand miles, westward from the rock where their fathers landed, may now be found the sons of the Pilgrims; cultivating smiling fields, rearing towns and villages" (46). 

What Webster doesn't note is the people that the Pilgrims displaced and the "cultivation" they enacted upon those people and their communities. William Apess, a Pequot and Methodist minister, strove to counter Webster's view, and the dominant public view, of the Pilgrims as "civilized" cultivators and Native Americans as "savagely" uncultivated. In his Eulogy on King Philip (1836), Apess counters Webster, and others, by claiming that what they, and their forefathers, did in the name of Christianity did not represent what he knows about God. In effect, Apess takes the language of the master's house and uses it to dismantle the structure. Apess partly writes, 

But some of the New England writers say, that living babes were found at the breast of their dead mothers. What an awful sight! and to think too, that diseases were carried among them on purpose to destroy them. Let the children of the pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers. He would say to the sons of the pilgrims, (as Job said about his birthday,) let the day be dark, the 22d of December, 1622 let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches, and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put their foot upon. For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as messengers of mercy, but contrawise. We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22d of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy. Let them rather fast and pray to the great Spirit, the Indian's God, who deals out mercy to his red children, and not destruction. (14-15) 
Throughout the Eulogy, Apess uses Christian rhetoric to counter the atrocities that the Pilgrims and other perpetrated upon King Philp's people and other Native Americans. Ultimately, Apess calls on people to stop celebrating December 22nd because of its actual connotations in regards to the displacement and murder of the people who inhabited this land before "the first footsteps of civilized man" appeared.

While Gaines did not live and write during the time of Daniel Webster and William Apess, he still echoes them, at least in regards to so called "civilized" man taking the "savage" land and taming it. During Ned's speech by the river in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ned comments that "America is for red, white, and black men"; however, Ned falls into the trap of diminishing the Native Americans' role in the cultivation of the land (115). He continues by saying, "The red man roamed all over this land long before we got here. The black man cultivated this land from ocean to ocean with his back. The white man brought tools and guns" (115). Here, the African Americans, as slaves, cultivated the land under the white man's oppression. In a way, the history that Ned presents mirrors Webster more than Apess.

Further in the novel, when Miss Jane talks about the oak tree, she talks about the levees being built to "contain" the Mississippi River. She begins by talking about how Native Americans, once they caught a fish, ate it and threw the bones back in the river so it could become another fish. When the white man arrived, he told the Native Americans that bones could not become fish again. They did not believe him, so the white man "conquered" them and killed them. After this, he "tried to conquer the same river that they had believed in, and that's when the trouble really started" (155). The levees, of course, failed. The white man could not conquer the river and "civilize" it to adhere to his plans.  

Much, much more could be said about the topic of Webster and Apess in the 1830s and even about Gaines' representations of Native Americans. However, I think I should leave it here at this point. As usual, if you have any comments, leave them below. 

Apess, William. Eulogy on King Philip. Boston: William Apess, 1837. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam, 1972. Print.
Webster, Daniel. A Discourse Delivered at Plymouth, December 22, 1820. In commemoration of the First Settlement of New-England. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1825. Print.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Trees and the Southern Landscape: James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines

James Baldwin, during an interview with Kenneth Parker immediately after they met with Robert Kennedy in 1963, commented on being a Southerner. At the beginning of the interview, when Parker asks Baldwin about his childhood, Baldwin says, "I am, in all but no technical legal fact, a Southerner. My father was born in the South. My mother was born in the South. And if they had waited like two more seconds, I might have been born in the south." In July, I wrote about pulp novelist Donald Goines and his turn to the South in Swamp Man. For this post, I would just like to speak some about African American authors and their relationship to the South in broad terms. More specifically, I would like to take this opportunity to look at, albeit briefly, at the image of the landscape of the South in regards to Northern writers who turn to the South and Southern writers, such as Gaines, who were born and raised, at least partly in the South.  

Trudier Harris, in The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South, begins her study by commenting on the fact that "[n]o matter where an African American writer is born in the United States, whether it is Boston or New York, or Idaho or California, or Texas or Georgia, or Alabama or Mississippi, he or she feels compelled to confront the American South and all its bloody history in his or her writings" (emphasis in original 1-2). While reading the introduction to Harris' study, I was struck by her discussion of how African American writers, depending on their place of origin, describe the Southern landscape. 

Harris makes a point to note that there is a "duality of attraction and repulsion" in these descriptions. The main aspect of these descriptions that grabbed my attention, though, was the image of trees. Northern writers, like Baldwin, see trees as spaces where black bodies become mutilated and murdered. Harris quotes Baldwin on a trip to Atlanta where he writes, "It was on the outskirts of Atlanta that I first felt how the Southern landscape--the trees, the silence, the liquid heat, and the fact that one always seems to be traveling great distances--seems designed for violence, seems, almost, to demand it. What passions cannot be unleashed on a dark road in a Southern night!" (Nobody Knows My Name 108). To Baldwin, the landscape resembles a foreboding that can unleash itself at any instant upon him because he is black. If someone chose to do something to Baldwin, who would even know? There is a "silence," "a great distance," that creates a space where no one would even know what occurred to him in that "Southern night." 

Later, Baldwin turns to a more specific comment on trees, saying, "Which of us has overcome his past? And the past of a Negro is blood dripping down through leaves, gouged-out eyeballs, the sex torn from its socket and severed with a knife" (Nobody 213).  For Baldwin, a black man traveling South, trees represent physical damage to the black body. This damage, as he succinctly describes, comes in the form of lynchings which mutilate and demolish the body for no other reason than the color of the body's skin. Unlike Baldwin, and others who I have discussed before, trees do not symbolize the fear of physical harm in Gaines' work. Instead, trees represent strength and a unification with nature. 

In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Miss Jane states proudly that she converses with an Oak Tree. While some say she's crazy, she says she's not because that tree has been here for so long. It has seen and heard things that others could never, ever recall. While this is the most prominent mention of a tree in Gaines' work, I would be at fault if I did not mention Gaines' short story "Just Like A Tree." The story, told from multiple points of view. The story appears to be about Aunt Fe (the tree) and her family preparing to move her to the North out of harm's way of violence against civil rights demonstrators. However, Sister Mary Ellen Doyle argues that the story is more about the community. While true, I do not want to discuss that aspect right now. Instead, I want to talk about Gaines referring to Aunt Fe as a tree. 

Aunt Fe is strong like a tree, and her roots dig deep into the soil where she resides. Aunt Glo, one of the narrators, talks about Aunt Fe metaphorically, speaking of her as if she is a tree and someone is "jecking" her out of the ground with a chain tied around her trunk. Even when the tree escapes the confines of the dirt, a "big hole" remains, and deep down in the hole resides a "piece of the taproot" (236). The hole and the remaining taproot point at once towards something lost and also towards something that remains, part of Aunt Fe. She cannot be removed from the South. Part of her will remain. Later, Aunt Glo describes the mover dragging the tree along the paved road. It keeps getting caught on fences and other items, leaving pieces of itself along the journey. When he tree eventually makes it North, no place can be found for it, so the mover just says, "I just stand her up here and a little while and see, and if it don't work out, if she keep getting in he way, I guess we'll just have to take her to the dump" (237). Aunt Fe doesn't make it North. She dies peacefully the night before she is set to depart. In "Just Like A Tree," the tree does not symbolize the dismemberment of black bodies as it does in Baldwin. Instead, it represents strength and history, a indomitable spirit that will maintain even in the face of unequaled oppression and racism.

In regards to the South, Gaines, in 1973, said he would have a hard time moving back permanently because he was not sure what he would do in certain situations. Elsewhere, he has stated that the two most important moments in his life were when he moved to California in 1948 and when he made the decision to start returning to Louisiana for visits and to write in 1963. He even famously says, "My body went to California, but my soul stayed in Louisiana." The South, for Gaines, contains different connotations and feelings than it does for Baldwin. Later, I will explore this topic some more, but for now, if you have any comments you would like to add, please share them below. The video below is of Mississippi John Hurt singing "I Shall Not Be Moved," the "old Negro spiritual" that provides the epigraph for "Just Like A Tree."      

Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Dial, 1961. Print. 
Gaines, Ernest. "Just Like A Tree." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. Print.  Harris, Trudier. The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009. Print. 


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Little Stream: An Early Draft of Catherine Carmier

Box 1-Folder 7 The Little Stream
In preparation for the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Lecture tomorrow by Dr. John Lowe, I would like to take the time to do a quick post on one of the early drafts of Catherine Carmier. The draft, entitled The Little Stream, shows Gaines working on his craft, honing it to make it tighter. The draft does not contain the fluidity of the finished novel, but it does shine a light on Gaines' evolution as a writer. The narrator of The Little Stream is third person omniscient, for the most part. At some points within the manuscript, the narration shifts to first person. At times this occurs abruptly, at other times it appears rather seamless and fluid. One such instance occurs in chapter 9 when David (Jackson in the finished novel) goes to church with his Aunt Charlotte. David sits in the back of the church, not wanting to be involved with the service, but just going, partly out of respect for his Aunt. The narrator begins in third person, saying, "He did not relax until an old woman sitting beside his aunt began a song" (141). Immediately after this sentence, the next paragraph switches, without cues, to a first person point of view and we see David's thoughts as the church service commences. The paragraph begins, "Nothing has changed. I got a glimpse of the water cooler as I came in" (141). This shift occurs almost seamlessly, and it can be seen in the picture of the manuscript above.

Along with the shifts in point of view throughout the draft, themes and locations that permeate Gaines oeuvre can be seen throughout as well. One such location appears in the paragraph mentioned above. David, while sitting in the back of the church, begins to think about attending school in the church house as a youngster. Thinking about standing in front of the class and writing on the blackboard while the teacher taught another class, he intones, "Primer, First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth--all for one man to teach. How did I do it? How? How could anyone learn anything[?]" (141). David's thoughts here prefigure Grant's thoughts about his teaching condition in A Lesson before Dying (1993). Watching the older boys chop and saw wood as the younger students learn lessons inside the school, Grant ponders whether or not he is actually teaching them, anything. He asks,
What am I doing? Am I reading them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything? (62) 
Continuing this train of thought, Grant thinks back to his classmates, commenting that they had "Gone to the fields, to the small towns, to the cities--where they died" (61). Grant's thoughts here mirror David's from The Little Stream. Both ponder the role of education in the quarters and whether or not it provides anything more than a holding place for students before they go to work in the fields.

After thinking about his own students and classmates, Grant begins to recall his own teacher, Matthew Antoine, and his thoughts on teaching in the quarters. Speaking with the teacher right before his death, Grant says that he asked for advice on teaching in the quarters. Antoine simply said, "Just do the best you can. But it won't matter" (66).  Even though David is thinking about his childhood and questioning how he learned anything in a school like the one he attended, and Grant is thinking about his education and his current position, their sentiments are similar in the fact that they both see the educational opportunities in the community as extremely impoverished. Both David and Grant represent, as well, "the one," like Ned Douglass and Jimmy Aaron, who returns to educate the children. Unlike Douglass and Aaron, David and Grant question their return and whether or not they actually have any impact on the children at all.

The final aspect of the manuscript I want to briefly mention occurs in chapter 6. As Aunt Charlotte unpacks David's suitcase, she discovers a revolver. This is interesting, at least to me, because while guns appear in Gaines' work, I cannot think of instances, if any, where an African American male carries a gun, except for maybe In My Father's House and A Gathering of Old Men. While talking about the gun with David, Aunt Charlotte continually asks him what it is for. He simply replies that it is for protection and that a friend of his in California gave it to him for that very reason. The argument between Aunt Charlotte and David moves into the subject of manhood, and Aunt Charlotte says, "you think you a man, now" because you have a gun (81). David replies, "I am a man" then rattles off that Uncle Sam calls him a man at twenty-one (81). This conversation is interesting because it revolves, essentially, around the definition of manhood. Elsewhere, the topic of manhood appears with the differences between Lil'Bud (Brother in the published novel) and David. The continued struggle of how to achieve manhood, or to define it, appears in these early drafts as it does throughout Gaines' work. For a discussion of manhood in "The Sky is Gray," see the post "You a man, James" post on this blog.

These are just a few of the items I noticed in one of about five early drafts of Catherine Carmier. I have not read all of the early manuscripts, so I cannot comment on all of them. Tomorrow, Dr. John Lowe will comment on some of these drafts and explore how Gaines' first novel evolved from its earliest incarnations to the finished text it is today. Make sure to join us.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dilsey and Miss Jane

Scene from James Farnco's adaptation of The Sound and the Fury (2014).
Lorretta Devine plays Dilsey. 
The previous post, "Benjy Compson and Sonny" explores the correlations between William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Ernest Gaines' "A Long Day in November," specifically focusing on the stylistic similarities between Benjy's section and Sonny's narration. For this post, I would like to focus on another aspect of Faulkner's novel that some have brought up in relation to Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This aspect deals with the "similarities" between Faulkner's Dilsey and Gaines' Miss Jane. 

In 1945,  Faulkner added an appendix to The Sound and the Fury (1929) to help clarify some aspects of the novel. Entitled "Compson: 1699-1945," the appendix chronicles the Compson family lineage from 1699 through World War II. The events of the novel conclude in 1928, so the appendix helps to fill in the information about what happens to Mrs. Compson, Benjy, Jason, Caddy, and others. Faulkner concludes the appendix with a section on Dilsey and her family. Even after he goes into detail about what happens to the other characters in the novel, Faulkner simply states, before discussing Dilsey's family, "And that was all. These others were not Compsons. They were black." Here, he only provides a couple of sentences for T.P., Frony, Luster, and Dilsey. He doesn't even provide information for Roskus or Versh. For Dilsey. all Faulkner says is "They endured."

Dilsey, throughout The Sound and the Fury, is the mainstay. She even comments in the final section, "I've seed de first en de last" (297). Dilsey takes care of the Compson family, looking after Mrs. Compson, making sure Benjy is taken care of, stepping in between Quentin and Jason at certain points, and ultimately keeping the house in order. While she deals with the decaying Compson household, Dilsey maintains strength; she endures. Even though Dilsey endures, Faulkner does not provide her with a large amount of space in the novel. She remains, for the most part, in the background, more specifically in the kitchen.  Divided into four sections, the Compson sons (Benjy, Quentin, and Jason) narrate the first three sections of the novel and the fourth section is told by an omniscient third person narrator. Many call this section "Dilsey's section"; however, I have qualms with that label because the final section, while focusing on Dilsey partly, mainly revolves around Jason's attempt to retrieve the money from Quentin and the man she ran off with. Compounding Dilsey's lack of voice in the final section, Faulkner tells the other three sections from the first person point-of-view of male protagonists, not providing Dilsey, or even the Compson women, an adequate voice throughout the narrative. Herman Beavers notes, "Faulkner's decision not to provide [Dilsey] a section of her own in the novel, while it marks off her moral strength, likewise swears her to secrecy," concluding that Dilsey's narrative "will take place in the world beyond" (129).

Ad for The Autobiography
of Miss Jane Pittman
Even though Faulkner does not portray Dilsey as intricately as he could have, she remaines a memorable character in modern American literature. During its promotion of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Dial Press used a quote from Geoffery Wolff's Newsweek review that compares Miss Jane to Dilsey. Wolff writes: 
This is a novel in the guise of the  tape-recorded recollections of a black woman who has  lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a  witness to the black militancy of the 1960's. In this  woman Ernest Gaines has created a legendary figure,  a woman equipped to stand beside William  Faulkner's Dilsey in  The Sound And The Fury. Miss Jane Pittman, like Dilsey, has  'endured,' has seen almost everything and foretold the rest.
While understandable for marketing purposes, Wolff even compares the novel to Homer's The Odyssey and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn in its scope and subject matter, the comparisons between Dilsey and Miss Jane can only go so far. Gaines makes known that as a Southern writer and an African American writer he cannot escape writing back to Faulkner

Gaines told John Lowe in 1994 that an interviewer once asked him if he had Disley in mind when writing Miss Jane's Story. Gaines simply replied, "No, I did not have Dilsey in mind" (313). Gaines goes on to say that Dilsey tells her story not from her own kitchen but from Compson's, and "Miss Jane is talking to a black teacher in her kitchen" (313). Essentially, Gaines allows Miss Jane to tell her own story, unlike Faulkner who fails to provide Dilsey with a voice in his novel like Benjy, Quentin, and Jason. Disley becomes relegated, as stated earlier, to the background, the servant who maintains the family's secrets and endures as they wither away.

More could be said here, but I would like to leave the discussion here to see what you have to say. Make sure to post your thoughts and comments down below.

Beavers, Herman. Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of Ernest J. Gaines and James Alan McPherson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Print.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Lowe, John. "An Interview with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 297-328. Print.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Benjy Compson and Sonny

"Somebody is shaking me but I dont want get up now, because I'm tired and I'm sleepy and I don't want get up now" (Bloodline 3). So begins Gaines' short story "A Long Day in November," a story narrated by five-year-old Sonny. The boy tells about the relationship between his father and mother, their conflicts then their eventual reconciliation. For this post, I do not want to focus on the narrative of the story. Instead, I want to talk briefly about the narrative voice that Gaines constructs to tell the story.

Reading Sonny's voice for the first time, I could not help but think that something felt eerily similar to me. As I kept reading, I finally began to figure out that Sonny's narration reminded me of Benjy Compson's from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. In fact, a couple of pages into "A Long Day in November," I scribbled "kinda like Benjy narrating" in the margins. Specifically, what sparked this connection came from Sonny's narration when describes his dream the waking up from it. There are not clues that Sonny awakes. The narration moves fluidly from sleeping dreams of Billy Joe Martin, Sonny, and Lucy playing to "Somebody's beating on the door. Mama, somebody's beating on the door" (7). Sonny's seamless movement from sleep to being awake is not as abrupt as Benjy's leaps over the course of thirty years, but it is similar. Along with this type of subtle shift, Sonny also takes on some of Benjy's linguistic style.

Even though Benjy is thirty three, his decreased mental capacity makes him appear as if he is merely a child. For example, he can only mumble and cry when he hears Caddy's named mentioned. In fact, the family doesn't even say her name when she is gone so Benjy will keep quiet. Opening his section, Benjy states, "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming towards where the flag was and I went along the fence" (3). Just like Sonny's initial sentence, Benjy's contains a simplicity, even though both also have a subordinate clause. Their apparent simplicity arises from the structure (a subject followed directly by a verb). This structure allows both Sonny and Benjy to sound like a five-year-old boy and a thirty-three year old man child respectively.

Responding to a question about writing from the point of view of a young boy in "A Long Day in November," Gaines responded by saying "we have all been children once" and because of that, the viewpoint is there somewhere. Even though this voice resided within Gaines, and us, he had to find out a way to bring it out. To do that, he received help from both Joyce and Faulkner. Joyce helped Gaines write about events that span a day. From Faulkner, Gaines said he found out how to write in the voice of a five-year-old Sonny.
In the first part of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury the Benjy part, Benjy uses the simplest terms to express his feelings: "the gate is cold," "the fire is good," "I stamped my shoes on," all this sort of thing. This childlike section is so convincing that I really fell in love with it. I really did. (Fitzgerald and Marchant 11)    

I am in the process of rereading The Sound and the Fury, so in a couple of days I may have more to say about the novel and Gaines. However, at this point, I just wanted to note the similarities in regards to the way that Gaines structures Sonny's narration and the way Faulkner structures Benjy's. If you have any comments or questions, remember to leave them below. 

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Fitzgerald, Gregory and Peter Marchant. "An Interview: Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 3-15. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. "A Long Day in November." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 3-79. Print.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Ernest J. Gaines' Work Has Shown Me

I could sit here all day and list off all of Ernest J. Gaines’ accomplishments and awards; however, that would not tell the full story of Gaines’ influence. I could stand here and talk about the importance of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Catherine Carmier, but again that would not tell the full story. What follows is my brief attempt to tell part of that story. Gaines’ work provides a voice to those in rural South Louisiana that did not have a voice. He writes so that those who do not have a mark and are buried beneath the soil here along False River will be heard, not just today, but for eternity. He writes so that “the white kids [will] understand what the black kid is, and [that] the black kid [will] understand who he is.” He writes to illuminate the universal nature of human existence. He writes because he wanted to show “the Bull Connors and the Faubeses, and the Wallaces and the Thurmans that I could do anything with those twenty six letters that they could, and I could do it better than any of them could.” He writes because he must.   

With that in mind, Gaines has influenced many people, me included. When I think about Gaines and his work, I cannot help but think about the way he introduced me to so much more than just his own writing. In high school, my musical tastes began to take shape. This was during the nineties when Nirvana and bands of that ilk reigned on the charts, or at least in my head. Nirvana, with 1993’s In Utero, opened my eyes to a style of music that I never imagined could’ve existed. Right now, you may be wondering what in the world Nirvana has to do with Ernest J. Gaines. Trust me, I have a point. During November of 1993, Nirvana performed on MTV’s Unplugged. Typically, bands that did unplugged performances on MTV played their own music, never really deviating from what they, themselves, had created. Nirvana, on the other hand, bucked this trend. Instead of playing all of their hits acoustically they decided to mix it up with cover songs from other bands. Concluding the show, the band performed Leadbelly’s arrangement of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Knowing the tragic end of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s life, I cannot help but listen to that recording and get chills. (A video of that performance is below. Leadbelly's version is above.)

After hearing Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” I decided to check out Leadbelly. However, upon first hearing the older recording and Leadbelly’s voice, I am ashamed to say, I laughed. I never thought I would listen to Leadbelly again. Ever. As I evolved, though, I began to grow more accustomed to Leadbelly, his voice, his story, and his phenomenal guitar playing. A band from Washington not only introduced me to Leadbelly, a blues musician from my own state who has a statue in Shreveport where I grew up, but they also introduced me to other bands and musicians who have had a major influence on my musical tastes and life.  What Nirvana did is what all good artists do. They spoke to me, giving me an outlet for those adolescent years where I did not know exactly who I was or where I was going. They did more than that though. They also pointed me towards artists that influenced them: Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., The Melvins, Mudhoney, etc. In essence, they were the center and everything else radiated away from that center.

In many ways, Gaines did the same exact thing. Even though I did not read him as an adolescent, I have taken from him and his work a wealth of paths that lead in so many directions I cannot begin to list them all. I don’t remember when I first read a work by Gaines. I do remember, however, that it was A Gathering of Old Men. After reading that, and A Lesson before Dying, I remember thinking to myself that Gaines’ work is very accessible. At first, I saw only the 10% of the iceberg that resides above the surface of the water. Beneath the surface, the other 90% was waiting patiently for me to discover it. Gaines’ work grabs you with its readability, but it entangles you with its ability to show you more than what you initially expected.  His focused attention to detail, structure, story, and characters allow him to create such accessible yet considerably dense works of literature.  As time progressed and I continued to evolve some more, I began to realize that my initial introduction to Gaines and his writing opened the door to deeper understanding of the world around me, Gaines’ work, and his influences.

When I began to reread Gaines’ works and delve into his other novels, I began to see that his writing contains much more than I initially suspected. For example, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has become, for me, something akin to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Each time I read Ellison’s tour de force, I find and experience something new. This partly occurs because of my sensibilities, but also because of the nature of art. Rereading about Miss Jane has the same effect. I always find something new or something different. That is what true art should do. It should make you want to return, time and time again, to a familiar space where you find something new every time you decide to make a return trip.

Along with introducing me to something new on my return trips to St. Raphael Parish, Gaines has pulled me away from Louisiana to Russia, Ireland, Michigan, and elsewhere. Gaines has taken me to Russia and showed me the importance of authors like Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov in regards to form and subject. He has shown me the beauty and importance of composers like Modest Mussorgsky and his Pictures at an Exhibition. He has transported me to Ireland and shown me how James Joyce constructs stories and focuses on his own particular stamp-sized piece of Earth. Gaines has sparked my interest in Hemingway as well. I used to despise Hemingway for his apparent “simplicity” and repetition. However, after reading Gaines and listening to him speak about Hemingway and his work, I now see the nuance and beauty of Hemingway. Not just is his style and form but also in his subject matter.

Gaines has given me much more than just his writing. Along with giving me a larger appreciation for my home state of Louisiana, he has opened up avenues for me that I had either closed before or had never noticed. He has taken me down paths that have allowed me to better understand the interrelatedness between literature, music, visual art, and life. To me, that is what good art should do. It should expand our horizons beyond what the artist has produced. Gaines has done just that. He has expanded my perspectives in more ways than I can mention. For that, I am forever grateful. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and the Oak-Tree

Recently, I read Ukawsaw Gronniosaw's A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince, Written by Himself (1770?). While classified as a slave narrative because Gronniosaw experiences slavery and movement from master to master, the narrative could be more closely called a conversion narrative in much the same was as Briton Hammon's narrative. At this time, I do not wish to discuss these classifications in regards to Gronniosaw's account of his life; instead, I want to discuss a minor paragraph that occurs while Gronniosaw relates his time spent in New England.  As he struggled with the thought of going to Hell if he did not experience a conversion, Gronniosaw attempted to end his life; however, he thought he shouldn't kill himself because he would probably go to Hell. Gronniosaw continued in this state until his teacher, Mr. Vanosdore, worked with him towards conversion.

During this period, Gronniosaw recounts a place that he used to visit and speak with God. This is the point I would like to share with you today because it is reminiscent of Miss Jane Pittman and her discussions about the old oak tree she speaks with. I am going to quote section at length.
About a quarter of a mile from my master's house stood a large, remarkably fine oak-tree, in the midst of a wood; I often used to be employed there in cutting down trees, (a work I was very fond of) I seldom failed going to this place every day; sometimes twice a day if I could be spared. It was the highest pleasure I ever experienced to sit under this oak; for there I used to pour out all my complaints to the LORD: And when I had any particular grievance I used to go there, and talk to the tree, and tell my sorrows, as if it had been a friend. (38)
Gronniosaw goes on to states that he "used to come here [to the oak-tree] to find peace" (39). In many ways, this short account appears similar to the way that Miss Jane speaks of the oak tree in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I am not, with this observation, claiming that Gaines read Gronniosaw while writing his novel. I am merely pointing out an instance from a text written around 1770 that appears similar, at least in sentiment, to Gaines' novel.

What does all of this similarity say? Is there something here that could be explored further? At this point, I'm not sure. What are your thoughts?

Gronniosaw, Ukawsaw. A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince, Written by Himself. Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas. Eds. Adam Potkay and Sandra Burr. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 27-63. Print.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Modest Mussorgsky and Ernest Gaines

Short Plantation Sketches "Two Women"
Gaines is fond of quoting Friedrich Nietzsche on music. Nietzsche wrote, "Without music, life would be a mistake." To Gaines, and myself, this quote rings true. Last Wednesday, the UL Symphony performed selections from Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and this led me to reflect on the inspiration Gaines received from that piece of music. "Visual Art and the Art of Writing Fiction" is one of the earlier blog posts on this site. In it, I discuss how Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters and Bedroom of Arles inspired Gaines and his writing. Here, I would like to explore how a piece of classical music, Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition served as an inspiration for one of Gaines' most accomplished works, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  Gaines says that Mussorgsky's suite served as part of the original inspiration for the novel; however, once he realized that Miss Jane would begin to tell her own story, other influences arose.

Pictures at an Exhibition, essentially, is a tribute to one of Mussorgsky's friends, Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. In fact, the translation of the piece from Russian is Pictures at an Exhibition-Memories of Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky and Hartmann both saw themselves as working to create distinctly Russian art, thus drawing them towards one another. Gaines can be seen as doing the same thing, creating literature that intrinsically shows the land and people that he writes about, thus forming art that represents a distinct area and carries that area's feeling. After Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, Vladimir Stasov organized an exhibition of over 400 of Hartmann's works, and Mussorgsky donated some pieces from his personal collection for the exhibition. After viewing the paintings, Mussorgsky became inspired and began to compose Pictures at an Exhibition.

The suite takes the listener through a gallery of Hartmann's works. Beginning with the recognizable Promenade that replicates the listener moving around the gallery and stopping before paintings, the ten pieces in the suite move the participant through eleven different Hartmann watercolors. There are six surviving works by Hartmann that scholars have identified as pieces that Mussorgsky used for his suite. The painting that accompanies "The Great Gate of Kiev" is below. Listening to the pieces, one moves through various emotions such as joy, fear, despair, etc. Reading Gaines' work produces the same types of emotions. For example, one cannot help but laugh when Tee Bob causes Jane's horse to run across the fields while she holds on for dear life. Likewise, one cannot help but feel sadness when Jane and the others receive news of Jimmy Aaron's death.

Hartmann's Plan for a City Gate in Kiev
Speaking with Darrell Bourque and Marcia Gaudet in 2002, Gaines talks about the inspiration he received from Mussorgsky's work. Originally having Miss Jane's story told from multiple points of view, then moving on to a concept he titles Sketches of a Plantation, Gaines ultimately settled on having Miss Jane tell her own story. In the early stages, Gaines mentions the suite as carrying a theme throughout it (the Promenade), and that is what he wanted with Sketches of a Plantation, a common theme. Mentioning this, Gaines says, after stating that the novel has four sections, "And if you listen to Pictures at an Exhibition, all of these characters are going through this piece of music. And at the very end, it's loud, loud Russian crazy music. "At Hell's Gate," ["The Great Gate at Kiev"] I think it's called" (Mozart 145). Music taught Gaines structure and how to use repetition, in much the same way that Hemingway did with the written word. There is more that can be said about this topic, and hopefully in the coming posts I will delve into Mussorgsky and Gaines even more. Until then, what music inspires you?

Bourque, Darrell, Ernest J. Gaines, and Marcia Gaudet. "A Literary Salon: Oyster/Shrimp Po'Boys, Chardonnay, and Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines." Mozart and Leadbelly. Eds. Marcia Gaudet and Reggie Young. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 131-159. Print.