Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Cemetery and the Church

Inside of church
In the previous post, I talked about Gaines' relationship to the land where he grew up. That land appears in all of his fiction from his first novel Catherine Carmier all the way through A Lesson before Dying. Talking about the land with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wotton even further, Gaines says, "[T]his land is constantly changing;" however, he does not keep up with that change since "[his] people no longer live there" (74). Even though he does not keep up with the change, he adamantly states that anything can happen to the land "[a]s long as they don't destroy the cemetery where my people are buried, or the church they worshiped in" (74). These specific places, the cemetery and the church, appear again and again in Gaines' work in relation to the changing landscape. Gaines' respect for these places can be seen in his literature and his life. He has preserved the cemetery and he had the church where went to school moved to a spot directly behind his house.

While walking through the quarters in chapter thirty-eight of Catherine Carmier, Jackson comes across the cemetery and the church. Jackson "looked through the fence at places where graves ought to be, or where he thought they had been. He could not see any graves for high weeds, and he was not sure that he was looking in the right places" (191). Jackson inability to recognize the graves causes him to feel empty. Unlike Jackson, the men that gather at Marshall Plantation in A Gathering of Old Men visit the cemetery before they arrive on the gallery to stand beside Mathu against Fix and his men. Cherry describes the cemetery by saying, "You had to walk in grass knee-high to reach some of the graves" (45). The area, to Jackson and to Cherry, is overgrown and is in the process of erasing any indication of the people who once lived and worked on the land. Later in the novel, Johnny Paul confronts Mapes about why he and the other men chose to stand:
I did it for them back there under them trees. I did it 'cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn't do it, one day that tractor was go'n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was. (93) 
Cemetery pre-cleanup
Johnny Paul talks about the cemetery and about the human machinations that threaten its very existence. The white land owners don't care about the cemetery and they bring in tractors and other farming machines to get the most out of the land for the cheapest expenditures. The increased use of tractors and other farm machines is another constant threat to the land and its people that Gaines brings up throughout his oeuvre: Catherine Carmier, Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, In My Father's House, and A Gathering of Old Men.

The church where Gaines went to school and worshiped that he mentions in the quote in above appears in Catherine Carmier as well. After visiting the cemetery, Jackson walks to the church. He begins to reminisce about how large the church used to feel and how things have changed since he went to school there. He thinks about how far the pews used to feel from the table in the front of the church. He even recalls the whippings he received from Madame Bayonne. Walking around the perimeter, Jackson looks at the surrounding area and sees "[a] sugar-cane field came all the way up to the yard from the side and from the back" (192). Just as the fields encroach upon the cemetery in A Gathering of Old Men, they encroach upon the church.

These two spaces, the cemetery and the church, play an important role in Gaines' fiction of the quarters and Bayonne. In later blog posts, I will discuss the church and cemetery and other works.

Gaines, Ernest. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.

Gaines, Ernest. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. Print.

Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's                 Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Print.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ernest Gaines and the Land He Writes About

When I first read Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men around 2004 or 2005, I never thought I would have the opportunity, in such a short period of time, to work in the Ernest J. Gaines Center and to get to know the man and the land that he writes about. In the documentary above, John Callahan comments that all fiction contains about 99% reality from experiences, surroundings, people, etc. I could have gone my whole life reading Gaines' work without having any connection to them beyond the printed words on the page. While I would still, no doubt, find pleasure and inspiration in the texts, I would not have the opportunity to fully appreciate their importance. Walking the land that Gaines' invokes in his novels feels different than walking through the streets of New Orleans in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams, John Kenendy Toole, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, and countless others. I do not get the same feeling walking those streets in the French Quarter as I do when I walk through the church, the cemetery, or the sugarcane fields that Gaines draws inspiration from when constructing the land around Bayonne. Millions of people walk those streets in New Orleans. How many walk those fields where Gaines grew up?

Gaines' connection to the land where he spent the first fifteen years of his life can be seen very strongly throughout his oeuvre. He tried to write about other areas; however, he always returned again and again to Louisiana. Speaking with John Lowe in 1994, Gaines said, "I've tried to write about my army experiences; I've tried to write about San Francisco, about Bohemian life and that sort of thing. But everything comes back to Louisiana" (298). Louisiana continually draws Gaines back in his writing. Earlier, talking with Marcia Guadet and Carl Wooton, Gaines said he has an attachment to the land where he grew up. He cares about the cemetery on the land where the people he knew and his ancestors are buried, some in unmarked graves. Talking about the quarters, Gaines said, "I suppose as children we loved the quarters. I mean we loved it more than the people who owned it loved it, but we were limited" because they did not own the land (75). This land draws him back because "that's where everything was for [him]" (75). 

All of this brings me back to the beginning of this post. Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to walk upon the earth that Gaines walked during his formative years. I have had the opportunity to clean the cemetery where his ancestors lay and where he wants to be buried with the inscription "To Lie With Those Who Have No Marks" on his tombstone. The place, Riverlake Plantation, provided Gaines with the material he would write about he scoured the library in California to find his people and their voices in the books collected there. He created that voice and breathed life into it, allowing those who have no mark to speak for the world to hear. Riverlake Plantation also provided me, and more importantly my family, with the opportunity to never forget the past. My daughter has been able to help clean the cemetery every October for the past few years, and my son had the opportunity this year. Even though they are not old enough to understand the importance of what they are doing or where they are walking, I know that one day they will. They will understand that they helped, in some small way, to keep the memories of Gaines and his ancestors alive.


For a video of the annual cemetery cleaning go to CNN's website.

Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooten. Porch Talk withErnest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. 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, May 22, 2014

Claire Manes on Teaching Gaines' Work in the Ernest J. Gaines Center

As an adjunct instructor at ULL, I have had the good fortune to teach  Gaines “on site” in the Ernest J. Gaines Center.  Gaines words, works, and photography as well as Karen Bourque’s stained glass portal (shown above) to the center create an ambiance connecting me and my students to Ernest Gaines in a way that no textbook alone can accomplish.  Gaines comes alive in the center that bears his name.

I am a teacher who invites students to find points of contact between their own lives and the literature they read.  Teaching any of Ernest Gaines works offers opportunities for that. While Gaines’ rural Jim Crow south is unfamiliar to most of my students, his characters face universal struggles that readers and non-readers alike can understand.

My introduction to Gaines in the classroom came after a young man in his mid to late twenties related an epiphany he had in middle school while reading  “The Sky Is Gray” for the first time.  The dialog between the minister and the young college student gave my student the necessary freedom to question and challenge authority, too.  It was an “aha moment” that still stirred him some fifteen years later. The young college man tells the preacher: 
"I'm not mad at the world. I'm questioning the world. I'm questioning it with cold logic, sir. What do words like Freedom, Liberty, God, White, Colored mean? I want to know. That's why you are sending us to school, to read and to ask questions. And because we ask these questions, you call us mad. No sir, it is not us who are mad." (97)
This interchange is one of many in the story that offers students the opportunity to reflect on an overarching question in Gaines’ work, “What does it mean to be a man, a person of dignity and integrity?”  My male students resonate with young James’ initiation into manhood; my female students can identify with the challenge of teaching a young boy to be a man and all of us can relate to the “tug of war” between James’ mother, Octavia, and the shop keeper, Helena, at the story’s end.  Both women feel their personal worth and dignity challenged.  The shop keeper wants to give Octavia extra salt meat, but James’ mother refuses charity and demands only the meat she can afford.  At a standoff, James and his mother begin to leave the shop when the Helena calls them back.  James relates, “Me and Mama stop again and look at her.  The old lady takes the meat out of the bag and unwraps it and cuts ‘bout half of it off.  Then she wraps it up again, puts it back in the bag, and gives the bag to Mama.  Mama lays the quarter on the counter saying, “Your kindness will never be forgotten” (117).

This theme of finding and maintaining one’s dignity suffuses Gaines' work.  Jefferson, Mr. Wiggins. and deputy Paul recognize the same struggle  in A Lesson before Dying.  Catherine Carmier written fifty years ago this year is Gaines’ earliest novel. It, too, examines this same issue as Jackson, feeling misplaced in Louisiana and California, wrestles with finding his place in life.  Miss Jane Pittman Gaines’ iconic old lady whose voice takes over the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman walks through a century fraught with hatred and abuse but she walks with her head held high and maintains such integrity and humanity that there are those who have been convinced that she is a real, historical woman.
Last page of draft entitled "The Big Gray Sky"
 I try to have my students find points of contact between their own lives and the literature that they read.  Gaines offers that.  Both my students and I gain insight into the universality of our lives when we relate to single mothers raising sons to maturity, men and women maintaining dignity despite enduring brutal and demeaning treatment. This universality can be seen in Catherine Carmier as well when Jackson thinks about all of the people he met while in California and how their positions were similar to his. He met a Native American from New Mexico, an Asian from Hong Kong, and a white boy from Dayton, Ohio.   

Claire Manes, Ph.D, ( UL Lafayette 2007)  has taught at the elementary, high school, technical college, and university level.  Ernest Gaines’ work has been of importance in her teaching and  personal life.

Gaines, Ernest. “The Sky is Gray.” Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 83-117. Print. 


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Jean Toomer's Cane and Ernest Gaines

The last blog post pointed out the influence that Ernest Hemingway had on Gaines and his writing. Hemingway influenced numerous black authors from Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Gloria Naylor, and Derek Walcott. What some may not know, however, is that an African American author influenced Hemingway himself. Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) appeared at a time when the short story cycle arose more predominantly in the literary scene.  Sherwood Anderson, the author of the short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919) told Gertrude Stein in 1924 that she should read Toomer’s Cane. Stein and Anderson both mentored Hemingway, so "it is a virtual certainty," as Gary Holcomb writes, that "Hemingway was acquainted with Toomer's book" (311). 

Gaines has stated that African American authors such as Richard Wright did not have an influence on his writing when he started. He has cited Ivan Turgenev, Fydor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and others as influences. Gaines states, “I didn’t read Cane until after I got out of college. I didn’t read Cane until about ’59 or ’60. By then I had developed what I suppose is my way of writing” (Gaudet and Wooton 35). In a 1994 interview with John Lowe, Gaines outlines the relationship between Hemingway and Toomer explicitly: 

I discovered Cane in the sixties. I thought it was so poetic—you know, Sherwood Anderson knew about that book, and I’m almost certain he mentioned it to Gertrude Stein and Hemingway because of those little things in Hemingway’s first collection of stories, In Our Time—he has those little breaks between each one of those stories, and I wonder if he didn’t get that from having read Toomer’s Cane; and of course, Cane came out much earlier. (317)  

Hemingway taught Gaines structure and understatement among other things, and Gaines sites those as characteristics in regards to Toomer’s writing in Cane. Looking at “Karintha” and “Esther” from Cane in comparison with Catherine Carmier one can see how Gaines, through his admiration for Hemingway, indirectly received inspiration from Toomer. 

Gary Holcomb's book, which he co-edited with Charles Scruggs, Hemingway and theBlack Renaissance contains 10 essays that lay out the literary connections between Ernest Hemingway and black authors such as Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others.  

Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooten. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Print. 
Holcomb, Gary Edward. "Race and Ethnicity: African Americans." Ernest Hemingway in Context. Eds. Debra A. Moddelmog and Suzzane del Gizzo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 307-314. 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, May 15, 2014

The Two Ernests: Gaines and Hemingway

Picture of Ernest Hemingway
that hung in Ernest Gaines' office.
Ernest Gaines has continually pointed to Ernest Hemingway's writing as an inspiration for his own. One needs to only look at interviews where Gaines discusses authors who had and effect on him to see this. When discussing the title of his first novel, Catherine Carmier, with his editor, Gaines originally wanted the title to just be Catherine; however, the editor wanted more. Gaines did not want to change the title because the novel had already had numerous ones. He wanted to keep it as Catherine in part because he had just finished reading Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. He said:
I figured what was good for Hemingway was good enough for Ernie Gaines, so I said, 'What's wrong with Catherine?' My editor said he thought something else ought to go with it. All right, her last name is Carmier; call her that. Call her anything--as long as I don't have to think up another title. 
So, the book became Catherine Carmier. This is not the only influence that Hemingway has had on Gaines. Throughout his career, Gaines has acknowledged that Hemingway provided him with two very important lessons: how to write about characters who exhibit grace-under-pressure and the value of understatement.

When discussing grace-under-pressure in a 1976 interview with Charles Rowell, Gaines said:
These are things I tell a young writer he can learn from reading Hemingway's stories. Hemingway's characters are white, that's true, but we can learn how to write about our own black characters by reading what he has to say about his white characters--because, as I said, the theme that Hemingway uses is more related to our own condition than that of white Americans. Good examples of Hemingway's themes of grace under pressure can be found in "Fifty Grand," the story about a boxer, and in The Old Man in the Sea, where the character fights sharks and is defeated--physically defeated, but not spiritually defeated--when he loses his great fish. (91-92). 
You can even look at Lieutenant Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms and see the same theme that Gaines mentions in regards to Santiago's struggle with bringing the "great fish" back to shore. Henry, through everything he endures, doesn't falter under the pressure. Likewise, the characters in Gaines' work can be seen in the same light. Miss Jane remains strong from the beginning of her autobiography through the end. Jefferson, even though he begins the novel by being compared to a pig, rises up and displays grace under pressure by the end of the novel. Gaines mentions James' resolve in "The Sky is Gray" from Bloodline (1968). James, no matter how much his tooth hurts, never complains. No matter how cold or how hungry he gets, he never complains. James remains strong throughout.

The second item that Gaines draws from Hemingway is the value of understatement. Hemingway has the ability to talk around events without giving the specific event that occurs. Thinking about "The Sky is Gray" again, Gaines has stated that the only white people that Octavia and James come in contact with in the short story are polite and nice. However, the existence of racism and segregation permeate the text. even though it is not explicitly stated, Octavia and James must go to the back of town to eat because of their skin color, and while the white people they come in contact with are nice, there are those, who do not appear, that remain lurking off the margins of the page.

Hemingway, of course, is not Gaines' only influence; however, he has provided Gaines with two major aspects of his writing. These influences cannot be overlooked when talking about the legacy and work of Gaines or any author for that matter.  

Rowell, Charles. “That Louisiana Thing that Drives Me: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines.” Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 86-98. Print. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Happy Birthday Joe Louis

Today marks Joe Louis' 100th birthday. Born May 13, 1914, Joe Louis became a symbol of pride for the African American community during the Great Depression. Perhaps Louis' best known fights occurred against the German Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 respectively. On the surface, Louis' fights with Schmeling pitted American against Germany's expanding war machine. However, even with the apparent clear cut lines of democracy versus tyrannical rule, the Louis-Schmeling fights contained racial overtones in much the same way that Jack Johnson's fight against Jim Jeffries did in 1910.

President Jimmy Carter, in his autobiography An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of A Rural Childhood (2001), writes that the Louis-Schmeling fights contained racial tensions: "For our community, this fight [the 1938 one] had heavy racial overtones with almost unanimous support at our all-white school for the European over the American" (32). In the early drafts of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines shows these tensions in the interactions that occur between Cajuns and African Americans that take place after each of the Louis-Schmeling fights and the Louis-Farr fight in 1937.

These note cards on Joe Louis

can be found in Box 11-Folder 41
Throughout his writing, Gaines places a huge importance on the presence of Joe Louis in the African American community. In an interview from 2003, Gaines stated, "[Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson] were definitely heroes to African Americans all over the country. There were no Martin Luther Kings at that time or political heroes out there" (Brister 557). Louis and Robinson filled that void. Richard Wright in New Masses even noticed Louis' importance in the African American community after Louis defeated Max Baer in 1935. Wright states, "Yes, unconsciously [African Americans] had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation, AND HE HAD WON! Good God Almighty! Yes, by Jesus, it could be done! Didn't Joe do it?" (19)

Taking a look in the archives, one finds numerous notes on Joe Louis and writings about him and Jackie Robinson. For Gaines, Louis plays an important role in the progress of African American civil rights in the the twentieth century. As he stated in 2003, and throughout his career, Louis and Robinson appeared at a time when America did not have someone like Martin Luther King Jr. With that said, happy birthday, Joe Louis.  

Brister, Rose Anne. "The Last Regionalist? An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Callaloo 26.3, 2003. 549-564. Print.
Carter, Jimmy. An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of A Rural Childhood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Print.
Wright, Richard. "Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite." New Masses 8 October 1935: 18-19. Print.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Walker Percy's Lancelot

Recently, I read Walker Percy's Lancelot (1977) for the first time. While reading it, I could not help thinking about Ernest Gaines and his work. The reason for this, partly, has to do with the setting of Percy's novel. Taking place in Southern Louisiana, Percy invokes places like Belle Isle, New Orleans, Felciana Parish, and False River. Along with the references to places that appear in Gaines' novels, I continually thought about the perspectives of the two authors. Gaines writes from the point of view of a Southern African American man and about the African American community he grew up in, visited after he went to California, and resides within now. In contrast to the rural setting in South Louisiana that Gaines writes about, Percy views the world from the point of view of a upper-class, Catholic, white male.

The main item that stood out to me in relation to these differing perspectives comes from the ways that Percy presents African Americans in the novel. Lancelot Lamar comes from an upper-class Southern family on the downside of its prominence. He still maintains African American servants, and they play a role in his life and his attempts to catch his wife cheating on him with a movie director. At one point, Lamar enlists Elgin to record his wife at night. Of Elgin, Lamar says,
An odd thought: I remember thinking at the time that nothing really changes, not even Elgin going from pickaninny to M.I.T. smart boy. For you see, even in doing that and not in casting about for a technical solution, he was still in a sense "my nigger"; and my watching him, waiting for him, was piece and part of the old way we had of ascribing wondrous powers to "them," if they were "ours."
Lancelot deals with the deterioration of society, and specifically a Southern society. In this context, Percy's representation of Elgin makes sense. However, what is worth thinking about is how Percy's representations of African Americans differs from a writer such as Gaines. Both write about Louisiana and the South, so even though Gaines stated in 1986 that he hadn't really read Percy, they are still in conversation with one another.

For information of race in Percy's The Moviegoer, see:

MacKethan, Lucinda H. "Redeeming Blackness: Urban Allegories Of O'Connor, Percy, and Toole."
Studies in The Literary Imagination 27.2 (1994): 29-39. Print.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ernest Gaines on "Why I write"

In an interview with Elsa Saeta and Izora Skinner in 1991, Ernest Gaines spoke about his reasons for writing. He said:
When I went to California, I was 15 years old and I ended up at the library reading and reading and reading. And eventually I decided I wanted to write. I wanted to see something about my own people and there were no such books in that library. I'd read books about peasant life no matter who wrote it: Steinbeck writing about the Mexicans in the Salinas Valley, Cather writing about the peasants in Nebraska, Chekhov writing about peasants in Russia, de Maupassant . . . (250-251).
Earlier, in an 1983 interview with Mary Ellen Doyle, Gaines stated that during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many "Black" writers wrote about the urban, big city life, eschewing the rural. In regards to this, he said, "I'm trying to write about a people I feel are worth writing about, to make the world aware of them, make them aware of themselves" (151).

Both of these quotes appear after Gaines' ascendance as an accomplished writer. Before that, sometime in the 1960s, Gaines expressed the same sentiments in a small, spiral notebook housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center archives. No date appears in the notebook; however, it appears to be from around the 1960s, when Gaines was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. There is information about when to plant and harvest crops, when to cut wood, how to make pot liquor, and what kind of fish are in the river. There's a page on Angola State Prison and on superstitions such as Gris-Gris. The notebook even contains a list of characters and a list of 18 of the most significant things that occurred in Louisiana since 1900.

  1. First War I
  2. Second War II
  3. High Water-1912
  4. Huey long
  5. Roosevelt (President)
  6.  High Water-27
  7. Joe Louis
  8. Jackie Robinson
  9. Desegregation Bill
  10. Depression
  11. Relief
  12. Charity Hospital
  13. Jackson Mental Hos. 
  14. Angola State Prison
  15. First automobile
  16. Electric light
  17. The first byplane (?)
  18. The screen porch to keep away mosquitoes-which caused yellow fever epidemic (1909)
In the middle of the notebook, Gaines has four pages discussing why he wants to write.
1. Write because I must. Because there's something out there that's need to be said. If i don't say it-nobody 'else might not say it either. By this, I mean, who will write about my part of the country? who will  talk about write about the way my people talk, the way they sing, the way they feel about God, the way they work; their superstitions. There are so many things that be said about this particular area. 
(B.) Money is not the objective, though I want to make money with my writing. But I want to get self-satisfaction.  


The notebook can be found in Box 11-Folder 53 of the Gaines Collection. The interviews can be found in John Lowe's Conversations with Ernest Gaines (1995).

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Welcome to the Ernest J. Gaines Center Blog

Ernest J. Gaines
Welcome to the Ernest J. Gaines Center's blog. Here, you will find information relating to ongoing projects at the Ernest J. Gaines Center. Along with information about the Center, this blog will serve as a spot to elaborate on Gaines' work and his relation to American literature, Southern literature, African American literature, and world literature.

Dr. Matthew Teutsch and Jennifer Morrison will be the moderators of the blog. 

Dr. Matthew Teutsch is the Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. He recently graduated with his PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 

Jennifer Morrison is the graduate assistant at the Ernest J. Gaines Center. She is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  

Make sure and follow us on Facebook. There, we post items from the Center and announce events that will be occurring.