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. 

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