Thursday, August 28, 2014

Albert Cluveau and the Chariot of Hell

Speaking about the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with Charles Rowell in 1976, Gaines comments that while the film covers a lot of ground in 110 minutes, some key items got left on the cutting room floor. It's a difficult process to parse down a 200+ page novel that covers over 100 years in the life of its protagonist. Even though it is not a piece in the same vein as Gaines' work, one needs to only think of Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings books to see the difficulty in translating a work of literature into a celluloid film. Gaines goes on to say that the film does provide an idea of the themes in the novel, but it would take four to five hours to truly get the feeling of the book.

One of the scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor involves Albert Cluveau's slow descent into madness after assassinating Ned. Comparing the ebb and flow of a novel to peaks, slopes and valleys, Gaines comments on the footage that did not make it into the film version. He says:
In the film, before it was edited, you see [Cluveau] going mad after he had killed the professor. The actor, Will Hare, who plays the part of Albert Cluveau, does his best acting in the mad scene. But, of course, when the footage went back to Hollywood all this was edited out. So what we get is the assassination and nothing about Cluveau's madness. This assassination is a peak, but the gradual madness is a slope and a valley. And that is what I think is missing in the film. I am not saying that the film is not a good film. But the slopes and valleys are missing. (96-97)
Instead, the film shows Cluveau shooting Ned then cuts to Ned's coffin being placed in a hearse. After this, Cluveau does not appear.

However, in the novel, Cluveau's descent occurs over the course of about ten years. During that time, Cluveau's children, and especially his daughter Adeline, suffer.Sleeping in the beds with his daughters, Cluveau hears the "Chariot of Hell" approaching, and the sound of hoofs thundering originate on Adeline's side of the bed. Cluveau interrogates Adeline, asking her if she is pure and why the "Chariot of Hell" comes from her side of the bed. He does not believe her when she says she is pure and that the chariot is a figment of his own imagination and starts to beat her with a strap. As time goes on, Cluveau continues to beat Adeline, and eventually Adeline approaches Miss Jane and asks if she used "hoo-doo" on her father. Miss Jane simply says no but that Cluveau's mind is affecting him. Adeline tells Miss Jane how much she has suffered and even shows Miss Jane the marks on her back. Miss Jane simply responds," I wish I could show you the ones on my heart" (130). As Cluveau's death draws closer, he begins to scream and go mad. People stop by the house just to hear him scream.

The novel and the film show the relationship between Cluveau and Miss Jane. The novel also shows the effects of an oppressive society on Cluveau's daughter. In many ways, she suffers for her father's sin and the society where whites use Cajuns to maintain control over African Americans. This psychological deterioration on women due to racism and slavery is nothing new. Lydia Maria Child spoke about the effects of slavery on white women who never experienced it in her An Appeal in  Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1836). More contemporaneous with Gaines, one can look at Gwendolyn Brook's "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burn Bacon" (1960). To me, this is an important aspect of Gaines' novels that needs to be explored. One needs to only think of Candy in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) to see the effects of racism even on a person who feels she is liberal in her views towards African Americans.  

In Tracy Keenan Wynn's screenplay for the film version, he does not include Adeline. He does, however, include the scenes immediately following Ned's assassination. He does include a scene with Bam being interviewed by the sheriff and a sequence showing Cluveau's descent into madness. This sequence differs from the novel, but it still shows the psychological effect that racism and oppression had on Ned's killer. The script maintains the peoples' thoughts that Miss Jane put some "hoo-doo" on Cluveau; however, it differs because it shows Cluveau hallucinating and sleeping with a gun. At one point, "He fell out of bed onto the floor, grabbed his gun and SHOT a hole right through the board wall of his shack." Another night, he ran out into the yard screaming and covering his ears. That's how they found him, dead in the yard, "all awkward and distorted." What the script shows is that Cluveau experienced a breakdown after killing Ned, even though he tells Jane earlier he has killed numerous times. What makes Ned different? Why does he go mad? I would argue that the pressure of the system he lives within catches up to him. He is, as stated in earlier blogs, underneath the white landowners and above the blacks. He must adhere to pleasing the whites even though he is friends with Miss Jane. Below you will see the pages from the screenplay that deal with Cluveau's descent into madness.

What other differences occur between the film version and the novel? Which one(s) would you like me to discuss? Leave a comment below.

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Rowell, Charles. "This 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, August 26, 2014

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman Film

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In January 1974,CBS premiered the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. That year millions watched the movie and it won nine Emmy awards including a best actress award for Cicely Tyson's portrayal of Miss Jane. Without the film's success on prime time national television, it could be argued that Alex Haley's Roots would not appear three years later in 1977. If The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman failed, it would've shown that the country was not prepared for a prime time film that centers around African American characters. Instead, the overall success of the film proved that the nation was ready, in some form, to see a story about African American characters specifically, thus paving the way for the Roots mini-series.  

Like any film adaptation, though, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman differs from the book. Most notably, instead of an African American teacher approaching Miss Jane about her story, the film version has a white reporter from New York coming to Louisiana to get Miss Jane's story for a magazine. It must be noted that the novel does not specify the teacher's race; however, through context, I assume the editor to be an African American teacher. This difference is important. In the book, the school teacher, who has been trying to get Miss Jane to tell her story for a while, goes to the plantation where she lives in 1962. Upon arrival, Mary Hodges confronts the teacher and asks why he is there to interview Miss Jane. He simply tells her that he teaches history and "her life's story can help [him] explain things to [his] students" (v). Mary then asks what's wrong with the books at the school, and the teacher responds, "Miss Jane is not in them" (v). The teacher wants to provide a voice to those who have no voice, or presence, in the history books or elsewhere. He wants his students, presumably African American students, to see and understand themselves better.

In the film, the white reporter comes to speak with Miss Jane, and just like the book, Mary asks the reporter why he wants to talk with her. He only says, "I'm writing a feature story."When pressed, he only responds by saying Miss Jane used to be a slave and he wants to hear (get) her story. Apart from these things, the reporter does not give much information. Compared to the novel's "editor," the reporter appears to be more interested in prestigious gain rather than in telling Miss Jane's and the community's story to  others. The scene ends with Miss Jane walking inside and Mary informing the reporter that Miss Jane is tired and she will make a decision the next day regarding whether or not to speak with him.After Jimmy and others get arrested, she decides to speak. Framed this way, the movie still contains the community aspects of the novel;  however, unlike the novel, they are firmly centered around the Civil Rights movement because the film opens not with the reporter speaking with Miss Jane but with Jimmy asking her to stand up as a symbol for the movement.

Over the next few posts, I will discuss the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I will show items from the collection such as reviews and correspondence. I will also take the time to talk about Gaines' comments regarding the film and other items. The video below is Ned's speech at the river. As always, if you have a comment, or questions, feel free to leave it down below.    

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ernest J. Gaines Interview and Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain

I wanted to take this opportunity to share two videos with you about Gaines and his legacy. The first is a WAFBTV interview with Gaines. In the interview, he discusses Louisiana and its continual pull on him. It shows not only Gaines talking in his library, but it provides shots of the church and cemetery as well. In one shot, there is a stack of critical books on Gaines including  French and Japanese  books alongside others by Valerie Babb and Sister Mary Ellen Doyle.

The  next video is from WXXI's Need to Know in Rochester, NY. The clip highlights the Miss Jane Pittman Drinking Fountain in the city. The fountain just celebrated the fountain's 25th anniversary this past July, and the piece discusses the fountain's history with Midge Thomas who spearheaded the campaign to get the fountain erected. There are items from the center and a quote from Gaines about the fountain's importance. The clip begins at around 11:50 in the video below.  

As always, don't forget to comment. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Specter of Lynching

E. Simms Campbell's I Passed Along This Way
for An Art Commentary on Lynching
Jenny Woodley, in Art for Equality: The NAACP's Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights, talks about how the NAACP used literature, drama, visual arts, and other cultural forms to combat racism and to counter white views of African Americans. Part of her discussion involves the organization's fight against lynching during the first part of the twentieth century. She discusses the use of drama, such as Angelina Weld Grimké's Rachel (1916), Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), and Georgia Douglas Johnson's A Sunday Morning in the South (1925). Woodley concludes her chapter on the NAACP's cultural response to lynching with a discussion of the 1935 art exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching. The exhibition and writing worked to counteract the dominant white lynch narrative by providing a voice, name, face, and life to the victim. While reading this chapter, I could not help but think about Gaines and other African American authors. This post will not be an in depth discussion of lynching and mob violence in Gaines' work or other authors; however, it will provide an overview and some insight into instances of mob violence in some of Gaines' novels.

Gaines has said "[a] lynch mob is a lynch mob--you don't have to wear a sheet or live in East Texas or Mississippi or Louisiana or Alabama--you can live in New York, you can be in police blues, or you can be a gang of kids and have someone accidentally go into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time" (Saeta and Skinner 250). Gaines' description here can be seen in Catherine Carmier when Jackson informs Madame Bayonne that the North is nothing like he expected it to be. "There's no truth," he tells her, "They don't come dressed in sheets with ropes. But there's no truth" in the stories people have told him about the North (81). One needs to only think about Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, Richard Wright's Native Son, Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go,  Jess Mowry's Way Past Cool, or countless other novels. In much of Gaines' work, the lynching or mob violence does not include a rope and fire or even the act being performed in the present. Usually, the act is retold as a past experience or as something being read in a paper or overheard. This diminishes the spectacle of the act and adds feeling and sympathy for those who have lived through it.  

Coming across a hunter on her way to Ohio with Ned, Miss Jane begins to talk with him about the death of Big Laura and other hardships the travelers have endured. The hunter, then tells Ned and Miss Jane about a lynching victim he saw.
I told the hunter about the Secesh who had killed Ned's mama and the other people. He told me he had seen some of the Secesh handywork, too. Earlier that same day he had cut a man down and buried him that the Secesh had hung. After hanging him they had gashed out his entrails. (46)
After the hunter tells Miss Jane about the man, she asks why the "Secesh" had hung the man. The hunter simply replies, "Lesson to other niggers" (47). This scene takes up no more than one quarter of a page within the novel, but it paints a disturbing picture of a African American man, after the Civil War, being cut down from a tree as his entrails gather on the ground.This act adheres to the image of a lynching as someone being strung up to a tree and hung. However, later in the novel, two other instances of what we could call lynchings occur. These are Ned's and Jimmy's assassinations. Both die because they are making the whites scared, not because they will violate white women, but because they will ignite a fire within the African American community. We hear about these events secondhand, and we see how Miss Jane and the community react to each of them.    

Gaines does not pepper his works with images of lynchings. Instead, he subtly places them in the background. Another example occurs in In My Father's House when Phillip talks about reading a newspaper article about "a black boy" frozen in a ditch with  no papers on him.While it is not a mob lynching as the one described in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, it is a mysterious death of a young African American male that could have been caused by mob violence. This specter of mob violence permeates the novel. When Phillip picks up Billy and talks with him later in the novel, Billy comments on the act of lynching, saying, "Even when they lynch a nigger they have to burn him too" (168). Again, these images appear in the background. The foreground centers on the relationship between Phillip and his son as well as with the rest of the community.

While A Gathering of Old Men takes place under the fear of a lynch mob riding towards Marshall Plantation, it does not occur. Again, instances of mob violence against African Americans occur in the novel, but they appear in the form of retellings, an oral experience that works to reconstruct the act by naming the victims who may have been unnamed in the act of the lynching itself and its reports and by providing the story of the experience. Gable tells the story of his sixteen year old son who died in the electric chair "on the word of a poor white trash" who claimed the boy raped her, even though everyone knew her reputation with black and white men alike (101). At the execution, the officials informed Gable that the family could take the boy after he died, retrieving his body  at the back door. The chair failed to work, and the officials had to call in a chair from Baton Rouge. After the boy's death, Gable says that "them white folks walked out of that room like they was leaving a card game. They wasn't even talking about it. It wasn't worth talking about" (102).The death of Gable's son can be seen as a type of lynching because it contains the whites' fears of African American men violating white women and the use of mob violence to help protect the sanctity of white womanhood.

If interested in looking at some of the plays mentioned above, go check out Black Theatre USA vol. 1.  To see other responses to lynching, look at Ida B. Wells' work. For stories on lynching, look at Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children, Ralph Ellison's "A Party Down at the Square," and James Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man," "Sonny's Blues," and Blues for Mister Charlie. The image to the right is Reginald Marsh's This Is Her First Lynching which appeared at the 1935 An Art Commentary on Lynching. I placed it here because it reminds me of Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man" which is a story about a young white boy's first lynching. There are other works that could be mentioned, but these were some of the first that came to mind when I read Woodley's chapter on the NAACP's cultural response to lynching. The video  below is Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit."

This post could go on and on, eventually getting away from me. So, instead of allowing it to do that, let's carry on this discussion in the comments.

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. In My Father's House. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. 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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Attica Locke's "The Cutting Season"

Attica Locke's The Cutting Season (2012) won the 2013 Ernest J. Gaines  Award for Literary Excellence. Locke's novel is a mystery that takes place on the Belle Vie (Beautiful Life) Plantation in Ascension Parish. Before going further, I would like to say that upon first reading Locke's book and seeing Belle Vie I immediately thought about Blanche and Stella's Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream) in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Locke has spoken about the inspiration for this novel on numerous occasions. After attending a wedding at Oak Alley Plantation, Locke wondered why no one in the wedding party or attending the wedding questioned the fact that the  wedding they were attending was taking place on the grounds of a once working plantation where enslaved African Americans toiled. The plantation even has a plaque that states the names of each slave and their purchase price. Locke says that her head hurt so much trying to grasp what she was experiencing. In the video below, Locke talks about the experience and reads from the novel.

Locke's novel tackles the living  historical museum  aspect of plantations like Oak Alley. While an important topic, this is not what I wish to discuss for this blog post.  Instead, as I read the book, I noticed that Locke's novel, in some ways, can be seen as a continuation of Gaines' work. The present day mystery in the novel centers around the death of a migrant farm worker named Inés Avalo. Inés works for the Groveland Corporation, a company that plants and harvests sugar cane on the outskirts of the eighteen acre Belle Vie Plantation. The cane fields used to be owned by the Clancys, but over time the ownership has changed. Even Belle Vie itself, a place that Leland Clancy wanted to keep intact as a historical artifact, is in its last days because Raymond Clancy, Leland's son, plans to sell it to Groveland since sugar is king and will bring in money for the family and the state. While the Clancys and those like Ed Renfrew used to hire African Americans and poor whites from the area to farm the land, the Groveland Corporation relies on migrant workers, "pulling in laborers from out of state, as far west as Beaumont, Texas, and even some coming all the way from Georgia and Alabama; they were Mexicans mostly, and some Guatemalans, plucked out of rice fields and fruit groves for a few months of working Louisiana sugarcane" (18).

Oak Alley Plantation
Inés was one of these migrant workers, leaving behind a husband and two children, who traveled to the United States to work and send money back to her family. Just as Gaines' parents left for California during the early part of the twentieth century, Inés left for better opportunities to support her own family. Thinking about the theme of migration in Gaines' work, where people leave then return (think Jackson, Grant, Lillian), in relation to the migration of workers in Locke's text would be an interesting exercise. Locke's novel even has the migration and return of an African American character, Caren. Even though Caren doesn't go far, to New Olreans, she leaves and attends Tulane, a world far away from the rural life at Belle Vie. Back to Inés  though. Gaines focuses on a specific time period, of course, the mid-twentieth century when African   American and Cajun sharecroppers farmed the land. Locke focuses on the twenty first century where African Americans can no longer get hired to work the fields because corporations choose cheaper, migrant labor. While whites in Gaines' work chose Cajuns to work the land over African Americans because "white sticks to white," the corporations choose immigrant workers because of the cheaper labor in Locke's.

The narrator talks about how many of the African Americans in the community "could trace their people back before the war, when slaves had built the state's sugar industry with their bare hands" (35). Each could tell a story about their distance relatives. Caren's mother, Helen, "loved the whole of this land, and she wanted Caren to love it, too, to know where she came from" (36). While the African  Americans have an attachment to the land that runs deep, a resentment occurred between them and the migrant workers because "these new people coming here, making themselves at home" (35). Examined in conjunction with Gaines, the immigrant farm workers play the same role as the Cajuns in Gaines' work. However, there is a difference. Whereas Gaines' prominent African American characters in the community are either preachers or teachers, the ones in Locke's novel have a greater opportunity for social mobility. Eric, the father of Caren's daughter, is a lawyer and works in the Obama administration, and Caren herself attended Tulane Law School. The majority of the community, though, is not like these two. The community in the novel is the workers that maintain the history of the plantation. Looked at in another way, the immigrant workers take on the role of the African Americans in Gaines' works because they are the lowest on the social ladder, with no real ability to climb any higher. No matter how you look at the invisible workers in the cane fields of Groveland, they are there and exist.

What are your thoughts? I just finished the novel, so mine are not fully formed yet. I do think that tracing the links between writers like Gaines and Locke in this way is fruitful and leads us to a better understanding of both writers. Remember to leave your comments below.

Locke, Attica. The Cutting Season: A Novel. New York: Harper Collins, 2012. Print.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Creoles in Catherine Carmier

Over the past couple of posts, I have written about the changing land in Catherine Carmier, Jackson's relationship to the community upon his return, and the "idle white rich." In this post, I will discuss the Carmiers's place within the social structure of the Louisiana community that can be found in the novel. As a Creole, Raoul, the family's patriarch, maintains a place in between both the black and white communities. When Robert Carmier, Raoul's father, moved the family into the house that he acquired from Mack Grover, it didn't take the people in the quarters long to see "that the Carmiers had little use for dark-skin people" (12). Upon moving in, the bridge that led to the yard collapsed as the wagon carrying the family's possessions tried to cross it. Robert told the family they would have to carry the furniture to the house themselves, and when people in the quarters offered to help, he refused. The bridge collapsing becomes symbolic of the way that Robert, and later Raoul,  view themselves in relation to the society around them. The collapsed bridge separates Robert and his family from the rest of the community, both black and white.

Even though Mack Grover sold the house to Robert and allowed him to farm the land, Mack did not view Robert as anything other than a "nigger": "But that ain't enough for a nigger, no matter how white he is" (11) Even though Robert has fair skin, and his granddaughter Catherine could pass for "an Indian," Mack still views him in relation to the other African Americans in the community. Because of this, Robert set his family apart, hiring only other Creoles to help with the farming, never blacks.  As a Creole, Robert and his descendants occupy a "liminal" space in between the white and black communities. Lillian,after telling Catherine that she "hate[s] black worse than the whites hate it," voices this  position:
I haven't opened my heart out to that white world either. But I'm going there because I must go somewhere. I can't stand in the middle of the road any longer. Neither can you, and neither can you let Nelson. Daddy and his sisters can't understand this. They want us to be Creoles. Creoles. What a joke. Today you're one way or the other; you're white or you're black. There is no in-between. (48) 
Talking about Lillian and her decision to get off of the fence with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, Gaines says that Lillian gets fed up with not living either in the black or white world. She says, "I cannot live in this middle-of-the-road kind of situation. . . . I'm white enough to go over there, and I'm going to make this choice" (229).Lillian doesn't want to hide behind her racial identity as mixed. She wants to decide which way to go, the white world or the black. Many, according to Gaines, "hide behind [the term Creole] until it becomes necessary, in politics or whatever, in order to get what [they] need to accomplish" (230). Raoul doesn't do this. Throughout  the novel, he does not side with whites or blacks. He hires Creoles instead of blacks to help with the farming, and he will not let Catherine date blacks, including Jackson. With whites, he wants to prove that he is just as capable of producing crops as they are. Talking about Raoul, Madame Bayonne tells Jackson that he is the last remaining farmer on Bud Grover's land other than the Cajuns. The whites, however, just toy with him like a fish, dragging him along.

All of this causes Raoul to stick to himself, and other Creoles. Mary Ellen Doyle argues that Raoul's position brings about the three racial conflicts in the novel: "Creole versus landowning white (Robert Carmier versus Mack Grover), Creoles versus blacks (the Carmiers versus their neighbors in the quarters), and Creoles versus Cajuns (the race to the derrick)" (82). The Creole communities insulation and tensions with both black and white communities can be seen in the discussion of Creole Place  in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,  the mention of a Creole school teacher who must be buried in the black cemetery because her people do not want her back in A Gathering of Old Men, and in the Free LaCove community in A Lesson before Dying.

There is much more that can be said here, and that has been said by other scholars. However, before leaving, I would like to point out that Creole in Gaines' text means something different than it originally did. The original definition refers to native born Louisianans of French or Spanish descent during the Colonial Period. For examples of this use of the term, see Charles Chesnutt's Paul Marchand F.M.C. and works by George Washington Cable. In Gaines' work, however, Creole refers to mixed-race individual who have a close community and ancestral tie that keeps them together as a community in between the white and black communities. For more on this, see Thadious M. Davis' "Headlands and Quarters: Louisiana in Catherine Carmier" or her book Southscapes.

Doyle, Mary Ellen. Voices from the Quarters: The Fiction or Ernest J. Gaines. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. Catherine Carmier. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
Gaudet, Marcia and Carl Wooton. "Talking with Ernest Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 221-240. Print.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Idle White Rich" in Catherine Carmier

Map of False River in Pointe Coupee Parish. 
As Catherine drives Lillian home, Lillian looks out at the river and notices that the calm river soon breaks out in to waves as two motorboats roar over the surface. "In each boat was a boy and a girl waving and shouting at those in the other boat" as they raced towards Bayonne (39). Lillian comments that the occupants of the two boats are "the idle white rich" and they own the land and the river, not allowing the "poor" to fish it because "it's theirs to do what they want with it" (39). The map to the right shows how the land was divided amongst various individuals and families. Later in the novel, Jackson stands outside the store drinking a Coca-Cola and sees "[a] sailboat halfway out [on the river] drifting leisurely toward Bayonne" (174).  On the boat, Jackson can see the whites "diving off the boat, swimming away from it, then back to the boat again" (174). Jackson does not comment and call the whites "idle," but the scene resembles the one with Lillian earlier because in both instances the whites on the river appear to have nothing to do but partake in leisure activities.  

The two moments take up no more than two pages in a novel that consists of two hundred and forty eight. However, they are just as important as the rest of the novel because they point out that even though the novel centers around African Americans, Creoles, and Cajuns, the whites are the specter in the background they play an important role in the lives of the characters. Mack Grover sold land to Raoul, and Bud Grover , Mack's son, as discussed in another blog post, sold the prime farming land to the Cajuns. While they work the land, all Bud Grover, according to Aunt Charlotte, "do is drink. Ain't worth a penny" (29). Bud, like the "idle whites" on the river, has nothing to do except sit around and drink himself into a stupor while others work for him. Bud leases out the land to the Cajuns, who can  produce more crops than the African Americans because of the tractors, and all he has to do is rake in the profits.

Reigning over the land, the whites continually appear fleetingly throughout Catherine Carmier, and the themes that Gaines introduces in this novel recur in A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Here, Jack becomes the next Bud Grover. While everyone on Marshall is concerned about the shooting that happened down in the Quarters, before he can even hear about it, Jack Marshall lounges in a swing on the front galley passed out drunk, before twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Miss Merle tries to wake him up, but it is of no avail. Jack, like Bud Grover, has can idly waste his days away because others work to make him money. Elsewhere, Chimley discusses how Mat and he used to fish anywhere on the river whenever they wanted to. Now, however, they only have one little spot where they can fish because the white people "done bought up the river now, and [they] got nowhere to go but that one little spot" (27). Just as the whites parsed out the best farming land to other whites and to Cajuns, they also took control of the land, regulating where people can fish and where they can't. Chimley and Mat don't come in contact with the whites who "own" the river, but they feel the effects of that ownership hovering over them. Likewise, Lillian and Jackson do not encounter the "idle whites" on the river, except for at a distance; however, their presence is felt in the changing landscape of the Quarters and in the fact that the "poor" can no longer fish on the river.

The presence of whiteness in the background calls to mind Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993) where Morrison argues that American literature, specifically white American literature, oozes with an African American presence. She talks about this presence in the works of Hemingway, Cather, and Poe. Along with calling to mind Morrison, the fact that the whites appear in the background in these instances, more precisely in Catherine Carmier, makes me think of the African American presence in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). In a novel that many call a representation of the "Jazz Age," African Americans appear very, very infrequently. The only major appearance comes when Nick and Jay travel to New York. On the bridge into the city, they pass a car of African American revelers and a funeral hearse. Why, in a "Jazz Age" novel, do African Americans only really appear here? Could the revelers be seen as the democratization of the American Dream? As one blogger put it, the scenes in which African Americans appear in the most recent film version of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann show that the American Dream crosses racial lines. While that statement is debatable, it's worth looking at Catherine Carmier and The Great Gatsby through the same lens, the lens of the presence that is there yet is not there. In Fitzgerald's case that is African Americans; in Gaines', it is the "idle white rich."

As an interesting side note, when preparing this blog post I came across an article from 2000 where Carlyle V. Thompson argues that Gatsby is in fact "black." To a certain extent, this argument is intriguing, considering the proliferation of "passing" novels by African Americans during the 1920s and earlier. I think it is something worth thinking about, especially considering individuals like Jean Toomer as well and the discussions about eugenics that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you have any thoughts on any of this, feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jackson, Community, and Teaching

Speaking with Michael Sartisky in 1993, Gaines relates that many African American teachers fell into the profession because someone pushed them in that direction. These teachers were not good teachers, not even mediocre. They wanted to do something else entirely; however, they couldn't because of the racial conditions  that only provided limited opportunities. Moving on, Gaines comments on Grant's return in A Lesson before Dying. He says, "And Grant wants to leave, just wants to get away from it all and yet when he does, he has to come back again. There's that thing that keeps pulling him back. There's that thing that keeps Catherine Carmier from going. There's that thing that keeps Miss Jane from being able to reach Ohio" (274). Gaines says he cannot explain this inexplicable drive to return to Louisiana. I would argue, at least for Grant , Ned, and Jackson, that the desire has to do with the community.

When Jackson returns home after receiving his education in California, Aunt Charlotte becomes excited because she believes he has returned for good to educate the children in the Quarters. His return, however, is for Catherine, not for the children. One of Jackson's struggles throughout the novel is how to tell his Aunt that he does not want to teach and that he wants to leave. He has respect for her and he fears how his decision will affect her. Speaking with Jackson, Aunt Charlotte tells him that nobody else has ever gone as far as he has and that every family needs to have someone who "do something;" for Aunt Charlotte, Jackson is that someone: "But I just want you to know . . . you all they is left, Jackson. You all us can count on. If you fail, that's all for us" (98). Jackson serves, as Grant does, as a "groomed" leader for  the community, one who will educate and uplift.  To a certain extent, Jackson resents this; he tells his Aunt after she questions him about whether or not he still goes to church and believes in God, "You sent me there. . . . I didn't want to go. I cried, I cried to keep from going. So I went. You wanted me to study, so I did" (100). After telling her that he plans to leave, Charlotte faints and while recovering begins to think about the sacrifices she has made: "She had sacrificed too much of herself for him. She had hoped, prayed, waited too long for him to come back just to see him turn around and leave her like this" (169). Aunt Charlotte sets Jackson up as a community leader, one that Jackson does not want to be. Jackson, though, does feel a tie to the community because he does not want to hurt his Aunt or others. However, he does just that.

Jackson's move to California for school opened his mind but it also alienated him from the people back home. He cannot believe as his Aunt does and the others in the Quarters. In many ways, Jackson's place in the community is similar to Raoul's. He is stuck in between two poles: educated and uneducated. After describing how the Cajuns looked at Jackson, the narrator describes how other "Negores" in the community view him: "No, they were no better than the Cajuns. Just as bad. Behind his back they called him 'Mr. Stuck-Up.' He was not 'Mr. Stuck-Up'; he could not think of anything to talk with them about" (175).Even Mary Louise, who Jackson grew up with, becomes alienated from him partly because of his education. She notices that he has been reading and asks him what the book is. Jackson tells her it is a book of Greek poetry; she picks the book up and looks through it: "She had no idea what any word meant, and she looked at him and smiled. He smiled back, assuring her that it really didn't matter" (169).

Throughout Catherine Carmier, Jackson struggles with his place in the community and with his future. He thinks, at points, that he will have to settle down and become a teacher, especially if Catherine decided to leave with him. However, he thinks to himself, "How could he teach when he did not believe in what he was teaching?" (186) As stated earlier, teaching, in the South, was one of the only professions open to someone like Jackson. Would Jackson have made a good teacher? We don't know because we never see him in the classroom, unlike Grant. If he did enter the classroom, would he be similar to Grant, harsh towards his students but eventually learning from them? Would he succumb to the mind-numbing thoughts of nihilism that nothing but pain and suffering await the students he teaches? In the comments, let me know what you think.

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

Sartisky, Michael. "Writing about Race in Difficult Times: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 253-275. Print.