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.