Thursday, January 29, 2015

Arna Bontemps "Why I Returned (A Personal Essay)"

Arna Bontemps left Louisiana for California around the age of three. He talks about this movement in "Why I Returned (A Personal Essay)" which opens his 1973 collection of short stories The Old South. In many way, Bontemps reasons for returning can be seen in a similar manner to those of Gaines. While Bontemps came from a middle-class family and Gaines from a family of sharecroppers, both started their lives in Louisiana, moved away, then eventually either returned to their home state or to the Deep South. Bontemps, after going to New York, returned to the South teaching in Alabama (during the Scottsboro Boys trial) from 1931-1934. For the next two posts, I want to speak briefly about what Bontemps' essay says about African American literature and the "arts" and how it relates to not just Gaines' life but to the lives of many others as well.

Originally published in 1965, Bontemps' essay focuses on a major debate regarding African American literature that raged during the Harlem Renaissance regarding whether or not "art" should maintain its link to "folk heritage" or whether it should link itself to more Eurocentric forms of artistic expression. From the outset, it is clear which position Bontemps sided with. He applauds and quotes from Langston Hughes' "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain":
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves. (958)
Bontemps' struggle to determine whether or not he should break with the "folk heritage" manifests itself in his father's and great-uncle's (Buddy) differing views on what to do with the South once they start their lives in California. Bontemps recalls dinner conversations where Buddy and his father brought up the South. When reminiscing about Louisiana, Bontemps' father would say, "Sometimes I miss all that. If I was just thinking about myself, I might want to go back and try it again. But I've got the children to think about--their education" (8). For Buddy, he would simply reply by saying, "Folks talk a lot about California . . . but I'd a heap rather be down home than here, if it wasn't for the conditions" (8-9). In some ways, both men miss their home in Louisiana, but due to differing circumstances both do not wish to return.

Bontemps' father had to think about his children. He continually approved of Buddy's ability to read and write well, but he disparaged Buddy for his "casual and frequent use of the word nigger;" for his love of "dialect stories, preacher stories, ghost stories, slave and master stories;" and for his belief "in signs and charms and mumbo jumbo" (9). Not wanting his son to look at Buddy for an example and to better his education, Bontemps' father sent him to a white boarding school for high school. He told his son, "Now don't go up there acting colored" (10). The tension between hanging on to the "folk heritage" of Louisiana and the South manifests itself in Bontemps' father and great-uncle. As Bontemps says, "In their opposing attitudes towards roots my father and my great-uncle made me aware of a conflict in which every educated American Negro, and some who are not educated, must somehow take sides" (11).

Portrait by Weinold Reiss
Bontemps concludes his essay by providing examples of African Americans staying or leaving the South, and he states, "The southern Negro's link with the past seems to me worth preserving" (23). In support of this statement, Bontemps talks about those who have migrated away from the South and now talk about "Soulville," "Soulbrothers," and "Soulfood." The South and its "folk heritage" serve as a source of inspiration and as means of connection with the past. Bontemps taps this in the in the stories collected in The Old South, and like Gaines, even though he may have, at times, tried to distance himself from the region, he kept returning, both physically and mentally. In the next post, I will delve more into Bontemps' relation to Gaines. I did not do this here, but this post will serve as a background to expand the discussion next time.

Bontemps, Arna. The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1973. Print.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000. 955-958. Print.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Chesnutt's "Paul Marchand F.M.C."

Teaching Charles Chesnutt's Paul Marchand F.M.C. during my "City and American Literature: New Orleans, Chicago, and New York" class last year, I became struck by two descriptions of houses that Chesnutt portrays: Pierre Beaurepas' and Paul Marchand's. The descriptions are fleeting, but a closer look at both of them reveals something about each character and what he values. Matthew Wilson, in the introduction to the novel, claims "the novel is in some way about the consequences of education" (xviii-xix). Today,  I want to explore how the descriptions of Pierre's and Paul's houses add to this conversation. I don't plan to add a summary of the novel, but if you have not read it, the link above provides a summary and the NY Times book review can be seen here.

Upon first describing Pierre's house, the narrator intones that the house is "the temple of the Beaurepas cult," constructing an image of the house as a type of shrine to the Beaurepas family name (23). With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that after Adolphe (one of Pierre's nephews) moves from the extravagance of the exterior architecture into the interior of the house that the house continues to resemble a temple with a fresco of Boucher's The Judgement of Paris, a Velasquez, and "a painting of Vigée Lebrun." Along with these paintings, Pierre's house also contains works by Benvenuto Cellini and  other bronzes. Within the library, Adolphe encounters "glazed bookcases, filled with leather-backed books, many of them bound in hand-tooled morocco" and a reduced, bronze copy of "Houdon's seated statue of Voltaire" (25). Passing through the room, Adolphe takes stock of the books. The narrator says,
Adolphe knew the books by their titles, but had small familiarity with their contents; he had never been fond of reading. Many of them he was aware were rare and curious, and should they become his, they could readily be turned into money which would buy pleasures he would appreciate far more than those of intellect. (emphasis added 25) 
Adolphe's thoughts, and the manner in which Pierre adorns his house, says a lot about them and the way they think about the world. Adolphe seeks, as the narrator makes clear, pleasures, refusing a modicum of enlightenment and education that can come through the books that his uncle has lining the walls of his library.

Houdon's Voltaire
When it comes to Pierre, he is "the disciple of Rousseau and Voltaire, cynical in his attitude towards life" (26). He sits in his chair holding a newly-arrived copy of "Émile, autographed and annotated by the great Jean Jacques himself" (26). Rousseau's treatise argues that education should return to nature instead of systematized education which would make man unnatural an education where the student learns from the consequences of his his actions "would result in a balance between desire and ability" (Wilson xviii). Wilson notes this scene as an indication that the novel is in some way about education, and I agree. However, I want to focus on the fact that the items in Pierre's house serve no purpose apart from adornment. The Rousseau book, even though it Pierre holds it, becomes "a rare item for his collection" (26). We do not see Pierre reading it, and we only see Adolphe thinking about how much money the collection can make him after his uncle passes.

Contrary to Pierre's "temple" filled with rare books, paintings, metal work, and other items, Paul's house is modest. However, the modesty does not make it any less important. The narrator spends about three-four pages on describing Pierre's abode and only about a paragraph on Paul's. Within that paragraph, though, we see that Paul's house is full of items that make him a "man of culture." Even though society classifies him as a Free Man of Color, and thus does not allow him the same rights as a white citizen, his house shows him to be more aware of the intellectual world around him when compared with Adolphe. The house on Bourbon Street contains books lining the walls, which appear to have been read, and art around the room. A piano and a harp sit in the room with sheet music open on the piano. Finally, the table contains "some current French novels and magazines" (88). The Marchand house contains culture just like the Beaurepas mansion, but the difference is that the Marchands appear to interact with the culture they bring into their house while the Beaurepas do not.

What does all of this say? I know there is more here, but at this time I am unsure what to think. For instance, specific artists and authors appear in the description of the Beaurepas' house, but none of that shows up in the description of the Marchand's. What does that say? What does it say that Paul "accepted and proclaimed the radical doctrine of The Rights of Man as applying to all men" (84). These are some of the questions I have.       

Chesnutt, Charles W. Paul Marchand F.M.C. Ed. Matthew Wilson. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In the Background of Chandler's "The Big Sleep"

Last post, I spoke about Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and class in the novel. Today, I want to briefly return to a subject that I explored in "'Idle White Rich' in Catherine Carmier;" in that post, I talk about the fleeting references in Gaines' novel to the white who own the land and who spend their time involved in leisure activities such as racing along the river in a speed boat. Gaines presents whites in the background of the novel. They are there, they exist, and they have an effect on the characters that populate Catherine Carmier. Likewise, Chandler, and other white American authors, populate their novels with African American, Mexican American, or other characters that appear only fleetingly throughout the text. The presence of these characters, as Toni Morrison argues, cannot be ignored. Morrison, in Playing in the Dark (1993), argues that "canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States" (5). by pushing "minority" groups to they margins of the texts, authors work, as Morrison continues, to define an "Americanness" that excludes those that appear only in passing. With that in mind, I want to look briefly at Chandler's novel and a couple of instances where those on the margins of American society during the 1930s appear, then disappear, while the white characters perform their duties.

When Philip Marlowe enters Eddie Mars' casino in chapter "twenty-two," he begins by describing the "Mexican orchestra" performing on stage. He states:
It was about ten-thirty when the little yellow-sashed Mexican orchestra got tired of playing a low-voiced, prettied-up rhumba that nobody was dancing to. The gourd player rubbed his finger tips together as if they were sore and got a cigarette into his mouth almost with the same movement. The other four, with a timed simultaneous stoop, reached under their chairs for glasses from which they sipped, smacking their lips and flashing their eyes. Tequila, their manner said. It was probably mineral water. The pretense was as wasted as the music. Nobody was looking at them. (135)
This brief passage contains an enormous amount of information, specifically within the final four tightly constructed sentences. The musicians play; however, no one in Mars' joint listens to them. To the patrons, the orchestra remains invisible, blending into the background. Likewise, when the performers take a drink from underneath their chairs, they present an image that the people gathered to gamble away their money expect to see, Mexicans drinking tequila. However, the musicians, according to Marlowe, due this only as facade. They probably only drink "mineral water," thus countering the stereotypes of the patrons who do not even pay any attention to them. The musicians occupy a space in the background, removed from the main plot of Chandler's novel.

Another instance of marginalized characters appearing in the novel, but not in a fully fleshed out manner occurs with the Sternwood's maid. As Marlowe meets with Vivian for the first time, she finishes her drink then rings a bell, calling a servant to come and pour her another drink. Marlowe describes the maid simply by appearance. Later, the butler provides her name: Mathilda.
A maid came into the room by a side door. She was a middle-aged woman with a long yellow gentle face, a long nose, no chin, large wet eyes. She looked like a nice old horse that had been turned out to pasture after long service. (18)
While it is not clear if the maid is African American, Asian American, or white, it is clear that she does not have a large part in the novel. She appears a few times, always being referred to by Marlowe as the maid, performs an action, then disappears. What makes this interesting to me is that the chauffeur and butler both have more pronounced, albeit still small, roles in the novel. What does the maid's removal to the background say?  Can it be seen in the same way as the Mexican orchestra that performs at Eddie Mars' club? Even if the maid is white, we still get into issues of class and standing in society, as I talked about last post.

In regards to all of this, I want to explore how Chandler's portrayal of the orchestra and the maid relate to historical facts regarding Mexican American's, African American's, and Asian American's statuses in Los Angeles during the time of the novel. I'm not sure what this would add to the discussion, especially considering I have not read any other novels by Chandler, but doing preliminary research, it looks like exploring these angles may be useful in examining characters like the ones discussed above. I am also very much interested in how this novel became a major film in 1946. Based on the subject matter in the novel, I find it fascinating that the film got made then.

To see more information of race in Chandler's oeuvre, look at  the Chandler and racism entry in A Reader's Guide to Raymond Chandler.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Chandler's "The Big Sleep" and the Issue of Class

I have arrived, at the hard-boiled tradition, through a rather circuitous manner. Starting with the works of African American novelists such as Chester Himes, Donald Goines, Robert Beck, and Ronald S. Jefferson, I have begun to retrace their steps and to read works by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Recently, I completed Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939). Thinking about the novel, I cannot help but recall Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. On the surface, this comparison may not seem to hold much water. While both novels incorporate the first person narrator, they appeared in different milieus: Gatsby during the Roaring Twenties and The Big Sleep near the end of The Great Depression. Even though on novel arose during an economic upsurge and the other during a downturn, both deal with class differences and the ways that, try as one might, an individual has a hard time moving from one class to another.

Chandler's novel focuses on Philip Marlowe, a private eye, and a case he undertakes for the elderly General Sternwood. The general tasks Marlowe with squashing a blackmail attempt involving Sternwood's daughter Carmen. Marlowe takes the case, only asking for twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses. Marlowe does his duties for Sternwood and ends up receiving five hundred dollars, which he did not ask for. Throughout, Marlowe maintains that he tells the truth and that is what he is concerned with, the truth of events. Marlowe appears to be, in a way, the moral compass of the novel, seeking the accurateness of the events that occur during the course of the novel. For my discussion here, I want to focus on what separates the Sternwoods from Marlowe and others in the novel.

The Sternwoods made their money in the oil business, even building their house in Los Angeles on a hill overlooking their investment. As Marlowe leaves the Sternwood mansion after his initial visit, he sees the fields:
On this lower level faint and far off I could just barely see some of the old wooden derricks of the oilfield from which the Sternwoods had made their money. Most of the field was a public park now, cleaned up and donated to the city by General Sternwood. But a little of it was still producing in groups of welsl pumping five to six barrels a day. (21)
By moving up the hill, the Sternwoods escaped the "smell [of] the stale sump water," while still being able to "see what had made them rich" (21). While the Sternwoods made their money through oil, the fields they owned slowed in production, bringing in less and less money to the family. At the end of the novel, Marlowe and Carmen go down the hill to the desolate fields. Marlowe describes the field as a wasteland of machinery; he even notes that "[t]he wells were no longer pumping" (218). No more money came into the Sternwoods through the fields that made them rich.

Now, we do not know, from the novel, what place in society the Sternwoods held before their oil field endeavors. However, we do know that there is a clear disctinction between them and some of the other characters, like Marlowe, in the novel who occupy a lower social strata. What interests me is this separation. In Gatsby, Nick and Jay both come from lower classes. Jay attempts to rise in order to regain the love and Daisy, and Nick just goes with the flow during his summer with Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom. Jay, even though he amasses a large sum of money through nefarious means, never attains the same social level as Tom and Daisy. Watching Jay's attempts to get Daisy back, Nick becomes nauseus and sick of the way that Tom and Daisy act as "they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or thei rvast carlessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess thay had made" (187-188).

Gatsby does not allow for any sort of equality between its characters. Tom and Daisy go on with their lives, Jay dies, and Nick leaves. The Big Sleep, on the other hand, concludes with a poetic comment on the equality of mankind. While differences in class may arise during people's lives, death brings everyone together. Marlowe says,
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. (230)   
Chandler's novel ultimately equalizes the charcaters in the end through a discussion of dust to dust. Gatsby, on the other hand, concludes with Nick lamenting the fact that noone comes to Jay's funeral and urging himself on towards the future stating that we all continue to strive for "the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us" (189).

At this time, I don't completely know what to make of all of this. As stated earlier, I think that looking at these novels in relation to the periods of prosperity or depression they were written within warrants attention. I did a quick search on Chandler's novel and The Great Depression, but I did not come up with any hits. Has anything been written on this? Next post, I will continue looking at The Big Sleep and The Great Gatsby, examining the charcaters that make up the backdrop of each novel.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1992. Print.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Dirty Rice" and the Act of Naming

Previously, I wrote about Gemar and Mike's visit to the Louisiana State Capitol in Gerald Duff's book Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League. For this post, I would like to continue part of that conversation; specifically, I want to touch on the act of "naming" in the novel and on Gemar's attempts to navigate the racial landscape that surrounds him after he leaves the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and heads to Louisiana to play baseball. As Gemar's play on the field begins to draw attention, he inevitably encounters individuals who want to label him and to name him every stereotype in the book.

Every player on the Rayne Rice Birds has a nickname. In fact, no player chose what his name would be; instead, the other players decided and after the "naming" nothing could be done to change it. Upon meeting Dynamite Dunn, the Rice Birds' catcher, Gemar intones that "he didn't call himself [Dynamite]" (18). Journalists, radio broadcasters, fans, and other players came up with the name to use it in stories about the team and in interactions with one another. Gemar continues by saying. "I never met but one or two players in my time in the Evangeline League who would call themselves by their nicknames. Both of them had something wrong with their thinking, too" (18). Early on, Gemar makes a point to let the reader know that names are important and that they carry meaning.  

After a game during the first home stand of the season, Tommy Grenier from the Rayne Tribune comes to the locker room and interviews Gemar for a story. Gemar observes, upon seeing Tommy, that his name does not fit him. Instead of an older man wearing a necktie and sweating profusely, Gemar thinks, "I would've though that the name Tommy was something you'd call a young white kid" (108). As Gemar thinks this, Tommy begins to construct a story that ultimately names Gemar and casts him in a stereotypical light. From the very title, Tommy's piece labels Gemar as something he is not. Gemar comments that the title, "Alabama Indian Tomahawks Cardinals," does not reflect who he is at all, namely that he is part of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, not an Alabama Indian. Later in the article, Tommy plays up the fact that Gemar is Native American; he writes, "He's called Chief by his teammates on the Rice Birds roster, . . . He depends on a fastball he calls his Thunder Bolt, mixed in with a curve named Snake Crawler. He was big poison to the Cardinal hitters, and he lets out an authentic Indian war whoop every time he sets a batter down" (emphasis added 109). Ultimately, according to Tommy, the Evangeline League better pay attention because "Big Chief Gemar Batiste is on the warpath, and he's hungry for strike-outs and scalps" (109).

Tommy's article reinforced readers' views of what a Native American should be. "It satisfied the way they wanted to see things," Tommy mentions, "It's a lot more interesting to believe a red man will let out a war whoop when he gets somebody out in a game then than it is to see the truth" (110).  People's preconceived notions of how a Native American like Gemar should act permeates Tommy's article. In many ways, Tommy performs the same act of naming that those like William Apess, David Walker, and Hosea Easton vociferously spoke out against in the early nineteenth century. Gemar continues by saying that he "learned early on in life to take advantage of the way the white folks liked to think about Indians" (110). In essence, Gemar learned to "wear the mask" just like Procter and Grant do in Gaines' works. However, even if Gemar lets himself believe what the white man says about him, he will never let himself truly believe it because "if you don't let yourself start believing you truly are the creature the white man wants you to think you are," he says, "you can get something out of acting the way they expect you to" (110). Gemar gets the ability to make a living during what the whites called the Great Depression and members of his tribe called normal by doing something he enjoys, playing baseball. Gemar allows for the perpetuation of the stereotypes in much the same way that Procter Lewis and Grant Wiggins do, to subvert them.

Concluding, there are numerous other instances of naming in Dirty Rice. The manager and the owners, after Gemar throws a no-hitter, want Gemar to play up his "Indianess" for the fans because his uniqueness will bring in more money. After the no-hitter, Dynamite Dunn and others take Gemar to a cockfight. Here, Gemar reflects on the idea of naming, finding himself drawn to an underdog fighter named Little Red from Alabam just because of the word "Alabam." That word, Gemar says, "was another case that shows how much it means what a living thing is called" (188). Regarding the names the names the chickens received from their owners, Gemar notes, "The naming of a fighting chicken wasn't meant to satisfy the chicken but the man who slapped it on him" (185). Naming works a way to establish control and power over a subject. Gemar feels this throughout the novel, and like the chickens in the cockpit, he plays along. However, unlike the chickens, he plays along because he knows how to navigate the space where he resides.

There is much more that could be said about this novel; however, I will leave that for the comments below. What do you think about the act of naming either in Dirty Rice or elsewhere? What do you see as Gemar's role in the act of naming and going along with it? These and other questions are ones that could be explored in greater detail.

Duff, Gerald. Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League. Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2012. Print.
Rayne Rice Birds 1937

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Louisiana State Capitol and Gerald Duff's "Dirty Rice"

The Patriots
The Pioneers

A couple of weeks ago, I made a trip to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. While there, I took the opportunity to look at the architecture of "Huey Long's Monument." The outside contains two sculptures that flank the steps leading up to the capitol's entrance. On the left is the The Pioneers which depicts groups of people such as a Native American, a Spanish conquistador, a Franciscan friar, a backwoodsman, Hernando de SotoRené-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle,and others who have contributed to Louisiana's history.  On the right, you will see The Patriots, a sculpture that displays a knight in armor standing on a fallen hero's coffin. Unidentified mourners surround the knight and coffin, and one mourner can be seen behind the knight placing a symbolic wreath to his back.

Why do I even bring up the architecture of the Louisiana State Capitol? I brought it up because in Gerald Duff's Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League the novel's protagonist, Gemar Batiste (from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe), and his "Cuban" teammate Mike Gonzales visit the state capitol during their time in Baton Rouge, LA. Batiste and Gonzales were in Louisiana's capitol city because they were both set to take part in the Evangeline League's 1935 All Star Game. Upon approaching the monument, Mike points out the statues flanking the entrance to the building. Instead of the two sculptures mentioned above, Mike asks, "Ain't that a big old statue of an Indian man standing there with a bow and arrow in his hands? What's he doing in Louisiana at the capitol?" (156). Gemar answers by telling Mike that the Native American is doing "the same thing that statue of the colored man is doing" (156). Gemar elaborates by stating that whites put the two statutes there in order "to show what troubles they had to go through to take over the Louisiana country" (156).

The Native American sculpture depicts a man standing with a bow and arrow looking around, as if something is about to come upon him. The African American in the other sculpture is bent over pulling weeds and grass out of the ground. To Mike's observations that one is standing awaiting something that has not arrived and that one is bent over low to the ground extracting weeds and grass. Gemar intones that the statue of the slave "is supposed to let you know how the white man started planting rice and sugarcane and beans and stuff as soon as they could get the Indians herded up and out of the way. See, then that's when they had to bring in the colored folks to tend to the farming, Keep the weeds out so the good crops could grow. Pick that cotton, chop that cane, harvest that rice" (156). After hearing Gemar's description, Mike, who is not Cuban but "redbone," declines to enter the capitol and chooses to get ready for the All Star Game instead. The capitol holds nothing for him or Gemar. Being a redbone from Alabama, Mike knows about discrimination, and being from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, Gemar knows about it as well.

Just as John Kennedy Toole changed the geography of New Orleans to fit his needs in A Confederacy of Dunces, Duff erects two new sculptures on the capitol's steps: a Native American and an African American slave bent over working in the ground. These statues serve the purpose of showing how Gemar must navigate residing in a white society. Gemar's assessment that the statues represent the white's displacement of Native Americans and subjugation of African American echoes those of Ned Douglass in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. During his sermon by the river, Ned preaches," 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). Ned traces the same progression and role of Native Americans, African Americans, and whites that Gemar mentions in regard to the statues.

Along with pointing out the atrocities of white society in relation to its conquering of Louisiana and America, Ned points out that America incorporates all groups. Ned makes this point overtly by stating, "America is for red, white, and black men. . . . America is for all of us" (115). Gemar, on the other hand, does not comment that America is for everyone; in fact, Gemar's and Mike's actions lead towards the realization that it is not. Mike has to lie, as some other African American players did during the early part of the twentieth century, and claim to be from Cuba in order to even play in the Evangeline League, and Gemar has to endure stereotypes in the way that journalists and his teammates label him in order to survive. (Gemar's navigation of these issues will be discussed in the next post.) Mike and Gemar do not enter the capitol after looking at the outside. Gemar asks Mike if he would like to go in or if he has "seen enough to satisfy" his curiosity (156). Mike simply says, "I'm going to pass on walking through that door" (156). Mike's refusal is straight forward and concise; immediately following it, he says he want to go to the baseball field and drops the subject. Gemar and Mike do not have access to the "white" capitol in 1935; however, they do have access to the baseball field and they use that navigate the racist society they reside within.

What are some other instances in books, poems, plays, etc. where state capitols or government buildings are mentioned in a similar manner to how Duff uses them in Dirty Rice? I'm curious to know because I think it would make an interesting study or class.

Duff, Gerald. Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League. Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2012. Print.
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.      

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Short Story and Ernest Gaines Syllabus

Last post, I talked about the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Center Summer Teaching Institute. With that in mind, I want to take the time in this blog post to do something a little different. Instead of writing a critical post, I would like to use today's entry to present you with a possible syllabus for teaching Gaines' works either in a secondary or post-secondary setting. When available, I have provided links to the stories below.

The Short Story and Ernest Gaines


This course will examine various authors from around the world and how they influenced the writing of Ernest J. Gaines in particular. Along with authors that influenced Gaines, the course will also explore contemporaneous authors with Gaines and his work. Through this examination, we will challenge the monolithic view of literature, and in particular African American literature, by showing that authors do not receive their inspiration from a uniformed sources. While the course center on Ernest Gaines, it will provide us with an opportunity to explore other avenues as well: short story structure, peasantry in Russia and the United States, Modernism, the South as a space of memory, and other topics.

Readings (Chronological Order):

Ivan Turgenev A Sportsman's Sketches (1852)
Leo Tolstoy The Death of Ivan Illych (1886)
James Joyce "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" (1914)
Jean Toomer "Blood Burning Mood" and "Avey" (1923)
Ernest Hemingway "Soldier's Home," "Big Two-Hearted River Part 1," and "Big Two Hearted River Part 2" (1925)
William Faulkner "April 7, 1928" (Benjy's section in The Sound and the Fury) (1929)
Richard Wright "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" and "Big Boy Leaves Home" (1938)
Eudora Welty "A Worn Path" (1941)
James Baldwin "The Outing" and "Going to Meet the Man" (1965)
Ernest Gaines Bloodline (1968) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971)
Alice Walker "Everyday Use" (1973)
Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers 1967 to Present Ed. Gloria Naylor (1997)
Growing Up in the South: An Anthology of Modern Southern Literature Ed. Suzanne Jones (2003)


  • Response papers: These will be in the form of blog posts. I will set up a blog for the class, and you will post your responses there. Each post will require you to answer to my prompt and to respond to other students' responses as well. We will discuss how to do this in a proefssional manner during class. (Teachers, see Shannon Baldino's "The Classroom Blog: Enhancing Critical Thinking, Substantive Discussion, and Appropriate Online Interaction" for a discussion of blogs in the high school classroom.)
  • Wiki: Students will be placed into groups of four. Each group will be required to construct a collaborative wiki with ________ components on an author and text that we read in class. 
    • Each student must write a paragraph describing the class discussion for that author. For example, if the class discusses narrative voice in Faulkner, the response should talk about narrative voice and what the class said about it. 
    • The group must come up with five questions to think about based off of the class discussion or research. 
    • The group must construct an annotated bibliography of six sources. The annotations must be 250-500 words and contain a section stating the source's credibility, a summary of the source, a way to use that source in a research project. 
    • The group must construct a list of symbols/allusions/or other references in the stories. The number here will vary, but each entry must provide information about where it comes from (especially for an allusion) and what purpose it serves in the context of the story. 
    • The group must construct a review of the short story. The review must be between 500-1000 words. Remember, a review is not a summary. Some summary is necessary, but the thrust of the review should be about the story's meaning and importance. 
    • The group must construct a creative page. This page can be anything that you desire. For example, it could be a hand drawn map of the setting. It could be sketch of one of the scenes. It could be a Prezi talking about the author and the themes of the story. It could be a video discussion. This page is open to whatever you want to do.   
  • Research paper: the paper must explore connections between at least two of the authors discussed in class. For example, you could explore the pastoral in Turgenev and Hemingway. Or, you could explore representations of the South in Wright and Baldwin. The paper must be 8-10 pages. You must use 4-6 secondary sources as well to support your argument.

What other types of assignments would you require in a class like this? For class discussion, I would incorporate the "fish bowl" activity. The "fish bowl" has worked well for me in the past, especially in my literature classes.  As well, the wiki assignment worked well. After the initial apprehensiveness of students to work together in this way, students created some amazing wikis and creative pages. Plus, the information provided them with a head start on their research papers. The wikis helped to show students that learning and writing are not solitary activities; they require interaction with others.

Regarding the readings above, I chose them because of their relationship to Ernest Gaines. Gaines has stated, at various times, the influence of many of the authors above. Along with his influences, I added contemporaries of Gaines such as Wright, Baldwin, and Walker to show his work in relationship to those he wrote alongside. The two anthologies listed provide short stories by African American writers and Southern writers. There are works in there that could be used to expand upon the themes and topics in the class.

List of previous blog posts that may be of help with the readings in this course:

Please provide your insights and suggestions in the comments below. What other texts would you suggest in a class like the one above? What assignments and activities have worked for you in the classroom when teaching literature? If you have a syllabus or reading list you would like to propose, let me know at

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute

Last June, the Ernest J. Gaines Center hosted the First Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute. Over the course of a week, teachers from around the area gathered to read and discuss Gaines' works. We also took the time to talk about how they could teach those works, and others, in their own classrooms. The center provided them with access to archival materials and articles that would help in this endeavor.

This summer, the center, in conjunction with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), will host the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute. The institute will be held June 8-June 12, 2015 from 8:00-12:00 each day. The main goal of the institute is to provide area educators with the opportunity to explore, research, and discuss works by Ernest J. Gaines while focusing on how to bring the information garnered from the institute back to their own classrooms. To accomplish this, the institute will involve lectures from Dr. Marcia Gaudet and Dr. Darrell Bourque. Dr. Gaudet served as the founding director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center from 2008-2012, and she has authored, co-authored, and edited numerous books and articles on the work and life of Ernest J. Gaines. Some of her works include "This Louisiana Thing that Drives Me":The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines (2009). Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2006), and Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft (1990). Dr. Bourque serves on the Ernest J. Gaines Center's Board of Directors, was the Louisiana Poet Laureate, and received the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award. He has written and presented on Gaines's work as well, including presentations on A Lesson before Dying and Catherine Carmier. Along with these, he has also written about Gaines and Modest Mussorgsky and on heroes in Gaines' fiction.  During the institute, Dr. Matthew Teutsch (Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center) and Jennifer Morrison (Graduate Assistant in the Ernest J. Gaines Center) will also provide insight and information about Gaines' work and the materials housed within the center.

The institute will involve numerous activities including lectures, discussions, use of archival materials, and most importantly the construction of materials for use in the classroom and in professional activities. The materials constructed by participants will also be available to other educators through the LEH. In conjunction with these items, participants will have the opportunity to visit New Roads, LA one afternoon. The trip will provide participants with the chance to see and to walk the landscape and the area that Gaines writes about in his fiction. These places include the cemetery and the church that play such a prominent role in Gaines' writing. Participants will examine four of Gaines' works: Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson before Dying.

The deadline to apply for the Second Annual Ernest J. Gaines Summer Teaching Institute is March 18, 2015. The institute will be limited to 10 participants, and each participant will receive a $200 stipend and a certificate showing their participation for professional development purposes. To apply, go the the Ernest J. Gaines Center's website and complete the application form. Participants will be notified by April 15, 2015 on the status of their status. Applicants must provide the following information:

  • name
  • school affiliation
  • phone number
  • email
  • a one page letter stating why you would like to participate in the institute, how you plan to incorporate the information learned into your classroom, and your previous experience (if any) with Gaines' work

For more information, contact Dr. Matthew Teutsch at (337)-482-1848 or at