Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Farewell Blog Post

Today, we are going to do something a little different. At the end of the month, Dr. Matthew Teutsch, the Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center, will say goodbye to us and move on to other endeavors. Before he leaves, we thought it would be a good idea to ask his about his time here, what Gaines means to him, and why Gaines's work is important today. Make sure to keep an eye out for Dr. Teutsch's own blog, Interminable Rambling, which he plans to start in August. As we get closer, we will let you know more about it. 

How long have you been at the Ernest J. Gaines Center?

I have been at the center for a total of three and a half years. I started as a graduate assistant in January 2012. At that time, I finishing up my comprehensive exams for my PhD program and starting to focus on the dissertation. As the graduate assistant, I worked on organizing archival materials, creating lists of scholarship on Gaines, leading tours of the center, conducting lectures, and other tasks. In April of 2014, after the director of the center took a new job, I became the Interim Director of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. Since then, I have, among other things, acquired new items for the collection, organized the 50th anniversary celebration for Catherine Carmier, worked with NEA Big Read recipients, hosted a concert by Irvin Mayfield, and lectured to classes across the nation. 

What was your first encounter with Ernest J. Gaines?

That depends, do you mean with his writing or with him specifically? With his writing, I picked up A Gathering of Old Men about ten years ago. I read it because I knew Gaines is from Louisiana, and that appealed to me. Afterwards, I thought, “Is this it?” It didn’t really do a lot for me then. I read A Lesson before Dying after that. The story moved me; however, I kind of felt the same way, “Is this it?” I’m not sure what I was expecting—Dante, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Ellison, or something else. Who knows what I thought.

When I picked him up again, around my PhD coursework, I started to reread Gaines, and I really examined him closer when I started working at the center as a graduate assistant. Then, I realized that Gaines writes what I like to call “deceptively easy” texts. He is very accessible, and for that reason, he has both a popular and academic audience. In this way, Gaines recalls one of his inspirations, Ernest Hemingway, who placed 10% on the surface of the text and another 90% underneath (the iceberg theory). Digging through the surface, we see that Gaines does a lot more than it may appear at first. For me, this keeps me coming back because like any good piece of art each time I come back I see something entirely new and enlightening.

My first encounter with Gaines specifically, I think, came at the cemetery beautification in 2009. There, I worked in the cemetery, which in and of itself provides a very unique perspective on Gaines and his writing. He came out there in his golf cart, and I, as most people would be, approached him tentatively. I don’t recall much from the first meeting, but I do know that I discovered ways to speak with him. For me, I talked about sports, and as time went on, I began to loosen up. Eventually, I realized that for all of his fame, Gaines is a person just like me. He likes his Olde Tyme shrimp po-boys and sitting around and talking. Things I like to do as well.   

Once I got past the initial awe of being in his presence, conversation became easier. We would speak about baseball, literature, or food. Hearing stories about Juan Marichal or Hank Aaron always made my day. Hearing him talk about literature, his own writing and that of others, always taught me something new. Hearing him speak about shrimp po-boys, well, just made me hungry. 

What has Gaines taught you?

Gaines has taught me a lot of things. Specifically, he has solidified my thoughts regarding art and the multitudinous ingredients that go into the creation of a piece of literature, a painting, a song, or anything. Gaines speaks about Vincent Van Gogh inspiring him. He speaks about Modest Mussorgsky. He speaks about William Faulkner. All of these influences, and more, had a part in the finished project, whether they appear noticeable or not. For me, the interconnections between all of these things and Gaines's work highlights that life, and art, does not exist in an insular bubble. Everyone, and everything, converses together in one way or another. Today, we need conversation and dialogue on numerous issues, and to me, Gaines provides an avenue to begin some of those conversations.

Along with highlighting the interrelatedness of art, Gaines has also taught me history. He has shown me the lives of individuals (African American, white, Cajun, & Creole) in Louisiana. When most people think bout Louisiana, the "exotic" New Orleans comes to mind. Gaines, unlike many other authors who write about Louisiana, does not focus on New Orleans; in fact, the city rarely appear sin his works, and no action takes place there. Instead, Gaines focuses on the lives of rural Louisianians,  similar to the ways Arna Bontemps does in regards to the central Louisiana region. Gaines writes about a people who do not, as the editor in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman points out, "Do not appear in the history books." I would not have known about people like Miss Jane, Copper Laurent, Mathu, Lou Dimes, Candy Marshall, Grant Wiggins, Tee Bob Samson, or others without Gaines's work.

What is Gaines’s importance?

With everything going on in the nation today, I feel that Gaines's work serves a specific purpose. Reading Gaines, it becomes easy to separate the contemporary from the past that Gaines presents. For instance, A Lesson before Dying takes place in 1948, so a reader can look at the novel and say, "That's a terrible story, but it's in the past. Today we don't have to worry about someone like Jefferson experiencing the same trials and tribulations." However, if we look at what has occurred recently, this sentiment does not hold a lot of water. Was Trayvon Martin like Jefferson? I think Gaines shows us that even though slavery ended, "officially," in 1865 and Jim Crow ended during the 1960s, we still have a long way to go.

Gaines's importance comes from the fact that he does not shy away from showing that the "rules," these unwritten laws that work to keep wealthy whites in power and African Americans, and I would even argue poor whites (think Sydney Bonbon and Gil Boutan), in subjugation still exist. They may not appear on the books, but they remain. Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher, tells him that no matter how hard Grant tries he cannot scrape away three hundred years of slavery and hate when teaching his students. The students exist in the shadow of the past, and until we confront that past, head on, we will continue the cycle.

Do you have any final thoughts about your time at the center? 

The Ernest J. Gaines Center has been a part of my life for the past three years. I never would've thought, when I first picked up Gaines's work, that I would have the opportunity to work at the center and to explore his works in the ways that I have done over the past couple of years. Looking back, I think my time can be summed up by Aunt Clo's description of Aunt Fe in "Just Like a Tree." The story, told from multiple points of view, tells about the last night Aunt Fe spends in the quarters before her family moves her North. Every section carries the narrative forward, except for Aunt Clo's. Her section poetically compares Aunt Fe to a tree being "jecked" out of the ground and dragged to the North. After removing the tree from the ground, one looks into the hole created and sees the taproot remaining. For me, the center is that taproot. I may leave, but a part of me will always be a part of this place.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Poetry in Percy's "The Moviegoer"

Last post, I wrote about the African American presence in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Today, I want to continue the discussion about Percy's novel, but I would like to focus on something I found fascinating this time around. While reading the novel, I kept thinking about two of my favorite poems: W.H. Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" and e.e. cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." The themes in these poems are nothing new, and reading them in relation to The Moviegoer doesn't seem like that big of stretch. Both poems, and the novel, deal with a certain anonymity that society creates about an individual, and in the novel Binx struggles to find his own identity and existence in a world that seems somewhat foreign to him. He goes to the movies to escape and to actually feel at times.

At the beginning of the novel, Binx comments on his ideal citizenry and the fact that even as an ideal citizen people do not necessarily recognize or acknowledge him. Speaking about his life in Gentilly, Binx says, "I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in all that is expected of me" (6). He lists all of the pieces of identification he carries (library card, driver's license, and credit cards) and the ones he keeps safe in his house (birth certificate, diploma, stock certificates, etc.). Of these items, Binx says, "It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one's name on it certifying, so to speak, one's right to exist" (7). Binx's thoughts on how society perceives him immediately made me think about Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," a poem that chronicles the life of JS/07 M 378. The numbered citizen worked hard, paid his union dues, served in the war, bought paper everyday, got married, bought material items, and had five kids. From all accounts and purposes, he lived the perfect, modern American Dream life. However, the narrator asks at the end of the poem, "Was he free? Was he happy?" After hearing about his life, this question seems rather absurd, and the narrator acknowledges as much, adding, "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." From the viewpoint of a detached, bureaucratic narrator, nothing appears wrong with JS/07 M 378's life, but from his view, something may have been amiss. Binx, in essence, correlates to JS/07 M 378, and we see from his point of view the struggles of the modern man to navigate a society that seeks to make him a number and not an individual that, no matter what outside appearances show, may be struggling with his very existence.

The other poem that came to mind during my last read through of Percy's novel was cummings's "anyone lived in a pretty how town." As he thinks back to the days when he read only "fundamental" books, Binx comments, "During those years I stood outside the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only for diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie" (69). The use of the pronouns "Anyone" and "Anywhere" made me think of cummings. Binx reads to becomes anyone anywhere, a person of non-consequence to those around him. In the poem, anyone lives his life in a town, and the other people (the someones and everyones) do not necessarily notice him. He marries a woman named noone and life continues. Eventually, anyone and noone die and the other citizens continue on with their lives, reaping and sowing. Thinking about Binx, this recalls his own existence. He lives in a world where he appears almost invisible except to the immediate people around him. He struggles to find love, eventually ending up with his cousin, and does not really accomplish anything in his quest.

One other instance that reminded me of cummings comes earlier when Binx talks about a movie being "certified." A movie becomes "certified" when you, as a viewer, see your neighborhood on screen. Binx says, "But if he sees ha movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere" (63). Seeing the area on screen, in essence, verifies the viewer's existence, making him or her realize that the place is an actual place, a Somewhere, and not a fantastic, or far off locale, an Anywhere. It legitimizes the life. While reading this section, I also couldn't help but think about the song "Cinema Air" by The Gloria Record. The song focuses on the same existential themes that Percy's novel and the poems discussed here. It talks about getting lost in the movies, how they create a sense of escape and a form of identification with the screen. A video of the song is below.

What are your thoughts here? Let us know in the comments below.

Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Faucet Columbine, 1996. Print.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The African American Presence in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer"

One of the first posts on this blog focused on Walker Percy's Lancelot (1977) and his portrayal of African Americans in that novel. Since then, I have written about the African American presence in novels such as The Great Gatsby and also about the white presence in Gaines's Catherine Carmier. Today, I would like to write briefly about the African American presence in Percy's debut novel The Moviegoer (1961) which chronicles Binx Bolling's "search" for his own identity in a declining South during the post war years in the mid-twentieth century. The novel takes place over Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and as Marcia Gaudet notes, Binx's search is a type of "internal carnivalesque," upending societal hierarchies for a period of time and reveling in the grotesque. I could discuss this aspect of the novel some, but I will not do so today. Instead, I will focus on Percy's portrayal of Mercer and other African American characters.

Binx's description of his Aunt Emily's African American butler Mercer presents him as the remnant of a by-gone era and also partly as a movement away from that era. When Binx arrives at his aunt's house in the Garden District, Mercer opens the door for him. Immediately, Binx notices that Mercer thoughtfully weighs how he will greet his white employer's nephew. Binx notes, "Today he does not say 'Mister Jack' and I know that the omission is deliberate, the consequence of a careful weighing of pros and cons. Tomorrow the scales might tip the other way (today's omission will go into the balance) and it will be 'Mister Jack'" (21). Mercer, like Procter Lewis in Gaines's "Three Men," consciously weighs how he will address this white man. Emily moved from Feliciana Parish to New Orleans, and Mercer followed her, continuing to serve as her butler. In describing Mercer, Binx says, "He is thought to be devoted to us and we to him. But the truth is that Mercer and I are not at all devoted to each other" (22). For Binx, Mercer wears a mask. Mercer does not "serve" the family; instead, through his actions, the family serves Mercer providing him, ultimately costing him the ability to define himself.  Lucinda H. MacKethan points out the effect that the city has on Mercer: "In Aunt Emily's house in the city he has changed, has become a 'city man,' although still a product of a racist system that makes him a consummate maskwearer. He is defined by but also dissolved in a role of 'devotion' that is placed upon him as the beneficiary of a country family's benevolence" (34). Mercer allows the paternalist Binx family to support him, providing him with material accouterments; however, by allowing them to support him, Mercer maintains the racial hierarchy that existed within the South, rejecting his ability to create his own identity.

Binx's identity exists in relation to Mercer's. The novel traces the story of  Binx, a man from a legitimate Southern family, and his gradual degradation of Southern manhood. Part of that decay can be seen in the form of changing race relations that appear to occur on the periphery. No mention of race relations, or changing times, really appears in the novel in regards to race. However, a closer look at Mercer seems to point to changing times on the horizon. When describing Mercer in more detail, Binx says that the way Mercer breathes reminds him of the rural, agricultural Feliciana Parish, an image of the plantation or Jim Crow South. Binx reminesces, "We might be back in Feliciana. Here is the very sound of winter mornings in Feliciana twenty years ago when cold dark dawns were announced by the clatter of the handle on the scuttle and Mercer's strangled breathing" (23). Discussing Mercer's history with Aunt Emily, Binx continues by saying, "Mercer has dissolved somewhat in recent years. It is not so easy to say who he is any more. My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age" (23). Here, Mercer appears to be an artifact of the South, one whose time has come to an end. He has "dissolved" and exists as a "connection with a bygone era." In essence, his time has passed, and the role of African Americans being treated as inferior has begun to dissolve as well.

Binx has admiration for Mercer, and to an extant, sympathy for him. Knowing that Mercer takes kickbacks and steals, Binx says that he can't be called a thief because "Mercer has aspirations" (23). Those aspirations, though, become muddled in the system that still exists. Binx refers to Mercer as a "remarkable sort of fellow" and as a person "who keeps himself well informed in science and politics" (24). Even with these aspects, Mercer still lacks a solidified identity. Binx finds Mercer uneasy to talk to because of his knowledge, and his feels sad for him because he notices the way that Mercer views himself, "neither [as] old retainer nor expert in current events" (24). At those moments, Mercer's "eyes get muddy and his face runs together behind his mustache" (24). In effect, he becomes stuck in between what Southern society expects of him and what he expects from himself. The conflicting expectations cause him to lose his own identity, conforming and wearing the mask in order to survive in a racist system.  

At the end of the novel, as Binx and Kate sit outside a church on Ash Wednesday and discuss the possibility of marriage, a car pulls up behind them and "a Negro gets out and goes up into the church" to receive ashes (233). Binx notices the gentleman and starts to speculate on why he is there at that church. Binx notes, "He is more respectable that respectable; he is more middle-class than one could believe" (233). The man exudes "respectability" and appears to be the opposite of Mercer, an African American man who has found his identity. As the man leaves the church, Binx observes him again. This passage is worth quoting at length:
The Negro has already come outside. His forehead is an ambiguous sienna color and pied: it is impossible to be sure that he received ashes. When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for bother reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's importunate bonus? (234-235)
A couple of items stand out in this quote. One is that Binx notices that the man looks down at his seat, and he speculates about what the man be looking at. For Binx, the man looks at a sample case or insurance manual, two items that would place the man as a salesman. If this is the case, the man appears to be making his own way in the world, not tied down to the past as Mercer is, or, as I have not really discussed, as Binx is. The other point appears when when Binx asks in the man's presence goes hand in hand with "the complex business of coming up in the world." Again, this very question points to the man having a clear idea of his identity and what he wants to do in his life, unlike Mercer who remains tethered to the past.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What other characters appear in the novel that are similar to Mercer and the man at the end? Let us know in the comments below.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. "Redeeming Blackness: Urban Allegories Of O'Connor, Percy, and Toole."
Studies in The Literary Imagination 27.2 (1994): 29-39. Print.
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Faucet Columbine, 1996. Print.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Stream-of-Consciousness in Bontemps and Toomer

Last post, I wrote about a stylistic element in Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder (1936) that I found interesting and similar to Gaines's description of the arrival of Gruesome Gertie into Bayonne in chapter 30 of A Lesson before Dying. Today, I want to briefly continue with that discussion by looking at a couple of section from Bontemps's novel where the third person narrator gives way to a stream-of-consciousness narration. This move, in many ways, reminds me of parts of Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) where we see inside the characters's heads. These sections occur mostly in the second and third sections of Toomer's novel and are punctuated like drama, providing the character's name then a period.

During the torrential storm that ultimately thwarts Gabriel's rebellion, Ben sits in the house with Marse Sheppard and thinks about their relationship, how much they understand one another and how satisfied they are together. All of this in the third person; until he begins to think about his freedom and what that means.
Then suddenly another thought shouted in his head.
Licking his spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard, hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free? He wasn't too good to sell them two gal young-uns down the river soon's they's old enough to know the sight of a cotton-chopping hoe. How'd he treat yo' old woman befo' she died? And you love it, hunh? Anything what's equal –
"Get the toddy bowl, Ben."
"Yes, suh." (94)
Here, the narration moves into Ben's head as he considers his relationship with Marse Sheppard and whether or not he should even think about freedom. Bontemps moves seamlessly from the third person narrator into Ben's head for a stream-of-consciousness section. Ben begins by asking himself questions regarding Sheppard's respect for him then moves into the past thinking about the way Sheppard treated his family, selling them when they were old enough to work in the fields. Ben's thoughts, however, get interrupted when Sheppard asks him for the "toddy bowl," and the narrator returns to third person, providing an overview of the action. Bontemps does this periodically throughout the novel, delving into the thoughts of multiple characters as he tells the story of Gabriel Prosser's failed insurrection.

In "Bona and Paul," Toomer incorporates interior monologue, delving into the character's thoughts to illuminate the action taking place. At the very beginning of the story, Bona watches Paul dance dance during class.
Bona: He is a candle that daces in a grove swung with pale balloons.
Columns of the drillers thud towards her. He is in the front row. He is in no row at all. Bona can look close at him. His red-brown face —
Bona: He is a harvest moon. He is an autumn leaf. He is a nigger. Bona! But dont all the dorm girls say so? And dont you, when you are sane, say so? That's why I love — Oh, nonsense. You have never loved a man who didnt first love you. Besides — (70)
The excerpt above shows a small sample of what Toomer does with stream-of-consciousness narration. Bona thinks about the way that Paul looks as he dances in front of her, and as she contemplates his appearance in relation to the moon and a leaf, she begins to drift back in to what others say about him. Her thoughts go from a metaphorical image of Paul to a depiction that hinges on what others say, and that tension can be seen in her thoughts. She abruptly stops twice, as indicated by the em-dashes. Bona moves from abstract, metaphorical images of Paul to examining him in relation to how her fellow dorm girls view him to wondering whether or not she actually loves him. This is just a brief example of stream-of-consciousness in Toomer's novel, there are more throughout the work.

What are some other novels that employ this technique? What is its purpose? How does this technique relate to modernism, which both authors were a part of? Let me know in the comments below.

Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. Print.
Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1975, Print.