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Ernest Gaines & the Triumph of the Human Spirit

GUEST COLUMN

By Terry Scambray | October 2020
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.

Ernest J. Gaines
Born January 15, 1933, in Oscar, Louisiana
Died November 5, 2019, in Oscar, Louisiana

 

When I heard belatedly that Ernest Gaines had passed away, I felt sadness for his gracious wife, Dianne, and for his family, friends, and the readers of his work all over the world.

Aside from the sorrow I felt, what struck me was the correspondence between the more recent studies of black Americans during and after slavery and what Gaines’s stories and novels dramatize: that despite the great suffering caused by slavery and segregation, black people have maintained their dignity and courage. Ralph Ellison called this achievement “one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

Gaines’s best-known novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), covers a hundred years of Jane’s life. It begins in the postbellum South, when Jane is inspired by a Union soldier to walk to the North; it concludes when the 110-year-old Jane continues her journey, walking past the authorities on her way to integrate a “whites only” drinking fountain. Jane’s story takes on epic proportions as it chronicles her long life, during which she overcame all manner of obstacles on her passage to freedom.

Gaines dramatizes another abiding example of unflagging perseverance in “The Sky Is Gray” (1963), his short story about a boy who endures a throbbing toothache and hunger during what, to him as a child, is a long, cold day’s journey to the dentist with his mother. Gaines’s evocative presentation of this simple story dramatizes how suffering — something we in modern society increasingly seek to avoid — can be redemptive. “They endured,” is the way William Faulkner describes the psychic stamina and tenacity of the black characters in his own work.

Though the black American characters in Gaines’s work are better realized perhaps than in Faulkner’s, nonetheless, Gaines recognized his indebtedness to Faulkner. In fact, a photo of Faulkner, along with a photo of Ernest Hemingway, hung on Gaines’s living room wall — also his “writing room” — in his spartan San Francisco apartment, at Golden Gate Avenue and Divisadero, for those who know the city.

Gaines admired Faulkner for his virtuosity in relying on various points of view in rendering a story. He also admired Faulkner’s sense of place and his understanding of how the people of the South were wedded to the land and remained close to the rigors of farming, raising chickens and hogs, along with the accompanying satisfaction and joy of eating the products of their own hands with family and friends. Gaines admired Hemingway for his parables of courage and his sense of the economy of the Midwestern dialect, which he deployed in his writing, much as Gaines did with his own Louisiana dialect.

Gaines was originally inspired to write by listening to stories told by his crippled aunt, Augusteen Jefferson, who raised him, and also by the reminiscences of relatives and friends who visited her and to whom he would serve water and coffee when they gathered around the kitchen table. Gaines’s personal experiences, as well as his writing, reflect what historian Herbert Gutman has called “the elastic household boundaries” of the black family, which blacks preserved as a way of dealing with their deprivations.

John Lowe of Louisiana State University writes, “Gaines’s work radiates that spirituality that he saw as part of the human condition.” Raised a Baptist, Gaines attended Catholic schools for three years. But he didn’t like people overstating the Christian symbolism in his work, though it’s there in Miss Jane’s conversion and in the Christ-like figure of Jefferson in his novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993). As Gaines once said, “I think I’m a very religious person. I don’t only believe in God. I know there’s God [sic].”

As a teenager, Gaines went to the library and read Steinbeck and de Maupassant, along with other writers who captured his own rural experiences. That Gaines would be influenced by good writing, and not necessarily by the ethnicity of the writer, made him less useful for “the categorical imperatives” of Marxist progressives in the 1960s. Of course, Gaines favored equal treatment for everyone, though he preferred to present this struggle in the lives of the people he knew best.

In this way, Gaines, the artist, was not going to step backward into the trap of being restricted by the accidents of birth. His integrity is reminiscent of fellow black writer Ralph Ellison’s respect for Hemingway’s knife-edge, nervous style because Ellison thought it actualized the alienation blacks have felt, even though the source of Hemingway’s alienation was different. In other words, alienation, like love and hate, is a feature of our common humanity. Actually, saying or implying otherwise would be truly alienating! That aside, the internal as well as external struggle to be human, to hold on to what it means to be a man or a woman, is the theme in all of Gaines’s work.

Some have thought that what Gaines portrayed in his stories was an idolized gloss, mere wishful thinking because slavery had dissolved the human, heroic traits of black Americans. Or so such suspicions grew, especially after the publication of “The Moynihan Report” in 1965. This controversial government report, written by premier social scientists, described “the tangled pathology of the black family,” a pathology caused by slavery, the effects of which have bled down to our time as shown by the great number of black males who abandon their families.

Yet Professor Gutman was among the first to offer a picture of the black slave family as sustaining “a powerful and vibrant culture” that “was not a pale imitation” of their master’s culture. Furthermore, Gutman found that the black family was as intact as the families of other Americans all the way up to the 1960s.

Many have used both sides of this issue for political and government-policy choices. Fair enough. But I bring in this quantitative evidence insofar as it reflects the truth of Gaines’s work.

Not that Gaines’s work requires any confirmation; it stands on its own. The felt life of his characters is all too fully realized. But artists are prophetic because they see and experience what those at a distance take longer to see and become acquainted with. “Artists are the antennae of the race,” Ezra Pound famously pronounced. Ernest Gaines, a quiet man, in bringing to life a memorable group of characters, places, and times, confirms the high position Pound reserved for the artist who humbles himself enough to see the truth.

 

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