Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Importance of Being Ernest Gaines

I have been reading Mozart and Leadbelly, a collection of essays and stories by Ernest J. Gaines, most of which acknowledge the influences on his work. Such influences obviously include both musicians along with Russian authors, southern authors, James Joyce, and the people he grew up with in South Louisiana. Today, after reading again how he found Miss Jane Pittman’s voice, I appreciated even more the path he takes to write his short stories and novels. Even more, I admire his honesty and sincerity in terms of this process, including a long-ago battle with an editor pertaining to cutting Catherine Carmier down. I started to think about my writing process and what has influenced my work. And, I followed my own story right back to Ernest Gaines and a particular graduate school class for which I read Of Love and Dust.

At the time, I was confused because I’d known for certain that I would teach English classes since I was in elementary school. In terms of my education choices, I was right on track to do so. The problem was that I loved Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, so I decided to study nineteenth-century British literature, but I didn’t feel ready to teach Victorian literature in all of its glory. So, there I was, sitting in a southern literature class in a department with an outstanding reputation in southern studies, reading about the “Steamy South” (Yes, folks, that was the name of the course.). The steamy factor made no difference to me. I quickly realized that I had something to say—no, make that something to add to the discussion when we started Of Love and Dust. I knew what Gaines meant when he used “Tite” as an abbreviation of petite, the nickname given to Bonbon and Louise’s daughter. I could pronounce the landowner’s name, which wasn’t so special a talent considering it was Hebert, same as mine. But, that was the point. I knew that place. I recognized those folks.

Yet, Gaines also offered me another perspective of a history I thought I knew so well. Since the plantation owner has an Acadian name and Bonbon, one of Marcus’s antagonists, is Cajun, my Cajun point-of-view had to take a step back. Gaines takes the reader into the sugarcane fields and the labor and racial divisions designated by the white landowners. Gaines’s novel encouraged me to dig deeper to see a more thorough picture of Louisiana life in the late 1940s, one that could better appreciate the diversity and often ugly realities of it. As he writes in the essay, “Mozart and Leadbelly,” “I write for the black youth of the South to let them know that their lives are worth writing about” (31). Then, he continues, “I also write for the white youth of the South to let them know that unless they know their neighbor of over three hundred years, they know only half of their own history” (31).

I found myself contributing more to the class discussion because I finally believed I had something to contribute while simultaneously thirsting for a more evolved understanding of my home. Though I ended up writing my final paper for that course on another Louisiana author, Walker Percy, I came back to Gaines and his representation of Cajuns and African Americans, among others, when writing my dissertation. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, reading Gaines’s story of how he came to write what he did brings me full circle. Gaines writes to give voice to his people. And, because he wrote Of Love and Dust, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying—because he shared Miss Jane with all of us—I found my own voice as a student of Louisiana literature. I’ve even had the privilege of hearing the man himself read his own work several times, which further inspired my work. So, thank you, Ernest Gaines. Thank you for sharing such insightful, and thus powerful, memories of Louisiana life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with all of us.

Gaines, Ernest J. Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. New York: Knopf, 2005.