Ernest Gaines: A man of the word
February 11, 2002
by John F. Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities
I met Ernest Gaines the way a writer wants to be met. I read his work.
In the summer of 1970, I was teaching at Cal State, Hayward. One afternoon the poet Michael Harper rumbled into my office as I was about to leave for class.
“I say, look, man,” he said. “Tell your class to come to the amphitheater tomorrow. I met this unbelievable cat—Ernest Gaines—he’s going to read from his new novel.”
Harper shoved a book into my hands, and roared off like the A Train headed uptown. In an act of self-defense, I complied and gave my students their marching orders. That night I read Bloodline, Ernest Gaines’ astonishing collection of short stories. Like fiction that’s the real thing, the stories inBloodline, from the first page to the last, gave me the feel of being in Louisiana. I was there in the ’40s when little black boys suddenly became men because their fathers were away at war. I was there in the ’50s when nothing seemed to have changed, and I was there in the ’60s when, by dint of small, often dangerous acts of courage, the fissures in the Jim Crow scheme of things were beginning to widen into a crevasse.
But none of this prepared me for hearing Ernest Gaines read from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Under the spell of his voice, a hundred years of Louisiana history came alive. Of Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium.” Hearing Ernest Gaines, I felt in the presence of the rivers and bayous, the oak and pecan trees, the earth and sky of Louisiana. Above all, I felt the blood and bones and speech of his people in his characters—black and white, but especially black—as they rode the air on his compassionate voice.
Afterward, Harper, Gaines, and I stopped for a drink. Berets are a Gaines trademark, and on this afternoon, he wore a dark green one. Over a bourbon and water, he spoke about the approaching deadline for his novel.
“I wish I had another year,” he said, “but I don’t.”
In those days, Gaines lived and wrote in a second-floor apartment on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. “I get up to write,” he said, and told of taking long walks down to the ocean to get his juices going in the early morning. Gaines is a reserved man. At the time, he knew Harper only in passing and me not at all, and the conversation was slow, taut, and careful. But every once in a while, he grabbed hold of a subject and ran hard with it, like he used to do in football games or in the 440 races he had sometimes run—and won—at statewide meets in California.
“The first Coltrane I heard was Traning In,” he said. “It was, let me see. Yes, it was in 1960. I remember the day; it was warm like today. ‘Man,’ I said when I heard it. ‘This is it.’”
The second round of drinks arrived and Harper offered a toast to the forthcoming novel. Gaines told us that a national magazine had gone back on its commitment to serialize The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman after the editor in chief realized that the book was “a novel I had made up in my mind and not a diary I found hidden in a chiffonnier somewhere,” and that “there was no little old lady in my parish named Miss Jane Pittman.”
Gaines laughed ruefully. The sound of his character was still in his voice as he told the story, and I was in awe of this shy man who had made up a woman who was 110 years old, and told a hundred years of folk history through her voice. So I got on my high horse and cussed out the editor, calling his decision an outrage, a literary atrocity, a crime against the American reader.
Gaines, I’m sure, had heard such talk before. He just sat and sipped his bourbon and water.
“I was counting on that money,” he said, and that was all.
In the fall of 1971, after The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman came out, I broke an unwritten rule among literature teachers. As a check on your enthusiasm (and favoritism) and to keep your students (and their parents) solvent, you put only paperback editions on the required reading list. But I couldn’t wait that long to include Miss Jane Pittman in my course. At first, the students indulged me; then, after they read Gaines’ novel, they thanked me. A couple of them who lived in San Francisco went so far as to stake out Gaines on his walk, accost him with first editions in hand, and ask him if he would please sign their books.
For 30 years now, I have taught and written about Ernie Gaines’ books, especially Bloodline(1968), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and, most recently, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), a novel in which Gaines takes the black vernacular to new frequencies of eloquence through the voice of Jefferson, a young black man unjustly accused of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair.
You might think that Gaines, about to turn 69, would be satisfied. But he’s not. And though he is courtly, considerate, and always good company, there is an undercurrent of sorrow about him when his writing isn’t going. Then, you see him again later, and sense the spirit flowing, as I did when he was at Lewis & Clark in November and he began to talk a little about a new novel.
“Yes, I’ve written three, no, almost four chapters,” he told me in a quiet voice.
“Is there a title yet?” I asked.
“The Man Who Whipped Children,” he said.
From the steady beat in his voice, I could tell it was more than a working title.
John F. Callahan joined the Lewis & Clark faculty in 1967. He is widely recognized for his work in American and African-American literature, especially his editions of four posthumous volumes of Ralph Ellison’s work.
Author Ernest Gaines speaks on campus
Character is important to award-winning author Ernest Gaines.
“When I begin writing, I don’t know everything about my story. I don’t want to know everything. I want to discover along with you, the reader,” Gaines told his audience in Agnes Flanagan Chapel in November. “I try to breed my characters with character—to help me develop my own character and, maybe, the character of the people who read my work.”
Character is also important to members of the Pamplin Society, who receive this honor because of their leadership, high academic achievement, and successful integration of mind, body, and spirit.
That’s why they selected Gaines, a popular and critically acclaimed author, to present the Distinguished Visiting Scholar Lecture, hosted by the Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Society of Fellows.
“For almost four decades, the novels of Ernest Gaines have done for the people of Louisiana—black and white, Creole and mulatto—what the fiction of William Faulkner did for Mississippi,” said John F. Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities. “Gaines is a writer’s writer because of his stunning fidelity to the speech and experiences of the people.”
During the lecture, Gaines read excerpts from his most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying. The book explores the heroism of resisting through the friendship of an innocent black youth on death row and a young black teacher in 1940’s Cajun country.
Gaines started life as a fifth-generation plantation worker in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana. When he was 15, he joined his mother and stepfather in California. He attended San Francisco State University and later won a writing fellowship to Stanford University.
Gaines has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been a Wallace Stegner fellow, a Guggehnheim fellow, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow. He is currently a writer in residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
“Perhaps the highest compliment I can give his lecture is that afterward I wanted to read the books he had introduced to his audience,” said Pamplin fellow Tricia Pearson ’02.
—by Pattie Pace
A look at Gaines’ works
Ernest Gaines’ career spans nearly four decades. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Best Fiction Award of the National Book Critics Circle.
A Lesson Before Dying (1993)
A Gathering of Old Men (1983)
In My Father’s House (1978)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman(1971)
Bloodline (1968), a short story collection
Of Love and Dust (1967)
Catherine Carmier (1964)
In 1974, the television adaptation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won nine Emmy Awards. Other media adaptations include “The Sky Is Gray,” a short story originally published in Bloodline, adapted for public television in 1980, and A Gathering of Old Men, adapted by CBS in 1987. Most recently, HBO adapted A Lesson Before Dyinginto a prize-winning film.