Aspen Writers’ Foundation honors Ernest Gaines
June 22, 2010
ASPEN – Ernest J. Gaines is a Southern writer, no argument to be made there.
Gaines was born and raised in central Louisiana. A decade ago he bought six acres in Oscar, La. It was land he knew well; the acreage had been part of the River Lake Plantation where Gaines grew up in the 1930s and ’40s. At 15, Gaines left the South for northern California, and he still spends half his time in the Bay Area.
But apart from the tiniest slice of his writing, all of his stories have been set in Louisiana, largely in the fictional but very recognizable town of Bayonne. He has tried to write about his time in the Army, and about his Bohemian days in San Francisco, but nothing satisfactory came of it.
“My body went to California but my soul stayed in Louisiana,” the 77-year-old Gaines said from his home in Oscar, some 20 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. “Hemingway said, ‘Go to the well to get the stuff you need, that you can see and feel and touch and smell.’ I couldn’t write about anything but the place I came from. Nothing rang true except my Louisiana stories.”
But before he is lumped together with Twain, Welty and Faulkner, whose fictional Yoknapatawpha County is often compared to Gaines’ Bayonne, consider that Gaines is more than a Southern writer. His writing, he believes, has been in good part a reaction to an earlier breed of Southern literature.
Gaines has read and studied 19th century Russian literature and French authors to get a grasp on the business of creating a novel; he has also gone outside the field of writing – most prominently to Mozart – to get a feel for the structure of a novel. It is a combination of the architecture of the classical arts, and a specifically Southern sense of soul, that have gone into such works as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a 1971 novel of a young girl born into slavery and adapting to freedom over the course of her long life, and 1993’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” a National Book Critics Circle Award winner about a young male teacher reluctantly ministering to a boy wrongly given a death sentence.
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“Mozart taught me form. But Leadbelly taught me source,” Gaines said, referring to the influential early 20th century blues player who popularized the songs “Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene.” “Mozart taught me how to build a house; Leadbelly taught me what to put in the house. I got it from both sides. I listened to my people’s interpretation of what really went on, especially my blues people, my spiritual gospel singers and deacons. Mozart, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck showed me how to build a paragraph, a sentence. But they couldn’t tell me what should go into my writing, my African-American experience.”
It was precisely because Faulkner and Steinbeck could not represent his experience that prompted Gaines to pick up his pen. When Gaines became enamored of reading, part of what he first absorbed was the Southern greats. But as white men and women, Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Eudora Welty were not depicting the experience of black Southerners the way Gaines knew it.
“Welty, Caldwell – it’s their vision of what my people were like. But I saw it differently,” said Gaines, who is the recipient of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s 2010 Aspen Prize for Literature. (Gaines will appear, via video conference, at the Stories From the Front Porch event Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., as part of the Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival.) “They were not writing about the people I knew. They were writing about what they thought my people were like.”
Gaines notes that he was once told a Works Progress Administration program, in the 1930s, sent people to interview former slaves and write their stories. It was widely accepted that a reader could easily tell whether the interviewer was black or white, based on the perspective of the writing.
“It was a different story altogether, depending on who the writer is,” Gaines said.
He adds that this shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal of Faulkner and Twain. “Everybody should read Faulkner. I’m thinking every Southerner has read Faulkner. I’m not trying to tell the public that Faulkner’s Dilsey” – from “The Sound and the Fury” – “was inaccurate. As far as I’m concerned his interpretation was accurate in his mind. But I don’t think everybody agrees with Faulkner’s portrayal of a black woman.”
By contrast, Jane Pittman, as a woman impacted forever by being born into slavery and witnessing the transition from slavery to sharecropping, seems inarguably real. And Gaines probably created his most memorable and recognizable character – Grant, the small-town teacher torn between a desire to leave the South and his grounding in the structure and customs of rural, 1940s Louisiana – in “A Lesson Before Dying,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Gaines was in his 60s when he wrote the story of the 20-something Grant, but the story came straight from his background.
“Much of what Grant experiences, or teaches, I know,” he said. “I went to a one-room schoolhouse. And I was young once myself.”
Gaines is experiencing now some of the difficulties of being old. His last book, “Mozart and Leadbelly,” a collection of stories and essays, dates back to 2005. He hasn’t published a novel since “A Lesson Before Dying,” in 1993. The fall-off does not seem to be because of a lack of faculties; he seems of sharp mind. But he finds it hard to break new ground, and thus the novel he is working on, “The Man Who Whipped the Children,” has been in progress for more than 10 years.
“I feel I’m repeating myself, and that’s something I wish never to do,” he said.
But Gaines has also gained the wisdom of age. In his search for new terrain, he won’t stray from the land he knows. “The Man Who Whipped Children,” like his previous eight novels, is set in rural Louisiana.
“I still think I have some writing to do about Louisiana. It’s just a matter of putting it together,” he said.
Ernest J. Gaines will appear, with fellow writers Dorothy Allison, Richard Bausch, Nikki Finney, Randall Kenan, Ron Rash and Kathryn Stockett, in the Aspen Summer Words event Stories From the Front Porch at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Doerr-Hosier Center at The Aspen Institute.
Also Tuesday at Aspen Summer Words: The Long and Short Of It, with Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch and Elizabeth McCracken, at 2:30 p.m.; and Southern Rhythms, with Nikky Finney and Dana Gioia, at 4 p.m.
Aspen Summer Words, presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, runs through Friday. For a complete schedule, go to aspenwriters.org.