Ernest Gaines's novels and stories have had broad exposure in American culture over the past thirty years, particularly through the notable films that have been made of several of his books and one of his short stories. His most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying, was selected by Oprah's Book Club, and Gaines and Miss O. had a televised "Big House" dinner at the Louisiana plantation where Gaines was raised. Lesson has become a popular selection of reading groups; indeed, entire cities, such as Houston and Cincinnati, have read the novel through municipal programs. One is puzzled, therefore, by the relative paucity of critical studies of his work. Perhaps the Louisiana setting of his entire oeuvre has limited appreciation of his artistic power, or maybe college and university teachers simply haven't gotten around to reading him yet, except for the oft-anthologized story "The Sky is Gray." Last year, however, Gaines was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the thirtieth anniversary DVD of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has just been released, so perhaps a Gaines revival is at hand. If so, it will be admirably strengthened by Mary Ellen Doyle's new study, Voices from the Quarters: The [End Page 683] Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines. Professor Doyle, a personal friend of the writer, has made it her business to read Gaines's manuscripts, interview people who know him, and to visit the sites that inspired his fiction. Just as importantly, she has attentively studied the African American culture of Louisiana that has always nourished its native son.
Voices, as the title suggests, smartly and accurately proceeds from the perspective that, in his novels and stories, Gaines aims at presenting a group portrait, one that reveals his community's history, replete with struggles, disasters, breakthroughs, and triumphs. Accordingly, while Doyle certainly attends to the striking individual characters in Gaines's narratives, she always circles back to the community and its massed voices. This method is subtly announced in her dedication: "In honor and in respectful memory of 'the People' who lived and told the stories and passed on the lessons."
Doyle situates her argument by meticulously mapping Gaines's fictional domain. Exhibiting a gift for finding both the telling detail and its place in a wider terrain, her panoramic approach perhaps results from a trope she developed for this study, that of the "camcorder narration" often practiced by Gaines, a first-person, often present tense mode of relation that registers both outer reality and inner thought and consciousness.
Readings of discrete texts begin with a consideration of Gaines's early, uncollected stories (which will be published later this year). Doyle's interpretations find the origins of other, longer narratives here, but she also convinces us that even this early, Gaines had the mark of a master. She also demonstrates a willingness to challenge some of Gaines's aims, particularly when male figures base a sense of manhood on domination of women.
Fuller readings proceed as Doyle moves to Gaines's superb short story collection, Bloodline. Here she takes pains to trace Gaines's mastery of technique, something he often privileges in discussions of his writing. Again, a foundation is laid that facilitates consideration of the novels. As she moves through them, Doyle revisits subjects treated by prior critics, such as the thematics of black manhood, the use of folk and popular culture, dialect, dialogue, and issues of class, race, and gender. Her method, more often than not, eschews theory but nevertheless provides compelling readings, particularly as she considers the ways in which structure operates to reveal character and community.
Doyle's personal tastes sometimes inflect her readings; she finds much of Gaines's Of Love and Dust repugnant in subject matter but admits such a response on any reader's part serves Gaines's ultimate purpose—a depiction "of hell" on the modern plantation—quite [End Page 684] well (108). Her readings of the cultural conflicts that form the backdrop for the central melodrama of interracial love...