- Introduction:New Criticisms on the Works of Ernest J. Gaines
Explicit in the canon of Ernest J. Gaines's work is a delicate intertwining of history with universal themes of personal integrity, human dignity, and self-respect. Through simple dialogue and sparse physical descriptions, his work offers homage to ordinary black citizens who not only deserve respect in their everyday lives but also crave it as a matter of order and sensibilities. As a son of the South, Gaines's obsession with the speech, cultural traditions, and mores specific to the Point Coupée Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, is notable in each of his eight works of fiction. When Gaines left the plantation in 1948, at age 15, to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, he had, by that time, become so enamored with the rural land and its people that he was unable to remove himself psychologically from the region. He maintains that his physical body went to California, but his soul and emotions remained in Louisiana: "I left, but I didn't leave. Something kept holding me back, holding me back here [the Point Coupée Plantation]" (Personal Interview).
During his formative years on the plantation, Gaines learned the importance of an undesecrated environment, and still, to this day, advocates the joys of southern life untouched by modern industrialization and development. A fierce believer in the unadorned countryside of his upbringing, he writes in Mozart and Leadbelly about his early search for literary works reflective of his rural background; he wanted to "smell that Louisiana earth, feel that Louisiana sun, sit under the shade of one of those Louisiana oaks, [and] search for pecans in that Louisiana grass in one of those Louisiana yards next to one of those Louisiana bayous, not far from a Louisiana river" (9). Not abandoning his desire to return to his southern roots, he and his wife, Dianne, returned to Oscar, Louisiana, in 2004.
Gaines's experiences on the plantation shaped him, and the memories did not dissolve because of his relocation to the West Coast. On the Louisiana plantation of his birth there were people, he says, "who knew my grandparents' grandparents … so something about the [plantation] just kept me here … and I know that it was because I still felt connected to everything here" (Personal Interview). While his literary work captures [End Page v] the African-American cultural and storytelling traditions of the rural South, his interest remains grounded in the specific region of his birth: the quarters of the Point Coupée Plantation. It is no secret that much of his strength and fortitude are ancestral, and it is equally no secret that he gives homage to the people who came before him.
The Point Coupée Plantation is the place where his power comes from and that allows him to tell the riveting narratives that readers have all come to enjoy: the stories of Miss Jane, Jefferson, Madam Toussaint, Catherine Carmier, Reverend Ambrose, and a host of other characters from his eight works of fiction. While the names of the characters are the author's invention, their tales are quite reality-based, for readers have all encountered a Snookum, a Mary Louise, a Copper Laurent, a Tante Lou, and a Miss Merle. If readers elect to forget that such people exist in our lives, it is because we sometimes do not wish to be reminded of where we come from, how we got there, or what took the bus so long to get to the next station. Gaines does none of this conscientious, deliberate forgetting, however. He embraces his ancestry proudly, wearing it like a banner across his heart. His letter "A" is prominent, representing the pride and strength of his ancestry, not a heritage of derision or despair. Gaines's readers experience the power of memoir, history, and remembrance of his life and experiences on the Point Coupée Plantation.
Catherine Carmier (1964) depicts the racial antagonism between Creoles and blacks and serves as the thematic precursor for Of Love and Dust (1967). Bloodline (1968), his only collection of short stories, shows his attachment to the land and his strong sense...