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  • A Promise Song:Ernest J. Gaines's Early Fictions and the Community of Black Women Writing
  • Lucy Biederman (bio)

In January 1971, Alice Walker wrote to a senior editor at Dial Press praising Ernest J. Gaines's soon-to-be-published The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In her letter, Walker concludes that "no other American writer has made such an effort to comprehend the strength and rugged tenderness of the black woman in all her courage and rare beauty" (Letter to William Decker). Later that year, Walker would review Gaines's most recent novel for the New York Times Book Review, characterizing its author as "much closer to Charles Dickens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes than he is to Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison" (116). Locating Gaines in a literary lineage that skews toward Victorian and early modernist writers, Walker follows Gaines's own attempts to distance himself from the contemporary politics of racial strife associated with Wright's and Ellison's work. Walker, meanwhile, places herself in a lineage that includes Gaines. Writing to Gaines in 1969, she confesses, "I don't [envy you], but I don't because it is possible for me to think of you as a great teacher. I'm still young enough for that" (Letter to Gaines).

Walker's 1969 letter to Gaines and her 1971 letter about Gaines border 1970, often considered a foundational year in what Hortense Spillers calls "the community of black women writing in the United States" (249). In that year, Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou published their first books, and Toni Cade's multi-genre anthology The Black Woman was published. Throughout the ensuing decade, critics including Mary Helen Washington, Barbara Christian, and Barbara Smith established a criticism devoted to recovering black women writers, such as Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston, and to articulating a distinct tradition of black women's writing. Many of the significant creative works to come out of this community, including early novels by Morrison and Walker, Gayl Jones's 1975 Corregidora, the short stories of Cade (Bambara) in volumes like Gorilla My Love from 1972, and the poetry of Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and others, are lauded for their attention to, as Walker puts it in her letter to Dial Press, "the strength and [End Page 1] rugged tenderness of the black woman in all her courage and rare beauty" (Letter to William Decker).

By 1970, meanwhile, Ernest Gaines had already published his first two novels, Catherine Carmier in 1964 and Of Love and Dust three years later; Bloodline, a book of short stories, appeared in 1968. Critics of Gaines have typically focused on Gaines's representations of African-American manhood (see, for example, Suzanna W. Jones and, particularly, the incisive work of Keith Clark), and what attention scholars have paid to Gaines's treatment of women generally has been focused on matriarchal elders (see, for example, Marcia Gaudet and Trudier Harris). However, Gaines, in his first four major publications and throughout his ensuing literary career, considers closely the lives of young black women, as well. And like many texts to emerge from the "community of black women writing" that coalesced in and just after 1970, Gaines's fictions in the 1960s are set in the rural South. Gaines's fictions are set in southwest Louisiana, a landscape replete with "dark, fertile soil, the immense pecan and live-oak trees hung with Spanish moss," and air so thick and hot that it "shapes the moods and even the decisions of many of Gaines's characters" (Doyle 5). In important and enduring ways, Gaines and his work stand apart from the community of women writing; however, Gaines's early works also prefigure some of the methods and themes by which black feminist writers like Morrison, Walker, and Angelou came to be known. In this essay, I argue that a more expansive understanding of the subtle and often contradictorily feminist undertones in Gaines's fictions can be gleaned by drawing lines of influence, contiguity, and correspondence between his early works and the works of explicitly feminist black women writers of the 1970s...


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