- Reading Ivan Turgenev with Ernest J. Gaines:Analyzing Fathers and Sons and Catherine Carmier
Ernest J. Gaines has been incredibly generous in giving interviews over the years (see for instance Gaudet and Wooten, and Lowe). He has been equally forthright in acknowledging authors whose works have mentored him. Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Anton Chekov, and James Joyce are among the writers whom he has admired. Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, however, is the book that Gaines has called his bible. It is the book that he used daily when in 1963 he completed his first published novel, Catherine Carmier.
Gaines's efforts to write his first novel began when as a homesick adolescent in California he attempted to capture the Louisiana he knew and loved. He focused on the place he knew and the fissures that existed in that small community that had been home. He wrote the story of a Creole girl (a mixed race young woman of black and French heritage) and the young black man who fell in love with her. He typed this first manuscript, "The Little Stream," and submitted it to a New York publisher who returned it, rejected. Gaines burned the first effort, but never forgot the story and recalled it some fifteen years later when he wrote Catherine Carmier.
Gaines notes that James Meredith's entrance into the University of Mississippi in 1962 "change[d] my life forever" (qtd. in Young xi). He decided at that time to return to Louisiana for an extended visit in January 1963. In an undated speech, Gaines explains, "I told myself then that in order for me to ever write that book I would have to take the same chances in Louisiana that Jim Meredith was taking in Mississippi.… I do feel that the six months I spent in Louisiana definitely saved my writing and quite possibly my life" (qtd. in Simpson 31). The two events were the impetus for his return to California and completion of Catherine Carmier. Gaines states in multiple interviews that he had given himself ten years to succeed at his craft. In 1962, still without a novel and discouraged with the condition of race relations in America, he had planned to leave for Mexico with friends. Financially unable to make the move, he returned to his home in Louisiana for a six month visit. There he absorbed his home [End Page 77] once again: the moss draped oaks, the bayous and swamps, rivers and streams, the Louisiana food. He experienced the "Louisiana thing that drives" him while facing once again the racism prevalent in his home state (Simpson 30–31). He lived this Louisiana life while reflecting on the stalwart strength of James Meredith enduring the indignities hurled at him, a black man at a white university in the still-segregated south. Returning to California in the summer of 1963, he began work on the story he had started years before and never quite abandoned. With Turgenev's Fathers and Sons as his bible, Gaines completed his first novel six months later. Catherine Carmier was published in 1964. Although it was not a financial success, it did confirm for Gaines his vocation as a writer and led to his ultimate success in the literary world.
Gaines grew up in the Baptist tradition of rural black Louisiana. That he calls Fathers and Sons his bible demands attention. Close and parallel readings of Catherine Carmier and Fathers and Sons give the reader insight into both books. This article explores the commonality of the two novels as well as the ways in which Gaines deviates from his bible to assert his own voice and that of his people. It looks at similarities in the use of time and characters, structure and setting, and examines the thematic similarities and differences in the two works.
Gaines was separated by one hundred years and five thousand miles from Turgenev when he wrote his novel. He was reading in translation a book that described unfamiliar traditions. Yet it is not surprising that he chose Turgenev and this particular book as his guide. He had read Turgenev before and had been especially moved by...