A Lesson for Living

Before Alex Haley's Roots became a mini-series phenomenon, Ernest J. Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman paved the way. In the 1974 TV movie, Cicely Tyson starred as Miss Jane, the 110-year-old African-American woman in Louisiana who recalls her life as a slave, her role in the Civil War, and her views on the civil rights movement. It is safe to say that no other fictional character had as much influence on the American freedom struggle as Miss Jane Pittman. Her story has been read in American literature classes around the world. And Chicago's Derrick Carter, the master mixer of cutting edge house music, leads his newest CD About Now with a spoken word track taken from this Gaines classic.

Since 1956, Ernest Gaines has written eight books of fiction, including In My Father's House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying. Four of his works have been made into films. His contemporaries count him as one of the great Southern writers. Currently, Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Gaines was interviewed this spring in Columbus, Ohio, by Dale Brown, a professor in the English department and director of the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brown's most recent book is Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work (Eerdmans). —The Editors

Dale Brown: This all started for you on the plantation in Louisiana where you wrote letters for neighbors and old people. And your first performances were in church?

Ernest J. Gaines: I tried to put on a little play. I had to be producer, director, and actor. I even had to pull the curtain. I think I was 13 or 14.

Brown: Your church background comes up in each of your stories. There's "Determination Sunday," for example.

Gaines: That was the day that the people would get up and sing and the meeting would be about three hours. They would sing and tell their plans for heaven. Each person had his own particular song. You could identify people by their songs. If you were not in the church, even from a distance you could tell who was testifying. I was baptized as a Baptist, baptized in the same river that I write about, the same river where we'd fish and wash our clothes. We washed our souls in that same river. White folks were baptized there too. We were all baptized there, because we all lived on that same plantation. But my stepfather was Catholic, and I went to little Catholic schools during my last three years in Louisiana.

Brown: Do you feel indebtedness to this religious background?

Gaines: Certainly there is ambivalence, but I would not be the person I am today if I had not had that background. The old people had such strong beliefs and they tried to guide me.

Brown: You have many endearing characters in your stories, usually the older women who live in the stream of faith. The ministers and the professionals, however, are often treated with considerable satire.

Gaines: I was educated in the 1950s in San Francisco, and I was reading books like Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those books began to make me aware of myself and what was really going on. I began to ask myself about these folks who claim to be Christians. I'm not talking about the old people on the plantation; their faith was real enough. But those folks on television and those who fought against anti-lynching laws made me question the whole business.

Brown: Your books also speak powerfully to the issue of displacement. Each of your books, in one way or another, notes the difficulty of leaving and the terror of staying. So many characters get caught between two worlds.

Gaines: I was finally able to come back to Louisiana when I was 50—18 years after I'd left it. All kinds of things kept pulling me back, all my stories went back there to the plantation, but I couldn't have accepted conditions in the South. When I left, I left because I had to, because there was no high school nearby for me to go to, and there was definitely no library for me to go to. I had to leave, but I left something I loved. But I was able to come back. So many Southern writers, like Richard Wright, say, "That's it. Forget it. I will never go back there again." They took everything with them. I have brothers who I don't think will ever come back here to live.

Brown: You dedicated The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to your Aunt Augusteen. "To the memory of my beloved aunt, Miss Augusteen Jefferson, who did not walk a day in her life but who taught me the importance of standing." Does "standing" mean taking responsibilities?

Gaines: Right. You've got a responsibility to yourself and to the less fortunate others. I felt responsible for my siblings and for the community. Aunt Augusteen died in 1953, but I'm sure if I had been in the South in the 1950s and 1960s I would have been expected to be the one going to the demonstrations and marches.

Brown: You seem wary of many of the labels with which critics try to corner you. To say "Ernest Gaines writes about race" or to call you a "Southern writer" isn't quite adequate?

Gaines: Someone asked me recently if I was limited by writing about the South. Faulkner wrote about the South and won a Nobel Prize. Joyce wrote about Dublin. I think Louisiana is a little bit bigger than Dublin.

Brown: Gordon Thompson, a professor of African-American literature, says, "Gaines writes about the small minded and misguided only if he can love them." You are startlingly evenhanded in your books. You complicate characters like the white jailer, Paul, in A Lesson Before Dying. We're all set to see a stereotype and you jar us with a good white person.

Gaines: When I first went to California, we were living in government project housing, and there were different races there—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American—all there together. I met some bastards, but I met some white guys who would just do anything to help; some of them would bend over backwards to help you. I've known "Pauls" who have come back to Louisiana to teach.

Brown: You don't really have heroes and villains. Even the good people have flaws, and the bad folks have their moments of grace.

Gaines: Sure. Someone criticized the ending of A Gathering of Old Men because of my treatment of Luke Will. They said I was helping the KKK because of Luke Will's speech asking someone to look after his wife and kids. "Why'd you make him so human at the end?" someone asked. Well, he is human. He just cannot accept certain things. He cannot accept this black man, but he loves his own little child. He's a human being.

Brown: So with the world exploding—Bull Connor setting dogs on civil rights advocates in the South and school president S.I. Hayakawa cracking down on protesters at San Francisco State—you were writing novels?

Gaines: Yes, especially at San Francisco State, my friends, black and white, said I should be out there on the line with them. They wanted me to carry their protest signs. I told them that I was writing a book about a little lady born in slavery who lived to be 110. And they said, "Listen, Gaines, nobody wants to hear about a little old lady in slavery; we're talking about the changing times." I said, "But I thought she would be important." So I just stuck to that.

Brown: In correspondence between Mississippi writers Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, Foote said, "I seriously think that no good practicing Christian can be a great artist." Can a believer write a good book?

Gaines: I think a writer has to have doubts. I think the writer must feel that nothing is absolute, nothing is perfect. And a writer questions, questions, questions. Mark Twain says that novels should neither preach nor teach but in the end do both, and I think that's what I try to do in my writing. I do not believe in standing on a soapbox.

I don't know if I could tell anybody how to live. I don't know how to live. I just try to get something going, something comic, something tragic. And then I try to write it well enough so that anybody could pick it up and say, "Oh yes, this could be me."

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