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Literary Lion Ernest Gaines Still Has A Thing Or Two To Teach Young Black Writers

Tom Chalkley

By R. Darryl Foxworth | Posted 10/19/2005

Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays By Ernest James Gaines

Knopf, hardcover

In his 1958 review of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Langston Hughes remarks that its author “writes down to nobody,” and that a great artist might be defined as the “creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person.” By this definition Baldwin falls below the great artist criterion, but Hughes isn’t malicious in his critique: He admires Baldwin’s eloquence and poetic use of words, but wishes for him to create what “millions can understand,” the literary equivalent of Louis Armstrong.

Ernest James Gaines has spent the past 50 years exploring the human condition in terms of the least person, those people he knows best: the poor, working-class black folk of rural Louisiana. Gaines himself is the best example of this claim: A reoccurring theme throughout Mozart and Leadbelly, his new collection of essays and short stories, is his perceived inability to write about California life, despite his many years spent in the Golden State.

“I was not a San Francisco writer,” Gaines reflects in “Miss Jane and I,” the book’s opening essay. Nor is he an “urban” writer: In “A Literary Salon: Oyster/Shrimp Po’Boys, Chardonnay, and Conversation with Ernest J. Gaines,” the acclaimed author admits to his unfamiliarity with the “urban thing” called rap, which interviewer Marcia Gaudet describes as reflecting experiences foreign to the “older generations.”

Gaines agrees. He is an old Southern gentleman of the Louisiana bayous and, by extension, a Louisiana writer, and he makes no apologies for it. You can see it in his Southern vernacular and descriptions in all but one of the five stories featured here—that one is Gaines’ attempt at San Francisco writing—stories that include one of his first published works, “The Turtles.” His fans will be disappointed that his fictional prose doesn’t carry his most recent book—in fact, it distracts from it. There is no story found in these pages that is particularly memorable, shocking coming from an author who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and whose most famous work, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, is mandatory reading for many high-school students.

Far more likely to leave an indelible impression on readers are Gaines’ anecdotes and meditations, which are to be held in high regard because of the artist he is and the company he keeps. Gaines is one of a handful of African-American writers included in the traditional discourse of mainstream American literature, and he enjoys even more selective status as one of those few African-American greats still living and creating, a point made more emphatic with the recent passing of playwright August Wilson. With that in mind, Gaines is a sort of elder statesmen for the African-American literati, and his words here, lacking in poetic beauty but saturated with simple straight-forwardness, ought to be interpreted as those coming from an accomplished chieftain rather than from a celebrated artist.

He embraces this role: In “Aunty and the Black Experience in Louisiana,” Gaines’ most impassioned essay, he urges his audience to change America for the better. Reflecting on the violence perpetrated by whites against blacks during the 1960s, he says that “I could do anything with those twenty-six letters given to them by their ancestor—not mine—but do more with those letters to help not only my race, but also my country.” Gaines explains that “someone told my generation to make these changes and someone told the generations before mine to do it, and the generation before that.” Here, Gaines becomes that new “someone.”

In his exchange with Gaudet, Gaines asserts that the artist must deal with “the everyday life,” the life he never saw depicted by the white American writers he devoured throughout his formative years. But the “everyday life” for so many contemporary African-Americans is that of the urban African-American, whose life Gaines knows so little about. It is one that is currently the purview of the urban fictionists, who are alternately praised and demonized for their portrayal of contemporary black residents of American cities. If sales are a proper measurement of mass appeal, then the urban fictionist is well-positioned to continue Gaines’ tradition of writing on “everyday life.”

Some urban fictionists even condemn traditional black literary stars for being too far removed from everyday urban experiences, which Gaines acknowledges. But that’s not to say that urban fictionists couldn’t learn from him. Gaines readily admits he learned from the European and white American authors who so poorly, if at all, depicted the experiences of his people. He traces his artistic ancestry, in “Bloodline in Ink,” and reminisces that as a developing writer he was told to “read, read, read” Tolstoy, Dostoevksy, Joyce, and Eliot. As the young Gaines voiced his displeasure, he was repeatedly told that if he wanted to “say something about [his] people,” he would have to learn the “tricks of the trade.”

Perhaps young black writers—including urban fictionists—should be told to read, read, read the work of Gaines, as to better articulate the lives of their people. Gaines confesses to Gaudet that “The artist must deal with both God and the Devil.” And had he never explored terrain alien to him, he might never have developed into the artist he is today.

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