Monday, November 1, 2010

THE LEGACY OF ERNEST J. GAINES

Back in the late 80’s I submitted a short story to Ernest J. Gaines and was selected to be one of a dozen members in his Creative Writing class held at a university then called USL, the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. It was a memorable time in my life, and Gaines became one of my writing mentors. Only a few years prior to the class, he had been invited to become resident writer at USL, and a home near the campus had been bought especially for him. At that time, Gaines had gained acclaim as the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and was working on A Lesson Before Dying. “It is going very slowly,” he remarked to our class. “But I believe you must make every word count.” I learned a major lesson during that semester I sat in his Creative Writing class–his favorite instruction was: “revise, revise, revise.” He instructed us in basic word pruning, saying that even the word “the” could be inserted or omitted in the appropriate place and would make a difference in a good sentence. He also told us that if he read the first few sentences of a story or a novel and they didn’t impact him, he had reservations about the quality of writing.

Yesterday, I attended the dedication of the Ernest J. Gaines Center in the Edith Garland Dupre Library at ULL (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), and following the ceremonies I re-introduced myself to Gaines. It was a brief encounter in a long line of hundreds of people who congratulated him for his lifetime achievements. “I remember you,” he said simply as he clasped my hand. When I told him I was still writing, he smiled and said, emphatically, “Good!” Someone had already begun pushing me to step aside as Gaines said those words, but it was a pleasant exchange with an author who had inspired me to become serious about writing as a vocation (even if my genre was poetry and he had said that “poetry writing was often just work for little old ladies.” It was a jest because he knew I wrote poems, and at the time I was in my mid-fifties).

Gaines has put down his pen and recently voiced that he has nothing to say except what he says about rescuing and maintaining the old cemetery in which his ancestors are buried on the plantation he helped work as a child. Gaines and his wife Dianne now own a home on the Riverlake Plantation property . He told us that if he hadn’t heard stories about and from the Afro-Americans (he uses the word “colored” without self-consciousness) of Louisiana who peopled his life, he would have had nothing to write about and that he wanted his epitaph to read “To lie with those who have no mark.” His relatives who are buried in that graveyard include his disabled Aunt Augusteen Jefferson who raised him. He often mentioned her in our Creative Writing class, telling the story about her having to crawl all over the kitchen floor to prepare meals for him because she was unable to walk.

Gaines responded to the accolades given by UL Lafayette President, Charles W. Triche, III, Dean of Libraries, and Marcia Gaudet, Director of the Gaines Center and the showing of a short film entitled "'An Obsession of Mine': The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines” with typical humility, reading the response in his soft-voiced, rhythmical style that characterizes his writings about the people of his childhood. Since he lived in California a large part of his life and had joint residences in both Louisiana and California, he relied on his amazing memory to create stories of compelling pathos about the characters in his past. In a response that deeply moved his audience, he related his rise from an impoverished black in rural Louisiana to become “the luckiest man in the world,” telling the story of his success without a trace of self-pity or rancor.

In the Creative Writing class of which I was a part, I remember that Gaines told us he was often criticized during the time of the Civil Rights movement for not being militant, but he felt that, for him, recording his wonderful stories about his relatives and friends who struggled through the hardships of a plantation economy was more important than marching or writing militant prose. My favorite among his books is his first novel, Catherine Carmier, a romantic novel that he wrote when he was 17 and burned after a New York publisher rejected it, later re-writing it and enjoying the success of publication.

Special highlights of the ceremony included the commemorative poem, “Of Men and Rivers,” written and read by my friend and Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Darrell Bourque. A copy of his poem appears below:

A broadside, 14” by 20”, of this poem, was created by Kevin Hagan of the UL Lafayette Department of Visual Arts and is a permanent piece in the Center. Those who attended the ceremony received a copy of Darrell’s poignant tribute to Gaines.

Darrell’s wife, Karen Bourque, created beautiful glass works at the entrance of the Center, which contained a center panel 23” x 72” entitled “Just Like a Tree,” based on Gaines’ story of the same name in his book, Bloodline, and the recurring images of an oak tree and the river. Side Panels, each 23” x 104,” entitled “That’s My Church,” depicted a passage from The Louisiana Thing That Drives Me, The Legacy of Ernest J. Gaines: “…My church is the oak tree. My church is the river. My church is walking right down the cane field road, on the headland between rows of sugar cane. That’s my church. I can talk to God there as well as I can talk to him in Notre Dame. I think he is in one of those cane rows as much as he is in Notre Dame…” Karen explained that she used rocks, stones, sliced agates, and gems to “show the human connection to the earth and to give dimensionality to the piece. Each stone or gem has a special meaning in the energies and the powers inherent in them and I used stones in these pieces that I thought represented spirituality, insight, healing, and strength, qualities that are ever present in Ernest J. Gaines the man as well as in his powerful and compelling work.

The Ernest J. Gaines Center at ULL is an international center for scholarship on Ernest J. Gaines and his work. Gaines’ papers and manuscripts will be housed there, as well as awards, artifacts, and memorabilia. The Center will also collect materials on Gaines and his work, and it will be the only complete collection of Gaines scholarship in the world.

The Center has begun a fundraising campaign to establish an endowment, and those who want further information about the Ernest J. Gaines Center or instructions about how to contribute to this campaign can do so at http://library.louisiana.edu/Gaines or e-mail Director Marcia Gaudet at ejgc@louisiana.edu.

The opening of this center was a historic occasion, and I was glad I attended to acknowledge the influence that Gaines had on my own career as a writer. To borrow from Karen Bourque’s words in the legend accompanying her glass work: “He is the epitome of basic goodness, deeply spiritual and possesses the kind of expansive soul that inspires and leads us all to the inhabitation of our better selves…
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