In this collection of stories and essays, the beloved author of the classic, best-selling novel A Lesson Before Dying shares with us the inspirations behind his books, how he came to choose the vocation of a writer, the childhood in rural Louisiana that he continually re-creates in his fiction, and his portrayal of the black experience in the South.
Told in the simple and powerful prose that is a hallmark of his craft, these writings faithfully evoke the sorrows and joys of rustic Southern life. They begin with Gaines's move to California at the age of fifteen to complete school. Missing the Louisiana countryside where he was raised by his aunt propelled him to find books in the library that would invoke the sights, smells, and locution of his native home. Gaines never agreed with the authors' portrayal of black people: "either she was a mammy, or he was a Tom," he explains in "Miss Jane and I."
From that initial disappointment stemmed a literary career that has spanned forty years and includes five novels, which in the words of USA Today reviewer Suzanne Freeman have "made the smallest truths, the everyday sorrows of hard choices, add up to moments of pure illumination." These are cherished and popular books like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and the 1993 blockbuster A Lesson Before Dying, which has sold more than two million copies around the world, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 1997 was picked for Oprah's Book Club. It has been continually selected for City Read programs and praised by critics as "an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives" (Charles R. Larson, Chicago Tribune). In the essay "Writing A Lesson Before Dying," Gaines describes the real-life murder case that gave him the idea for his masterpiece.
Included here are short stories that transport us to the rural Louisiana of the 1940s and the influences that shaped him-most lastingly, the people and the places of Gaines's own past. This wonderful collection of autobiographical essays and fictional pieces is a revelation of both man and writer.
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October 16, 2006
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Excerpt from Mozart and Leadbelly by Ernest J. Gaines
Mozart and Leadbelly
In the early sixties, many of my colleagues were leaving the United States for Europe, Africa, Mexico, and so on, where they planned to write their great novels. They felt that America had become too money-crazed for them to live here and concentrate on their work. I was supposed to leave in the summer of 1962 with a man and his wife for Guadalajara, Mexico. I had been working on Catherine Carmier for three years but was getting nowhere with it. I had written it from an omniscient point of view, a first-person point of view, and a multiple point of view. I had changed the plot many times. Nothing seemed to work, and I figured it was because I needed to get away from the country, as my friends were doing. I was working at the post office during the summer of 1962 when my friend and his wife left for Mexico; I told them that I had to make some more money first, and that I would join them before the end of the year.
But something happened that summer of 1962 that would change my life forever. James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Every night we watched the news--my family, my friends, and I--and it seemed that we cared for nothing else or spoke of nothing else but the bravery of this one young man. It seemed that when we spoke of his courage, I felt family and friends looking at me. Maybe it was just my sense of guilt. One night in October or November, I wrote my friends in Mexico a letter: "Dear Jim and Carol, I am sorry but I will not be joining you. I must go back home to write my book. My best wishes, Ernie."
I contacted an uncle and aunt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and they told me I could come and stay as long as I wanted to. So on January 3, 1963, a friend of mine drove me to the train station in Oakland, California, and fifty-two hours later I was in Baton Rouge. I had come back to Louisiana twice since leaving in 1948, but each time for only a week or two, and both times I lived with relatives out on the plantation where I was born. This time it would be for six months, and this time I would stay in town. I was determined to live as all the others did, and if that meant demonstrations and a run-in with the police, then let it be so. But at that time very few civil rights demonstrations were going on in Baton Rouge. And if the police did show up, they stood back watching but never tried to interfere physically with the gathering.
Uncle George and my Aunt Mamie had a four-bedroom house, and there were other people living in the house: their son, Joe, and three other nephews. Each Sunday we would drive out into the country to the old place where I was born and raised until I left for California. We would visit the old people, who would have dinner waiting for us--chicken, greens, rice, beans, a cake--and we would have lemonade and all sit down in the kitchen eating and talking. Then I would leave them and I would walk through the quarter back into the fields, and I would cross the rows where the cane had been cut looking for a stalk of cane that might have been left behind. On finding one I would peel it with my knife and chew it slowly, enjoying the sweetness of it. I would look back across the rows and remember when my mother and father and all the others in the quarter used to work these same fields.
And I would turn and look toward the quarter back at the cemetery where my folks had been buried for four generations, and I would go into the cemetery and look for pecans. If I found some I would crack them with my teeth as I had done as a small child and I would feel very comfortable and safe there because that is where Aunty, who had raised me, was buried. I did not know the exact place because the grave had never been marked, but I would feel more peace at that moment than I ever did in California.
By eight o'clock each weekday morning everyone except me would have left the house for work or school, and I would have the entire place to myself, along with my ballpoint pens, unlined yellow paper, and Royal portable typewriter. I would think about Catherine Carmier and Jackson and their families and loves and prejudices, and I would rewrite everything that I had written in San Francisco the past four years. I would work until about three or three-thirty and put everything away until the next day. Not long after arriving in Baton Rouge, I was introduced to a group of schoolteachers, and in the early evenings we would meet in restaurants, where we would sit and talk. When I was not with this group, I would go to a bar to join my uncle and his friends. My uncle worked as a janitor for one of the local oil companies near Baton Rouge. By my uncle's friends I mean ride hard laborers--those who did the dirty work. I would join them in a bar, and we would have a setup, which was a pint of whiskey, a bowl of ice, a pitcher of water, and maybe a bottle of 7 UP or Coca-Cola, and each man fixed his own drink.