The Taproot Remains: On the Life and Legacy of Ernest J. GainesRoundup
tags: obituaries, literary history, Ernest J. Gaines
Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.
This is what Gaines did throughout his career. He wrote about the people he knew. The land he knew. Their struggles. Their joys. Their lives. He gave voice to those who did not appear in the books he discovered in California. He gave voice to those who Faulkner, Eurdora Welty, and others marginalized.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) was the novel that made Gaines a household name. Three years later, the film adaptation appeared on CBS, staring Cicely Tyson in the eponymous role of Miss Jane. The film won nine Emmys, including for Tyson for Best Lead Actress in a Drama and John Korty for Best Directing in Drama — Single Program. The film is important because it was the first major production, on network television, that focused on Blacks and consisted of a majority Black cast. The film paved the way for the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots, which would premiere three years later in 1977.
After reading the novel, James Baldwin wrote to Gaines, “I think you are an extraordinary artist indeed and Jane Pittman is a most moving, most beautiful, most truthful book. I am very grateful to you, much heartened, and (if I may say so) very proud.” With Pittman, as he had done with his previous works (Catherine Carmier, Of Love and Dust, and Bloodline), Gaines tells the story of a woman and a community whose voices had not been heard. Gaines concluded a speech about the novel by stating, “To anyone who might ask why should I read about someone who did not fight war, make laws, marry a great politician or Statesman or writer, or doctor, I would say read about Miss Jane because she survived with strength, dignity, love and respect for men, God, nature, baseball, and vanilla ice cream, during the most demanding hundred years of American history.”
While Gaines did not find his voice or the voices of those he knew in the California library, other artists found their voices in him. Alice Walker wrote to Gaines in 1969 expressing her admiration for Gaines’ style and craft. After reading “The Sky is Gray” in Negro Digest, she told him, “there is abundant love, compassion, an appreciation of pride and courage, humanity” within the characters and the story. She continued by commenting on Gaines’ use of language: “Then there is the way you write the language. No one living does it better. I know nothing of the New Orleans or rather Louisiana dialects, but I read you and I hear them.” This hearing Louisiana gave Walker the confidence, as she expressed later in the letter, to write her Middle Georgia dialect.
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