A Small Focus Can Yield Big Insights

Most Americans may recognize Ernest J. Gaines’s name—he died in 2019—through his most famous novels, A Lesson Before Dying, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, In My Father’s House, and the televised version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which received eight Emmys. His awards were plentiful in both the United States and France, where Pittman, the first neo-slave narrative, was for a time required reading in schools.

Gaines tackled the problem of race relations that haunt American society through the careful exploration of his characters’ interior lives. He took his time writing them—A Lesson Before Dying was written over seven summers. Summer was his writing-time, because during the rest of the year, he was teaching at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (alma mater of author James Lee Burke). Such a long gestation gave him time to reflect on his characters and develop them to the extent he desired, a practice treasured by some authors and shunned by others (you know who they are).

He started early. When he was 16, around 1950, he wrote his first novel. When, to his adolescent mind it was “done,” he wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with a string, and sent it to New York. “It looked more like a warehouse lunchbag than it looked like a novel manuscript,” he said in a 1995 interview. He’d cut his paper in half to be book-sized and written on both sides. “I had done everything wrong that you possibly could do.” If that book was a failure, when it reappeared fourteen years later in more conventional and complete form as Catherine Carmier, it was a success and is still available on Amazon as a reissue in paper, Kindle, and audio.

Gaines had a solid education and credited the influence of Turgenev, Hemingway, and Faulkner as influences. Mississippi’s small communities and the people who lived there, in the way Faulkner described them, closely paralleled the places and people of Louisiana—except for the Cajun cooking and music! Just as Faulkner confined his stories to the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Gaines too concentrated on a limited setting for his Louisiana stories, Bayonne Parish. (This is much as current best-seller Scott Turow sets all his novels in fictional Kindle County, Illinois.)

From Hemingway, he believed he acquired a sense of understatement and short sentences. From Turgenev, short chapters. Put it all together with a number of other classic influences and you have what became unique voice. One that could produce many memorable lines, including: “Everything’s been said, but it needs saying again.” Applies to so much of life.

If I had to name the authors who’ve influenced me, the list would be long. I’d have to include Charles Dickens, who was so expert at creating distinctive characters. I also admire how he tried to write about important things (treatment of orphans, importance of family, overcoming setbacks). That’s why his books really resonate 210 years after his birth. Analyzing Elmore Leonard’s dialog was a revelation. He leaves out so much, all of it unncessary, because what his characters are saying is perfectly understandable. And so many others. Knowing that I do tend to sop up the style of whatever I’m reading, I never read government reports.

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2 thoughts on “A Small Focus Can Yield Big Insights

  1. There’s no denying that Ernest T. Gaines was one of the most significant African American writers of the last century. He wrote with an elegance that is enviable to this day. His voice will be missed and I hope not forgotten. To that end, I was saddened to see a copy of A Lesson Before Dying on the clearance section of a local bookstore. I ended up picking it up, even though I already had a copy.

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