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Conversations with Ernest Gaines.

John Lowe, ed. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. 354 pp. $15.95.

Reviewed by

Valerie Babb Georgetown University

Devotees of Ernest Gaines will no doubt welcome John Lowe's collection Conversations with Ernest Gaines. They will be pleasantly reminded of familiar reflections and treated to the new insights of a remarkable writer. Readers unfamiliar with his work will encounter a classic, yet always fresh, literary voice. Underlying the collection's premise is a fact both sets of readers will come to realize that Gaines is a shockingly underrated writer, a situation Lowe's work hopes to correct.

Lowe opens his introduction with an anecdote that captures the essence of Ernest Gaines's fiction. He notes that a recent Chronicle of Higher Education review of Gaines's latest novel, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), "trumpeted the ascent of a 'new star' on the literary horizon." Those who have enjoyed Gaines's opus over the last thirty years will no doubt find this amusing, but in this assessment is a hint of the "always seeming new" that gives his work an eternally relevant quality. While a notable consistency in themes and setting is evident within the body of his writing, in novel ways this talented writer consistently re-envisions and reworks the material that inspires him. Lowe's collection includes interviews beginning at the end of the 1960s and continuing to the present, some of which offer commentary on Ernest Gaines's craft. The best commentary is Gaines's own, however, as he assesses his art.

Gaines is a writer deeply steeped in place, and readers will come away from Lowe's work realizing that Louisiana is central to Gaines's artistic vision. The importance of the Pointe Coupee Parish to his writer's imagination is manifest throughout. In a 1974 conversation with Margaret R. Knight, "He Must Return to the South," Gaines observes, "I have to come back to the South again. . . . I must go back to the plantation where I was born and raised. I have to touch, I have to be, you melt into things and you let them melt into you . . . the trees, the rivers, the bayous, the language, the sounds." Gaines's physical and psychic return to Louisiana represents more than nostalgia. For an author keenly interested in how traditions of the past continue to influence the present, Louisiana and its legacies provide a rich area for exploring "the changing same."

While the past is so important to Ernest Gaines, throughout this collection a reader cannot help but note how forward-thinking a writer he is. In "On the Verge," a 1973 interview conducted by Forrest Ingram and Barbara Steinberg, he discusses challenges still faced by African American males in the 1990s; a 1983 interview with Mary Ellen Doyle, "Other Things to Write About," considers the still-current constrictions placed on African American creators by issues of racial representation. These earlier remarks are complemented by more recent interviews in which Gaines engages topics as varied as the oral tradition in literature and the transformation of his stories into the medium of film. The overall effect is to give the reader an appreciation of the depth and scope of his thinking. He emerges as a writer clearly immersed in and inspired by the world around him.

Later interviews deepen the portrait of this skilled writer. Whereas previous exchanges cite Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Hemingway as influences, a 1994 conversation with John Lowe, for example, reveals Jean Toomer as another literary influence. Given the importance of land and place to the creation of Toomer's Cane, such a connection seems natural and affirms what many readers have long intuited. Later conversations also flesh out Gaines's writing process. Past interviews touch briefly on his works-in-progress, but a discussion with William Parrill affords readers a detailed depiction of his last novel, A Lesson Before Dying, taking shape. If there is a drawback to the numerous interviews assembled in this collection, it is that most of them cover Gaines's early works, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Catherine Carmier, and Of Love and Dust, and too few are devoted to Gaines's later visions of himself as a writer. Some readers might also wish for a firmer editorial hand in selecting interviews to reduce oft-repeated references to subjects such as the inspiration of Louisiana, the literary influence of Faulkner and Hemingway, and Gaines's reaction to televised versions of his works.

Overall, Lowe's book is a welcome treasury of Gaines's ideas on culture and the art of fiction. Its creation should negate what Lowe sees as the critical neglect of Gaines's work in an "age that dotes on the pyrotechnical stylistic experimentation of Reed, Baraka, Coover, DeLillo, and Morrison." Lowe's implied cynicism may be precipitous, however. Critiques of racial essentialism are many, and there is increased scholarly emphasis on finding voice and telling story, two elements that imbue Gaines's works with their own unique pyrotechnics. With greater appreciation of how small details make great fiction, it seems our critical age is indeed ready to appreciate the fiction of Ernest Gaines.
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Author:Babb, Valerie
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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