Read Mozart and Leadbelly Online

Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

Tags: #Fiction

Mozart and Leadbelly

 

 

To my brothers and sisters
and in memory of
my mother, Adrean Jefferson Colar

INTRODUCTION

I think the artist must deal with both God and the Devil. I think you can’t put one aside or the other. You know, if you’re going to write for certain groups, and I don’t believe in writing for any specific group. So let others call blues the “sin music” and gospel is God’s music. . . . But the artist himself cannot separate the religious or the blues or the spiritual. The artist cannot.

ERNEST J. GAINES

When this book was still in its embryonic stages, we made the first of several trips from our campus in Lafayette to False River to discuss the project with the man we know better as “Ernie.” Both Dianne (Mrs. Gaines, who might be the only person in his circle of family members and friends who calls him Ernest—his old “homeboys” have always called him E. J.) and Ernie had recently finished consolidating several households they had maintained through the years in different cities around the country—including Lafayette, New Orleans, Miami, and San Francisco—into
“La maison entre les
champs et la rivière,”
a name given to the newly built Gaines residence by Ernie’s longtime booking agent Tanya Bickley. The house sits on the land of the same plantation where Ernie was born and spent the early years of his life. It is the same plantation landscape where most of the stories in the Ernest J. Gaines fictional universe are set.

Both of us had visited Ernie and Dianne at the camp they still maintain on the river—which is actually an oxbow lake, across the road from the new house—one that consists of a trailer home and a deck that extends out into the river. In previous years, the Gaineses usually spent the week in their Lafayette home near the university where Ernie has served as writer-in-residence for the last two decades, and their weekends at the False River camp. (He is now in semiretirement, but his appointment at the university is one that he holds for life.) We had seen their new house during various stages of its construction, but for both of us this was our first visit after the Gaineses had moved in. Our purpose for coming, however, was not strictly social. We had been in discussion with Ernie over the summer about one of several projects dedicated both to commemorate his upcoming retirement from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and to pay homage to a remarkable career as a writer that promises to extend itself well into the future. This book was one of those ideas.

In the beginning, we conceived this book as something that would be published by our own Center for Louisiana Studies, a program at the university that devotes itself primarily to the scholarly concerns of the region. The book would have served two purposes: to give exposure to the center as a growing and developing university press, and to make available to the scholarly community various writings (some composed as talks) that were either unavailable or difficult to find. Since Ernie wholeheartedly supports the university and its efforts, he was more than happy to allow it to place in print these works, which he assumed would have little value to anyone other than the kind of scholars who like to “pick over everything” that a writer has ever done.

It is important to point out that Ernie was not really enthusiastic about our idea to compile all of his “old and dusty writings” together in a collection. If anyone else had approached him with the idea (and at least one person had in the past), chances are he would have laughed and sent that person away empty-handed. For a lot of people, he would not have even bothered with the laugh. But he likes the two of us and he also likes the center, and anyone who knows Ernest Gaines very well will realize the possibility that the permission he gave us to publish his works might well have been a retirement present to us. He’s just that kind of man. Maybe he was feeling sorry for the two of us because of the many years to come before we will be able to join him at our leisure, day after day, fishing in False River or sitting in one of the rockers on the porch of
la maison
Gaines, chewing cane and discussing the books and writers that serve as our common passion. Knowing Ernie, he probably felt it was the least he could do because we still have to read student papers night after night and direct dissertations, while he does not.

During this meeting, three important things happened. The first was that Ernie told us he felt an obligation to run the material by his literary agent, Jeff Gerecke. He said that Jeff might want to have Ash Green, his editor at Knopf, look at the material before making a commitment to the center. Since Knopf is his publisher, he didn’t feel it would be right to have works he had written come out under the banner of a different publisher. At the time, none of us thought Knopf would have interest in the various pieces; after all, they had been around and available to Knopf for years. The most we hoped for was that Knopf might agree to publish the works jointly with the Center for Louisiana Studies as a favor to Ernie because of their long-standing relationship. But we were wrong. As soon as Ash Green received the material—various pieces that had been scanned from different sources and that had not yet been typed into a manuscript—he began editing the works for publication. There was no deliberation on his part; he knew these works deserved widespread circulation.

The second thing that happened involves the story that opens the book’s second section: “Christ Walked Down Market Street.” We had heard Ernie, during previous discussions, tell how—
in his
opinion
—all the stories he had tried to write that were set away from Louisiana were failures. In fact, he has stated this publicly in talks such as one titled “Miss Jane and I,” which is the opening essay in this volume. But as we drove along La. 190 that day on our way to
la maison
Gaines on False River, we wondered if we needed to look at these works that Ernie has always dismissed. We had little faith in Ernie as a judge of his own work. Most of his efforts that he views as failures would make a lesser writer’s career. Then we remembered this particular story that Ernie had read once at our Deep South Festival of Writers and one that he had mentioned to us as his personal favorite of everything he had ever written. We thought, why not include “Christ Walked Down Market Street” in this collection?

This is a story Ernie wrote while serving a semester as a visiting writer at the University of Houston’s downtown campus twenty years ago, and it involves his desire to write a story with a title similar to one he had read by Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer titled “The Spinoza of Market Street.” But having spent so much time on Market Street in San Francisco, Ernie wanted to use that city as the setting for his work. Without giving away the story’s plot, we feel it is important to point out that he wrote it out in longhand, as he still does the first drafts of everything he writes, and then typed it after he returned to the Bay area. Other than his reading the story at our Deep South “festival” and on one other occasion, the story served no purpose other than to sit in a private spot among his other possessions. But he had always insisted that out of everything he had written, this was his favorite story. We thought that alone made it a crucial piece to have as part of our collection. He agreed to consider our request and went to retrieve his only copy of the story—only one other copy of this work existed at the time in Ernie’s papers at UL Lafayette’s Dupré Library in files that are unavailable to the general public. When he came back just a minute or two later, he held in his hand a group of rolled-up goldenrod sheets of paper with a rubber band around them. He sat down and with a kind of jovial look on his face told us again about the circumstances behind the story’s composition, which would make a great essay for any future collections like this one. Then he began reading from the sheets, including the story’s introduction (which also introduces the story in this book), and as he read, his face lit up like a Christmas tree in July. The two of us sat there in awe of the personal reading we were receiving from someone who is in constant demand from colleges, universities, and arts organizations to read his works before large audiences—from a writer who has been honored with numerous literary awards and whose works have been translated into at least a dozen different languages. It seemed as if he decided right then that our book idea was a good one and that he would let us include “Christ Walked Down Market Street” because his love for it alone made it worthy of publication.

The third thing that happened that day was Ernie also agreed to let us include a talk that he had been giving at recent speaking engagements, “Writing
A Lesson Before Dying
.” He had explained his reluctance by saying, “If I let you guys put that talk in print, then I won’t have anything people haven’t read the next time I’m asked to come and speak.” We felt that placing it in print would actually increase its value as a stump speech while he works away on what we hope will one day develop into his next novel,
The Man Who
Whipped Children
. Reading and hearing are two different experiences, and when Ernie has presented his
Lesson
talk, he has always added off-the-cuff remarks to the prepared text to further explain things in more detail, to offer illustrations about people or events he mentioned, or to offer humorous anecdotes. In fact, his spirited and informative question-and-answer sessions where he often engages audiences in lively discussions are alone reason enough to attend his events. We argued that people often like writers to read material they already possess, because it allows them to read the words off the page while they hear them in the author’s voice and from the author’s mouth. There are thousands of readers across the country and around the world who will have the opportunity to discover this talk on the printed page who may never have a chance to hear him read it. Besides, we argued, if “Christ Walked Down Market Street” was included in the volume, it would become another piece that audiences all over would enjoy hearing him read.

For those familiar with Gaines’s works, whether scholars, students, or general readers, this volume will be a welcome edition because it illustrates his development as a writer and offers illumination into the process that has resulted in the masterworks of the Gaines canon:
Catherine Carmier
(his first published novel and one deserving of a renaissance),
Of Love and Dust
(which is still considered by a select few to be his best),
Bloodline
(the story collection that includes such favorites as “The Sky Is Gray,” “Just Like a Tree,” and “A Long Day in November”),
The Autobiography of Miss Jane
Pittman
(one of the most important of all twentieth-century novels and a work that is so successful in portraying the female voice that unknowledgeable readers still mistakenly think it was actually written by a woman named Jane Pittman),
In My Father’s House
(the only Ernest Gaines novel that explores the relationship between fathers and sons),
A Gathering of Old Men
(one of the most revealing testaments ever written on the strength of human dignity), and
A
Lesson Before Dying
(a work that became an instant classic and that has been the subject of programs such as the Seattle Reads Ernest J. Gaines’s
A Lesson Before Dying
—it has already been adopted and read by dozens of cities across the country). For new readers who are encountering the writings of Ernest Gaines for the first time, this book will no doubt serve as an introduction to a writer whose success has made him the personification of what it means to be a national treasure.

The Ernest J. Gaines story is a familiar one to many, but new readers will learn more of his background from his own words in the essays that follow than we could hope to convey in this introduction. Still, it might be helpful to provide some background on the various stories and essays collected here.

The first section comprises talks Ernie has given over the years, and the dates of their initial presentations range from 1971 to 2001. The fact that these essays were written as talks is something that Ernie felt important for readers to know, since they were not written with publication in mind. He emphasizes the fact that he is a writer of stories and not an essayist. There are some things he repeats from one essay to another, but this is not redundant writing; instead, it points out the consistency of his story and how it has influenced his developing vision as a writer. Since the talks were presented to different audiences over the years, what individuals in attendance heard when Ernie discussed being raised by an aunt who never walked a day in her life, leaving the plantation to continue his schooling in California with his mother and stepfather, his experiences at San Francisco State College and at Stanford, the factors that motivated him to return to Louisiana once he had established that his life would be dedicated to writing, and other developments that are important to his literary legacy were new revelations about a writer whose books had touched their lives. We have altered the material in some places to eliminate repetition, but in other places we left everything as it was originally written for the sake of continuity and to give readers the full essence of that particular work.

Although Ernie, as a writer, does not view these essays with the same significance that we, as scholars of his works, do, it is important to point out that no matter what their original purpose, these are great pieces of writing. In fact, the talks in this volume with the exception of “Writing
A Lesson Before Dying,
” have appeared
as
essays
in preeminent literary journals such as
Callaloo, Southern
Review,
and
Georgia Review
, or have appeared in specialized publications that had small print runs, which means they received very little exposure. Now that they are available to a broader audience, each of the selections in this section will take on additional importance as a notable example of the personal essay. Without a doubt, the essays in this section will soon start appearing in leading literary anthologies as well as in textbooks for creative nonfiction classes. Their value can be measured in terms of the volume’s title and the theme that figuratively governs all of Gaines’s work:
Mozart and
Leadbelly.

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