Excerpt: Southscapes: Thadious Davis on the work of Ernest Gaines

Thadious M. Davis is author of Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature, which analyzes how black southern writers use their spatial location to articulate the connections between society and environment, particularly under segregation and its legacies. In this excerpt, Davis discusses the significance of place in the work of Ernest Gaines, who grew up on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. (pp. 259-262)

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Of all the major African American writers to emerge in the last half of the twentieth century, Ernest Gaines alone has repeatedly positioned his own autobiography with its place-based emphasis at the center of his articulation of both his literary objectives and his personal desires. For this reason, and far more than for any of his contemporaries, the spatial imaginary in Gaines almost demands an examination of place in his own background story and its figurative actualization in his fictive narratives. His writing recovers and preserves a culture and a place that is an exterior, realistic landscape but is also a representation of his own subjectively shaped interior life that is dependent on the space of the plantation as it existed in his youth.

Born on 15 January 1933, Gaines was a Depression-era child of a sugar plantation on False River in Pointe Coupée Parish, one of the thirteen alluvial land parishes where, after the Civil War, blacks outnumbered whites on an average of ten to one and where the plantation ordered the social system. His birthplace was in Cherie Quarters on River Lake Plantation, where African American plantation workers had lived during slavery and where for over 100 years five generations of his family had made their home while cultivating sugarcane, cotton, pecans, and corn on one of the historical plantations existing along False River since the late eighteenth century.[1] Like his parents and their ancestors who had known the intensity of labor and poverty under the plantation system, Gaines went as an eight-year-old to pick cotton, and a year later he dug potatoes for fifty cents a day. The oldest of eight brothers and three sisters, Gaines has not romanticized growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the 1930s and 1940s, a time of individual and systemic hardship, but he has remained tied to the plantation as the spatial configuration and legible marking for his rendering of social interaction in his fiction. Yi-Fu Tuan has observed that “place is whatever stable object catches our attention.”[2] For Gaines, the stability of the plantation renders it visceral and central to his visualizing of people and imagining of their daily activities.

Because Gaines’s images of the land at Pointe Coupée are inextricably tied to the plantation and its ordering of life and society, they have led him not simply to descriptions of the physical landscape but to representations of the social and psychological region in which human beings act out tense dramas of individual, class, and caste struggles for survival. Michel de Certeau posits, “The kind of difference that defines every place is not on the order of a juxtaposition but rather takes the form of inbricated strata. The elements spread out on the same surface can be enumerated; they are available for analysis; they form a manageable surface.”[3] However, given the logic of production, which engenders “its own discursive and practical space, on the basis of points of concentration,” what may initially appear to be a legible, manageable surface morphs into opaque and layered places beneath. Gaines’s Pointe Coupée Parish, with its small town of Oscar encompassing River Lake Plantation and its nearest larger town of New Roads, is a space formed by imbricated strata visible in the architectural structure of the plantation itself, with fields, quarters, big house, overseer house and store, church, and school all comprising the places in which at least three separate sets of people, from distinct but ancillary histories, function individually and collectively. Simultaneously, the complexity of the spatial difference in Gaines’s Louisiana lies beneath a tense equilibrium of two complementary surfaces, the plantation and the quarters. “The revolutions of history, economic mutations, demographic mixtures,” Certeau states, “lie in layers within . . . and remain there, hidden in customs, rites, and spatial practices. The legible discourses that formerly articulated them have disappeared, or left only fragments in language. This place, on its surface, seems to be a collage. In reality, in its depth it is ubiquitous. A piling up of heterogeneous places. Each one . . . refers to a different mode of territorial unity, of socioeconomic distribution, of political conflicts and of identifying symbolism.”[4] The work that Gaines performs in his fiction, then, is that of articulating, translating, and practicing how the heterogeneous strata of Pointe Coupée function together.

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From Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature, by Thadious M. Davis. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Thadious M. Davis is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. A New Orleans native, she is author or editor of eleven books, including Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature and Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner’s “Go Down Moses.”

  1. [1]Mary Ellen Doyle provides the most extensive biographical detail for Gaines’s early life and family background in “Place, People, Personal Experience,” 4-24.
  2. [2]Tuan, Space and Place, 161.
  3. [3]Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 200.
  4. [4]Ibid., 201.

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