A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center
A Gathering of Old Men
Questions to consider:
- Based on the novel, what role do the cemetery and the past play in relation to A Gathering of Old Men and to Gaines himself?
- In her editorial comments, Dorthea Oppenheimer said, "What’s [Candy's] role? She’s the last of her line. She’s an old-fashioned type of slave owner, although she’s a modern type of liberal. She finds out the men have minds of their own and doesn’t like it. They really are men, having wanted to prove it all of their lives…” Do you agree or disagree with Oppenheimer's assessment? What is her role in the novel?
- How does Gaines present family in the novel? Think of Fix and his family and of the African-American men in the Quarters.
- When discussing the land, Bea comments on Fix, saying, "Why we ever let that kind on this land, I don't know. The land has not been the same since they brought those tractors here." Later, Chimley says, "Ain't like it used to be when you had the whole river to fish on. The white people, they done bought up the river now, and you got nowhere to go but that one little spot." What is the value of the land to different people in the community?
- Manhood plays an important role in Gaines' oeuvre. In the novel, the old, African American men assert their manhood. How do they do this? Also, people tell Snookum he is nothing but a little boy. Does he grow, as a man, throughout the novel?
- Gil, Fix's son, is one half of LSU's dominant backfield, Salt and Pepper. Before the big game against Ole Miss, Russ tells Gil that he should play in the game to prove Fix and Luke Will wrong and to also set an example for Tee Beau, Beau's son. In regards to race relations, what is the importance of sports in the novel?
- Have students think about the point of view of the novel. Originally, Gaines wrote the book entirely from Lou Dimes' point of view. Have students rewrite a section of the narrative either from Lou Dimes' point of view or from a character who does not have a section in the book: Candy, Gil, or Fix. Students could also rewrite a section in the third person omniscient point of view.
- Throughout his career, Gaines has cited William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson as influences. Students could research these writers, and especially their use of multiple points of view in works like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Have students discuss and/or write about how Faulkner's or Anderson's texts appear to have influenced A Gathering of Old Men or other works by Gaines.
- Sports play an important role in the novel, think of Salt and Pepper at Louisiana State University (LSU). Research the integration of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in relation to sports in general. Have students view the Ghosts of Old Miss which focuses on James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss in 1962 and the football team's undefeated 1962 season. Students can complete a presentation on the role of sports in race relations in regards to the novel and the documentary.
- Gaines has always said that he had to write about Louisiana, the place he knows. The cemetery, the church, and the Quarters are community landmarks that Gaines has a special connection to. Have students research and write about community landmarks in their own community that have a special resonance.
- Have students research and present or write about share cropping's effect on the African American community in the rural South and how it influenced the Great Migration. Gaines discusses this in the novel and in the speech excerpted below.
- The University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, appears in the novel. When Luke Will and his cohorts go to a bar, there is a professor from USL. Gaines served as writer-in-residence at the University beginning in 1984 through his retirement. Have students research and present on the importance of USL in regards to integration and the Civil Rights Movement.
Gaines on A Gathering of Old Men
On that sugar cane plantation in Louisiana where I was born, my people had lived for five generations. I knew a man, Mr. Walter Zeno, who died on that plantation in 1978, who had known my grandparents grandparents. As a child I had often heard my great aunt [speak] of Mom and Pop, but I had always thought she was talking about her parents and my grandparent’s parents. Mr. Zeno, who went by a variety of names—Pete, Ridley, Salute—told me that Mom and Pop were my grandparents grandparents. My ancestry has nothing to do with what I’m going to read, other than to point out that we had been on that same plantation for five generations. Six generations if you want to count my two brother’s children who were from there. But only five, if you wish to stop with my generation.
My older people were slaves who worked the land. After emancipation, my people would still work on that same plantation as free men. By the time I come along, 1933, the land was just being turned over to share-cropping.
Here, something else happened. Under the plantation system only blacks had worked the land. Once it was turned over to share-cropping the land was divided among blacks and whites, the whites being the Cajuns of that area.
By being white, the Cajuns would get the better land, the front land, the upper land. The blacks got the bottom land, the land nearest the swamps, the land with less drainage. As a result the front land, the upper land, grew better crop. When you grow better crop, you’re able to buy better tools, which result in growing even better crop. Soon there was a great division between white and black share croppers. Because the whites grew better crop, they were able to buy tractors, while the blacks still used mules and plows. One tractor did more work than six mules and [a] plow.